Remembering Jake Gillespie
By Michael Schneider
Even as a high school senior, Jake Gillespie knew he wanted to become a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. He once commented, “…. If I had to try to do some self-analysis, I would say that deep inside me there was still the boy from Cairo, Illinois, and I figured this was the only way I was ever going to get out of Cairo….”
I think Jake was proud of his mid-Western roots, even as he yearned for adventure and later took on significant responsibilities on a global scale. Jake’s 38-year career spanned two generations of global change and a revolution in communications technology and public diplomacy.
Let’s briefly survey Jake’s rich career with help from his interviews with Stu Kennedy, founder and lead interviewer of the ADST oral history archives. For the full flavor of Jake’s recollections, see this link. His story in many ways mirrored the evolution of USIA and public diplomacy.
Joining USIA and First Assignments in Africa – 1961-66
At 22, the youngest in his class, Jake was sworn in to the USIA Career Reserve Foreign Service by Edward R. Murrow on October 30, 1961.
He remembered that moment vividly:
“Murrow walked into the room, smoking a cigarette. He put it out as he reached the front of the room. He lit another as he began to speak. …
“…It was obvious that he had been well briefed; he talked about every one of us in the class. He mentioned you have done this, he even said we have a boilermaker…And he said … ‘who is the boilermaker? I’ve always liked boilermakers,’ which of course he was laughing about, but I was the boilermaker. I had spent two summers while I was in college working as a boilermaker working on big boilers of one kind or another. Actually, a big boiler for Kansas City Power and Light the first summer and then the second time I was working on cracking towers up in New Jersey….”
With colonial empires breaking up in Africa, USIA expanded our presence throughout the continent. Jake, 23, and his spouse Susan, 21, served a series of assignments, in Accra, ‘62-‘63, Bujumbura, ‘63-‘64, Leopoldville, ‘64-‘66.
Jake’s stories of life in the Foreign Service in small African posts in the early- mid 60s testify to how slow, costly, and spare were communications between Washington and the field. Hours would be required to file and retrieve information. Shipment, not transmission, of photos required between four days and a week. On the other hand, posts were freer to innovate and improvise.
Jake might have been the youngest acting PAO in USIA history, when not long after arriving in Bujumbura, he took over for his boss who was on sick leave in Europe.
“Those weeks in Burundi were probably the most independent and freest that I ever had in my career in the Foreign Service….”
He had a special talent for relating to all kinds of individuals, and befriended major figures in American culture and arts and some of the most influential foreign policy and political leaders of the late 20th century. To this array of contacts, he brought a combination of curiosity, personal warmth, and bravura. He loved to engage with others in debate over matters large and small.
After several years in Africa, Jake learned Spanish at FSI and served as ACAO in Montevideo. There, among other American cultural figures he met and won over, was Duke Ellington, who agreed to extend a regional tour to Uruguay. The famous composer and band leader took Jake, indeed the U.S. Mission and a large number of Montevideans, in hand for a whirlwind, almost 24-hour/day/three-day visit.
Assignments in DC – 1970-75
Back in DC in 1970 for a domestic assignment, Jake was asked by Agency Personnel Director Rob Nevitt to work/intern at the relatively young WETA-TV. After learning the ropes, Jake became lead producer for the weekly news roundup and commentary show Washington Week in Review – a highly respected tour of the week’s news that continues half a century later. There he worked with the likes of the legendary Max Kampelman, attorney, Democratic Party leader, and later highly respected U.S. arms control ambassador.
Additionally, Jake helped with local broadcasting by WETA:
“I spent a full year at WETA. I had great fun. I learned a lot; I learned a lot about Washington, about people. We did little programs in Washington. We went out to parts of the city, to neighborhoods and took out sort of a homemade mobile unit because the station had no mobile unit, it couldn’t afford one, but we could rent a truck and put some stuff in it and go out and do things, go back, and make a half-hour program about various neighborhoods in Washington, which was very interesting….”
