(P3) Dilemmas of Public Service: Inspiration, Disillusion, Perplexity, A Story from Craig Eisendrath

As a young Foreign Service officer, assigned to work with the US delegation to the United Nations, I begin to learn about its Secretary-General, a man named Dag Hammarskjold.  He had resolved differences between the United States and China which might have led to war, and just a few years ago had set up the United Nations Emergency Force, which had separated Israel from the Arab states, and so had created a peace when both sides were ready for war. He seems so quintessentially the international civil servant.  Totally focused on the issues, with almost no concern for himself.  The story is that when he set up the UN Emergency Force, he didn’t sleep for thirteen nights, and he saved tens of thousands of lives.  While we in the State Department are pursuing our national interest, he is working for the interests of all nations, without distinction

It is his vision that inspires me to work with others to create an international law for outer space. It is 1960 and the US and Russia are beginning to develop satellites for orbiting bombs and for locating the positions of rocket launchers, ships, and planes.  We are also using satellites to pick up immediately when the Russians might attempt to launch a preemptive strike against the United States.  The satellites will give us time to respond, which sets up the nuclear the standoff which is called Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD.  But if we or the Soviets attempt to shoot down satellites, all the satellites we are developing for peaceful purposes will be knocked out as well.  Now is the time when the United States and the rest of the world need to sign on to a treaty preserving outer space for peaceful purposes.

I help set up a United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It’s still too early for nations to make a definitive commitment, but the time is right to begin to draw up the framework for such a commitment, to have nations represented in a political process that can lead to a set of agreements or treaties governing outer space.

But then . . . my two-year assignment to State Department’s UN Political Office comes to an end and all my work is suspended.  How can I leave at a time like this?  But there’s no flexibility. I must go where the Department sends me


[Two years later, when Eisendrath’s assignment as vice-consul in Naples, Italy ends, the story resumes]


I go back to the United Nations Political Office, to my old job. But now the danger of outer space being weaponized is vastly increased.  We and the Soviets can now orbit nuclear bombs, which, unlike ICBMs in silos on the ground, will be almost impossible to knock out. Yes, we now face the real possibility of total annihilation raining down from the heavens!

So I begin to work again with the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and help draft a treaty which will eliminate all weapons in outer space.  But it soon becomes clear that the Department of Defense will not accept a total ban, will only reluctantly accept a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction, and refuses to accept any verification.  Clearly they want to keep their options open.  International peace is being sacrificed for power and defense contracts, not national security!  We rewrite the treaty to include only weapons of mass destruction; it goes to the United Nations, and is eventually endorsed by the requisite number of countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union.

I receive a medal for my work on the Treaty, but I’m already beginning to back away. How can I revere Dag Hammarskjold, and continue to work just for the interests of the United States?  We and the Soviets have tens of thousands of missiles pointed at each other.  Instead of building up these deadly missiles, shouldn’t we be engaged in the most earnest diplomacy to cut them down?

Instead the Department of Defense blocks our signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Treaty Ban Treaty.  The excuse: The Soviets can cheat without our knowing it.

I don’t believe it.  We have ringed the Soviet Union with seismic arrays which we can pick up a nuclear pin drop.   So now I not only see the Treaty defeated but, in addition, am being asked to lie in public.

What am I to do?  If I lie now on an issue so important, I know I will never stop. I’ll spend my entire career tainted with this lack of integrity.  It’s over. I fill out all the requisite forms, I say goodbye to my office mates in the UN Political Office, attend one last cocktail party, and walk away from my diplomatic career!

But for years, I will wonder if this was the right decision, if despite such difficulties, I could not have done a substantial amount of good for the world by staying in the Foreign Service, rising to an ambassador or Assistant Secretary of State, actually helping to create the policies that would make the world a safer place.