Oral History Interview with
U.S. Foreign Service Officer, 1937-55, with assignments in Juarez, Mexico, 1937; Caracas, 1939-41; Moscow, 1943-45; Chungking and Nanking, 1945-48; and office of Philippine and Southeast Asian Affairs, 1949-55.
John F. Melby
November 7, 1986
by Robert Accinelli
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview
Transcript | Additional Melby Oral History Transcripts]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened October, 1988
Harry S. Truman Library
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and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional
Melby Oral History Transcripts]
Oral History Interview with
John F. Melby
November 7, 1986
by Robert Accinelli
ACCINELLI: Professor Melby, I wonder if you could begin by telling me something about your personal background before entering the Foreign Service?
MELBY: Yes. I was born in Portland, Oregon. My father was there and he was with the YMCA. I have really, oddly enough, no recollection of our living in Portland, or subsequently, when we moved to Columbus, Ohio. I remember almost nothing about that; by that time I was seven or eight years old. But there is this one little item that I think in retrospect has had a good deal to do with my total absence of memory of those years. When I was five years old I was in a very bad automobile accident in which I was thrown through the windshield of the car and fell back in it, and the facial nerve of my face was
cut. My face was very badly deformed during those early years and there still is some effect of it even at this late date. So I think that actually during those early years I was consciously trying to block out any memory of anything in those days. I have noticed this in recent years that I don't show up in any of the family photo albums or anything like that. Obviously I was censored out of it, because there was just one photo that gave me a clue to what had happened. There was one picture, a snapshot that escaped the censor, in which my face looked like an orange that had just been crumpled.
And so I have no recollection of going to school in Oregon, and I have no recollection of going to school in Ohio either. Many things happened there, but I think I must have been just sort of a queer outcast in those years. So, really, my memory as a child picks up only when we moved to Brazil. My father joined the International Committee of the YMCA.
ACCINELLI: How old were you when you went to Brazil?
MELBY: It was 1920, so I was seven years old. I was born in 1913, and that's when my memory begins to pick up. We lived in Rio [de Janeiro] for five years; I remember
a great deal about Brazil and so on. It was kind of a glamorous life. Not only did we know a great many people there, members of the diplomatic corps, and Americans living there and so on, but Rio itself was a pretty exotic kind of place.
I particularly remember the man who was the Egyptian charge d'affaires, or minister, I guess he was. He was an old bachelor that used to come around for dinner at the house once in a while, and many years later when I was in the [Foreign] Service myself, I actually saw him in Cairo. He was then retired from the Egyptian service and was managing a cigarette factory, of all things.
The other thing that made Rio kind of interesting to me was that the American school in Rio closed the day we arrived, and there wasn't anyplace else for kids to go to school with the American closure. But there was a Methodist mission school there, Colegio Bennett, which was a girls' school, and because of the closure of the American school, they took a half-dozen foreign boys in the school with this horde of Brazilian girls. All the instruction was in Portuguese. In retrospect I think it may have been the best school I ever went to, not even excluding the University of Chicago, which
was a first-rate school. I think I realized very early in the game in that school, that with that horde of women around, my choices were two: I could either be submerged by the girls or I could organize them. So I decided to organize them, and that I think is when I became a politician. I've been at politics ever since.
ACCINELLI: Well, how did you organize them?
MELBY: Well, I was a monitor in various classes, and I was in charge of them. I kept grade books and so on and it was made pretty clear that I was in charge. I think the experiment of having foreign boys in the school is something that after my time was not repeated. We were considered to be, I think, too much of a disruptive influence, but I am one of the few surviving living males who actually graduated from a girls' school.
ACCINELLI: When did you graduate?
ACCINELLI: So you completed your high school, the equivalent of a high school?
MELBY: No, grade school.
ACCINELLI: And, of course, by then you were fluent in Portuguese.
MELBY: Oh, yes, I was fluent in Portuguese at the end of six weeks. That's when children learn languages that way. We came back in 1927 at the time when the Y was beginning to retrench in its operations abroad, cutting back on its foreign staff, its American staff abroad. So we came back to central Illinois. My father became general secretary of the Y in Bloomington, Illinois, the job that he held until he retired some 25 years later. By that time he had been a Y secretary, I guess, longer than any man alive. So, in a sense, central Illinois was a bit of a let-down. But I think I've always been pretty flexible and took it in stride. It was the Depression, the bottom of the Depression, which incidentally didn't personally touch me or my family although it was many years later only that I learned the sacrifices my father had to make to make sure that we were not touched by it. It was all around us. This was the corn belt area in central Illinois, and even in those days corn was selling for only twelve cents a bushel. So, we were very conscious of the Depression.
I graduated from high school in 1930, from Bloomington High, which was in those days one of the best high schools in the United States. When I think of it, it's the only public school -- in the American sense, a public school -- I ever went to.
Then I went to college at Illinois Wesleyan University which also in its day was a very good small university. It had the kind of caliber and quality of faculty that it has never been able to have since. So many people were available in the Depression days that Wesleyan could get its pick pretty much, those whom it wanted.
ACCINELLI: Did you specialize in any particular subject or subjects while you were there?
MALBY: At Wesleyan my main interests were mainly in the arts really; in college I majored in French literature, and I had a minor in classical Greek, having had four years of Latin in high school. When I got out of college, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I played with the idea of going to law school but there wasn't much money around at the time, so for one year after I got out of college, I read law in a law firm, one of the prominent law firms in Bloomington.
It was out of that experience of reading law, though I would not have traded it for anything, that I realized the law wasn't for me. You have to remember that in those days there was no such thing as public interest law. If you were a lawyer you went to work for the corporation, the utilities and so on and so forth, and that I couldn't stomach. My father was sort of a socialist by training and upbringing and I guess that is what I still am. At least, the farthest right I've ever gotten is leftwing in the Democratic Party. I've never really basically changed that particular orientation. But I still remember one day in May when I was sitting there reading law, and I just asked myself, "Do you want to do this for the rest of your life?" Well, the answer was "No."
Well, with an international background, an interest in politics having been just a way of life in our family -- it was something we talked about at the dinner table all the time -- I wanted something as far away from the law, as I saw it then, as I could get. That's when I went to the University of Chicago. I had made up my mind I was going to study and get my degree in international relations, and I was going into the Foreign Service. Oddly enough, I made it. I took the exams in 1937 for the [Foreign]
Service, at a time when there were about 5,000 people taking them, of whom 37 of us passed the exam.
ACCINELLI: I wondered.
MELBY: There hadn't been any exams given for a number of years, during the Depression; they had just cancelled them. I was in the first class after the Depression. So, I not only wanted international relations and so on, but I really gave up my interest in the arts and so on, I mean as a practicing matter. I went into what was then a new discipline at Chicago, namely the social sciences. The world having cracked up around us, and everything we'd ever been brought up to believe and so on being no longer valid, I wanted to find out what the social sciences could tell us about what had happened. I went to Chicago at a time when they had a remarkable faculty. Then, as now, the University was limited to 7,500 students, and it's never really gone much beyond that, with a student-faculty ratio of about one to four students, one faculty member for four students, so that you got to know people who were preeminent in their fields in the social sciences in a way that today would just
be impossible. I mean, it was Charles Merriam who was the chairman of political science then, and the sort of thing would happen where I'd come out and he'd say, "John, I haven't seen you for several days, let's go have a cup of coffee." We'd sit and talk politics and...
ACCINELLI: Were there any other professors with whom you struck up a relationship or who made strong impressions on you?
MELBY: Quincy Wright.
ACCINELLI: Oh, yes.
MELBY: Fred Schumann. I had been on a study Harold Gosnell was doing on the precinct captain in Chicago. In one sense, that one year may have been the best job I ever had in my life. It was interesting, and it made me a convert to machine politics, because it worked in Chicago, and Chicago was the last place to lose it. Which I think is a pity.
ACCINELLI: Why is that?
MELBY: Because the precinct captain is given blocks of 200
people for whom he is responsible, and he's got to produce for them or he loses his job as a precinct captain. He is the average citizen to whom City Hall is a place out there that doesn't exist really. He is the average citizen's contact man for City Hall. He's the man who can get the garbage picked up, the streets cleaned, lights turned on or off, whatever it may be. And I think we've lost that quality of a personal sense of involvement in government in the states. We used to have the machine politics the ward organization gave you. The Nash-Kelly machine in Chicago was a beautiful organization, and it had little more corruption involved in it than one would expect. And it made Chicago function. In an odd sort of way, Richard Daly, who in a way is the last of the big city bosses, also made Chicago function, and did it on the same basis. I've regretted ever since the break-up of the big city machines.
ACCINELLI: Well, the rate of political participation among citizens also was greater at that time. The machine really had to get out the vote. And we've seen in the most recent election how many voters are turned off on politics.
MELBY: If the precinct captain didn't get the vote out he lost his job. And he was a patronage appointment. Therefore, it was up to him to see that he did perform and function and so on. He did give the average citizen the sense that he had something to say about his own life.
