The Second Oldest Profession

Diplomat Among Warriors

by Robert Murphy
Doubleday, 470 pp., $6.95

World War I Soldier
World War I Soldier; drawing by David Levine

Military memories all read alike. Was there ever a general who did not spend most of his time fighting his rivals? The reminiscences of retired ambassadors also tend to have a family likeness. There ought to be—perhaps there is—a Ph.D. thesis on the subject. If it doesn’t exist, I am ready to give instructions on how to write it. It should begin by stressing the importance of the persona. Ambassadors, like admirals, have to cultivate an official personality. They must be patient, tactful, imperturbable. The ideal diplomat is the man who, told that the world is coming to an end, replies that he will draft a report on the matter. Above all, he must remember that diplomats are government officials, not philosophers or philanthropists. Duty and sentiment run in separate grooves; feelings must be kept under control. The execution of policy may be questioned—its purpose never. All government rests on such loyalties. Without them the machine would come to a stop.

Mr. Robert Murphy runs true to form. Americans, one is told, are suspicious of diplomats as being clever fellows, always up to no good; else cynical expatriates, contemptuous of the simple folks back home. Mr. Murphy’s memoirs should reassure them. No one reading his book could mistake him for anything but a good citizen, a sound patriot, and a competent, hardworking, slightly unimaginative public servant. His background—Midwestern, Irish-German, lower-middle-class—is reassuring. His viewpoint is moderately conservative. His moral values—firmly held but not obtruded—are those of decent church-going people anywhere. His prose, if undistinguished, is serviceable and appears to be his own. His career was exemplary: The son of poor parents, he rose by merit, and (though he does not say so) it is clear that he worked a lot harder than some of his official superiors. In time he reached the top: From chargé d’affaires in Vichy he moved on to become Roosevelt’s special representative in North Africa, a participant at the Potsdam conference in 1945, Ambassador to Japan during the Korean war. He met De Gaulle, Churchill, Stalin, advised on Berlin, took a hand in shaping post-war policy under Dulles, and dealt with all the local potentates from Nasser to Tito. When in 1959 he retired from the service he had entered as a junior official in 1917, he had risen to eminence, and so had his country: The government clerk from Milwaukee had become the representative of a world power. Had it changed him? Not much. The tone remains the same throughout, and so, it appears, did the sentiments. At seventy he looks back content. He has served his country well, and what more is there to be said?

To a European, the interest of these memoirs lies in their revelation of how America’s involvement in Europe over the past half century has shaped itself. Mr. Robert Murphy served in Switzerland during the First World War,…

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