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Assistant Program Officer,

USAID Tunis (1957-1960)

John T. Bennett was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1929. When he was

nine, his family moved to Washington, D.C.. He attended Sidwell Friends

High School in Washington and graduated from Harvard in 1950. After

receiving his undergraduate degree in Government, he studied at University

of California Berkeley, where he received a master’s, then a Ph.D. in

agricultural economics. He has also served abroad in Vietnam, Guatemala

City and the Dominican Republic. His personal account was given in

September of 1996.

BENNETT: Late in 1957 I went back to finish the basic training course and took three

months of French. We students fought the system, which was actually very good in

teaching language effectively. The problem was the attitude of the staff who were simply

unpleasant. Then I was assigned as assistant to the Admin Counselor in Tehran. I was

not overjoyed, as I wanted to see if my economics was of any use in the Service. My old

boss thought it was a terrible assignment and somehow it got changed — I was detailed

to what later became AID and assigned as Assistant Program Officer (Economist) in the

mission in Tunis. I got a couple of months working in the Washington headquarters and


We had a good sized aid program in Tunisia, on the order of a hundred technicians and

many technical assistance projects covering the waterfront of agriculture, industry,

banking, handicrafts, public administration, education, etc. There was also a sizeable

commercial import program — financing for such imported necessities as petroleum — and

food for work and food for sale under PL 480. My job was to provide the economic

rationale for a program of that size, though ultimately the justification had to be political.

The latter was relatively easy — the French were fighting the independence movement

next door in Algeria and the war came over the border every few days. On one of the first

few days, we were in the Claridge Hotel (a rundown and misnamed dump, but the best

there was) in downtown Tunis, we were kept inside because there was a huge

demonstration and parade. The wind blew and the dust swirled, and the crowd roared,

hang De Gaulle, get the French out, etc. It was powerful and frightening. We were under

curfew for fear of an incident involving a foreigner. The French management of the hotel

was also suspicious of us, perhaps out of fear as much as anything. At night, the Tunisian

army put up barricades on the roads and stopped every car, looking at papers and shining

lights in the passengers’ faces. Scary.

The economic justification was not so simple. The country was poor, but the drain of its

military effort and the general upset made rapid growth problematic. It became a holding

operation, waiting for the war next door to end so that we could perhaps do some serious

development work.

Basically, the war drove events in Tunisia, and we had to wait. We got a few programs

going, but the Tunisians were very suspicious of the US, not without justification.

Moreover, their domestic politics made it difficult to be seen cooperating. I got to know

quite a few Tunisian and Algerian professionals. They were understandably bitter about

the French, but less than I would have expected. They also expected more of the US than

they were going to get. Individually, however, they could not have more cordial.

Tunisia at the time was authoritarian with Bourguiba still running things pretty much out

of his hat. Many of the ministers and senior civil servants were competent professionals,

but the government was generally not very competent and was focused on domestic

control and Algerian political issues. It was frustrating for us who wanted more to happen

on our watch than was likely.

We found a house in a suburb called Amilcar on the train line out to the headland and the

old Arab village called Sidi Bou Said, a whitewash and blue trim traditional architecture

that was considered the most desirable place to live. Amilcar was between Carthage and

President Bourguiba’s house, and we often saw him strolling on the main road with a

contingent of assistants and bodyguards. Our house was on a cliff called the Falaise

Rouge, for its red soil. We looked across the Bay of Tunis to a peninsula on the other

side, perhaps 5-10 miles across. It gave one the sense of detachment from the rest of the

world, although there were a few houses nearby on the inland side.

There were the ruins of a Roman bath down the hill on one side and the ruins of a Roman

cathedral down the hill on the other side. Carthage was a hill of ruins only a ten minute

walk away. It was covered with French villas used mainly as summer places — many

stood empty at the time because the French found life increasingly difficult and were


When it rained, the dirt often washed away to reveal Roman coins and bits of glass or

ceramics. There were also the remains of a Phoenician port at the bottom of the hill. It

seemed tiny, hardly big enough for a rowboat, but perhaps it had shrunk over the years.

We decorated the house in wild colors. The floors were old tile with Arabic designs.

Slippery when wet and hard when fallen on (our daughter lost one tooth on them), they

forced us to seek a way to liven the place up. We painted the walls in one room bright red

and blue. Another was green with white trim. The walls themselves were poorly finished,

so the color also distracted from their disrepair.

We had all got the flu while in the hotel and were dreadfully sick. I have never felt so bad

— I ached for a week. Then I got hepatitis shortly after moving into the house, which laid

me up for a week. I felt bad enough so that I thought I had a relapse of flu, but the identity

of my illness became clear when I turned yellow. The illness kept me in bed for a month

and sent me to Tripoli twice, to get a medical checkup at the hospital at Wheelus Air Force

base. It gave me a chance to see lots more roman ruins.