ACCINELLI: What part did you play in helping...
MELBY: I went out interviewing precinct captains, and I interviewed them all over Chicago, all the way from the stockyards district up to the Gold Coast. And I never had a difficult experience with any of them except in Little Sicily, which is just north of the river in Chicago. I went three times trying to interview captains there, and I never even got in. Finally, somebody came up, because there were three-generation Italians living there, who didn't speak a word of English, and finally one of the local bosses in Little Sicily came out and said, "Sonny, if you know what's good for you, you'll go away and don't come back." And I knew he meant it. So, we never did cover Little Sicily.
By the time I finished that in 1937, I passed the exams for the Foreign Service, and was appointed to the Foreign Service in August of '37.
ACCINELLI: You said that your father was connected with the YMCA. Was he a clergyman, or...
MELBY: No. No, actually he and my mother both came from St. Paul, Minnesota and they were married in 1911 and he at that time was working for the telephone company in St. Paul. Actually, his father had been a Norwegian Baptist preacher, it's true. But he never went into the ministry. He apparently was threatened at one time with tuberculosis in the days when that was the kiss of death. He had started at the University of Minnesota but had to drop out, so he never went to college. He and my mother went out to Portland on their honeymoon, and after the Minnesota winters, I guess, they were so entranced with Portland that they just decided to stay there. My father went out and got himself a job, and he first started out as the Portland Y's business manager. It was there that he made the connection with the Y which would lead eventually to his involvement with the international committee, because it was a rather remarkable group of men there. Ivan Rhodes was there and Cooper Meehan and Harry Stone and Albert Greeley, all men who became top men in the national YMCA. Ivan Rhodes had left Portland
about six months before we did. He went as general secretary for Ohio, and he finally asked pappy to go with him, come with him. That's the way we went to Columbus, and in Ohio my father was in charge of college and university liaison work, which meant that during all those two years that he was there, he was traveling most of the time.
Generally it was probably pretty hard on my mother but if that's what father wanted to do, that was what pappy was going to do. But he had always had in mind that somehow he wanted to get into the foreign field. I guess at one point there was a possibility of his going to China, Jinan, in Shantung Province, but that didn't come off for some reason or other. Then the job opened up in Rio, and in the five years we were there he was boys' work secretary really for South America. It was the boys' work angle of the Y work that interested him most all during his life; even though he became a general secretary, it was boys' work that he cared for. The Y today, of course, bears very little resemblance to what it was in those days. Now it's become a poor man's country club.
ACCINELLI: Exactly. Yes, health and fitness.
MELBY: Yes, and that's fine. I mean society's changed, too, but he would have been very unhappy in the Y under these circumstances. He was at heart a social worker.
ACCINELLI: How did he come to his political convictions, or orientation? Would you describe him as a socialist as well in his views?
MELBY: Oh yes, sure, very definitely. For many years, he had known Norman Thomas, had connections with the Socialist Party, and of course, in Minnesota too, you know, with the labor tradition.
MELBY: And that goes back a long, long way in Minnesota. So it was a natural involvement with him.
ACCINELLI: Was the household a religious one?
MELBY: No. I never belonged to a church in my life really. I don't know what we did before Columbus; I think we belonged to a community church. In Rio we belonged to the American Church, which was nondenominational. My father had been brought up a Baptist. What he did in Bloomington was, he looked around to see where his
secretaries in the Y were members, and nobody was a member of the Presbyterian Church so he joined that. He became an elder in the church too, of all things. But I remember going to the Presbyterian Church in Bloomington a couple of times and the minister there was an old cornhusker out of Nebraska whose idea of preaching was to bellow. He was a real fundamentalist, and after a couple of times of going there, I said, "I'm not going back." I haven't been to church since then. Mother never went to church either anymore. She couldn't take the Bible Belt atmosphere, and the cornbelt, and actually in the end my father just stopped going to church too. He was a Christian in a sense; he believed in the teachings of Jesus and so on, and he practiced them, which cost him a good deal over the years in a sense because that's not a popular thing to do, particularly in organized Christianity. But none of us, certainly from Rio on, went to church at all.
ACCINELLI: Did the family encourage a sense of service? Your father was obviously involved in an occupation that involved a service. Was it simply assumed that you would move into something of that sort or was it actively encouraged, or was it in the air?
MELBY: I think it was just sort of assumed we would do it. I mean we who had so much -- it was a sense of "noblesse oblige" -- there was an obligation to return something to society. Making money or anything like that is nothing that has ever interested any of us. None of us have ever made any either. But even my mother, who was a little more straight-laced, a little more victorian than the rest of us, wasn't terribly interested in that sort of thing either. It was a religious family in a sense, but outside of organized Christianity. I guess my brother has, in recent years, become more of a converted Presbyterian than any of the rest of us. I think my sister and I have become metaphysicians more than anything else.
ACCINELLI: What about your political views before you entered the Foreign Service? This was the New Deal era and the era of the "popular front." Were you at all involved in politics? What were your political views before you entered the Foreign Service? You described yourself as a Socialist; where would that have put you?
MELBY: We were staunch New Dealers always, no question about that. We went down the line with Franklin Roosevelt from beginning to end. Prior to that, my father had been a
great admirer of Woodrow Wilson, and if anything, we were brought up in the tradition, as we saw it, of Wilsonian idealism. The years since have tarnished the reputation a little bit of Wilson, but we didn't see that at that time at all. Certainly we were very much a part of the Wilsonian idealism, traditionally.
ACCINELLI: Domestically and internationally.
MELBY: Yes, sure. And we were all staunch proponents of the League of Nations. We were internationalists completely.
ACCINELLI: Was that strengthened, or modified in any way, by your experiences at the University of Chicago? I assume that teachers like Quincy Wright would be very much in that tradition, would they not, the internationalist tradition?
MELBY: I think it was strengthened if anything, because it was almost a joke at Chicago in those days that half the faculty consulted in Washington one week and then they'd come back to Chicago, and the other half of the faculty would go to consult the next week. So they were all very much involved in the New Deal, both internationally and domestically, very much so. Merriam
himself was a member of the Chicago City Council. Fred Schuman ran for City Council and lost on the Communist ticket, which got him into trouble with old Charlie Walgreen, who accused him once of having preached free love to his niece, who was a student at Chicago. Finally, Walgreen had to apologize for that one and part of his apology was to endow a chair at Chicago. I don't think he ever gave up his reactionary views, basically, but he did have a good deal of money, of course. No, Chicago, if anything, strengthened many of my natural inclinations.
ACCINELLI: How was the subject of international relations taught at that time? What kind of topics, or subjects or approaches were used? Was it very much in the tradition of learning about international law, international institutions, principles of international society?
MELBY: Yes, I think so. I didn't take very many courses at Chicago in those days. You didn't have to take any courses if you didn't want to. You needed one year residence for the doctorate. All you had to do was pass your comprehensives in five fields. I worked most
of them up on my own. One was international law and organization, in which I had Quincy Wright. I really did take those courses; I could not have done that on my own. I took diplomacy with Fred Schuman because he was such a hypnotic lecturer. My other fields, let's see -- I had law, and diplomacy. One of my fields was the Middle East. I never had a course on the Middle East, although Quincy, who I continued to know all the years until he died, and I became very good friends. He gave me one question on the comprehensive: who were the Djebel Druse? I had never heard of them. But I figured it out, Djebel and Druse and so on, and devil and Druse, the Druse mountains, and so on; then Lebanon and so on. By golly, I passed that question.
Then I took another field of international economics, but I had to do that on my own. The introductory course in international economics was taught by -- oh God, he was a Dutchman, he later became president of Brooklyn College -- and he was devoted to the idea that the answer to all the problems in the world was to stay on the gold standard. I challenged that in class the first day and he asked me to leave the class. So I could never take the
introductory international economics course. I tried to take advance economics with Eugene Staley, who was there at the same time, and he said, "I'm sorry, my hands are tied on this; there is a prerequisite on it." I said, "Well, I'll just have to do it on my own."
Then, of course, my fifth course, fifth area, was Latin America, with Fred Rippy.
ACCINELLI: Oh, Fred Rippy, marvelous.
MELBY: I knew Fred very well. Actually I wrote my dissertation under him. I wrote it on the rubber boom period in the Amazon.
ACCINELLI: So that there was a certain amount of historical training there as well.
MELBY: Well, of course, international relations at Chicago then, and I guess still is, was always an interdisciplinary program. We were administratively attachéd to political science, but only for administrative purposes. We ranged around any place we wanted to go.
ACCINELLI: Did you go to Brazil to do the research for that, or were you able to find materials you needed in Chicago?
MELBY: I had not finished my thesis by the time I got into the Foreign Service. I had done most of the research on it. Chicago had a very good library on Latin America. I did a lot of research on it there. A little later when I was in the Foreign Service School, I completed the research at the Library of Congress in Washington. I had done some research, oddly enough, in the public library in El Paso, which had a pretty good Latino collection. So I did it entirely from secondary sources.
