Spanish Connections: A Memoir

February 17, 2024

Mark L. Asquino (born in 1949) is a Foreign Service officer who retired in 2015 after a long career with postings including in Latin America, Europe, Central Asia, and Africa. Asquino’s memoir, Spanish Connections (2023), narrates a diplomatic journey that ended in Equatorial Guinea, Spain’s only former colony in sub-Saharan Africa, where he served as U.S. ambassador. In the years before, he lived several times in Spain, both during and after the Franco dictatorship. By way of excerpt, The Volunteer is proud to feature the first chapter of his book.

“You had an uncle who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War,” My mother told me this in hushed, conspiratorial tones as if she was sharing a state secret-something we needed to keep hidden from the Soviets. This was during the late summer of 1963, which was a time when people, indeed, worried about such things.

I was a gangly, bookish fourteen-year-old who spent hours on end reading about exotic countries in the World Book Encyclopedia that my parents had bought for me the previous year. The encyclopedia’s deep­ red-grained faux-leather covers with dark-blue lettering offered me a welcome retreat from the small confining world in which I lived. And my mother’s words, for better or worse, would be the beginning of my lifelong fascination with Spain.

The latter would take me on a long, personal, and professional journey that would lead not only to my living in Spain and marrying a Spaniard but also decades later serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. But let me return for a moment to 1963 and the beginning of this odyssey.

My mother and I were sitting on aluminum tubular-frame folding chairs with blue-and-white synthetic-woven webbing in what she rather grandiloquently called the breezeway. The latter connected our gray­ shingled 1950s Cape Cod house with a two-car garage that dwarfed it. My mother had a rich, romantic imagination, and reality was a constant source of disappointment for her. On this humid August afternoon, the last thing you would find was a breeze in this narrow passageway.

Ambassador Mark L. Asquino

“His name was Charles Lahue. In those days, families took in relatives’ children whose mothers had died. Grandma’s brother was a widower. And I always thought Charles was just another one of my cousins who lived with us along with their widowed father. But he was actually my half brother. He told me this just before he went to Spain. My mother was wearing a light floral print, sleeveless dress that nicely accented her natural red hair, which she wore in a tightly curled permanent. There was just a hint of perspiration on her elegant pale neck. She suddenly paused in telling her story. Her light-hazel eyes, which sometimes looked blue, were cast downward as if searching for a clear path in the brambles of an impenetrable forest.

“You see, Grandma had an illegitimate son. She was pregnant with him before she married Grandpa, but she didn’t say anything until after their wedding. I think that’s why Grandpa never liked Charles. And Grandma never treated him the way she did Uncle Paul and me or even our other cousins.”

“But why would-” I began, only to have my mother cut me off mid-sentence.

“Well, your great-grandmother worked as a housekeeper for a rich man and his family. She went to the man’s wife to ask if Grandma should tell Grandpa she was pregnant. But this lady said no because then he might break off their engagement. Grandma should say nothing, and so that’s what she did.”

“But wasn’t that unfair to Gramps?”

“Well, yes, it certainly was,” my mother said with a trace of indignation in her voice. “I think it was a terrible thing to do to him. And in a way, I also believe that’s why your uncle Charles decided to leave home and go to Spain.”

“But why Spain?” I asked as if on cue.

“Well, Charles told me he wanted to do something noble with his life. He said Grandma never treated him like her son, and he felt like an orphan. Charles said the world had to do something to help the Spanish Republicans who were fighting against Franco’s Fascists. He kissed me and said goodbye. I never saw him again.”

It was a moving story, one that I would never forget. But was there really an Uncle Charles? That’s a question I’ve often asked myself, especially during the years that followed when I lived in Spain, first as a Fulbright university lecturer in the isolated northern city of Oviedo and later as a diplomat in Madrid.

