Carol Madison Graham (MAAS ’81) was the first MAAS graduate to enter the United States Foreign Service. She reflects on how the 1984 embassy bombing in Beirut inspired her current work to strengthen the Foreign Service for future generations.
By Carol Madison Graham
The morning of the bombing began with an argument. It was September 20, 1984, and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had recently split its operations between east and west Beirut. As the Assistant Public Affairs Officer, I had staff and offices on both sides of town, but the ambassador preferred for American officers to remain in the eastern annex as much as possible for security reasons. I had worked in the annex for two weeks and knew I could no longer neglect my west Beirut staff or the press corps and planned to go to the western office that day. As I came across the ambassador on my way out of the embassy, he tried to argue me out of going to west Beirut. I was determined to see my staff and headed out anyway.
I had been in the west Beirut office for about two and a half hours when we heard a distant explosion to the east. I did not know at the time that the annex itself had been hit but left immediately. Thirty minutes later, my driver and I arrived at the scene. I jumped out of the car and then froze, staring at the mostly collapsed building in the street. A colleague with blood-stained clothes walked past and said, “They did it again,” referring to the attack on our embassy the previous year. When I looked up and saw the news cameras, I remembered that my boss was out of the country, making me the embassy spokesperson. I walked through the rubble and around soldiers and medical crews carrying out bodies, and went to work speaking to the reporters. A few days later when things had calmed down I was sent out permanently without being able to see or even speak to the staff on either side of the city.
Although it was cut short, my 1983-1984 assignment in Beirut is the one that stands out in my memory and is the only one I kept records of—I have a trunk in my attic filled with mementos, diaries, photos, letters, news articles and a helmet given to me by Marine Company B. Not only were those the years of the attacks on the Embassy and U.S. marine barracks, but it was also during that time that American University of Beirut President Malcolm Kerr, whose books I had read at Georgetown, was assassinated. I have never known work exhaustion equal to that which my colleagues and I at the embassy experienced. As press officers, my boss Jon Stewart and I were on constant call with the enormous international press corps covering the war. I also worked on educational exchanges with local universities. The war created logistical nightmares and made routine tasks indescribably difficult, yet we had the same deadlines as other embassies. Our stellar and dedicated Lebanese colleagues at the Embassy were an inspiration. We were a family, and we all endured the stress of working under constant threat.
Other assignments also offered their share of interesting experiences. I was in Tunis when the PLO moved their headquarters there from Lebanon and I had the opportunity to meet then-Vice President Bush. In Paris, I had lunch with Toni Morrison and met Tour de France champion Greg Lemond. I found that coming from the Arab world gave me a different perspective on Parisian life than most of my embassy colleagues. For example, after living in Beirut, I considered the French reasonable drivers and relatively light smokers. In the United Arab Emirates, I was the only female diplomat in the country, a situation which had its issues. For example, I was disinvited from a men’s graduation after making the long desert journey to the University of Al Ain. They had forgotten I was a woman—again. Dr. Michael Hudson, Director of CCAS in the 1980s, showed up at all my posts, including Beirut. It was always a pleasure to see him and thank him for the wonderful preparation I received as a MAAS student.
I left the Foreign Service when I married my British husband and moved to London, where I enjoyed a new career in international education, including running the Fulbright program. I ceased to think about the State Department as an organization until the 2016 election and Rex Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State. Morale at the State Department plummeted during Tillerson’s tenure due to his support for budget cuts of 30%, the demotion and firing of senior career diplomats, attempts to cancel officer classes, his isolation from his own employees, and many other actions that were destructive to the department. Professionals in military and international affairs organized to defend the State Department, and two senators founded a bipartisan Foreign Service Caucus, but officer resignations and reports of unfilled senior positions continued to accelerate. I found myself opening the trunk in my attic and getting angry as I thought of officers who were putting themselves in harm’s way having to fear for their careers. I thought particularly about consuls whose principal job is caring for Americans abroad and protecting the country by vetting travelers to the United States. If numbers were to be drastically cut, there was no question that Americans at home and abroad would be less safe.
It appeared to me that the only people not protesting the possibly permanent damage to the State Department were those with the most to lose—the American people, who are increasingly traveling, working, and studying abroad. I decided to found an organization called 1-800Home to encourage Americans to value our diplomats and to speak up for a strong career Foreign Service. Like the career Foreign Service itself, 1-800Home is non-partisan—between myself and the other founders, we include a Democrat, a Republican, and an Independent. We are not concerned with policy but rather with ensuring that the Foreign Service has the secure funding and strong staffing needed to implement U.S. policy. We also focus on highlighting the consular mission of helping Americans abroad. We launched in January 2018 with a reception honoring Ron Packowitz, then Head of American Citizen Services in London. He was surprised that a group wished to honor consuls, whereas we could not believe we had waited so long to do so.
Another part of our mission is to provide information to students abroad considering careers in the Foreign Service. To this end, we organize panels on Foreign Service careers featuring officers at the U.S. embassy in both London and Scotland. These have been well received by study abroad students and directors and by universities. Finally, 1-800Home is there to remind Congress that they have constituents abroad who depend on embassy services and assistance in case of emergency.
After many years, the Foreign Service is now back in my life. When I joined the service in 1981 my ambition was to have a long and interesting diplomatic career. My current ambition is to help others do so.
Carol Madison Graham graduated from MAAS in 1981 and worked for six years in five countries as a Foreign Service Officer. She is currently working in London and writing a memoir about her time in Beirut and chairing 1-800Home. Learn more at www.1-800Home.org.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 CCAS Newsmagazine.