Getting into the Foreign Service
Shortly after my arrival in Washington in early 1971, I decided to start preparing for life after the Army by taking the Foreign Service test. I still had over two years to go in my enlistment, but I had heard that it might take that long to get into the Foreign Service, and the sooner one started the better. I had also heard that the written test was more difficult than the SAT’s or GRE’s and that the oral exam that followed was just as demanding. My cousin Liz had taken the written test a couple of times, and had not passed, much to her distress, even though she was a good student and very intelligent. Many people, I was told, had to take the written test several times before passing. Figuring there was no time to waste, I sent in my application for the November 1971 Foreign Service test, the only one to be given that year. While I was at it, I decided to take the Civil Service Exam and the CIA test as well, to give myself additional options, if needed.
Taking the Tests.
The first test I took was the one for the Civil Service. The way the test worked, you got a five-point bonus for having served in the Army, so my final score on the test wound up being 103 out of a possible 100. As I was in the top five percent of test takers, I was offered a “management internship,” which meant that if I accepted the job offer, I would be on the fast track to a supervisory position in the Civil Service bureaucracy. The only problem was I couldn’t really see myself in the Civil Service. But it was a good warm-up for the other exams.
The second test I took was the Foreign Service exam. The written test was every bit as tough as advertised. The only easy thing about it was that it was given in the Civil Service building, halfway between the White House and the State Department, so it was convenient to park on the Ellipse and walk over. In those days, the test lasted nearly eight hours, and consisted of a general knowledge, verbal, and specialty test, depending on which cone (Political, Economic, Consular, Administrative) you wanted to pick for your career. There was heavier competition in the political cone, because everyone wanted to be a Political Officer, the fast track to an Ambassadorship. I took the political cone test anyway, perhaps out of a sense of overconfidence in my own abilities, but also because I knew that being a political officer was the only thing I really wanted if I was to be in the Foreign Service. There was also an essay question at the end, and I chose as my topic civil-military relations (having luckily memorized beforehand Eisenhower's quote on the dangers of the military-industrial complex).
Overall, I thought I had done pretty well on the test, but when I got my score in the mail, it was very disappointing. Although I scored an 83 on the general background portion, I only got a 67 on the general ability and a 65 on the English expression parts of the test, for an overall score of 72, just two points above passing. What I didn’t know at the time was that the bar had been set artificially high in order to fail over ninety percent of test-takers. Of those who passed, a composite score in the low seventies was the norm. Over 12,000 persons took the written test in 1971, and only a couple of hundred of those would eventually be brought into the Foreign Service. This was because the State Department was cutting back on hiring, after years of recruiting large numbers of Junior Officers to feed the CORDS program in Vietnam. Because of this, those of us trying to make it into the Service in the early 1970s faced a much tougher challenge than usual. In 1973, the year I was taken, I am told that only 83 people were brought in as Junior Officers, the low point of hiring for many years. I knew none of this at the time, of course, and my low score was a real shock. I nevertheless asked to be put in the first group for the oral exam, and I buckled down, determined to study as much as I could in order to pass.
The last written test I took was the CIA test, at an anonymous building in Rosslyn. To my mind, it was an even harder test than the one given for the Foreign Service, with lots of practical experience questions thrown in, but somehow I passed it, and was put on a list for orals the following year. The CIA orals were actually more like a job interview than a test, and were given in a nondescript office building somewhere in Arlington. I talked with an officer from the analysis side of CIA, and another from operations. Both made their pitches to me, along the lines of “you won’t get rich, but you’ll be doing something worthwhile for your country.” I felt I would be better suited as an analyst than a spy, but to be honest the whole recruitment process left me a little cold. I was being pitched to join the Agency in a building that looked like the inside of a submarine, with pipes going every which way, broken-down furniture, and not too impressive interviewers. Halfway through the interviews, I would catch myself thinking: “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? This just looks a little too much like what I am trying to leave behind in the military.” By the end of the day, I had decided that although I might end up in the CIA, I would probably be happier in the Foreign Service. In the meantime, I filled out the CIA personnel questionnaire, which was far more detailed than anything I had filled out for the military or the State Department. They wanted to know everything about your personal life, and that of your closest relatives – absolutely everything.