Indeed, trying to find this elusive uncle would become something of a life-long obsession for me. My genealogical research uncovered a one-line registry entry in Providence, Rhode Island’s records of the birth. It noted that my maternal grandmother had given birth to a male child whose father was listed as “unknown.” But marriage records I later found revealed that this infant would have been a toddler in the year when my grandparents wed. Based on this chronology, my mother’s tale of my grandmother’s unconscionable deception of her soon-to-be husband didn’t add up. But beyond that, all traces of my uncle disappeared after that birth registry notation. I couldn’t find any census or other records documenting his life.

And then there was that other part of my mother’s story. She said that after he had been killed in Spain, Charles’s body was sent back to the United States for burial in New York State where his wife was living at the time. My grandparents, according to my mom, decided against attending the funeral, something she thought was a cruel, heartless thing to do.

But as I’ve noted above, there were no marriage or death certificates to be found for my uncle Charles in the state of New York or any other place in the United States. Nor were there archival records I could find of a Charles Lahue ever having fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. And historians of that war told me that foreign soldiers killed in Spain were buried there and never repatriated.

So, what was I to believe? Was my Uncle Charles simply a figment of my mother’s romantic imagination? Had she invented him to provide me with a cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving a safe, but suffocating, adult life in Rhode Island to seek foreign adventures?

I found it hard to believe that he was a complete fabrication. After all, I had discovered the birth record of this long-lost relative. At least that much was true. As a former literature professor, I sometimes wondered if my mother was like one of those “unreliable narrators” you come across in novels. I always told my students that they needed to be on guard because such a narrator might be deliberately misleading readers. Was that what my mother had done in telling me her strange, compelling story and then asking that I never share it with anyone else?

In the course of writing this memoir, I learned that, indeed, I had an uncle who went to Spain and joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of many international volunteer brigades that helped the Spanish Republican government fight against General Francisco Franco’s rebellious Nationalist forces. My uncle’s name was Albert, not Charles Lahue, as my mother told me.

It’s beyond puzzling how she could possibly have gotten her half­ brother’s name wrong. Further, what she told me about his dying in Spain was untrue. With help from an American professor, I found a record in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives stating my Uncle Albert arrived in Spain on November 14, 1937, and had a turbulent time with a group of U.S. volunteers. In 1938, he was charged with attempting to desert. Somehow, he managed to survive the Spanish Civil War. After leaving Spain, my uncle Albert broke off all ties with his family, and I found few traces of him in the years that followed.

I knew none of this on that hot day in August. What inspired me about my mother’s story was this mysterious uncle’s spirit of adventure. He had been bold enough to leave home and go off to see the world. He wanted to embrace a cause bigger than himself. Someday, I thought, I’m going to do exactly the same thing. And so, I did.

In September 1975, I made my first trip to Spain and taught American literature and history on a Fulbright fellowship. After so many years of thinking about España, studying its language, and daydreaming about going there, I finally embarked on what would prove to be a life-changing journey in the final months of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s nearly four-decades-long dictatorial reign. By then, I was a graduate student in my late twenties.

What took me so long? you might ask. I’ve often wondered why I hadn’t simply boarded a plane bound for Madrid years earlier. Why was that so hard?

At least part of the answer is that despite my childhood vow to see the world as soon as I could, I remained firmly anchored to Rhode Island for a very long time. In retrospect, I suppose I was far less adventurous and much more cautious than I had been willing to admit to myself.

Whatever the case, instead of attending an out-of-state college as many of my high school friends did, I stayed put. In the fall of 1967, I entered Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, just a few miles from where I’d grown up.

That said, I found attending Brown a “foreign” experience. I’d done well in the public high school I attended and had good SAT scores. But I suspected I’d been accepted by this elite Ivy League school, at least in part because of my uncle, Joe Asquino, who’d studied at Brown on the G.I. Bill after World War II. This alumni “legacy” connection undoubtedly helped me gain admission, as each year my uncle donated generously co the school. As a result, I felt rather intimidated, wondering whether I really belonged at Brown.