ACCINELLI: Was the choice of topics your own?
MELBY: Yes. Of course, you know how you do with a dissertation; I was going to write an economic history of Brazil. That became ridiculous, I learned quickly, and it ended up a history of the rubber boom period in the Amazon, which was 1880 to 1912, and even that ran 500 pages.
ACCINELLI: It didn't persuade you to consider an academic career?
MELBY: No. I was bound and determined I was going into the Foreign Service.
ACCINELLI: You were bound and determined to enter the
Foreign Service and then go to Latin America? Was that in your mind at all?
MELBY: Not particularly. No, my first few assignments were in Latin America, naturally; and then with my Latino background I studied Spanish. I, of course, was fluent in Portuguese at the time. But if I had any place in particular that I wanted to go in the Foreign Service, at that time, I wanted to try out Moscow. But that we'll come to when we get into the Moscow period. I wanted to see it for myself. I guess like anybody with any kind of self-respect coming out of the Depression days, one was without really knowing much about it, a Marxist of sorts. Well, I think I was too. Sympathetic, and interested in the Soviet Union, yes. Soviet propaganda in the United States between the wars, you know, was very clever. They were very persuasive in selling the idea of the land of the happy peasants and workers and so on. And we listened. When New York Times correspondents like Walter Durante would file the kind of story that they were filing in the 1930s and so on, we read those too.
You had the anti-Soviet group, which in a sense was its own worse enemy. I mean Elizabeth Dilling for
example on the Red Network, which you probably never heard of, but she went to very great extremes accusing Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt of being a Communist agent, and accusing Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was my great hero in the church and so on, of being a stooge of the Kremlin. This was just all so ridiculous that that group discredited itself. The anti-Soviet group really had a great deal more to be said for it, as we now know, than we gave it credit for at the time. Of course, they were very bitter about the purge trials, and they were even putting out a lot of material on, say, the famine and so on, in the Ukraine, which we, as did Walter Durante, just dismissed as anti-Russian propaganda. So, I mean that group really did itself a great disservice [when it went to the extreme exemplified by Elizabeth Dilling].
ACCINELLI: Yes, I was about to say that by the latter part of the 1930s you do have the purges; you do have news coming out of Russia that cast real doubt about the genuineness of Marxist ideals and so forth. Among some in the United States who were sympathetic to the Soviet experiment, there was a process of disillusionment and disenchantment that, of course, culminates in the Nazi-Soviet pact.
MELBY: That was a pretty hard one to swallow because all of us were bitterly anti-Nazi. And the war against Fascism, the need for...
ACCINELLI: Was the State Department aware of all of your political views before you entered the Foreign Service, or did it matter at that time?
MELBY: I don't think it really mattered at that time. There was an attitude: if they considered you were reliable and honorable and so on, it was assumed that whatever your views were, you held them honestly and honorably and the Department might disagree, but, okay, once policy had been set, you carried it out. There was none of this McCarthyite business at all.
Interestingly enough, and this is anticipating later on, but Stanley Hornbeck, for example, was on my examining board for orals for the Foreign Service, and Stanley is an old China Lobby type.
MELBY: But Stanley Hornbeck, even when I got into trouble in the Department, never turned against me. He always assumed that John Melby is an honorable man and he holds
views that I disagree with, but those are his views, and I do not question his integrity.
ACCINELLI: I use the phrase "an old-fashioned view." It is old-fashioned?
MELBY: Yes, it is.
ACCINELLI: It assumes that men of honor act honorably.
MELBY: That's right.
And this was true in the Foreign Service really until Vietnam. Vietnam destroyed a lot more than I think most people realize. It destroyed the integrity of the Foreign Service, among other things. When I was head of the military mission in Southeast Asia, I was beginning -- out of my China experience -- I was beginning to question what we were doing in Vietnam. I was so informing the Department saying, "Our policy is wrong," and I was putting it in writing and cables and so on, and Don Heath, who disagreed with me, sent my cables on without any question. He always answered them to the Department, but he always showed me what his answer was; he let me clear his answers. It never occurred to Don to do anything else. Honorable officers do that; they
ACCINELLI: Well, tell me a little bit about the training you underwent.
MELBY: It was pretty haphazard in those days. You were given your first assignment as a probationary assignment and mine was Juarez. I was in Jaurez from August '37 until January '39, so I was there for a year and a half, as a student officer. I became a really number two man in Juarez, but then we went back to the Foreign Service School. You came back for a four-month period.
ACCINELLI: This was in Washington?
MELBY: In Washington. We had four months, four or five months, of lectures and quizzes and so on, on passports, and immigration. It was the routine, mostly consular functions and so on, interspersed with lectures on political subjects by officers assigned to the Department at the time. That was about it. Then you went out on your first regular assignment. You started out as "Unclassified C," of all of the humiliating designations. Then having passed the Foreign Service School -- it wasn't a question of
flunking or not flunking, it was just part of the training -- you were then automatically promoted to "Unclassified B." If you were lucky, in 18 months you became "Unclassified A." Then, suitably, you became "Class 8," and you went up the ladder to Class 1.
ACCINELLI: Were there any individuals in your particular class with whom you kept up a relationship or a friendship?
MELBY: Yes. Well, particularly Ray Thurston. He and I were the first two Ph.D.s in the Foreign Service. Of course, there are a lot of them now, but that was pretty unusual in those days. He got his at Wisconsin; he studied under John Gaus, who, of course, was a great New Dealer and so on. Ray always remained very much of the New Deal persuasion. Later on, he, like me, had his assignment in Moscow, which did not endear the Russians to him at all.
ACCINELLI: When did he go?
MELBY: Well, he was there in the 1950s. He came somewhat under the influence of Loy Henderson at that time, too,
who was bitterly anti-Soviet. But other members of my class there whom I knew well -- no, really I didn't. Roy Melbourne kept track of some of them, and some of them I've never heard of since. I guess, the one I knew best, and really he was in the class, too, was Freddie Reinhart. Later he was Minister to Vietnam and then Ambassador to Egypt. Finally, Dean Rusk made him Ambassador to Italy. Freddie is now dead. He had served in Juarez, too, and that was my connection with him there, originally. I knew Charlie Thayer, who did have a Moscow background. Those are about the only two I really kept up with at all -- three, but really only two.
ACCINELLI: It has been said that the State Department at that time was still pretty much like a gentlemen's club.
MELBY: There were 721 officers.
MELBY: 721 officers and you knew to speak to everybody in the Service. Now, hell there are 5,000 and God knows all the fringe, and so on -- CIA and Commerce people and so on. It was an elite; let's face it. Sure it was.
ACCINELLI: What was your first assignment after leaving the Foreign Service Training School?
MELBY: I was assigned to Caracas. I was assigned there in the spring of '39, but I didn't go for several months because I had gotten married in El Paso. Our first child was due in June, and so I asked the Department to postpone my going to Venezuela until the young man had been born. Once he had been born, we did go.
So, I was in Caracas for -- well, until the spring of '41, almost two years, and I didn't really have much of a job, didn't do much of anything there. We were a little overstaffed for one thing, and I was the junior man on the totem pole. The only thing I did do though in Caracas, and this I've always been grateful to the Service for...
ACCINELLI: Well, you went to Latin America at a very interesing time, did you not?
MELBY: Yes. And I didn't really do very much in Caracas, except that right after Pearl Harbor some clown in the White House got a bright idea that one Foreign Service officer had to be assigned to keep track of every German
ship in the world. There happened to be one in Puerto Cabello, which is the port just west of LaGuaira. I, as low man on the totem pole in Caracas, drew the assignment to go down and watch that damn German ship, the Sesostris. That was a footling assignment, because the machinery had been taken out by the Venezuelans; the ship couldn't move from the inner harbor anyway, even if it had wanted to. But it took six months to get that order countermanded from the White House. So I just packed up all my papers and notes and so on and my dissertation and I took it all down. I was staying in a hotel down there, which looked right out over the inner harbor where I could sit there and actually write up my material for my dissertation while watching the ship. And so that is the way I finished my dissertation. And then I went back the following June and got my degree from Chicago.
The only other thing was that the Germans had pursued a very interesting and devastating policy in Latin America. Germany was sending its young men out all over Latin America, and I guess they did it pretty much around the world, too. They sent young men out, bachelors, to get into business and establish themselves, marry into local families, and so on, so that all business
in Venezuela was practically under the control of German-controlled firms. Our main objective at that point was to have these Germans interned. The Venezuelan government was dragging its feet on the thing, so Washington decided on a show of force. One evening I got a call from Dr. Corrigan who was the Ambassador in Caracas saying, "There will be a flotilla of 12 American destroyers that will appear suddenly without notice off the coast of Venezuela tomorrow morning. You go out and take charge of them."
So I was up bright and early and there were these 12 destroyers all anchored off the coast of Venezuela. I went across to the Venezuelan naval base and said, "I've got to get out to that ship -- those ships out there." It was kind of a fun period.
ACCINELLI: Did that show of force get the job done?