The Oral Exam.
Meanwhile, I was waiting, worrying, and studying for the Foreign Service oral exam. My day finally came in late February, 1972. I went over to the Board of Examiners (BEX), which at the time was located in Rosslyn in the Pomponio Plaza, an anonymous and wholly uninspiring glass and metal office building just off Wilson Boulevard. When I arrived, I noted that there were five persons scheduled ahead of me. Everyone was rather tense, because in those days, you were told immediately whether you passed or failed the orals. There was no decent interval of a few days before finding out. One by one, the five ahead of me went into the interview room. Some came out after only five minutes. One guy lasted fifteen. All were as white as a sheet when they emerged. They had failed. I was the last person for the day, and I went into the interview with more than a little trepidation.
Two of my interviewers were middle-grade officers, one from AF (George Moose, who years later became Assistant Secretary for African Affairs), and a guy from NEA, who I never saw again. The Chairman of the panel was Neil McManus, a retired senior officer from EUR. He was a very kindly sort, who had ended up his Foreign Service career as Consul General in Belfast (1968-1971). Looking over my examiners, it was hard for me to imagine how they had dealt so harshly with my five predecessors. They didn’t look the part. Then the questions started, and I understood why the exam was so difficult. The questions weren’t the general touchy-feely questions you might expect in an interview, they were about specific issues in foreign relations, and you either knew the answer or you didn’t. I found out later that those who tried to B.S. their way through an answer were penalized, as the interviewers preferred that the applicant just say “I don't know,” and leave it at that. Fortunately, I never faced that choice, because the questions were all in areas about which I knew something. In a stroke of good luck, George asked me a question on African affairs that I knew cold, and I aced it, thanks to years of study under my African History professor at Trinity College, H. McKim Steele. The NEA guy asked me a question about Arab-Israeli affairs, and I gave him an informed answer, but one that was pro-Israeli, and I could see that he didn’t like the line I took. Then, amazingly, the Chairman asked me a general question for which I had actually prepared: which specific books on American history and politics would you recommend to a foreigner so that he could get a good idea of American culture? I had a list of 50 books and authors memorized already, so I pared it down to just the dozen or so I had read and I was off to the races. After that, the questioning got more relaxed, and before I knew it, 35 minutes had passed.
I could see that I had won over George, and that I probably had the good opinion of the Chairman, but that the NEA guy wasn’t sold on me yet. The panel told me to wait outside while they discussed my answers. Five minutes later, the Chairman called me back in. He and I were alone in the room, and as I took my place at the school desk where I had been sitting during the oral exam, I noticed a single sheet of yellow ruled paper lying on the desk. Written on the paper was one word: “No.” At this point, I almost lost it. Was this really the way they told people that they had failed the exam? Then, acting out of instinct, I simply ignored the paper and focused my eyes on McManus. I somehow had the feeling that this was yet another test to see how I would react to bad news. With a look of resignation in my eyes, I smiled. He smiled back, and then said: “Jim, we are placing you on the register.” To this day, I don’t know whether the “No” note was just there by chance, or was actually part of the test. I never asked, and was too happy to care. After completing a few personnel formalities, I left the building floating on air. I was on the register. It might take awhile, but my name would eventually rise to the top of the list, and I would be called up for a Junior Officer class. I was going to be a Foreign Service Officer. Little did I know or understand just how many hoops I would still have to jump through in order for that ambition to be realized.
The Waiting Game.