Not surprisingly, I found that many of my male classmates had graduated from elite New England prep schools like Choate, Deerfield Academy, and Mt. Hermon. Some had spent years living and studying overseas. Others came from affluent families. My fellow students, both male, and female seemed incredibly worldly, mature and sophisticated to me. I asked myself, “How can I ever hope to compete academically with such classmates?” And so, for the next four years, I studied like a madman, living at home most of the time, hardly dating or getting involved in extracurricular activities.

Fortunately, I was able to make a number of good friends at Brown. Most of them came from other parts of the United States, and that was an eye-opener for me, given that Rhode Island can feel like a small parochial “island” where everybody seems to know or be related to each other. Although Brown is in Rhode Island, I came to view the university as clearly not reflecting the values of my home state.

The late 1960s, of course, was a time of enormous political, social, and cultural upheaval. At the center of everything was the war in Vietnam, which dominated and impacted the lives of so many young men of my generation. That included one of my high school classmates, who would be killed in combat barely a year after our 1967 graduation. I was among the lucky ones. As long as I remained in college and kept up my grades, I would have a student deferment from the military draft. But as the anti-war movement gained momentum on university campuses across the country, including at Brown, I found myself drawn to joining the protest movements engulfing the United States. Despite this, I steered clear of political activism for my first three years of college.

Looking back, my doing so reflected the single-mindedness I felt at that time. In many ways, it’s a quality that has guided me in pursuing other goals throughout my life, including becoming an ambassador. In addition to being an overachiever, what made me so focused on my studies was the fact that my parents had not been able to attend college. As an only child growing up in a blue-collar, working-class family, I knew from an early age that they expected me to go to college. This was especially true for my father.

My dear dad Louie grew up in a poor large Italian immigrant family and had been forced to leave school after the ninth grade. As a tall, skinny, thirteen-year-old kid, he found himself learning the hazardous sheet metal and roofing trade and climbing “tripull-dekahs,” as three-story tenement houses are called in Rhode Island. He would often tell me when I was growing up that it was hard, dirty work. But he’d quickly add he had been lucky to learn such a trade at a young age. My father was incredibly determined, hardworking, and goal­ oriented-all qualities I inherited from him. So not surprisingly, he became a highly successful small businessman. Good-natured, kind, and generous, Louie had strong ambitions for me as his only child. Consequently, my father was only too happy to use a large portion of the profits he made from his growing business to pay for my undergraduate tuition and expenses at Brown. That meant a lot to me and still does. But it also carried with it a deep sense of obligation.

The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint my father by foolishly wasting the opportunity he’d given me. And that made me a dutiful son. Unlike so many others of my generation during those years, I was not a rebellious soul. Rather I was only too eager to meet and surpass the expectations my parents had set for me.

In 1971, I graduated magna cum laude from Brown with an honors degree in American civilization. During my senior year, I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society. Perhaps I needed to excel to prove that I really did belong at Brown. Certainly, I was proud of these achievements, but now what? I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do after graduation.

In the last year and a half of college, I began to look beyond my obsessive pursuit of a degree from Brown. After all, there was a lot going on in the world, including the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The war in Vietnam continued to rage. Following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, I joined demonstrations and marches at Brown against the Nixon administration and the war in Southeast Asia. As I marched with others chanting anti­ war slogans in the streets of downtown Providence, I saw FBI agents taking pictures of us from nearby rooftops. I was being surveilled along with others by law enforcement officers for exercising the right of free speech: And that angered me. In fact, the thought of it all these decades later still angers me.

Conformist that I’d been my whole life up until then, I was now vocally opposing my government and denouncing the president. In many ways, this marked the beginning of a major change in my life. Little by little, I stopped being the obedient, largely unquestioning person that I’d been brought up to be. Instead, I came to see that challenging the established order was not only important but also the right thing for me to do in Nixon’s America.

As graduation approached, the one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be drafted into the U.S. military. This was due in large part to my increasing opposition to the Vietnam War. Fortunately, I’d drawn a high number in the 1969 military draft lottery and was never required to report for military service.

