Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ambassador Toon: A Short Biography

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 11.3
Belgrade 1974-1976


Ambassador and Mrs. Toon.
Malcolm Toon was my first Ambassador, and as such, he had a huge influence on my career and my views on the Foreign Service. As a first generation American, Ambassador Toon, or "Mac," was born in Troy, New York on July 4, 1916, three years after his parents had emigrated from Scotland. He graduated from Tufts in 1937 and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1939. He served in World War II as a PT boat commander in the Pacific, winning the Bronze Star. He married Elizabeth Jane Taylor (Betty) shortly after the war and had three children, Alan, Barbara and Nancy. He joined the Foreign Service in 1946, beginning what was to become an extremely successful career.

Toon's first tour was in Warsaw under Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane. Even at age 30, Toon was highly independent and opinionated and did not suffer fools gladly. One time, in an episode he only half-jokingly characterized as one of the “ten great disasters” of his career, Toon was asked to walk the Ambassador’s dog and he refused. Toon, a decorated PT boat skipper who had seen combat, "didn't take guff from anybody," including the Ambassador. Lane, for his part, was arrogant and strident and the two did not get along well, even though both were in agreement about the Soviet threat and appalled at the steady takeover of Poland by the Communists.

Toon had similar problems with George Kennan when they served together in Moscow, he as a middle-grade officer, Kennan as Ambassador. Toon and another future Ambassador, Richard Davies, disagreed with Kennan's containment policy. Just before Kennan was appointed to Moscow they wrote an essay for the Foreign Service Journal in March 1952 entitled “After Containment, What?” in which they argued for a much more confrontational policy and active efforts to detach Eastern Europe from the Soviet orbit. Kennan did not appreciate the criticism. He regarded Toon as brash and disrespectful and gave him such a bad fitness report that Toon was actually demoted. Kennan himself was PNG'd by the Kremlin shortly thereafter for making indelicate comparisons between diplomatic life in Moscow and his internment in Nazi Germany. Toon and Kennan eventually patched up their relationship, but I suspect that there was still a gulf between them that could never be bridged.

Despite his rocky start, Toon rose steadily in the Service and served one more tour in Moscow as Foy Kohler’s Political Counselor. There, he earned the enmity of the Soviets for his straight-talking approach. He developed a reputation as a hardliner who would not mince words with his hosts and thus was the ideal person, from the U.S. point of view, to be appointed as Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1969, only a few months after Prague Spring and the Soviet intervention to overthrow Dubcek. Toon moved on to Belgrade in 1971 and he was still there in 1974 when I arrived, as a brand-new Junior Officer.

For me and for others at the Embassy, Toon was a fearsome presence. A dour Scot with a reputation for penny-pinching, Toon seemed austere and remote, irascible and opinionated. Everyone at post seemed to be a little bit afraid of him, myself included. Toon, who was entering the peak of his career, was in his late 50's. He had a florid complexion, white hair, a thick Massachusetts accent and a habit of clearing his throat with a loud "Buh!" sound as he began speaking. When he spoke, everybody listened, especially Junior Officers like me.

While Toon ran a tight ship at the Embassy, he exercised even firmer control of the Embassy’s satellite missions, which included a Consulate General in Zagreb and separate USIS posts in Skopje, Sarajevo and Ljubljana. Because of this, relations between the Consulate General and the Embassy were often prickly due to Toon’s insistence on complete control of substantive reporting.

Toon’s insistence on overall control was not without justice. After a resurgence of Croatian nationalism during the “Croatian Spring” of 1967-71 and Tito’s suppression of dissent there, Croatians tended to look to the U.S. Consulate in Zagreb as their Embassy, and, at least in Embassy Belgrade’s view, the Consulate’s reporting began to vary in its outlook and substance from that of the Embassy. The Leonhart-Enders feud exacerbated the problem by leaving the Consulate General in Zagreb to its own devices even more than usual. As a result, by the time that Toon had succeeded Leonhart as Ambassador, there was considerable daylight between the Consulate’s position on the issues and that of the Embassy. Toon put a stop to this by requiring that all of Zagreb’s substantive reporting be cleared through Belgrade. This was an unusual move, but it was warranted by the volatile situation, which called for extremely careful and coordinated reporting. I was not involved in the bureaucratic politics, which were quite a bit above my pay grade, but I heard later that Zagreb’s Consul General Orme Wilson, a Yugoslav Hand from an old Foreign Service family, was not at all happy about the reporting restrictions, nor were his staffers. Toon had to be obeyed, however, since his word was law for all of us. It was perhaps ironic that Toon, a Cold Warrior if there ever was one, often took a very Soviet approach to the craft of diplomacy.

Toon was known for his acute perception of the Yugoslav political scene and he had good relations with the Yugoslav leadership, including Marshal Tito. Relations between the two were not totally without friction, however. When Toon first arrived in Belgrade, he had come directly from Prague and had not learned Serbo-Croatian. A week after he arrived, he had the good fortune to escort Tito on a trip around the United States and the opportunity to get to know him quite well. Naturally, the two spoke Russian when they talked with each other. As Dick Miles retells the story, Tito, who liked Toon, complimented him on his Russian but reminded him that as Ambassador to Yugoslavia he had better learn Serbo-Croatian. Accordingly, Toon took daily lessons from the Embassy language teacher, Marija And┼żelic. His Serbo-Croatian slowly improved, but the Russian language overlay continued to dominate.