My first boss in Tunis was a German jew who was very smart, very demanding, and very

prickly. I suppose the relationship was good, but it was never comfortable. He was irate

that I tried to learn Arabic, arguing that my French was imperfect enough so that I should

concentrate on it. He was the one who taught me about deadlines. He set them, with

plenty of room, but then he accepted absolutely no excuses for failing to make them. Not

hard to understand, but the first time I was late was the last. He was replaced after a year

by a much more easy going man and I enjoyed working for him.

I also spent a lot of time working for the Director and two Deputy Directors. As the

economist, I had to pass on or provide the justification for many things. It was a strange

experience to be that junior and that powerful.

I got to know the staff of the mission (called the US Operations Mission or USOM, the

predecessor of AID) quite well. One of my favorites was a soil conservation engineer from

Wyoming who was out directing a program to create low bench terraces to prevent

erosion. The terraces were built up by making a few passes with a plow running along the

contour, a very efficient process. The other secret was to keep the goats and sheep off

the land, so that the vegetation survived. With vegetation, the terraces prevented a heavy

rain from washing the soil away and creating spectacular mud rivers in the stream beds.

Where there were no terraces, we saw some that were miles across and 10-20 feet deep.

He also pushed the construction of small earth dams built with hand tools in washed

areas. This was part of a food-for-work program, in which surplus wheat was used to pay

laborers for the work — getting something for a make-work program. My colleague in the

program office had developed this program. He was a member of the former Paris USOM,

as were many of the other Tunis officials. They constituted a separate group within the

Mission and were a bit difficult to deal with. He was also a Christian Scientist and a bit


I was particularly an outsider, because I was State Department, as well as new boy and

very young as well. Similarly, the Embassy was standoffish because we were not part of

their crew. Still, we did develop friends around the Mission and the Embassy.

Outside of servants and Tunisian employees in the office, we did not have as much

contact with Tunisians as one would have liked and expected. This was a discovery that

repeated itself in other posts. One simply got wrapped in the routine of the office and that

meant dealing with other Americans or writing for them. The American foreign aid

program had developed its own methods and procedures and they were highly

bureaucratic. Some of this was the consequence of sending people out who had very little

sense of how economic development takes place. Mission directors were political

appointees, and some were blatantly political with nothing else to recommend them.

Congress then got into the act and insisted on management controls centralized in

Washington that then became a game to get around.

At the time, I thought the system was reasonably good. One created a rationale for the

program that was developed for a particular country. Later, however, I would decide that

the system got bureaucracy bound. At the time, I got deeply involved in trying to make

the system work.

My boss got me involved in this, through his program meetings with the division chiefs,

who came seeking money for their proposals for the following year. Each program had its

own plan, with activities and a budget. Part of the problem was that the US imposed its

own requirements on the foreign country which rarely has the same ideas about what it

wants to do and is often unwilling to follow the procedures the US advisors suggest.

The meetings were often fairly tense. Division chiefs were the peers of my boss and the

Mission Director, or the Deputy was put in the role of mediating or adjudicating. Few of

them were anywhere near as bright as my boss nor as articulate and logical. They often

felt dreadfully abused. That made it harder for junior officers like me to navigate the

perilous waters of such personal relationships.

We got some advantage, however, when working with some of the juniors in the divisions,

we learned that things were going on which the division chief didn’t know about. One guy

we discovered came in in the morning, disappeared all day, returned late in the day, and

spent the intervening time in a bar. It was no wonder that little was happening in his


Tunisian society was pretty badly fractured. The departure of the French (and Italians, the

other large European group) and then of the Jews took the middle out of the pyramid of

skills. The Tunisians would learn in time, but in the interim, there was a hole. Muslim

fundamentalism was always there but was growing in this period of uncertainty. Still, the

common man was reasonably well treated, and there was little violation of civil rights that

was common in so many parts of the world.

All of this had is comic aspects. While I was being treated for hepatitis, my doctor simply

up and returned to France without saying anything. One day he made a house call and

the next, he was gone. It suggested that the French were feeling a lot more worried than

appeared on the surface. And of course, the war in Algeria always raised the possibility

that they would be attacked or held hostage.

Many of the Tunisian elite probably felt closer to the French than their Muslim brothers,

but it was not politic to say anything. Moreover, their actions had to be guided by how

they would be seen by other Muslims. They had to be very careful. Such situations allow

for very little tolerance.

I was not sad to leave Tunis, as I was looking forward to something a little more stately.

