JOHN T. BENNETT
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
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.
SLATOR CLAY BLACKISTON, JR.
Chief, Economic Section
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
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?
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.