MELBY: It sure did. I took Commander Swenson back to Caracas with me to meet the Ambassador, and the Venezuelans got the point very quickly.
ACCINELLI: So there was a fairly large German population then in Venezuela? I know there was in Brazil and Argentina.
Well, of course, the one in Venezuela wasn't anything compared to the one in Brazil, because all of the three southern states in Brazil were completely German. But that was our contribution there to getting the Venezuelans in line, and after that we never had any trouble with the Venezuelans at all. Then, it wasn't long after that that I was transferred back to Washington. I decided the way to promotion and pay in the Foreign Service was to alternate assignments abroad and in Washington. I managed to get myself assigned to the office of American Republic Affairs, and that is when I was assigned finally to the Peru-Ecuador desk.
This is really the first big job I did in the Foreign Service, because I will always remember the day it happened. I had an apartment in Washington. My family hadn't come back from El Paso yet. My wife had gone ahead of me with the children, and I happened to turn the radio on in my apartment on the evening of July 4. I had been out to dinner someplace. I got the first announcement that the Peruvian Air Force had bombed, and pretty much destroyed the southern Ecuadorian province of El Oro. I knew that
this was going to mean I was going to be busy for a while, and I was up bright and early into the Department.
The phone in my office was ringing as I arrived. It was Sumner Welles. He said, "John, you've heard the news?" I said, "Yes, I have, sir." "Well, stop that war," and then he slammed the phone down. And that's what I did for the next 18 months. We stopped the war.
ACCINELLI: That was a boundary dispute, was it not?
MELBY: That's right.
And the conflict did not end finally until the Rio Conference. I guess it was December '42 when [Sumner] Welles went to Rio and he saw the President of Ecuador, whom I had known, and known quite well. You see, what Peru was doing, it was using the war as a piece of blackmail to force Ecuador to give up half its territory. Peru was being joined by Brazil and Argentina on this one, and it would not enter the war against the Axis. Sumner just finally hauled in the President of Ecuador and said, "Look, I've got to ask you to make the great sacrifice and that is to give up half your territory to Peru in the larger interest." He said, "Mr. Welles, you know, you're asking me to commit political suicide."
"Yes, I know that." Finally the President said, "Okay." He did. They gave it up.
ACCINELLI: Was this a recommendation you were happy with, that you supported?
MELBY: I wasn't happy with it, but I didn't see any alternative.
ACCINELLI: Well, I can understand why Washington would want as many Latin American nations on board, so to speak.
MELBY: You've got to remember our situation then. We had nothing; I mean Pearl Harbor had wiped us out. The Navy was gone. We had no Army; it was still nothing. The Air Corps had been wiped out. Colombia was in the same situation that Venezuela was in, except that Avianca, the Colombian airline, was entirely flown by German pilots.
ACCINELLI: That's right.
MELBY: There was nothing to keep Avianca from going in and dropping bombs on the Panama Canal. The nightmare we lived with then was that if they did that, we'd still be fighting Germany. And who's perfect in his judgment
as to what will happen, and so on.
Of course, that didn't get any publicity in those days. The war was so much larger, but in Latin America it was touch and go whether the Latinos would go along with us and what would happen. We could see ourselves fighting Germans on the Mexican border. It took some pretty drastic action. Peru got away with it.
ACCINELLI: Of course, by Pearl Harbor the Good Neighbor Policy had already had a dramatic effect on Latin American opinion, had it not?
MELBY: Oh yes.
ACCINELLI: And you had a series of conferences at Buenos Aires and Panama and so forth, so that even before Pearl Harbor, Washington had done a good deal to line up Latin America ideologically and even some ways militarily.
MELBY: The thing Nelson Rockefeller set up...
ACCINELLI: That's right.
MELBY: ...the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, which in its own bungling way was doing a very effective job. Oh, the Good Neighbor Policy saved us who knows what.
ACCINELLI: But there was still resistance in Peru, specifically.
MELBY: Well, Manuel Prado was President of Peru, you know, and he was a little bastard weasel. Vargas was not at all sure which way he was going. He came from Rio Grande do Sul which was the state of Brazil that was mostly completely German. It is, even to this day. You still have to speak German there because the population is so German. He didn't really know which way he was going, the dictator that he was. He'd go into virtual seclusion, retirement, and make up his mind. He finally did come out on our side, and then committed suicide later on. But what we got out of it militarily was, well, kind of ironic. The Brazilians sent a full division to Italy, finally, where it distinguished itself greatly.
Well, of course, the Italian caper was the training ground for all those generals who later took up in Brazil and established the dictatorship there. Mexico sent a full Air Force squadron to the Pacific where it also did very well. Otherwise Latin America did nothing militarily.
ACCINELLI: Peru made no direct contribution?
MELBY: No. There was a very large colony of Japanese who dug in their truck gardens all around the big Peruvian airport
at Lima-Tambo, which is the airport for Lima. They were there where they could monitor things. We finally sent John Emmerson, who was a Japanese language officer, to the Embassy in Lima where his job was to persuade the Peruvian government to intern all those Japanese for the duration. He succeeded, and they did. Then he, of course, would be one of those who would be of the Yenan group crucified later on. He had nothing to do with China at all. His connection was with the Japanese Communist Party.
ACCINELLI: Specifically what was your role during this 18-month dispute? Did you go to Ecuador and Peru?
ACCINELLI: What were your responsibilities; what were you doing?
MELBY: Well, I was in charge of our relations with both countries. I had pretty much of a free hand on things. The first thing we had to do was to get what was then considered a very large 20 million dollar loan from the Export-Import Bank -- not a loan, a grant -- to give the Ecuadoran government to rebuild the province of El Oro.
The Bank granted it, and I went down and signed the contract with the President. We did rebuild the province. We built highways also in Ecuador, as part of the Pan American Highway. In Peru it was more in a sense a holding operation to keep the Peruvians from trying any more capers against Ecuador. In that capacity I got to know pretty much everybody that was anybody in both countries. Particularly, I knew the Embassies in Washington, and all of us, in a sense, became very good personal friends.
ACCINELLI: Did you work closely with Sumner Welles during that period?
MELBY: Oh yes, because he was very much involved in the whole thing. Of course, I worked for him on this. He was in charge of the whole thing. Sure, to me Sumner Welles was the great American diplomat. If I ever had a case of hero worship, it was Sumner Welles.
ACCINELLI: What did you admire about him?
MELBY: His diplomatic skills, his knowledge of Latinos, his ability to get along with them, and the way he handled them and the way they responded to him. He was almost
the prototype of the perfect American diplomat.
ACCINELLI: Did you have any sense at that time of the conflict, the tension between him and Cordell Hull? Was that well known in the State Department?
MELBY: Oh, yes, that was one of those open secrets, sure.
ACCINELLI: And did you have any relations with Hull himself?
MELBY: Not really. The only time I ever had anything to do with the good judge was at one point the Peruvian government, through its Air Attaché in Washington, Armando Revoredo, had bought 20 of what were considered surplus North American trainers from the Norwegian government in exile, from the crown Princess Martha. And they had shipped those trainers from Ottawa, or Trenton, or someplace up around here, to New York and then loaded them on a Peruvian freighter, the Maranon. I didn't hear of it until the Maranon had cast off from New York bound for Lima. I called the Secretary, Mr. Hull, and told him what had happened. He was furious. He had a temper, you know, and he picked up the phone and he called the head of the Coast Guard in New York and issued an order to him, "Stop that freighter and
impound the cargo. Bring it back to New York. We're not going to sell any kind of arms or equipment to the Peruvians." The Coast Guard said, "Yes, sir," and did it.
Now, of course, it was really a strictly illegal action on our part. I mean they had been legally bought. Armando paid a million dollars for those things. Our justification for doing it was that they were needed by the American Air Force for training. Nobody would fly them anymore; they were so outdated and so on. Revoredo knew his way around the American Air Force; he was a very charming, personable guy, and I knew that sooner or later he was going to see those trainers someplace. My job was to make sure that he didn't see them.
Now, how was I going to do that? Well, I had somehow made contact with people over in the Pentagon, our War Department it was; I'm not sure the Pentagon had been built by that time. Anyway, it was the War Department, and I told this man the story. I said, "We've got to get rid of those planes, and we've got to do it fast." He had a bright idea in that he'd discovered an abandoned old coal mine shaft in West Virginia. So he shipped those
20 trainers to West Virginia, and dropped them down that shaft and then poured slag in on top of them, and they disappeared forever. Poor Armando kept making the rounds of American air bases and he never did find those trainers. He knew damn well what I had done, or that I had done something with them.
ACCINELLI: And he was out a million dollars as well.
MELBY: Well, he couldn't be you see, because we were wrong.
ACCINELLI: I see.