We left at the end of the school year, assigned to Washington for 3 months of something

they called mid-career training. Having been in the service only 5 years, that seemed to

me to be stretching the point. On the other hand, I took it as a compliment — that I must

be doing something right. I later learned that they were having trouble getting enough

people to fill the course.

Chief, Economic Section

Tunis (1958-1960)

Slator Clay Blackiston, Jr. was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1918. A

Foreign Service Officer, he served in the Netherlands, Germany, Haiti,

Palestine, Washington, DC, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and

India. He was interviewed in 1992 by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

Q: What were you doing in Tunis?

BLACKISTON: I was head of the economic section. I arrived there, as I described in the

earlier interview, by ship from Palermo having driven from Beirut to the toe of Italy and

then ferrying across to Palermo. At that time the major development was, of course, the

Algerian rebellion against the French which was going on full bore. While I was there

there was an attack on the Tunisian border town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef.

Q: This was a major political incident.

BLACKISTON: It was. The FLN, the Front for National Liberation for Algeria, was using

this as a staging area. The French had built an electrified fence along part of the Tunisian-

Algerian border, but this had been breached of course. Bob Blake, head of the political

section, and I and some others went there to see what this town looked like after this

attack. It had been leveled. I guess you would call it a village.

The first Ambassador I had when I was there was Lewis Jones, the second was Newby

Walmsley. Walmsley had been DCM in Moscow and he was really a Russian expert.

There was a big emphasis then on using PL 480 funds to loan to the Tunisian government

for the purpose of paying workers in grain to do reforestation and other projects. Tunisia

was of importance to us, far outweighing its actual power as an Arab country, because of

the fact that Bourguiba was relatively well disposed towards Israel. At least he was not in

the forefront of countries that were opposing Israel and this we considered to be a big

point in his favor. So Tunisia was favored with a lot of foreign assistance.

Bourguiba had made big efforts to modernize the country and also to liberate women. I

think, if I recall, a law was passed prohibiting plural marriage; also, he encouraged women

to eliminate the veil. This was not entirely successful; most women wore a head covering

and they would hold the edge of it in their teeth, which covered part of their face. There

were many liberated Tunisian women. There were a number of Tunisian artists who were

quite popular and well-known; a lot of their works appeared on Tunisian postage stamps.

There was a lot of infighting then in the Neo-Destour party with Bourguiba seeking to

maintain his preeminence. He had become — there was a lot of self-glorification. He had

built his own mausoleum down in a place called Monastir, which was his birthplace. It was

a domed structure which I saw. Of course, his picture was on postage stamps. I remember

one Tunisian, who was teaching me Maghrebian Arabic, asked if pictures of living

American presidents were on postage stamps and, of course, I told him they weren’t. You

could see what he was getting at. Bourguiba was known as Al Mujahid Al Kabir, that was

his Arabic title which means “The Great Struggler”; and of course, he had spent time in

Tunisian prisons under the French.

Q: You were saying that Tunisia was not a very exciting place at the time, but what about

this political crisis? Were you privy to whether we were leaning on the Tunisians to cut

out their support for the Algerian revolutionaries or were we quietly saying it was a good

idea? How were we treating that?

BLACKISTON: Well, we had liaison with the FLN representative in Tunis. He was a quite

well known person, so well-known that I have forgotten his name. But I knew him. The

person who conducted this was Bob Blake, the head of the political section; there were

constant interchanges, presumably mostly to get their attitude towards things. We

certainly had not taken an official position favoring Algerian independence, I think we were

trying to sort of straddle the fence. You may remember that Bobby Kennedy came out

favoring Algerian independence.

Q: Well actually Senator Kennedy, John F., came out in about 1958.

BLACKISTON: Yes, that’s right. So, there was sort of an equivocal position. But we did

have close liaison. This FLN representative spoke quite good English. Perhaps he had

been educated in the United States — he had an American wife. I think on a couple of

occasions when Bob had to be out of town, I was assigned to go and convey some point

or other to him, but I was not the person; it was the head of the political section.

Q: Were we under attack by the French because our Embassy was being too friendly to

this movement?

BLACKISTON: I think they were very suspicious of us. You see at that time the French

were in Bizerte, that was a French naval base; ultimately they got the French out, the

French had to leave. We were much concerned about that, as to what use that base might

be put, but of course nothing really bad happened out of that. Now…I have sort of lost my

train of thought here. I can cite an example of where French suspicions came into play.

Oil, of course, exists in Algeria and it was being developed in southeast Algeria not too

far from the Tunisian border — I beg your pardon because Tunisia doesn’t go that far

south. It was farther south than the southernmost part of Tunisia. I wanted to go to visit

those oil fields and the Embassy was prepared to authorize me to go to see these oil

fields, but the French turned me down, would not permit me to go. I can’t imagine what

they were afraid of, but nevertheless they wouldn’t permit it.