In the end, like so many others who had excelled academically in college during the tumultuous 1960s, I took the line of least resistance. I simply postponed having to make a decision about my future by applying to PhD graduate programs at a number of universities, including Brown.

I applied for full fellowship , as I wanted to be financially independent from my parents.

Although I was accepted by other prestigious universities, only Brown offered me financial assistance. It was hard to turn down a full tuition waiver plus a generous monthly stipend from my alma mater. And so here I was once again deciding to stay in Rhode Island. But I decided it was time to indulge my wanderlust.

Midway through my PhD studies, I spent a summer in Winchester, England, working as a volunteer excavator at a Roman-era archaeological site. That was my first overseas experience, and I found it deeply satisfying despite the fact it was and remains the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life! And as a graduate student, I matured on a personal level as well, entering into a wondrous, romantic relationship with a dear classmate from my undergraduate years.

But I was still stuck in Rhode Island. And even worse, I was pursuing a career goal I increasingly began to question. As a PhD candidate, I designed and taught my own course and came to the sad realization that teaching was not for me. I found it grueling and tedious, and I hated standing in front of a group of undergraduates. More and more, I asked myself if I really wanted to spend the rest of my life doing something I clearly didn’t like.

Just as I came toward the end of completing my PhD dissertation, I discovered a remarkable opportunity. One of my Brown graduate­ school classmates had just won a Fulbright grant to teach American Studies courses as a junior lecturer at a Spanish university. As we talked, all I could think about was that I wanted to do the same thing. At the time, I’d never even heard of the U.S. government’s Fulbright fellowship program.

I certainly knew something about Senator J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1960s, he held televised hearings on U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Based on testimony to his committee, Fulbright went from being a staunch supporter of President Johnson’s war policies to one of his most eloquent and effective critics.

With a bit of research, I learned that after World War II, Fulbright had introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to create a new overseas exchange program in the fields of education and science. The purpose of the program, which eventually came to bear his name, was to “promote international goodwill.” In the years immediately following the carnage of global warfare, Fulbright believed that educational exchange programs between foreign countries and the United States would foster mutual understanding among the nations of the world. This, in turn, might help to prevent future wars.

By 1974, when I applied for a grant, Fulbright fellowships were known throughout the world as the U.S. government’s premier exchange program. In Europe, where the program began, there were American Studies fellowships in Spain, France, Germany, and Italy for U.S. junior lecturers who had not completed their PhDs. After eight straight years at Brown, I saw the program as offering me the chance of a lifetime. Finally, I would live and work in Spain!

In the spring of 1975, after what seemed like an endless wait, I finally received a letter from the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. It offered me a fellowship to teach American Studies at a Spanish university. I would later learn that I had been assigned to the University of Oviedo in northwest Spain, where my graduate-school friend had been teaching for the previous two years.

I was elated and immediately accepted. I was even happier with the coincidence that I would be teaching at the same university as my classmate. But what I didn’t know at the time was that it was due to a complete fluke that I received the grant at all. I learned this several years later when I was doing educational exchange work as a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Madrid.

Someone I knew at the U.S.-Spanish Fulbright Commission in Madrid told me one day in the early 1980s that he had been on the 1975 selection committee reviewing fellowship applicants. He explained that all the American Studies lectureships for that year had been decided. Letters had gone out offering the fellowships to those who had been chosen. He chuckled and said, “Unfortunately, Mark, you weren’t one of them!”

Dumbfounded I replied, “What do you mean? You know as well as I do that I got the fellowship!” He explained that one of those initially selected for a lectureship had turned it down. Although I was on the Iist of alternates for a grant, I was not at the top.

He continued that just as the committee was about to choose the person heading the list for the vacant fellowship, someone piped up and said, “Hey, wait a minute! We don’t have any Hispanic grantees this year.”