MELBY: So I had to go back to the Secretary and say, "Look, we've got to pay for these things some way; we cannot ask Peru to do it. I mean they bought them in good faith." Cordell Hull was mad as hell at me. He said, "What kind of position have you put me in?" He said, "You know I can't go to Congress and ask them to appropriate a million dollars for some action like this. You know what they're going to say; they'll tear us to pieces." I said, "I don't know what you're going to do." But what he did finally was -- as all Secretaries have, he had his own confidential fund -- and he took a
million dollars out of that and he said, "Here's your million dollars, and I don't want to hear any more about Peru, ever."
ACCINELLI: What was your impression of Hull? What was his reputation among Foreign Service officers that you knew?
MELBY: In the great days of the Trade Agreements Act, there was no question but that it was his creation, and we, all of us, were in favor of it. And he did a superb job on it. But after that, he was kept on. Oh he was Secretary, I guess, since God was a boy. There came a point, and this is where the friction with Sumner came, where he was just too old, and he was out-of-date, and out of touch, and he wasn't very effective. Yet, Roosevelt couldn't fire him, because his prestige was such on the Hill that Roosevelt didn't dare do it. He knew he had to keep him on. In the end, of course, Cordell Hull lasted longer than Sumner did. The last time I saw Cordell Hull was in Moscow in 1942 when he came over to the Moscow Conference. This really had everybody in an uproar and I was living at Spaso [House] where he stayed. I was living with Harriman then. In fact, I was running Spaso so I did see a bit of him there, but he was clearly
beyond his prime and so on.
ACCINELLI: Did Welles ever speak to you about his relationship with Hull?
MELBY: No. He didn't do that.
ACCINELLI: Wasn't that kind of man?
MELBY: No. After all I was a junior officer, and as far as he was concerned, it was none of my business, which it wasn't. And he knew his politics too well for that; he wouldn't have done that.
ACCINELLI: Can you give me an example of Welles' skills as a diplomat, any incidents that may have impressed you?
MELBY: Well, at the Rio Conference, which we completely dominated, I thought at the time it seemed like a good idea, but he was largely responsible, personally responsible, for the emergence of Batista in Cuba.
MELBY: He made Batista President of Cuba.
ACCINELLI: Yes, but that's early on isn't it?
MELBY: Oh, that was before the war.
ACCINELLI: Yes, about '33, '34 I believe.
MELBY: I guess he was stationed; I don't remember now whether he was actually a Minister in...
ACCINELLI: I think he was sent to Havana as a troubleshooter by Roosevelt...
MELBY: That's right.
ACCINELLI: ...because there were problems there, and Welles got the Cubans into line. That was before the Good Neighbor Policy really had coalesced, and while Roosevelt didnít employ a big stick diplomacy, that is, did not use, or threaten to use, military force, certainly Welles flexed American muscles.
MELBY: Well, he was really, in a sense, the author of the Good Neighbor Policy. His book, you know, on the Dominican Republic, Naboth's Vineyard, was the real origin of the Good Neighbor Policy. It was his idea, and Roosevelt picked it up.
ACCINELLI: Did he have a special sympathy for, or feeling for, Latin Americans?
MELBY: Yes. He had a very cold, austere exterior, frosty appearance. But, I don't know, somehow the Latinos didn't mind that in him, which was a curious thing. The chief of the American Republics Division at that time was Philip Bonsal, who also had had a long Cuban background himself. He had been with AT&T there before he entered the Foreign Service. Phil Bonsal was the exact opposite; he was a great big man, but kind of sloppy around, kind of loose-jointed and so on. He was noisy and he went around slapping Latinos on the back, the real Rotarian approach to life, and the Latinos loved him for that. He got along very well with the Latinos. He got along just as well as Sumner did. They were two completely opposite types. You never knew about Latinos. I think it is a question really, as much as anything, about whether they honestly believe that you like them, and you are sympatico. And if they get that feeling about you, then the rest doesn't matter. I think that was the case with both Sumner and Phil.
ACCINELLI: Yes, he was willing to treat them with respect and dignity, rather than condescend to them.
MELBY: That's what it was.
ACCINELLI: That was really important, was it not, given the long history of U.S. intervention and so forth in Latin America?
Earlier on, you made a passing reference to the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, and Nelson Rockefeller. Did you have anything to do with that office, or with Rockefeller himself?
MELBY: Yes. Well, not so much with Rockefeller himself, but I did with his staff. I knew everybody on his staff. John Dickey was with him, who later became president of Dartmouth, and there was Arthur Compton -- young Arthur Compton -- whose father was one of the fathers of the atom bomb. In fact, it was young Arthur Compton who told me something in 1945 that he shouldn't have known, and he certainly shouldn't have told me. That was that he had learned when the first atomic explosion was going to take place in New Mexico. I remember it to this day; we sat at the bar in the old Roger Smith Hotel having a drink, and he told me. He told me a date. John Dreyer worked for Rockefeller then, too, and let's see, there was someone else who just became a Congressman, his father -- Bingham. He worked for Nelson Rockefeller then; I knew him then.
No, I knew all that staff pretty well, but Arthur was the one who I knew best.
ACCINELLI: That office represented a fairly new departure in American diplomacy generally, and certainly in Latin America, with the notion of nourishing and encouraging cultural relations. I suppose that crudely put, it was propagandistic, but it was more than that, was it not?
MELBY: Maybe it was more than that, but it was an awful lot of propaganda as well. A lot of goofs were made. The ones I remember particularly that got quite a bit of publicity included one in which Rockefeller was subsidizing a series of newspapers in Latin America. He was in the business and it was later discovered that most of them were German-owned. Another one involved a sanitation program he had in Guatamala. The whole program was designed to provide the Guatamalan Indians with a lot of concrete-pit privies; it was going to clean up all their dysentery and so on. So we built all these hundreds of concrete-pit privies in Guatamala, and then they sent down an inspector to see how they were being used, and discovered what? The Indians thought that they were just great, but not for pit privies; they were wonderful
to store corn in. The corn didn't mildew in there, or anything, in the Guatamalan tropics. And there were things like that that happened. I mean that was sort of inevitable, a lot of it. He did a great deal in cultural relations and moving people back and forth, and it was the original cultural relations program. Wilma Fairbank was very much involved in that.
ACCINELLI: Oh, was she?
MELBY: She was on the staff there. I didn't know her at the time; I knew her in China later on when she worked for me. She was one of the founders of the Cultural Relations program on Latin America. Hal Hanson was on Rockefeller's staff then. He got together quite a distinguished group of young people.
ACCINELLI: He was a dynamic man, who of course had connections with Latin America through his family. Was there any...
MELBY: I think it was more a little bit of jealousy, and then Rockefeller had access to a great deal more money than we did. But I think there was also recognition that he was doing a job that needed to be done and maybe
he was doing things that wouldn't be proper for the diplomatic service to be involved in, which indeed was the case. Traditional diplomats don't get involved in things like that, although God knows now we do. Of course, this is a whole other new world, but...
ACCINELLI: After you completed your stint in Ecuador and Peru you were assigned then, I take it, to Moscow.
MELBY: Yes. The job was finished with Peru and Ecuador really, and there being a war on, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable that I was sitting there and not really doing very much. I wanted to get military leave and join the Marine Corps, since it wouldn't inconvenience my family financially at all. But I talked to Howland Shaw about it, who was then Assistant Secretary for Personnel, and he gave me a proper bawling out saying, "You have to remember what happened to the British service in '14 to '18. Not only was it decimated, but the British Foreign Service has never recovered properly. There was plenty of work for everybody to do." I said, "All right, that's fine, but let's send me abroad then." And he agreed. He said okay, that was fine.
I was assigned to Lisbon, which was kind of a hotbed for intrigue and espionage and so on in Western Europe at that time. I wouldn't have minded living in Lisbon as such, but I still wanted to go to Moscow, which a lot of other people did too. But I wanted to go more than most people did, and I managed to talk myself into it. It took me a month to get there, going through the Caribbean, and across the Atlantic, and around Africa, and so on, on a White House pass. Litvinov had just been recalled as Ambassador for consultation in Moscow. He left very suddenly, with not even farewells, and nobody knew what he was up to, or why he was being recalled. So I had, as I say, this White House pass and by the time I got to Ghana I realized that he wasn't going to be talking to anybody. I just gave up at that point and he went on. I spent the next ten days sitting on the beaches of Ghana recovering from the fatigue of having broken up the house and moving so fast, and so on. I arrived finally in Kuibyshev, having gone by way of Cairo and the Persian Gulf and Teheran and then up over the Elburz Mountains into Kuibyshev, where the remnants of the Embassy were still located.
ACCINELLI: Well, for part of that trip you had a companion.
MELBY: That was L.G. Michael, who was the Agricultural Attaché, who had been going to Russia every year since the mid-20s, and estimating what the Russian wheat crop would be for that year. He had incredible success in accuracy, simply by wandering around the countryside. He didn't speak much Russian, never managed to learn very much, but nonetheless he was accurate with it. It was his first plane trip, and he had always looked at the world from the ground, and he found that the whole world looked very different from a plane. You couldn't pry him loose from that window, just watching the world go by underneath us. It changed his whole outlook, his whole vision of what the world was all about. He was a very interesting guy, and we became very good friends.
