The old pilot looked over at me from the right seat apologetically. “I can’t not fly.” Climbing into the two-seater at his age was obviously not easy. He settled into his seat, I taxied down the Stinson Airport runway, breathing in the 100-degree Texas heat and prop plane fumes, and we were off. In the first year after leaving the Foreign Service I was still trying to figure out what to do. Flying was a good interim step. But, just as for the old pilot, I can’t not travel. I’ve gone back to the State Department now leading inspection teams to Nepal, Bangladesh, Mauritania, Chad, Colombia, and Denmark. This book is for those of you who are curious about the world, and sure that there is a place for you in the international firmament. Why not ambassador? I hope this proves to be a little bit of a flight plan for you on how to get there. In today’s uncertain world, I know one thing, we need you. Every one of you; everyone and anyone, from as diverse backgrounds as possible, first and second-generation Americans included. I know there are dreamers out there who would be good ambassadors.
As much as a “How-to” book I hope this is also a “Why-to” book. For me it was adventure, service, environmental cooperation… You’ll join with your own ideals and expectations. Don’t lose them. One ambassador I visited was being criticized for saying yes to every invitation. As a friend I wrote to him about his staff’s concerns, among them, long trips on weekends with a lot of security and that the ambassador did things for “reasons known only to the ambassador.” I asked him about it because I had a feeling there was more to it than what meets the eye. He was a former Marine and I knew he did some things out of a sense of commitment and simply because someone had asked, and he had said yes, thus sticking by his word. He got the message on taxing his staff, but there was something important in his thinking that none of us had connected. He said,
On events I attend for reasons known only to me, they almost always involve children or young people. I’m at one now handing out awards at a primary school. By myself, with no public diplomacy staff or control officer. More than any policy advanced, VIP visit, or other issue, our lasting legacy is how we treated and encouraged, if not inspired, young people.”
While the steps in this book are not literal checklist items for you, they do add up to just about exactly the amount of effort, sacrifice, commitment, and luck you need to make it. I hope you’ll feel inspired.
Buckle up, grab the joystick, let’s go!
HOW TO BECOME AN AMBASSADOR
THE QUICK AND EASY WAY
PART I – POLITICAL APPOINTEE
There are two ways to become an American ambassador. One, is to be a political appointee. The steps follow:
STEP 1 – RAISE A LOT OF MONEY FOR THE SUCCESSFUL PRESIDENTIAL
STEP 2 – BECOME WELL AND FAVORABLY KNOWN TO THE CANDIDATE
STEP 3 – DON’T SAY OR DO ANYTHING TO RUIN YOUR SENATE CONFIRMATION
There is a second way to do it which is more circuitous, fun, and demanding. Step 1 for me was getting on a plane at age 17 to Moscow.
August 31, 1975
My Moscow Journal
Flying over Russia was strangely enough rather like flying over the Midwest. It was very flat between Copenhagen and Moscow and almost totally farmland. Dirt roads outlined the area. The pilot told us when we were over Soviet soil and advised us not to take pictures from the plane or of the airport.
During the flight over I didn’t sleep because a man in front of me kept whistling. I tried to watch “The Four Musketeers” but I was too busy to enjoy it. Overall the flight was nice.
I doubt Russia has changed much culturally since 1945, at least not in fashions. The apartment is nice on the inside but looks like one of St. Louis’s projects on the outside.
I miss my family and wish we hadn’t had such a bad connection over the phone today.
The market is fascinating and only a few blocks away. The produce isn’t great, but the atmosphere is. We have a great three-sided view of Moscow. The soldiers, Russian, are about my age, and our guard seems like a nice guy. He directed me to the apartment after I got lost.
HOW TO BECOME AN AMBASSADOR
THE LONG AND WINDING WAY
PART II – CAREER FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICER
STEP 1 – GET A PASSPORT, GO TO MOSCOW
You’ll get a black passport with gold letters when you join the State Department. Until then, get your nice blue American passport and go somewhere. Anywhere. There is no requirement that you travel overseas, or speak a language, or have a certain degree, but the testers want to know that you will be successful overseas in a stressful, fast-paced, foreign environment. So, test yourself. My first experience overseas blew my mind.
There are no shortcuts, other than to be a political ambassador. Even if you have a 20-military career behind you, you still start at the visa window. You’re a lawyer? Great, visa window. PhD? You get it, you adjudicate visas. Consular work is a good introduction to what we do, how to say no, the importance of languages, and helping out Americans. Looking out for American citizens is everyone's job but especially Consular officers who visit Americans in prison, help out with adoptions, and send the remains of Americans home when they die abroad. You will do a Consular tour on your first or second Foreign Service tour.