Another committee member chimed in, “Well, how about this Asquino guy? He has a Spanish name. Why don’t we choose him? He’s from the same graduate program as the lecturer we now have in Oviedo. Let’s offer the lectureship to Asquino.”

And so it was, quite belatedly, that I received the letter offering me “a Fulbright,” as the grants are known. I was blithely unaware that my getting the fellowship was completely due to last-minute “political correctness” by the selection committee.

Now, I’m not Hispanic, nor have I ever claimed to be. Although Asquino is an Italian name, I am frequently asked if it’s Spanish, and I always say it’s not. But had it not been for someone turning down the opportunity to go to Spain at the last minute and then the selection committee’s desire to give it to “a Hispanic,” I never would have gone off to teach at the University of Oviedo. For that matter, I would also not be writing this particular memoir.

In mid-September 1975, my parents drove me to Boston’s Logan Airport to board an Iberia flight to Madrid. My Spanish adventure was about to begin, but it had anything but an auspicious start.

My mom and dad accompanied me to the Iberia Airlines ticket counter. We saw dozens of noisy protestors waving placards and denouncing the U.S. government’s support for the Franco regime. They were particularly incensed about the death sentences just handed down by a Spanish military tribunal against alleged terrorists-three members of El Frente Revolucionario Anti-Fascista y Patriota (FRAP) and two from Basque Hearth and Homeland (ETA). All five had been convicted of killing Spanish policemen the previous spring.

The convicted men were subsequently executed by firing squad on September 27, 1975, which set off protests against Franco in both Europe and the United States. Following their execution, a new leftist terrorist group, Grupos de Resistencia Primero de Octubre (GRAPO), would kill four more policemen on October 1 as retaliation against the Franco regime. Years later, I would return to Spain as a diplomat assigned to be director of the U.S. embassy’s Cultural Center in Madrid. In one of life’s ironic twists, this same center had been bombed by GRAPO in the late 1970s. GRAPO would fire an anti-tank rocket at the U.S. embassy during my 1982-86 diplomatic tour in Madrid. However, I’m once again getting ahead of my story.

Upon seeing the protestors at the airport, my mother became livid. She strode to them and said in a scolding voice, “You stop that right now! My son is going to Spain. I don’t want anyone protesting against him or Spain. Do you understand?”

The demonstrators were momentarily taken aback and fell silent. Who was this furious middle-aged woman wagging her finger at them? Rising to her full five feet six inches in height, my mother could be quite formidable when angry-or even when not. After a few minutes, the protesters resumed their chants, oblivious to my mother’s scowling glances.

I presented my ticket at the counter, checked my bags, and soon was happily on the plane heading to Madrid. But not so fast. About an hour into the flight, when we were a good way out over the Atlantic, my fellow passengers and I noticed the aircraft was losing altitude. Not a good sign on a trans-Atlantic flight, I thought. There was also an acrid smell permeating the cabin. That was even worse. After what seemed like a long while, the captain spoke calmly over the intercom, announcing there was a “technical problem” with the aircraft. Rather than returning to Boston, he said we would be going to JFK Airport in New York to address the issue.

At this point in my life, I’d made all of two previous flights. Neither of my parents had ever boarded an aircraft. Growing up, I thought my part·nts’ fear of flying made perfect sense. Finding myself in this situation, I was plenty scared. Frightened out of my wits, to be precise.

As the plane was making its approach to JFK, I spotted fire trucks near the runway. My seatmate was an attractive young woman with whom I’d spoken briefly. Seeing how terrified I was, she reached over and gently took my hand without saying anything. The landing was fine, after which the Iberia staff herded us off to a business-class lounge where we were provided unlimited drinks on the airline’s tab. I must admit I needed more than one after that experience.

But no amount of alcohol could blunt my reaction upon hearing that Iberia was repairing whatever was wrong with the plane and that we were expected to board the same aircraft once it was fixed.

“There’s no way I’m going to get on that damn plane again,” I announced loudly to no one in particular.

