Plain Tales From The Embassy
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
May 10—New Delhi . Planning for the big Johnson visit is now elaborately under way. I have opted for the biggest dam in the neighborhood, to which we will have to go by special train. Thereafter a tour of the villages where L. B. J. can be surrounded by eager peasantry. The Taj Mahal will be only for the ladies. This is the new Galbraith line enforcing utility and austerity on all official visits.
New Delhi, India May 10, 1961
Dear Mr. President:
… In spite of Laos and the ceremonial preoccupations of this task, I have begun to get a fair view of the operation of this embassy. I doubt that you would wish to acquaint yourself with all features of all your missions. But perhaps you should know about one.…
The central embassy staff, the whole show in your London youth, and including the political and economic ministers, counsellors, and secretaries, are hard-working, competent, and admirably committed to the interest of the United States without being humorlessly enslaved by any particular line or theology.…
The U.S.I.S. runs libraries, publishes three or four magazines, distributes books, arranges exhibits, books American cultural enterprises, and gets your speeches to the intellectually starving masses. It is a large operation; the current budget is $3,466,261. My impression of this is less happy. The people here are hard-working and dedicated. The various activities are conducted with reasonable efficiency. The libraries handle an enormous traffic. (At the end of the month the McGraw-Hill bakery magazine is grubby from its many avid readers.) What is missing is spirit or lift. The organization lacks excitement. Everyday tasks are not even very expertly done. The magazines and other publications are poorly written and edited with unattractive layouts and fairly dull material. Our upper-middle-brow magazine is so far inferior to what the Poles distribute as to make one cry. (The latter very rarely mentions Communism and can even outstrip us on an article on ecclesiastical architecture.) The book presentation program for libraries has not, in the past, thought it wise to distribute your books or Schlesinger’s or even very many of mine.
Much of the trouble is from the Washington support. You cannot imagine how bad this is. Each morning, over the air, comes the day’s American story. I can no longer read it for simple reasons of health; five minutes of this wireless file and one loses his breakfast and cannot eat the rest of the day. In two weeks it caused me to lose twenty pounds and I have prescribed it for the Saudi Arabian ambassador, who is badly overweight. Apart from some useful speech texts it consists in equal parts of utterly irrelevant pieces about the progress of the grass silage industry; tedious and execrably written articles on the American economy … or uninspired thoughts of the lesser members of the bureaucracy, or diatribes against Communism. The latter are perhaps the dreariest feature of all. I cannot read them without pausing to consider whether the Communists have something, and Murrow may well be turning me into a security risk. Lately I have been sending him samples of this gaseous diffusion with a note of personal congratulation. The President, as I later learned, read this to Ed Murrow over the telephone in what Ed described as the most difficult single telephone call of his life. It pleased the President to imply that Murrow had written it personally. Presently the file diminished radically in size. Previously anything that might offend a rightwing congressman was deleted. Now anything that might offend me had also to go. Not much was left between.
I am going to need a new head of the U.S.I.S. organization here. So far I have been shown only a worthy but brokenarch bureaucrat. Outsiders are opposed in the interest of upholding the merit system. I am puzzled as to why a merit system is important in the absence of merit, but you are President and will understand better.
The technical assistance program, and related economic aid activities, also produce no cheering. In the old Dulles days, the Indian government regarded the technical assistance activities—agriculture, public health, education, and so forth—with considerable suspicion. It seemed an invasion of sovereignty, a possible cover for Cold War penetration. And there was feeling that some of our experts we were sending were less than leaders in their chosen fields—a suspicion that was amply confirmed when at intervals some truly remarkable stumblebums were off-loaded at the local airport. As a consequence of all this whenever the Indian government asked for help there was a great effort to respond—”at least they were asking us.” No effort was made to fit the particular expert into a sense-making program or even to be sure that what he did made sense. And the Indians in turn subjected our talent to a scrutiny that regularly took and still takes months. So our technical assistance is a hit-and-miss affair, helping here and missing there, and maybe even doing occasional damage by diverting attention from first essentials. On the essentials, for example technical assistance to improve Indian agriculture, the effort is spread very, very thin—so thin that I cannot think it will have any appreciable impact before the Second or possibly the Third Coming. …
Faithfully, JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH