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Plain Tales From The Embassy
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
“J. F. K. asked Arthur Schlesinger in strict confidence how I would like [the ambassadorship] … I did not learn about it for an hour or two.”
Although the events it describes are very recent, the document that follows seems to us the very stuff of which history is made. It is composed of excerpts from the diary kept by John Kenneth Galbraith during the Kennedy administration. A professor of economics at Harvard, an able speaker and writer, and a leading liberal with long experience in government, Professor Galbraith served Kennedy as a speech writer, adviser on economics, and Ambassador to India from 1961 until a few months before the assassination in Dallas. His six-foot-eight figure and ironic sense of humor were steady features of the New Frontier scene. While he was in India, the Ambassador frequently visited Washington and at other times wrote a series of thoughtful private letters to the President at Kennedy’s request. Some of these appear in part here.
In his introduction, the author points out that he made many of his diary entries while travelling, so that the heading for each entry does not necessarily indicate where the events mentioned took place. Professor Galbraith points out that he has altered his diary and letters for publication only in minor ways. Few secret matters were put to paper, so deletions for this reason were slight. He has left out a number of reflections on personalities, mostly in the case of Indian politicians like V. K. Krishna Menon, with whom he was on many occasions at odds. He has improved his language in some places on the grounds, as he puts it, that “no historical merit attaches to bad English,” a sentiment with which we agree. Whether or not one agrees with Professor Galbraith’s political and economic ideas, it is certain that he is one of the most gifted men in public life and that these outspoken memoirs are of great importance. They are taken from his forthcoming book Ambassador’s Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years , to be published shortly by Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston.
“I had picked a good time to go to India,” he writes. “The Goa crisis, the Chinese attack, the problem of Kashmir, and the most determined attack so far on India’s backwardness all favored me. But I thought it would be most instructive of all to tell in a day-to-day fashion just what an ambassador does and does not do —how he runs his embassy, reaches or postpones decisions, persuades the government to which he is accredited, wishes he might persuade Washington, sees visiting potentates, suffers boredom, and has an occasional sense of achievement which runs as wine in his bloodstream.” —The Editors
December 11, 1960—Cambridge . For the last several days there have been agreeable rumors that I am to be the Ambassador to India. And slightly more than rumors. J. F. K. asked Arthur Schlesinger in strict confidence how I would like it. These queries do not forever remain a secret, though I did not learn about it for an hour or two. This post has been my prime aspiration, although in the last weeks I have been slightly diverted by the newspaper speculation of [my] going to the Senate.
This morning J. F. K. called and in characteristic rapid-fire fashion asked me my views on about a dozen candidates for various posts. The most interesting were Bundy for State and McNamara for Treasury. Then he told me he wanted me to go to India. I expressed my pleasure and then said I wanted to put a plain question to him: “Would that be more useful than the Senate with the prospect of bringing some decency back to Massachusetts Democratic politics?” He said Yes, “by a factor of five to one.” Freshman senators are not very useful; did I really want to spend my time with Massachusetts politicians whom he described amiably as “that gang of thieves?” I told him I would not raise the matter again.
December 8—Cambridge . Walter Lippmann called to congratulate me in a highly unofficial manner. He and J. F. K. had a long talk a day or so ago during which Kennedy told him that I was going to India. Walter had expressed approval.
December 14—Cambridge . The New York Times and Boston Herald have minor headlines on my prospective appointment. They are under a Washington dateline and seem to come from J. F. K. No one can complain that Kennedy’s staffing is conducted with unnecessary secrecy. The motto is public positions publicly arrived at.
Last night at a Department (of Economics) dinner there was vast curiosity about my prospect. But very restrained. It was a little like your daughter’s illegitimate child—much interest but a marked reluctance to come out and ask about it.
December 16—Cambridge . Last night, the weather being bad, I went to New York to be on hand for a meeting in Newark today. A friend came over to the Dorset and we chatted for an hour or so. When she left, I tossed off my shirt and trousers to have a shower —I was very tired—and noticed that she had left behind some filigree earrings I had brought her from Pakistan early last year and which I had only now remembered to bring to New York. There followed an accident which should not happen to an aspiring diplomat.