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Charles Bohlen


By David Blumenthal

At a 1956 diplomatic reception in Moscow, then-Premier Khrushchev told the American Ambassador, Charles E. Bohlen '27, that he had heard "talk of liquidating NATO." Bohlen quickly answered, "No, there has been talk of strengthening NATO. You must recognize NATO as a fact of life. It exists."

Bohlen, over the years, has become known for his bluntness--and in the eyes of some, his realism. In part, this quality enable him to reach the top rank of the United States' career diplomats. When he entered the Foreign Service in 1929, he was soon singled out as one of the six most promising entrants. He was sent to Paris to study Russian to prepare for the opening of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Bohlen worked his way through the diplomatic ranks and finally in 1953 was appointed Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. by President Eisenhower despite the vociferous opposition of Senator Joe McCarthy. In 1957, he was transferred to Manila, where he helped to mend the deteriorating state of relations between the U.S. and the Philippines and became known as one of America's top diplomatic troubleshooters. When France and America seemed to be drifting apart in the early 1960s, President Kennedy appointed him Ambassador in Paris.

Despite his almost scholarly attention to the day-to-day business of foreign affairs, Bohlen is certainly no theorist. His speech lacks the polish of an academician. He prefers an earthy anecdote to a well-turned phrase and would rather parry questions than deliver a prepared talk.

But his often infallible instinct--a blend of pragmatic expertise and first-hand information--has made him one of the leading Soviet experts in the State Department. In 1959, he was recalled by Secretary of State Herter to serve in the newly created Bureau of Soviet Affairs. One of his associates has commented, "His special ability is his sense of political interrelationships. He can take an event and immediately see its impact on a whole series of other events in widely separated parts of the world."

Bohlen likes to go about his business quietly and off-the-record. When he does speak out, however, he rarely presents an ordered or coherent view of international politics. Still, piecing together the patterns in Bohlen's thought, it is possible to arrive at a rough approximation of his outlook on the international situation.

One of his major themes is that the U.S. is inextricably involved in the affairs of Europe and that the major problem for American policy-makers is to adjust to its changing responsibilities in Europe. About Asia he rarely comments, explaining, "I'm not expert on that part of the world."

He remembers the time when he was told, "Observe, analyze, report, but for God's sake, don't get involved!" This attitude, he feels, ended with World War II. "With- in the space of less than five years," Bohlen reflects, "this country found itself catapulted from a position of maximum security in which foreign relations could be treated as a luxury ... into a position of virtually total responsibility."

In his present position in Paris, Bohlen is, of course, most concerned with NATO. He recognizes that the necessity for a massive American economic aid effort in Europe is gone. But he feels that the Soviet threat to Western Europe is still great enough to warrant an American military presence. He feels that the strength of the detente with Russia has been overestimated. He has little faith in the continuity of Soviet foreign policy and emphasizes that the Russian "official ideology is still basically and fundamentally hostile to our concept of the organization of society."

The best barometer of U.S.-Soviet relations, Bohlen thinks, is not the detente, but the status of the two Germanies. When they are again united, he hopes, then peace in Europe will be guaranteed. Until that time, we must remain wary. Above all, we must not let the detente resign us to the present partition of Germany.

Bohlen is a firm believer in the rule of "flexibility." This feeling is motivated by a profound belief, that "change is still on the march in the world." The United States must, he thinks, apply this rule in its reactions to the growing independence of its European allies.

Although America is now the proponderant power and the military protector of the West, Europe is striking out on its own. DeGaulle, in particular, must be understood in terms of Europe's general assertion of independence. "To DeGaulle," says Bohlen, "countries are like planets. They have gravitational fields and the bigger the planet, the bigger the gravitational field. If a small planet goes too close to a large one, it can lose control of itself. As far as DeGaulle is concerned, France is a small planet and the U.S. is a large one." Bohlen adds, "DeGaulle is not anti-American. He's just pro-French."

American military involvement must, then, be maintained for now, but U.S. political and economic involvement in Europe must, in time, decrease. And eventually, Bohlen foresees a time when even the burden of U.S. military involvement will be lightened. The future of Europe, he feels, lies in a unified Europe, capable of its own defense and capable of competing economically as a whole with the United States.

The diplomat, he hopes, will play a key role in U.S. adjustment to the new European order. The career-man's experience gives him the capacity to deal with the complexities of transacting business between nations in a changing world. Answering the charge that Kennedy was annoyed by the sluggishness of the Foreign Service, Bohlen says "Kennedy wasn't impatient with the Foreign Service. The problem is that when people first come to government, they expect the Service to come up with black and white answers. They want them clear-cut and they want them fast. Things are just too complicated for that."

And predictably, Bohlen has the professional's skepticism about the effectiveness of the amateur diplomat, the politician. "Personal diplomacy is a relatively new thing," he reflects. "It only really started with the Second World War. Before that it was almost unheard of and when it did occur, usually catastrophic. It's still pretty dangerous. It's easy to lean back after dinner, sip some wine and say all right I'll give you this and you give me that' but later on you often regret it."

When Bohlen left Moscow in 1957, Khrushchev said to him, "We like competent ambassadors who know how to give correct appraisals to their government." Premier Bulganin was a little less reserved. "We do not understand why they are taking you from us," he complained.

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