Bohlen, Charles Eustis ("Chip")

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BOHLEN, Charles Eustis ("Chip")

(b. 30 August 1904 in Clayton, New York; d. 1 January 1974 in Washington, D.C.), professional diplomat and Soviet expert who served as ambassador to France (1962–1968) during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Bohlen was the second of three sons born to Charles Bohlen, a banker and prominent sportsman, and Celestine Eustis, a New Orleans socialite whose father served as American ambassador to France in the 1890s. He was educated at Saint Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and Harvard University, from which he received a bachelor's degree in European history in 1927. Joining the Foreign Service in 1929, Bohlen was among the first small group of American diplomats, including his lifelong friend George F. Kennan, trained as Russian experts. In the 1930s, after the United States resumed diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, Bohlen spent two tours of duty (1934–1935 and 1938–1940) in junior positions in the American embassy in Moscow. In 1935 he married Avis Thayer, the sister of a colleague; the couple had two daughters, Avis and Celestine, and a son, Charles. He attended the Moscow, Cairo, Teheran, and Yalta conferences, the last two as an adviser and translator for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He impressed presidential aide Harry Hopkins, at whose insistence Bohlen also took on State Department liaison duties with the White House. He continued to serve in the Truman administration and was involved in drawing up the blueprints for both the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. From 1953 to 1957 Bohlen was ambassador to the Soviet Union, until Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, often unsympathetic to his advice, relegated him to the Philippine embassy.

In 1959 Christian A. Herter, the new secretary of state, brought Bohlen back as his special assistant, a position he retained through the 1961 transition to the Kennedy administration. Throughout his career Bohlen consistently believed that the nature of the Soviet power structure and considerations of ideology and national interest often made the Soviet Union's dealings with Western powers difficult, but that, provided the United States took a firm line, negotiations and a degree of mutual understanding were feasible. Preparing for the May 1960 Soviet-American summit, he advised President Dwight D. Eisenhower to remain resolute over West Berlin, which the Soviet Union was threatening to take over. Bohlen accompanied Eisenhower to this meeting, which was cut short after Soviet forces shot down an American U-2 spy plane over Russian territory, an incident Bohlen suspected provided a welcome excuse for the domestically insecure Soviet general secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, to abort the summit.

Six feet tall, slim, handsome, and socially adept, in style Bohlen fit almost ideally into the incoming Kennedy administration. Offered a top European embassy by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, he chose to remain in the State Department in Washington as Rusk's assistant for over a year in order to familiarize himself with the new regime's outlook. From the beginning Kennedy consulted him on numerous issues. With W. Averell Harriman and Llewellyn Thompson, in February 1961 Bohlen spent two days briefing Kennedy on the Soviet Union. Bohlen felt that only at a summit meeting would Kennedy fully comprehend the nature of the Soviet leadership, so he endorsed plans for a meeting in Vienna in June 1961, to which he accompanied the president. Khrushchev's bellicose bluster on disarmament and Berlin left the inexperienced Kennedy somewhat shaken. When soon afterward Khrushchev ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bohlen initially suggested a measured response rather than the full domestic mobilization and American troop deployments to Berlin urged by other senior advisers. Characteristically, Kennedy followed a middle position, drafting additional troops and requesting increased military appropriations. After a visit to Berlin in August 1961, Bohlen warned Kennedy that the United States must respond forcibly, swiftly, and decisively to any future Soviet attempt to intimidate American allies, particularly over Berlin. The uncompromising Soviet stance at the Geneva arms limitation talks Bohlen and Rusk attended in March 1962 further convinced him that Russia remained intransigent.

In his administration's first weeks, Kennedy consulted Bohlen on plans inherited from Eisenhower to mount an invasion of Cuba to overthrow Fidel Castro's anti-American and pro-communist government. To his subsequent regret, Bohlen did not express his misgivings about this venture. Instead, he merely stated that, given the island's strategic insignificance to the Soviet Union, Khrushchev was unlikely to intervene militarily, though the Russians might provide Castro with arms and supplies and would undoubtedly exploit any invasion for propaganda purposes. His failure to oppose the invasion plan forthrightly revealed the occasional limitations of Bohlen's belief that professional diplomats should function primarily as technical experts rather than policymakers.

In October 1962, when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba, Bohlen counseled Kennedy to combine firmness and restraint. He suggested that Kennedy first correspond sternly but privately with Khrushchev, advice the president ignored, and then declare a naval blockade of the island, the course ultimately chosen. Bohlen was about to leave for France, to which he had been appointed ambassador, so attended only the first two days of meetings of the executive committee of senior advisers who handled the crisis, for fear that postponing his departure would alert the Soviets to the missiles' discovery.

Bohlen considered French president Charles de Gaulle one of the twentieth century's few genuinely great men. However, as ambassador he struggled with the difficulties caused by de Gaulle's determination to enhance France's international stature, first by excluding the British from the European Economic Community and then by removing France from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966 and demanding the withdrawal of all American forces and the closure of NATO bases on French soil by April 1967. Bohlen convinced the Johnson administration to accede to these demands, as any other course would be counterproductive. He also, unsuccessfully, advised the administration that its strategy of bombing North Vietnam to force Hanoi's leadership to negotiate a settlement to the war was likely to prove ineffective, particularly given the lack of public support.

In 1967 Bohlen declined to return to Moscow as ambassador, whereupon Rusk appointed him deputy under-secretary of state for political affairs. He concentrated on Soviet and East European affairs, calling for the expansion of American trade with the Soviet bloc, as this was likely to weaken Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Watching the developing Czechoslovak crisis of 1967–1968, Bohlen failed to anticipate the Soviet military intervention of August 1968 but advised that the United States restrict its response to diplomatic protests. Bohlen retired from the State Department in 1969 as its highest-ranking career officer. He became president of the investment company Ital-america, wrote his memoirs, and lectured extensively on U.S. foreign policy. In 1974 Bohlen died of cancer in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Bohlen's attitude toward the Soviet Union consistently mingled suspicion with the belief that the United States must be firm in defending its interests. In a 1969 survey professional State Department personnel picked Bohlen as their model of an ideal and effective diplomat, one who observed the conventions but whose abilities and readiness to innovate transcended the limitations career foreign service personnel often face.

Bohlen's personal papers are in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. Many of his official papers are included in the records of the Department of the State in the National Archives II, College Park, Maryland; the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston, Massachusetts; and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, Texas. Many documents from his official career are also included in the series Foreign Relations of the United States. Bohlen wrote The Transformation of American Foreign Policy (1969) and his memoirs, Witness to History, 1929–69 (1973). T. Michael Ruddy wrote the biography The Cautious Diplomat: Charles E. Bohlen and the Soviet Union, 1929–1969 (1986). Bohlen is one of the protagonists of Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made: Acheson, Bohlen, Harriman, Kennan, Lovett, McCloy (1986). His career during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations is covered in articles in Eleanora W. Schoenebaum, ed., Political Profiles: The Eisenhower Years (1980), and Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years (1976), and Political Profiles: The Johnson Years (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 2 Jan. 1974) and the London Times (3 Jan. 1974). Bohlen recorded oral history interviews for Columbia University, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Priscilla Roberts