Q: How were these two Ambassadors, Lewis Jones and Newby Walmsley? How did they

run the Embassy?

BLACKISTON: Well Lewis Jones had been to Harvard and the head of the CIA, Station

Chief, had been to Harvard and I think they had been there together, as well as my

predecessor. Do you want me to cite names?

Q: Sure.

BLACKISTON: Well Frank Coolidge was the CIA Station Chief, and an awfully nice guy,

who had been, incidentally, in the French Foreign Legion. Apparently he had gotten out;

as rumors had it, this was the time of President Coolidge, somehow through his family’s

intercession with Coolidge they got him out which is quite unusual. At least that’s the

story. And he was in OSS during the war and as I understand it he was dropped into the

maquis. On reflection I don’t think he could have been a contemporary with Lewis Jones

because I think he would have been older. He was a good friend of ours. His wife was

also a Coolidge, they were from Boston. My predecessor was a fellow named Jimmy

Burns, and he had been at Harvard, and I think he had been a contemporary of Jones.

And the number two economic officer that worked with me, Tom Smith, was also from

Harvard. So, it was very heavy Harvard laden group there. Now as for Newby Walmsley,

he came without much knowledge of the Arab world, but Tunisia is a little bit apart.

Actually, the government officials don’t, I guess it is like in Algeria, really speak Arabic,

they speak French all the time. He and I got along quite well together; he was very kind

to me, and I liked him a great deal.

Q: How did the two Ambassadors get along with Bourguiba from your viewpoint?

BLACKISTON: I think they got along o.k. Bourguiba, you know, was probably showing

some signs of the mental problems which later caused his being deposed. I think he was

something of a megalomaniac; he did have some good ideas. Like so many reformers in

the Muslim world, they often don’t quite succeed. It has happened in Afghanistan, it has

happened with the Shah in Iran, it has happened in other countries; you might even say

under Ataturk in Turkey where the rank and file adhere to their religious beliefs and are

not prepared to change.

We were the six who opened the school, and I was there for twenty-two months learning

Arabic – – I thought. In fact, we were all taught to speak a dialect which is fully usable

within perhaps one hundred kilometers of Tangier, and since Tangier is on the

northwestern coast of the continent, it doesn’t really take in an awful lot.

foreign policy

Requirement: –

I expect you to choose your own theme or country of focus, find at least two and no more than three interviews, and provide an
analysis/comparison/description in written form
. You will write the report in the style of a State Department reporting cable (TEMPLATE BELOW) of two to three pages in length (single spaced), which will count as 25 percent of your course grade. I will provide you a sample format of a State Department reporting cable, which you can use as a template. Your oral presentation, which will also count for 25 percent of your course grade, will simply be a 6–8-minute oral presentation of the written report.


Template for Mock State Department Telegram please follow this template exactly



Date/DTG: April 21, 2022



E.O.: 13526

TAGS: PINS, PREL, PTER, SOCI, SCUL, ECON, ID ((You can select suitable TAGs and TERMS for your cable by looking at the TAGS and TERMS handbook (
), which is available online by searching TAGS and TERMs handbook or by following the aforementioned link. Try to find at least two subject tags and a geographic (country) tag to use for your cable. Tags are generally four characters. Political tags begin with P, Economic tags with E, and Consular tags with C, for example. PREL means political relations.

Reference: 22 STATE 4395

Subject: Sample Format – State Department Reporting Telegram

1. (U) Summary. The summary paragraph provides an option for busy senior officials at the State Department and other agencies to get the most important points from your cable without taking the time to read the entire document. If the cable is related to their specific work portfolio or interests, they will read on. The summary in a State Department cable is often less a summary than it is a collection of the main points from throughout your cable. One way to organize the summary is to have one sentence in the summary that captures the main point from every one or two paragraphs in your cable. Generally, you’ll want to keep the summary to no more than five to six short sentences. End Summary.

2. (U) Think of most paragraphs of your cable as the body of the report. The body of the report should be matter of fact and should not include your personal views or comments, unless they are clearly indicated as such, as I have demonstrated in paragraph 8 below. Following the body of the report, which often relays the important points from an official meeting, a reporting officer will close with a paragraph that includes their comments or analysis. Think of the body as telling exactly what transpired and the comment or analysis as the reporting officer’s effort to explain what it means or why it’s important.

3. (U)

4. (U)

5. (U)

6. (U)

7. (U)


Signature: Kennedy, Jackie

Drafted By: Smith, Jane

Cleared By: Doe, John

Approved By: Smith, Tom

Released By: Smith, Jane

Info: Department of Defense, Routine