This interview by Mark Tauber of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, interspersed throughout, is part of a “frontlines of diplomacy” project archived in the Library of Congress. My story is about a typical Foreign Service field guy with a special interest in the environment. There are many other stories. War stories. High diplomacy. Intrigue… If you are a foreign policy junkie, there is plenty of dope in the Library of Congress.
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project
AMBASSADOR THOMAS HART ARMBRUSTER
Interviewed by: Mark Tauber
Initial Interview Date: November 28, 2018
Copyright 2019 ADST
Q: Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2018. We are having our first session with Ambassador Thomas Armbruster. Ambassador, where were you born and raised?
ARMBRUSTER: I was born in El Paso, Texas, at Fort Bliss and mostly raised in Maryland.
We were in Towson, Maryland, Baltimore County, and then Severna Park near Annapolis. Severna Park is on the Chesapeake Bay. One of the early interests I had was in the environment thanks to an 8th grade teacher. She offered us the chance to not just write papers but to go out and do things. She encouraged us to pick an assignment and find a way to get out on the water.
So, I spent the day with a Chesapeake Bay oysterman and interviewed him. I later worked on a charter fishing boat called the Breezin’ Thru. I got to hear the captain’s stories about the Chesapeake when there were just acres and acres of fish. So, from that I developed an environmental awareness. That was a thread throughout my Foreign Service career.
Q: Now while you were in high school or as a child did you do any traveling either in the U.S. or overseas that sort of began to get you interested in life outside your town?
ARMBRUSTER: The thing that really grabbed me was reading the Odyssey in 7th grade. At first, it seemed really dense and impossible to understand. Our teacher walked us through it so that the classical language became real. Following this epic adventure, ten years in the Trojan War in the Iliad for Odysseus and then ten years trying to get home in the Odyssey was really a pivotal piece of literature for me in terms of how exciting the world can be and what an adventure it would be to travel.
Gil Callaway and his family were going off to Moscow in 1975. He was the Press Secretary. My mom said, “You have this distant relative you’ve never met but go help him pack up and move.” So I did. They invited me to live with them as a nanny for a year in Moscow. I was 17 and that opened my eyes to what embassy life was like. I played broomball, a hockey game played with a broom, electric tape, and tennis shoes and went to the Marine House and watched movies. Thanks to Gil Callaway and his family I am sitting here talking to you.
We lived on Vavilova Street, a tram ride from Moscow University. On my first day I remember thinking I had a choice. I could go out, walk around, get lost and explore, or I could wait for people to show me the sites and learn as I go. I walked out and found myself at the Rynok (the market). There, babushkas from Central Asia sold fruits and vegetables, honey, wicker brooms, and recently slaughtered livestock in an open-air bazaar that was a show in itself. I loved it. I soon learned the metro system, hopped on busses to see where they went, and even rode the train beyond the limits to which we were restricted, just to see what would happen. Nothing!
Along with looking after my charges Catherine, Matthew, and Abigail, Gil’s wife Susan allowed me to take the open gym teacher job at the Anglo-American school. As a 17-year-old myself, I didn’t have much of a curriculum, but I knew how to have fun with a ball, or a puck and we had plenty of cold and ice. I made a glorious $70 a month.
At the embassy I went to the Superbowl and saw the offices just outside the “hardline,” the steel vaulted door with a cipher lock on it just like the banks had. Only those with a secret clearance could go through. Intriguing…
One day, Gil said, “Here, wear this camera around your neck. You’re a journalist!” I went to Star City, Russia’s Cape Canaveral. I saw American astronaut Deke Slayton and the Apollo-Soyuz crew give a presentation to Star City residents. Afterwards, there was a reception at Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, with black caviar that seemed to flow from ice fountains. It was more caviar than I would ever see in my life with the exception of the great barrels of caviar in Yakutia’s open-air market. I chatted with the astronauts and cosmonauts and met Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, and had a hint of embassy life. Gil also had parties where he would regale guests with stories of his days as a cowboy, his summer job growing up. I learned that part of being a diplomat is sharing something of yourself.
Red Square was as imposing, ominous, and magical in Soviet days as it is today. The changing of the guard at Lenin’s Tomb, the clock’s chiming on the hour, and the important looking black Zil limousines coming through the gates gave the Kremlin the sense of power its designers intended.
I was given a tour by Martha Peterson who lived upstairs. She showed me the sights and asked me a lot of questions about the Vietnam War, which had recently ended. I wasn’t all that political at that point, but like most Americans, I didn’t think the war reflected well on America or helped us geostrategically. It seemed funny she would ask. Later, Martha was expelled from the Soviet Union for being a spy. Apparently not until after she had displayed her martial arts to her KGB watchers. She didn’t go down without a fight when she was allegedly caught red-handed at a drop zone with information from the Russian spy she handled. Martha’s exploits are featured in the Spy Museum in Washington.
