William S. Shepard always wanted to join the career American Foreign Service. Years later, a law school classmate remembered Shepard’s career choice. Why not join a Wall Street law firm? "I wanted to know what it was like to wake up and see the sun rise in Singapore," Shepard had said in law school.
He got that chance in Singapore, and lots of consular action besides, from dealing with sailors to repatriating the down and out and conducting security investigations. The local color was intriguing, as Shepard found out the local importance of ghosts, appeasing tree spirits, and keeping one’s back to the wall when pursuing drunken sailors in the downtown dock area.
Saigon during the Viet-Nam War is shown through a Consul’s unique perspective. Shepard discovers the way that the Viet Cong shipped guns into Saigon during the Tet Offensive in coffins, and describes the painstaking work of a consular office in facilitating adoptions of Vietnamese children.
In Budapest during the Cold War, security shadowing was a normal part of the everyday diplomatic experience. So was Shepard’s friendship with His Eminence Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, then in refuge at the American Embassy on Freedom Square. Shepard describes his walks with Cardinal Mindszenty, as Hungarian security police strained to take pictures of them and record their conversations. Shepard also takes us on a journey to eastern Hungary to visit a very old woman, whose Social Security claim needed verification. Her view of the United States and what our country could be was a highpoint of the author’s diplomatic service.
Shepard knows from experience that a Consul’s day doesn’t quite end at a predictable hour. He also shows us that the next problem that a Consul faces could affect the security of the United States, or the outcome of a presidential election, citing the attempted renunciation of his American citizenship by Lee Harvey Oswald at the American Embassy in Moscow, and the mishandling of the passport files of Bill Clinton when he was a student in England during the 1992 presidential election. From Vice Consul to the highest consular official, the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, the work requires dedication, competence and common sense. As Shepard tells us, "It matters, it matters greatly, and it cannot be done by telegram, from somewhere else."
Consular Tales was inspired by the closing of the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, as a budgetary decision by the Clinton Administration in 1996. This was our oldest American Consulate General, opened by President George Washington in 1790. The mission was only closed briefly twice in its long history, when war between France and the United States seemed possible at the end of the eighteenth century, and then again during the Second World War, during the Nazi Occupation.
Shepard hopes that by demonstrating what consular work actually is done at a Consulate General, that more young Americans will be inspired to choose this work as their career. And now that national budgetary pressures have eased, the reopening of the most historic American Consulate General should follow. If it does, Consular Tales will have served its larger purpose, and an important chapter of American consular history will be preserved and extended.
Career diplomat William S. Shepard served as the Consul or Political Officer at U.S. Embassies in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest and Athens. Shepard’s diplomatic career was capped by service as Consul General at the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, France. He and his wife now live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
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