William S. Shepard always wanted to join the career American
Foreign Service. Years later, a law school classmate remembered
Shepardís 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 oneís back to the wall when
pursuing drunken sailors in the downtown dock area.
Saigon during the Viet-Nam War is shown through a Consulís 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 Shepardís
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 authorís diplomatic service.
Shepard knows from experience that a Consulís day doesnít 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. Shepardís diplomatic career was capped by service as
Consul General at the American Consulate General in Bordeaux,
France. He and his wife now live on Marylandís Eastern Shore.