I arrived in Kuibyshev, and the remnants of the Embassy by this time consisted of Warwick Perkins, who would later be the Administrative Officer in Moscow, the secretary; and I think there was an additional vice-consul there. I finally arrived in Moscow where Admiral [William H.] Standley was the Ambassador and kind of disgruntled about life and missing his wife and
the fact that mail took weeks to reach us and sometimes it didn't get there at all. His greeting to me was a kind of grumpy one because he thought I was going to act as a courier to bring in mail. Well, there wasn't any to bring in. So, for my sins in not having brought mail with me, he assigned me in the beginning to be sort of house manager in Spaso, which was his residence where half the Embassy staff lived anyway. That was a job that incidentally I kept as long as I was in Moscow. I kept it on when Harriman came; he just kept me on doing that.
Well, Standley himself didn't have very much to do, and he would leave by mid-summer anyway. He was called back because most of what the Embassy might have been doing was being done by the military mission and General [Philip] Faymonville, a very charming guy -- very pro-Russian, ideologically pro-Russian. To him the Russians could do no wrong, even saying no to them, never. Anything they wanted was fine with him.
ACCINELLI: That was pretty consistent though with Washington's policy at that time, wasn't it, carte blanche, blank check; give them as much as they want and as quickly as we can get it to them?
Well, yes, but you didnít have to go as far as he did. After all, we didnít have unlimited supplies; we were involved in a war, and we had our own needs and so on. And the Russians could be pretty demanding. Not only could be, but they were. Anyway, the Moscow Conference was in October of that year, and Cordell Hull was our principle representative at it, and Harriman came in with him, and he actually stayed on as the new Ambassador. He cleaned out the whole military mission, and thatís when Major General [John R.] Deane came in, who had been Secretary of the Joint Chiefs, a job he wanted to get out of. He wanted a field command, but Roosevelt wouldnít let him have it; he said that Moscow was more important and we all have to give up some of our dreams in this war going on, and part of your price is youíre going to go to Moscow. Well, Russ was a good soldier, and so he said, "Yes, Sir," and there he was.
ACCINELLI: Just as Stilwell was stuck in China.
MELBY: Yes, and he did a very good job on it. He, of course, was not about to say yes to everything the Russians wanted, but he got along quite well with them. He wrote up his experiences, as head of the mission later on, in
a book Strange Alliance, which I think is a very dispassionate account of what life was like and what problems he had and so on.
During the summer, until Harriman came, I really didn't have anything to do. The Embassy was grossly overstaffed. We had too many officers there. Nobody knew when the Germans were going to be able to break out of Stalingrad and in that case, who knew when we would get anybody else in, or what the demands on the Embassy would be. So, there I was with not much to do. I really didn't have anything to do except fool around with files, codes, clerks and so on, until Harriman arrived. He brought with him one Samuel Spewack, the playwright. Sam was Russian by origin himself; in fact, his mother had come from the Ukraine and he had wanted to go there, but the minute he was there, he knew he didn't want to be there. Sam lasted only six weeks. Most of that time he spent in bed writing a new novel about Spaso and sitting under an umbrella since the roof over his room leaked. Sam and I became very good friends, and remained that until the day he died. But at the end of six weeks he decided he had to go back to Washington for consultation with OWI [Office of War Information], because that was what he was working for.
Well, we all had a pretty good idea he'd never return, which in fact he did not. At this point Averell named me as the Acting Director of OWI for Moscow. I spent the next year doing that until Joe Phillips, who had been editor of Newsweek, in which Averell had a financial interest incidentally, and Joe had been Eisenhower's PRO [public relations officer] in North Africa and later on in London, arrived to take over the Moscow job. So I was out of that job. But that year with OWI was a fascinating one because it was a time when the Russians were more open, when you could travel, and you could know Russians in a way that you couldn't before and you haven't been able to know them since. You had access to officials, and we mounted a pretty complete OWI information program in Moscow, obviously within the limitations of a certain amount of Russian censorship, the usual news releases and commentary and so on. But the main thing we did was to start publishing a very glossy, superior type magazine called America. It would have put Vogue and Harper's Bazaar to shame.
ACCINELLI: And it was actually all done in Moscow, or was it?
ACCINELLI: It wasn't?
MELBY: This was a very complicated process.
ACCINELLI: I wondered.
MELBY: The text for it was entirely written in Washington. It was translated into Russian, and as it turned out, it was kind of pre-Bolshevik Russian which was cabled out to us. We reedited the stuff, and cabled the corrections back to Washington, which was then accepted or turned down. Mostly it was accepted, and it was printed in the States and shipped out. We had literally tens of thousands of copies, which were really quite freely distributed throughout the Soviet Union.
ACCINELLI: How often did you publish?
NELBY: Every month.
ACCINELLI: Every month?
MELBY: And this went on for two or three years I think. It was an enormous success in Russia. The copies would be gone before they would even arrive. Everybody wanted
to see them. It was even more popular than a copy of the Sears Roebuck catalog. It was a high-quality job and so considered and valued by the Russians. Their interest in things American was pretty obvious even then.
ACCINELLI: What kinds of things would the censors want to keep out of the magazine, do you recall?
MELBY: Well, there was no censorship of the magazine at all.
ACCINELLI: None at all.
MELBY: No, this was only on some news items, but by the magazine, no. I handled all this through the press section of the Foreign Office. The head of the press section of the Foreign Office became a very good friend along with his staff. He turned up later. Finally, I left Russia and after I arrived in Chungking, who should be the new Russian Ambassador in Chungking but the man who had been head of the press section.
ACCINELLI: And that was a coincidence.
MELBY: Oh yes, entirely.
So, the Russian Embassy in Chungking and I got along fabulously. I mean I knew them all, sort of
arms-around friends -- old "home week." This was before the cold war, of course. So the job I had to do in Chungking turned out to be nothing, but I say again that's another part of the story. I said that with these Russian officials and so on, we got along fabulously. We were doing something that was in everybody's mutual interest, very oddly enough. Really, in the history of Russian-American relations, if we could concentrate more on the things that are of mutual advantage, we'll find the Russians are very cooperative. Instead of that, we always pick out things and look for things in there causing trouble and so on. So my time with the Russian officials there, those two years, was really a very friendly, pleasant time.
ACCINELLI: Did they at all talk about Stalinism? Were they aware of things like the Gulag, or was that part of the Stalinist regime known and discussed?
MELBY: If they did, they didn't talk about it. Stalin had given up on Marxism. The whole tenor of Russian propaganda with the Russian people at this time was, this is a war to defend the "Holy Mother Russia," defense
of the motherland. They even brought back ranks in the Army and so on, even such things as we used to ridicule a little bit. Signs would go up saying, "Henceforth, officers will not hang onto the side of buses when they are moving," transportation being terrible of course. It was as though Communism, or Marxism, had never happened. Now, obviously when the war was over all this changed, but by that time I was gone.
ACCINELLI: That kind of message did you try to get across through the office of War Information activities, particularly this glossy magazine that you put out.
MELBY: What life was like in the States. Just tried a straight-forward picture of American life, some of which the Russians believed and some they didn't. I mean, for example, one issue we had showing the parking lot of the Ford River Rouge plant -- those hundreds of automobiles, and they didn't believe that. They said, "You must have staged that; workers have automobiles? No, no impossible. How can workers have automobiles in the land of Capitalism, and Capitalism is folding and we all know it. After all, think about the Negro problem in the South;" that is always a standard fallback
argument with the Russians. No matter what kind of a corner you put them in, the answer is, "Yeah, but what about the Negro problem in the South?"
ACCINELLI: How did you deal with that kind of a comment or criticism?
MELBY: You just got where you didn't pay any attention to it. What was the point? And God knows the Negro problem in the South was bad in those days, very different from what it is now. It was still Jim Crow time. There was no point in denying it.
But we had a good time there and Averell was a good kind of Ambassador to work for and with. When he finally had to inform me that I wasn't going to be head of OWI anymore, he said, "Well, Joe's coming in tomorrow. Why don't you go with Doc Michael; he's going up to Murmansk. You go up with him for a couple of weeks and have a look at the Arctic." So I went up to the Arctic with Michael. And we had a very interesting time up there, because that's where all their convoys were...
ACCINELLI: The lend-lease material.
MELBY: Everything was coming in there; that was the big
port, and it was an ice-free port. The only episode that happened -- you had to take all your own food on the trip. It took three days to get there, and not too much heat on the train. But you had to take all your own food with you, and there was one point when Mike was opening a bottle of sweet pickles and his hand slipped, and it emptied out in the inside of my suitcase that was open. Well, at that point I was ready to strangle him.
It was interesting. You see we were up there until we left Murmansk on November 8, right after Revolution Day. We had gone to a big party the night before with some big burly Russian generals. We were all dancing with each other; it was quite a spectacle.
ACCINELLI: Was the vodka flowing freely?
MELBY: Oh, yes, there was lots of that. In fact, there was one little episode on the train going north. This Russian GI had himself pretty well tanked up; he got a little obstreperous. The train stopped, and another soldier took the drunk Russian soldier off the train and threw him over an embankment. Justice can be very swift in the Soviet Union.
ACCINELLI: Can you tell me something about Harriman? Had you known Harriman before he came to Moscow?
MELBY: No. I didn't know really much about him beyond the obvious that everyone did. He came in fired up very much with the zeal that A. [Adolph] A. Berle had spoken of to me, saying, "I don't want to hear any criticism of the Russians out of anybody in this Embassy. We've got to get along with them." That sounded fine to me.
ACCINELLI: That was before you went to Moscow?
MELBY: No, no, this was after he came to Moscow.
ACCINELLI: Oh, after.
MELBY: This is what he announced when he became Ambassador. Presenting his credential was a little bit delayed because as a very young man back in the twenties, he, and I don't know who -- Brown Brothers and Harriman or who -- anyway, this little group in New York had had rather large investments in manganese mines in the Caucasus, and the final repayment on the loans that were involved in that were due just about the time he became Ambassador. And Molotov had suggested to him, "Let's not have you present
your credentials until the final payment has been made so there clearly is no conflict of interest involved, and that's wiped out." So he didn't really present his credential until sometime in December. The Russians paid off, every cent of it.
I think he came into Moscow thinking or convinced that his relationship with Stalin was going to be the same as the one he had with Churchill. I mean sort of a first name, palsy-walsy, buddy-buddy, and weekends at Chequers and that sort of thing, and so forth. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. He didn't see Stalin any more frequently than Russ Deane did, finally, and then it was only strictly on particular occasions and usually after midnight, because Stalin didn't go to work until midnight. But there was business to be done, and otherwise Stalin was busy running his own war. He had no place in the running of that war for a mere American Ambassador. Averell took it pretty hard. In fact, there was one period that first winter when he took to bed with a sinus infection and didn't get out of bed for six weeks. He was obviously suffering some kind of psychosomatic trauma with it. He was a very tough guy obviously, to have lived as long as he did. Finally, he made his
peace with the fact of what his relationship would be and he came out of it all right.
He very seldom went to the chancery itself; he worked out of his bedroom, which was a very large room on the second floor of Spaso. It was only very occasionally that he did go to the chancery, and most things that he was concerned with were brought to him.
Well, by this time, most of the Embassy staff was out of Spaso. The only ones who were left were Eddie Page, who acted as his interpreter -- he was a Russian language officer and a very good one -- along with his secretary, Bob Meiklejohn, who was in naval uniform, but only by courtesy, just to get him free passage on Navy planes and so on. He was a darned good secretary. There was Kathleen. His wife didn't come with him, and Kathleen came as his hostess. And there was myself. When Mike was there in the fall he would always stay there, and when Ed Flynn came back from Yalta with Roosevelt, he stayed there. I mean there were some transients. Bill Donovan of OSS was there; he even moved into my room and I had to move out. People like that would stay at Spaso, but the only ones who were really permanent in the place were Meiklejohn, Kathleen,
Eddie Page and myself. So, in that sense I got to know Averell, I guess, much better than most people did. You'd see him on a day-to-day basis and see him grouchy in the morning, or see him grouchy at night, or happy in the morning, or happy at night, or whatever it might be. Or he might be playing "bezique" at night with Kathleen, a card game you played with 12 decks I think. When I got back from Murmansk one of the first guests who was there was Lillian Hellman; that was where I first met her. As long as she was there, she stayed with us too. So, it was that sort of population apart from those who were permanent.
ACCINELLI: So you saw almost everyone who came through Moscow.
ACCINELLI: Did Harriman talk to you about what was happening in Soviet-American relations? I assume you established a fairly frank relationship. Did he confide in you or use you as a sounding board?
MELBY: Yes. I mean there were topics that were avoided. I mean generally he would talk; he and Eddie and I would talk about things, yes. He seldom if ever talked very
much about military matters, which was strictly out of my competence anyway. You have one question in the questionnaire there -- what was my attitude toward Yalta?
Well, I never knew anything about Yalta. He went to Yalta, but it was only a couple of months before I left. I had to learn about Yalta after I got back to Washington. I knew he had been there, of course, and Kathleen went with him. As a matter of fact, I took them down to the train because they went to Yalta by train. I saw them off. At that point, I didn't even know where they were going. They didn't tell me; they shouldn't have. So when he came back, he did tell me where they had been and what had happened, obviously, because it was in the world press by then. But as to what had actually happened at Yalta, what the agreements were, they were never publicized in the press at all, so he didn't talk about those to me either.
ACCINELLI: Was he generally pleased when he came back? What was his mood? Could you sense any kind of reaction to the events there?
MELBY: I think he was pleased, yes. I think he thought we'd
done what had to be done. Here I'm using hindsight a little bit -- I think he came back from Yalta thinking we had agreements of a sort that they should have known better, that they were not possible. The Polish Agreements -- which of course were the ones that got all of the publicity later on -- to Stalin those agreements were, in effect, to give the Russians a free hand to do as they pleased in the "Cordon Sanitaire." The Russian attitude was, "Now twice in two generations we have been invaded by Germany across Poland. It's not going to happen again, and we're going to make sure it doesn't." So when Stalin talked about democratic elections in Poland, he meant Russian-style democratic elections imposed by the Red Army. We should have known that, and even Chip [Charles] Bohlen should have known that, but I don't think that Chip at this point really had it through his head. Maybe he was under a little bit of the euphoria at Yalta in seeing the President there and so on. That got to him, but he didn't keep that illusion very long. As for the agreements on the Far East, I think it was just assumed at Yalta that what Roosevelt quote, unquote, "gave away" was to simply restore to the Russians what they had lost to the
Japanese in 1905. This is exactly what happened, and there wasn't anything in the world anybody could have done to have stopped them anyway. They were going to enter the war, and, in fact, the Russians never did go beyond what they had in 1905, even though they were in a position to have done a lot more. They never did; they adhered to that understanding. But trying to tell people that these days...
ACCINELLI: Well, in return Roosevelt also got a commitment for Russian entry into the Pacific war, which he very much wanted, at a time when the atomic bomb was still in the future and an uncertainty.
MELBY: Even General Marshall said our best intelligence estimate -- he would tell me this later in China -- our best intelligence estimates at the time were that we had to have the Russians in that war against Japan or we might find ourselves fighting the Japanese Kwangtung Army in Manchuria. We thought it was a full-fledged army, but our intelligence was all wrong; there was no army there left. The Japanese had squandered it all in the islands. But we didn't know that. I mean, of course, this was part of Melby's education on intelligence, that most
decisions are made on the basis either of an inaccurate or inadequate information in this world. That goes for human, personal relations as well as affairs of state. We simply make decisions because we have to make decisions and we make them on the basis of inaccurate information.
ACCINELLI: It's also true, isn't it, that part of that Far Eastern agreement at Yalta involved the negotiation of a treaty between China and the Soviet Union?
MELBY: That is true.
ACCINELLTI: Which would commit Stalin to Chiang.
MELBY: That's right, and Harriman objected. T.V. Soong went to Moscow to negotiate that treaty, and Harriman told him you aren't going farther than Yalta says you have to go. You're giving more to the Russians than you have to give. And of course, China would turn around and throw that back in our faces, but that's another story.
ACCINELLI: So that at the time of Yalta, you really weren't aware of the specifics of the agreement.
MELBY: No, I didn't know. I didn't know the actual signed
Soviet treaty was published in August 1945. I was back on Long Island with Lillian at that time, anyway, and I read it in the New York Times. No, I didn't know anything about it.
ACCINELLI: Well, even before Yalta, from what I've read, Harriman had grown, let's say, a bit more realistic about relations with the Russians. Did you sense that he was in fact changing his views of the Soviet Union?
MELBY: Yes. There was some evidence for it, too, and some justification in a sense. For example, there had been an allied agreement on the value of the Austrian schilling once the Russians moved in there. But the minute the Russian troops moved in they broke the agreement, and put in their own currency. Now that was an out-and-out violation of an agreement.
After I stopped being director of OWI, I was given the job of writing up the Hungarian armistice, from our files. I never got to finish it, but there was the question of the Hungarian armistice which was a pretty dirty story in a sense, in that Russian troops had moved into Budapest at some point. I can't give you exact dates anymore. The Hungarians had invited them to come in and discuss
terms. The Russians went in and the Hungarians immediately shot all the Russian negotiators; they drove them out. The Russians again attacked across the plains; again the Hungarians asked for an armistice, and again they sent in a team to negotiate and again the Hungarians did the same damn thing. Never again would they ever forgive the Hungarians for a double betrayal. In 1956 they made them pay for it with a vengeance. Now this is a story you won't hear.
ACCINELLI: No, in fact I've never heard of it.
MELBY: This can be documented.
ACCINELLI: And you were aware in Moscow that this...