By this time, the young woman who had been my seatmate was becoming something of my travel companion. She told me in soothing tones there was nothing to fear. After several more drinks and her increasingly amorous gestures, I managed to persuade myself that I was going to Spain that night, come hell, high water, or even a broken aircraft.

I resumed my seat next to the young lady, who was becoming more attractive by the moment, and we headed off again for Madrid. The flight proved to be uneventful although I should actually qualify that. One thing led to another and the young woman and I began passionately making out until she finally got tired and fell asleep in my lap. I figured if I was going to die, this was a pretty good way to go!

But having gotten through the evening and entered Spanish airspace, I decided I might survive after all. Upon landing and entering the airport terminal, the young woman and I gave each other one last long embrace. She was headed to Andalusia on vacation, and I had a week of Fulbright orientation sessions in Madrid. We exchanged contact information, saying that we must spend time together again. Of course, we never did.

Back then, the Spanish-American Fulbright commission had its offices on an upper floor of the imposing National Library (Biblioteca Nacional) near Plaza Colon in the center of Madrid. As I climbed the stone library’s grand stairway with its carved facade leading to heavy wooden doors, I passed statues honoring Spanish kings and writers, including Cervantes.

It was a heady and fraught time to be in Spain. Although none of us knew it during our orientation, Franco would be dead in a matter of months. Following my orientation week in Madrid, I took a six-hour train ride to Oviedo in the northwest province of Asturias. The journey wound through the dramatic Cantabrian mountains and picturesque green valleys of Spain’s coal mining region. As we entered Asturias, I saw “horreos,” traditional round stone structures with red tile roofs that are used to store dried corn.

When I arrived in Oviedo in the fall of 1975, the city still had scars from the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War. I saw bullet holes that remained in the facades of government buildings in the city center. Perhaps, I thought, they had been left by the Franco regime as a reminder of the fierce fighting in the Republican stronghold of Oviedo, which had continued right up to the end of that war.

My assignment was at the University of Oviedo’s Faculty of Literature and Letters. Its classrooms were housed in a rather drab 1960s-era two-story building. But what really impressed me was a statue in its courtyard. It was of the seated figure of a renowned eighteenth­ century Spanish monk and scholar named Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, who was born in Oviedo. His grim stone scowl surveyed all those entering the faculty. He seemed to be saying, “This is a serious place of learning!” As the Fulbright lecturer in the Department of English Literature and Letters, I taught two survey courses on American literature and one on American history. And I have to say, like undergraduates everywhere, studying was not the chief priority for many of them.

As noted earlier, teaching did not inspire me, but the Fulbright grant had been my ticket to Spain.

What I did enjoy as a teacher was that my best students possessed an openness and curiosity about American literature and history that I found immensely refreshing after having taught freshmen at Brown. I decided that teaching here was different and interesting. But it also exhausted me as I struggled with preparations for three survey courses with thirty to forty students in them.

I began teaching prior to Franco’s death during the first few weeks of October and November 1975. My British and German colleagues at the faculty warned me that we all had student “spies” in our classes. These were young people paid by the police to report anything “subversive” or critical of the regime uttered by teachers. That bothered me, but I soon learned that the spies were easy to spot. They tended to be the most amiable, but least diligent, students in each course. They deliberately failed year after year to stay on the government’s payroll. The whole spy situation would have been funny had it not felt so creepy.

With Franco’s death on November 20, 1975, the University of Oviedo, along with all other Spanish institutions of higher education, was closed for several weeks. My British colleague and I decided to continue classes in our homes to keep our courses on schedule. The sessions were voluntary, and not all of my students came. Some who initially did had decided to stop, telling me it was “too dangerous.” Indeed, the immediate days and weeks after Franco’s passing were tense because of enhanced security everywhere. Spain’s future direction remained unclear.

At some point, my colleague told me that he was ceasing to offer classes at home. This surprised me, but he explained he’d gotten word that the local police knew about it and were unhappy with our continuing to teach. They regarded what we were doing as “disrespectful” during the period of national mourning for Franco. He continued that he’d been told in no uncertain terms that “something unfortunate” might happen to us if we continued to teach.