In late February of 1975, Toon learned from Secretary Kissinger that he was about to be reassigned to Israel. We spent the next couple of weeks in a flurry of farewell calls and other departure preparations and Toon left post on March 11, 1975. Before he departed, however, he took the opportunity to bid farewell to the local Yugoslav staff in the main restaurant on the Embassy compound. Toon read his farewell speech to our local staff in Serbo-Croatian, with one of the strongest New England/Russian accents I have ever heard. The staff was amused, but appreciated the effort anyway. I don’t know what Tito would have said.

Toon spent two years in Tel Aviv and then was assigned to Moscow from 1977 until 1979. Toon's Moscow tour was sweet revenge of a sort. In 1973, while still in Belgrade, he had been put up for Moscow by NSC Advisor Henry Kissinger, who saw the value of a hardliner in the Moscow post and who recognized the need to replace Ambassador Jacob Beam with an envoy who would be more forceful. But Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoliy Dobrynin balked at the appointment, and, after gaining the support of the Politburo, used his back channel access to persuade Nixon to drop it. Ambassador Walter Stoessel, who was much more congenial and less hardline than Toon, was sent instead. In 1976, Ambassador Stoessel came to the end of his tour and President Ford approved Toon's assignment to Moscow, presumably at the behest of the new Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. It was made clear to the Soviets that if Toon were not accepted, Dobrynin would be asked to leave. After three months of foot-dragging and only after they realized that newly-elected President Jimmy Carter was not going to change course, the Soviets sullenly backed down. Toon served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union from January 18, 1977 until October 16, 1979 and I served with him for most of that time, once again as his Aide.

Toon retired after Moscow. We remained in touch and whenever I was back in Washington, the old Belgrade gang would get together for periodic lunches and dinners. One time, the Toons even took my Mom and me out to lunch at a local restaurant, which -- characteristically for the Toons -- was very inexpensive.

One of Toon's favorite places to eat in Washington was “The Dancing Crab,” primarily, I guess, because you could get a lot of seafood for a very cheap price. I would occasionally go out to dinner there with Ambassador and Mrs. Toon and Don and Judy Tice. Our conversations were pretty wide-ranging, but every now and again things would turn personal. One time, we were discussing how hard it was to become an Ambassador and Toon fixed me with a steely gaze and said, “Jim, do you know what your chances are of becoming an Ambassador?” “No,” I answered brightly, expecting Toon to give me some encouragement. “One in 200!” Toon barked. I was suitably deflated.

Ambassador and Mrs. Toon moved to Pinehurst, North Carolina sometime in the 1980s, primarily so Toon could indulge in his passion for golf on Pinehurst's four courses. In 1992, Toon came back up to Washington to meet with Ross Perot, who was looking him over as a possible Secretary of State in a Perot Administration. Toon politely begged off, noting to me in private: "The guy is nuts."

In the early 1990s, Toon co-chaired the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on POW/MIAs with Russian General Dmitriy Volkogonov. He would drop by the desk every now and again to say hello -- I was Deputy Director of ISCA at the time. Toon was getting on in years and one requirement of his taking the POW/MIA assignment was that he get to fly everywhere first class. The Department transportation types were scandalized, but I lobbied hard for the necessary authorizations. Nothing was too good for my old boss.

Toon mellowed with the years, but he still displayed flashes of his old curmudgeonly self. Louie Sell recalls one time in the mid-1990’s when Toon was visiting Moscow and came over for dinner at his NEC townhouse. Things were going swimmingly until Toon asked for a martini and Louie confessed he didn’t know how to make one. As Louie recalls: “he [Toon] gave me that look I remembered so well and asked how in the world I could consider myself a Foreign Service officer and not know how to make a martini.”

Despite his retirement, Toon kept popping up in my life, sometimes rather unexpectedly. For example, when I was in Moscow on my third tour (2002-2004),  the Institute for US and Canadian Studies was holding its annual review of US-Russian relations and as per protocol, invited all living US Ambassadors to the event -- except for Toon, because the Russians really hated him.  When I asked why Toon wasn't invited, the Director said, "Oh, we thought he was dead."  Michael McFaul​ now carries on the sad tradition of being the odd man out when American Ambassadors are invited to a Russian ceremony.

Betty Toon passed away on April 25, 1996. At around the same time, Ambassador Toon retired for good and continued to live at Pinehurst. He turned up at the 30th Anniversary Moscow Fire Reunion, held at the Ellis' house in Columbia, Maryland on September 9, 2007, looking relatively spry for 91, at least judging from the photos I received. I had hoped to see him the next time we were both in Washington, but unfortunately, before that could happen, he passed away at the age of 92 on February 12, 2009. He is buried next to his beloved wife Betty in Arlington Cemetery.

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