Russian train stations are magical places with a variety of people, families, refugees, criminals, and artists, coming and going 24/7. I went to one Vokzal, or station, and happened upon an old woman, all of five feet and 75 pounds...
Dear fellow capitalists, (Mom, Dad, and Brother Chris)
November 16, 1975
Sometimes on my day off I just pick a bus and go. That’s what I did today….
I hopped on another bus and was soon in familiar territory... I was at the bottom of the train station escalator when I noticed a woman speaking to me. She was sort of old I guess but not unhealthy. She was pointing at a small suitcase and wanted me to put it on her shoulder. I offered to carry it, but she wouldn’t move while I had it, so I put it on her shoulder. It’s a wonder she didn’t fall over backwards, the thing weighed a ton. If it was filled with iron it wouldn’t have weighed more than it did.
It happened that she got on the same train as I did. She sat happily on the suitcase since all the seats were taken. After a few stops she got off. I thought back to how heavy the thing was, and I was feeling sort of guilty for not insisting on carrying it for her before. After a little hesitation I got off the train and offered to carry it for her.
I forget whether or not she argued about it, but if she did it wasn’t very strongly. It seemed like we had been walking forever and we were still in the subway station. I had switched the suitcase from my right hand to my left hand and by that time I was carrying it with both arms. She kept trying to tell me things, but I couldn’t understand. She wasn’t Russian I finally figured out. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t Soviet; she was just from another part of the USSR.
Finally, we were outside, and she was still trying to tell me something. Like most people she thought if you said something often enough and clearly enough the message would be understood. She told me to hang on a second. I waited with her friend for a few minutes and she returned with a mug. She then pulled out a half of a roll of bread and handed it to me. Then she got a bottle of wine out and poured some in the mug and handed it to me. Both of the women waited anxiously for me to drink. I gritted my teeth not knowing what to expect and took a gulp. They both laughed and told me to turn away from the crowd since it must be illegal to drink in public. The partner had silver teeth. I quickly finished the bread and wine and thanked them very much; they thanked me too and I went on my way.
That outrageously heavy suitcase remains one of life’s great unsolved mysteries for me. Tungsten steel? Uranium? I think I’m going to have to go with gold bars. But that kind of experience – when you connect with the local people even if you don’t speak the language – stays with you for a long time… maybe forever.
The other thing travel does for you is deepen your historical understanding by putting things in the context of the other country. For example, another Russian mystery for me was where were all the old men? The babushkas drove trucks, chipped ice off the sidewalks, even monitored the men’s locker room in the swimming halls, but there were very few old men anywhere. The Soviets’ sacrifice of an entire generation in WWII was immediately evident on the street. I did see one vet who wheeled himself around on a homemade trolley. He had lost his legs and yet he moved through the crowd quickly. He somehow caught a tram, swinging himself up on the platform and tucking his trolley under his arm. Churchill’s comment that the war was won with British brains, American brawn, and Russian blood is true. The millions of Soviets who lost their lives during the war – an estimated 26 million – and to Stalin’s terror – up to a further 20 million – has left a hole in Russia’s psyche and a societal trauma through which they are still living. The depths of their suffering in the 20th century are unfathomable for us Americans.
One American at the embassy, Political Officer Larry Napper, gave me an introduction to Russian history. I joined the Callaway family and other embassy folks for a dacha weekend and Larry and I took the embassy rowboat downstream. We came to a forest and decided to park the boat and take a walk. Larry talked about Russia’s involvement in WWII in more detail than I had ever heard. I didn’t know Churchill’s formulation nor how close the Nazis had come to claiming Moscow. He asked if the rowboat would be ok while we hiked. I said, “Sure, there’s no crime in the USSR.” We got back a half hour later and the embassy rowboat was gone.
It’s easy to think of Russia in the Soviet days as dark and dreary, no color. But that’s not correct. Cross-country skiing, relaxing at a dacha, taking in the Bolshoi or skating at Gorky Park were all colorful and bright in winter. I was invited to the apartment of a Russian girl once during a snowstorm. We were the only souls on the street one night and caught the tram together. We talked about an art exhibit coming up that weekend and she invited me into her flat. I don’t think either of us were interested in the art exhibit. I went up and waited on the steps for a long time while she talked to her mom. But Mom was not about to let an American into her apartment.
The trains were also full of life and connections. I traveled to Leningrad and Helsinki over the Christmas break. Unfortunately, I drank the water in Leningrad and contracted dysentery. I remember when the doctor seemed so concerned saying, “Don’t worry doc, you’ll give me some pills and fix me right up.” He said, “This amoeba stays with you for life.” I’m sure I lost a lot of weight and I don’t really remember the bout of dysentery itself; it was so severe. The doctor was right, and I admit that like most foreign service officers, my digestion has never been the same and most dairy products are out. So, heed all the medical advice you get when you go overseas. (P.S. something is going to get you anyway sooner or later!)