In the months that followed, I continued to work away at my job in WHCA, but now with a feeling of optimism and anticipation. I would drive by Main State every now and again, and dream of what it would be like to work in that building. It looked so great from the outside that I could hardly wait to be on the inside. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, I got a letter in the mail -- one I’ll never forget. It was from the Director of BEX, and it informed me that unfortunately, my 36 months on the register had expired, and that if I wanted to join the Foreign Service I would have to take the test all over again. I did a quick mental calculation and, noting that I had only been on the register for a total of six months, indignantly called up BEX and demanded to know what was going on. After a hurried shuffling of papers, I got the sheepish reply, “Oops, sorry, wrong letter!” It was my first introduction to the dangers of trusting one’s fate to the State Department personnel system. I couldn’t believe that the system would allow such a screw-up to take place – I was very naïve about the Foreign Service in those days, and thought it could do no wrong. Unfortunately for me, the letter mix-up was not the only problem I faced while waiting to be called up.
The months continued to roll by, and then in March, 1973, I received the news I had been waiting for: BEX wanted me for the next Junior Officer Class, due to start in April. There was just one catch – I was not due to muster out of the Army until October, 1973. I asked State Personnel what I should do. Their reply: if the Army will give you an early out, we’ll enroll you in the next class. I was fairly optimistic about my situation: with the rapid demobilization as a result of our withdrawal from Vietnam, people were getting early outs upon request, some as much as a year in advance, except for those in “critical MOS’s.” It was at that point that I found out that my MOS (military occupational specialty), 04BRU Russian Translator, had been deemed critical. Nevertheless, WHCA was willing to work with me, and Army Personnel ruled that if the State Department offered me a job, they would let me out early anyway, since I was going to another branch of the Federal Government. So I went to State Department Personnel and relayed the Army’s position, expecting an immediate job offer. Their reply was stupefying: “We’ll offer you a job, but only if the Army will let you out first.” In other words, neither the Army nor the State Department would make the first move. It was a real Catch-22, and I was stuck! I could hardly believe it, but, showing more maturity than usual, I decided that this race would only be won if I kept my cool and kept at it. I got from State Personnel a promise that they would try to put me in the next class after I got out of the Army in October, but, of course, they noted, they could make no firm commitments. And so, for the next six months I was in a permanent state of suspense.
Meanwhile, the CIA was not napping. A couple of months before I was due to be mustered out of the Army, they phoned with a definitive offer of a job, starting at GS-10, effective immediately upon the end of my enlistment. I thought long and hard about the offer. It was a bird in hand, an offer on the table from an Agency I respected, against which I had to balance the vagaries of the “commitment” made to me by State Personnel. In the end, I followed my heart. Despite the maddening frustrations of the State Personnel system, I knew that State was where I belonged. I had to take a chance. I turned down the CIA offer.
Curiously, one reason why I turned down CIA was that I had seen their reporting product in my work as a communicator. It was usually highly classified, but often the reports themselves, except for the NID and a few well-crafted briefers, seemed to be dry and uninteresting. I couldn't see devoting my life to writing such reports. Defense Department reporting was far worse, often no more than an agglomeration of numbers and acronyms. State Department reporting, on the other hand, while not talking about subjects that were as sensitive, was often well-written and interesting, like reading a good newspaper. I could see myself writing such reports, and knew it would be a very satisfying occupation. So I held out for the Foreign Service.
A few months later, October rolled around at last, and I found myself standing in a line at Fort Myer with a couple of dozen other happy recruits, being mustered out of the Army. I was at last free. Admittedly, my time in the Army had been much more fulfilling and pleasant than it had been for most draftees I knew, and, looking back on it, I can say that it would have been almost impossible, given the circumstances, for things to have worked out any better. I had learned a lot, and experienced a lot, but one thing I had learned for sure was that I was not and would never be cut out for Army life. Now it was time to use the knowledge and experience that the Army had given me to make my own way in a new career.
There was just one catch – I had not yet heard from the Foreign Service. So, much like Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” I went home to San Clemente to cool my heels, without a plan, just waiting for something to happen. Then, miraculously, it did. I had been home for less than a month when the call came from the Foreign Service. A new Junior Officer class, the 110th, was forming up in early November. Would I be available? Yes, I said, I definitely would! My new life had started.