MELBY: This was the documentation; I was working on it. We never published it. Now of course the Hungarians are great freedom fighters, along with the contras and other people. Everybody is a freedom fighter who is against a Commie.
So you see, other people in the Embassy I didn't get to know as well as I might have simply because I was really tied down with the Ambassador. I'm not objecting to it at all. George Kennan was there as Minister
Counselor; George and I were never soul mates, then or now. I think he thought I was kind of a newspaper dilettante. I had some talents that were worth keeping for the Foreign Service, but that didn't make me a proper Foreign Service Officer. And I've always had reservations about George, too, and his peculiar attitudes toward the Russians.
ACCINELLI: In what way?
MELBY: I think he was very sentimental about the Russians.
ACCINELLI: About the people and the culture, as opposed to the system.
MELBY: Yes. He loves the Russians for what they are, for their strength and so on, and yet he also in a sense, I think, hates the Russians because what he sees as their strengths, he sees as weaknesses in himself. He finds that hard to rationalize in any way.
ACCINELLI: What kind of weaknesses in himself?
MELBY: Oh, well, he had chronic stomach ulcers, which makes him a very depressed person. He's not a very forceful man; he's not a strong personality. I've always had a
feeling about George and his scholarship, and so on. There's more style than there is substance. He's a brilliant stylist; he writes extremely well. But I think he sometimes gets so mesmerized by the style that you wonder, what is this man really saying, if anything. I think in a sense, he's in the great 19th century tradition of an historian; and a very good one.
ACCINELLI: Yes, very much so. Did you and he see eye-to-eye on relations with the Soviet Union at that time, or did you discuss that subject at all?
MELBY: Yes, we did some. He was in one of his really anti-Soviet periods. Officially, he thought the Russians could do nothing right, or there was nothing good about them. They were an aggressive people, and he was really "anti-official Russia."
ACCINELLI: Did that represent the general viewpoint of the Russian experts in the Department?
MELBY: In the Department, oh yes. They were a lot more irrational about it than George was. George at least was as emotional about it as the others. Chip Bohlen never was emotional about it. Chip was very hard-headed
about it. Tommy [Llewellyn] Thompson, who was not a Russian language officer but who later negotiated the Austrian treaty, probably had the most sensible approach to it of anyone. But some of the older men, such as Loy Henderson, I mean just mention the Russians and they just foam at the mouth. Or Elbridge Durbrow. I mean he's a real little shit if there ever was one. Partly, I suppose my feeling on that is I suspect that he did some informing on me, which I didn't appreciate. He's still connected with this institute out in Virginia, one of the enterprise institutes, or something.
ACCINELLI: Oh, is he? I didn't know he was still alive.
MELBY: Oh, very much so. He's a compulsive talker for one thing. He's not a Russian language officer either, but he served a lot there.
ACCINELLI: I know that Kennan was much disturbed while he was in Moscow that Roosevelt's policy of cooperation seemed to be beyond criticism. From what I understand Kennan was suggesting that it was necessary to be more realistic about the possibilities, or the probabilities, of good relations with the Russians after the war and so forth
and so on, very much in that vein. Of course, that message came into vogue in, I guess, late 1945 or early 1946. Was it known at the time that in fact this was Kennan's view?
MELBY: Oh, yes, I think so. He never concealed it. I don't know if you've seen this issue of American Heritage.* It has a very interesting article here on George Kennan vs. Paul Nitze, and the change in their attitudes over the years toward the Russians. This, I think, will tell you as well as anything I could say how George has shifted. I happen to agree with George's position right now on the Russians; we've got to learn to live with them. But he hasn't always felt that. If you would like to borrow that.
ACCINELLI: I very much would.
MELBY: It's a long article. Paul Nitze, with whom I always disagreed...
ACCINELLI: Well, Nitze's always been a hardliner.
*Greg Herkin, "The Great Foreign Policy Fight." American Heritage (April-May 1986):66-79.
ACCINELLI: He hasn't changed his views at all.
MELBY: That's right. He's always believed as he does now. But George has vacillated so much. I mean George's attitude on foreign policy is "what a pity it is those poor peasants, the American voters, have to know anything about foreign policy. Why can't they leave it to those of us who understand such things, and they can just go about raising their tomatoes and potatoes and so on, whatever, and leave it to us." We know better, after all.
ACCINELLI: Oh, yes, he's very much an elitist in that sense. In fact, it was rather ironic during the Vietnam war, when he emerged as a critic, that in fact he gained an audience among Americans who were antiwar. He became a popular figure in that sense, but it's a role that I think really didn't suit him. He's very much in a tradition, I think, of 19th century diplomacy, cabinet diplomacy, where elites talked to one another and settled problems.
MELBY: Have you seen this new book The Wise Men?*
*Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (New York, 1986)
ACCINELLI: No, I read a review of it. I'm really eager to pick it up.
MELBY: I had a note from Kathleen Harriman a few weeks ago; she had the galleys on it.
ACCINELLI: What does she think of it?
MELBY: She didn't say. She just said it brought back so many memories.
ACCINELLI: I bet.
What about General Deane? Did you have much to do with him?
MELBY: Not really; more socially than anything else, nothing businesswise. I would just see him because he was in and out with the Ambassador all the time, every day, practically. He was always very affable, and friendly. We didn't talk any business, but he would stop in the office, or when Kathleen and I were running OWI, he'd come in and see what we were up to and so on. That sort of thing. But obviously we didn't get into military matters at all.
ACCINELLI: Even before Yalta -- if I can come back to Harriman
for a moment -- he had come to the conclusion that if relations with the Russians were going to be put on a realistic basis there had to be more reciprocity, the quid pro quo approach, as it's been called by some historians. That is, the United States should simply not give; it might ask for something in return as well. Were you aware that this was his viewpoint? Did you discuss that at all? Were you at all sympathetic to that view?
MELBY: Oh yes, sure. Interestingly enough -- and here again I get a little personal about it -- when Lillian was there, he never baited her; he was always rather sympathetic with her views on the Russians. Of course, she was living at Spaso, so she could speak more freely there than she would with others outside. So he understood more of her feelings on it. The idea that she was pro-Communist or anything like that, he just took with a grain of salt. I mean she was what he called a "fellow wanderer."
ACCINELLI: A fellow wanderer?
MELBY: Yes. He at one time had wanted her to come back to Moscow as cultural affairs officer. She wouldn't do it. She said, "Living here this way now, being here all these weeks, I know that if I stayed here for any
length of time, I'd get to be like the rest of you. I couldn't take it." But George Kennan had no such sympathy with her. There was one big party he gave and Lillian and I went to, and at one point in the evening George got up and said, "Now, let's go over and let's bait Lillian." He didn't know Lillian, didn't know her at all. I thought it not only was tactless but ungentlemanly, if I may use that phrase.
ACCINELLI: It sounds uncharacteristic as well. It's a rather forward kind of statement for him to make.
MELBY: No, I've heard George like that. No. I think Averell knew a good deal more about what was going on in China. You see, John Davies came there in February of '45. At the suggestion more or less of Loy Henderson, it was about the time that these naive characters in China be given an opportunity to learn what communism was all about and so on. Therefore, Davies was the first candidate. The treatment that he was supposed to get out of Moscow didn't work. Particularly, it didn't work with Pat, his wife, who thought the Russians were wonderful. She had her first child in the Kremlin hospital, which she thought was wonderful, too. Since then they've had five
more daughters, and finally got a son. But John would talk very frankly about China with Averell, and I think Averell learned a lot about China.
ACCINELLI: By that time had Davies already become disenchanted with the Nationalists?
MELBY: Oh, he had for years.
ACCINELLI: And he thought that cooperation with the Communists was a way of salvaging the situation?
MELBY: Certainly. It wasn't a question that you're pro-Communist. Actually this is one of the things on which they hung him eventually, because he put into a telegram to the Department, "Let's face it, the future of China belongs to the Communists, not to the Nationalists, and we've got to learn to live with it. No question of liking it or disliking it, they are a fact."
ACCINELLI: He also saw -- and this wasn't credited enough at the time, perhaps wasn't even acknowledged -- he also saw that by building that kind of relationship, you established a counterweight against the Soviet Union. He wasn't at all pro-Soviet. In fact, he was very prophetic wasn't he?
MELBY: All of us saw the possibility of the Communists becoming another Tito. That wasn't give any weight back in Washington in those days, and yet that is exactly what happened.
ACCINELLI: Well, perhaps you can tell me something about daily life in wartime Moscow, what it was like to be an American Foreign Service Officer there.
MELBY: Well, mine wasn't a particularly typical one because I lived according to Embassy hours, Averell's hours more, but the rest of the Embassy lived pretty much the way officers do anyplace.
ACCINELLI: There was no shortage of supplies?
MELBY: Oh, no, not in my time. It wasn't much of a diet. There was an awful lot of Spam and that sort of stuff, except for one Christmas when Averell managed to con London out of 1,000 cases of Scotch, which arrived all at once and resulted in one of the most massive drunken orgies that's ever been seen on the face of this earth.
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