That was a shock in my young life as it was hard not to take such a warning seriously. Clearly, living in Spain was rather different than I’d imagined. In these turbulent times, the U.S. embassy and Fulbright Commission were hundreds of miles away in Madrid. I was on my own, and there was little either could do to help me in this situation. With great reluctance, I stopped my classes as well.

But despite this tense atmosphere, when the university reopened, I was impressed with how students who had never openly discussed politics now wanted to do so all the time both inside and outside of the classroom. Political change was in the air, and Franco’s old guard was beginning to retreat.

This made the remainder of my year in Oviedo lively and memorable as Spain moved ever so slowly toward democracy. But at the same time, I realized this transition would be a long and difficult one opposed by those who continued to mourn the passing of the dictatorship.

It was toward the end of my time in Spain that I became romantically involved with an undergraduate student from another department. Spending time with her, her family, and her friends, none of whom spoke any English, did wonders for my still-halting Spanish. It also allowed me to immerse myself in Spanish culture and history.

Over the years, I’ve wondered whether I fell in love with a Spaniard, Spain, or both and why I seemed incapable of distinguishing between the two. The consequences of the former would eventually lead to an exceptionally unhappy marriage and divorce.

During that year in Spain, I came to know young U.S. Information Agency (USIA) officers at our embassy in Madrid. USIA had an interesting history. Founded in 1953 at the height of the Cold War by President Eisenhower, with the slogan “Telling America’s story to the world,” USIA was viewed by some as a propaganda agency dedicated to countering the international influence of the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent China. Indeed, during the Cold War years, much of its activities­ which employed educational exchanges, cultural presentations, and information dissemination-were aimed at promoting a positive image of America overseas in response to “Communist propaganda.”

But for me, this was a narrow and mistaken perspective. The term “public diplomacy” was first used in the 1960s by former U.S. diplomat Edmund Guillon. It was developed in part to distance overseas governmental information, cultural, and educational activities from the term “propaganda.” Until 1999, when USIA was dismantled, it played a key role in advancing U.S. foreign policy goals through both public diplomacy and also what came to be known as soft power. The latter term, coined by Professor Joseph Nye in 1990, maintained that the United States benefited most when it employed persuasion and attraction to its culture and educational institutions, rather than relying on “hard power” military and economic coercion to achieve those goals. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, politicians like Senator Jesse Helms and others, mostly in the Republican Party, claimed there was no longer “a need” for the USIA. They argued that as we had “won” the Cold War, it was time to rid the U.S. government of such “wasteful relics.”

In my view, nothing could have been further from the truth. USIA was no more a Cold War relic than NATO. Both had a continuing role to play in addressing new, post-Cold War challenges. Bue in October 1999, the Clinton administration, after much vacillation, unwisely bowed to Helms’s political pressure. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright oversaw what was called the “consolidation” of USIA and another “Cold War” organization, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), into the U.S. Department of State.

As a result, the United States lost the expertise of these highly specialized, nimble organizations, both of which had people with skills lacking in the State Department. What we unilaterally gave up as a country was much of our capacity to counter disinformation by foreign adversaries and the specialized knowledge of experts at ACDA to address the threat of nuclear proliferation.

Once again, I’ve considerably digressed. Turning back to 1975-76, the USIA ably led the U.S. government’s international people-to-people or public diplomacy. It was in early 1976 that the officers I’d met at the Fulbright Commission asked if I would help them set up programs for American speakers at the University of Oviedo. I told them I would be more than happy to do so, never imagining this would turn out to be the first step toward a lifelong career. When I shared my ambivalence about pursuing an academic career, they encouraged me to take the foreign service test to become a USIA officer. I was intrigued by the thought of pursuing a career in diplomacy rather than teaching, especially after having spent such an exciting and politically transformative year in Spain.