Little by little my Russian improved. I could read Cyrillic and figure out where the bakeries and restaurants were and read the metro stops. Before I could do that though I would get lost and predictably a babushka would take me out of her way all the way back to the familiar Universitet metro stop. Another babushka let me have it with both barrels for wearing tennis shoes when it was minus 30 outside. I would love to see a calendar featuring super babushkas for every month. They are incredible and still keep Russia going. But I suspect that generation of babushkas in the 1970s, the ones who lived through the war, didn’t consider anything a crisis unless it rivaled having the Nazis 15 kilometers away, the city being shelled, and the river iced over at minus 40 degrees. Tough cookies.
November 24, 1975
I’ll give you the weekend rundown. Sat. night went to a dinner for the principal’s (Anglo-American school) anniversary at the British dacha. Sun. morning got a ride into Moscow from the 4th grade teacher, Eddie Morrell. He weighs around 220 lbs. (or 15 ½ stone as they say) and has red hair. In other words, he’s a Viking. Eddie gave me a ride to a Russian guy’s house who was also at the dacha. That was Andre. Andre invited me up to his apt. while he got his keys. He lives there with his mother on the 10th floor. From his window I could see the TV tower and a few apt buildings and a warehouse or factory, or so I thought. Andre told me it was a prison which is still operating. It was the most dingy, dark, evil-looking building I’ve ever seen (Lubyanka?). Andre made a couple of phone calls and we were off, pushing the car down the street and recruiting everyone who went by for help.
Finally, we got the car started and he gave me a ride to Gorky Park. I had my skates with me, and they’d frozen the paths over. It was fantastic. Eventually I met up with some Anglo-American students and we played hockey. It was great, I played really well. We played all afternoon and then skated to the other side of the park and got some hot chocolate and pastries…
After the break we all piled into a bus and headed for our respective residences. Most of them lived at Leninsky 83, one street over from Vavilova 83, home of yours truly. I wasn’t home for long before Robert Miller, the guy upstairs, called to see if Gil was there. I said no… A few minutes later Robert came down here with two tickets to a theater thing and asked if I’d like to go. Sure! I got my suit on and called Lisa Wold, the general’s daughter. Nope she had hepatitis. I’ll try Senneca the Finnish girl [I thought]. She said she’d love to. Great, I thought, this is even better.
Senneca speaks English and seemed like a great girl. I’d only met her a couple times. I thought to myself, wait till they hear this, who says I can’t arrange things on short notice. It was twenty to six and I told Senneca I’d meet her at the metro by the zoo in 45 minutes or an hour. I dashed out and hopped on a bus, then a trolley, then to the metro and I was right by the zoo. Plenty of time to spare. I waited for around 45 min. And I started wondering if I’d explained the situation well enough. Maybe her English wasn’t as good as I thought… I went to the embassy where Senneca lives, not there; back to the metro, nope; back to the embassy. Ah ha! So, what happened was there are two metros by the zoo (I had forgotten about that) and she waited at one and me at the other. Senneca and I have plans to go to Gorky soon. However, it will all be thoroughly arranged first.
OK, you can’t relate to that. You have phones with pin drops and “Find My Friends,” and all sorts of tools, but in the old days it was easy to get a meet up location mixed up. Easy for me anyway.
The move to Moscow opened my mind to the notion that an international career was possible, even for nannies. Or a “manny” as the other Moscow nannies dubbed me. I liked taking the kids out to the playground, or around the neighborhood for a walk. One afternoon we got caught briefly in a blizzard and had to hole up in another apartment foyer for a while, but luckily it passed quickly, and we were on our way home again.
What else did Moscow teach me? Even though the age of Shackleton and the great pioneering explorers is over, it is still okay to be an explorer yourself. If it’s new territory to you, well, that’s exploration, and I’m pretty happy when I’m exploring. I had an Australian girlfriend, my first lesson in the joy of international relations, or really just about any relations.
I learned too that it’s best to see something through. I left Moscow before my full year was up to travel around Western Europe. I should have stayed to make the most of the experience. The main lesson was that the embassy was filled with regular people. Well, regular smart people and a few eccentrics and playboys – one of the American officers reputedly had every Western stewardess who transited Moscow in his bedroom – but for the most part the diplomats enjoyed playing broomball, they worked hard, and they had kids. They got to go to places like Star City, Spaso House, and the Kremlin as part of their JOB!
And they knew what was behind that steel vaulted door with a cipher lock.