Just as dissent over Vietnam and a frustrated civil rights movement of the 60s and early 70s roiled America, dissent and reform occurred in USIA. By the mid-70s Agency professionals led by an esteemed career officer, John Reinhardt, carried out a broad restructuring. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs moved from State to USIA, soon to be re-named the U.S. International Communication Agency, USICA. The changes reflected new concepts about the conduct of public diplomacy.
Newly named USICA moved away from an emphasis on media production and placement to more integrated communication approaches. Rather than counting column inches of mainly print placement, Agency pros developed concepts of strategic planning, audience identification, and “programming.” The new emphasis emanated in part from an innovative training program.
The Training Program pointed the way to new communication approaches, in particular the use of visually refreshed Cultural and Binational Centers as venues for exposure to American society and culture. Jake worked with Stan Moss and Dion Anderson and others to demonstrate new approaches to effective PD. With Agency approval, the training team took over Room 1100 in 1776 Pa. Ave., the largest space available at the time.
Their programming concepts emphasized the use of multiple media in support of small group communication and also linked media availability to selected opinion leaders and future leaders in various fields. These activities also linked to longer-term interaction through exchanges. Younger audiences – some at the university level, many, young rising professionals – were preferred.
Newly named head of one branch of the training staff, Jake pulled together “my team of black sheep,” an odd mixture of talents, a very creative and off-beat bunch who created a traveling training seminar.
“We put together a round-the-world trip where we were going to go to Japan, spend three weeks, put on this seminar; we hired two contractors who turned out to be wonderful guys and great at doing this. We were also charged with putting together a big multi-screen slideshow for training and personnel so they could show what posts do…..”
IO in the Netherlands – 1976-1981
Despite complaints from their near-teen kids, Jake and Susan moved to the Netherlands in ’75 and Jake was quickly confronted by a strange ‘welcome.’ Two scandals pressured the US mission: the release of names of a score of alleged CIA agents by former agent Phillip Agee and the global Lockheed bribery scale.
“Before I arrived, everyone had asked why I wanted to go to The Hague, a sleepy little place that doesn’t really matter? Well, it turned out for a variety of reasons: it was a new center of Europe and especially of media interest, which made it interesting for me as the Information Officer and Press Attaché. I very quickly received an introduction to Dutch press and society….. Vrij Nederland, was the top political-social-cultural weekly in the country and was extremely good, and over the years I came to appreciate it very much. I didn’t at the very beginning when they ran an enormous front-page piece naming CIA names in the Netherlands. …If you will recall, at about the same time, the East Germans published a book of-
STU KENNEDY (ADST): “Who’s Who in the CIA.”
STU KENNEDY (ADST): I was in it.
GILLESPIE: As was I. ….”
Although Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) dominated public debate for five-plus years, the U.S. Mission and Jake in his role as press spokesman had to respond also to festering terrorism – some from former Moluccan sources, some for home-grown IRA support. Interwoven into these debates were Dutch public concerns about U.S. politics and American leadership – which has only widened and deepened.
Policy Leadership in DC – 1981-85
Jake’s work on INF and experience with European media and public opinion came in handy when he returned to a senior policy assignment in the Agency. His task was to develop public diplomacy approaches that would be accepted by high powered political/policy leaders at State, the NSC, and White House – no easy task. His contributions were invaluable. He knew most of the personalities in the U.S. decision-making system, leading experts, and security commentators and influentials here and abroad. Ultimately, a combination of sage advice from PAOs in Europe, ongoing survey research and media reaction, and well-timed proposals that Jake helped guide from USIA to inter-agency working groups led to an effective U.S. stance and NATO response to Soviet pressures. This effort on behalf of INF placement was among the most successful PD initiatives in USIA history.
For the remaining three years of his DC tour, Jake directed USIA “fast” media guidance, which entailed advice to USIA Press and Publications, Area Offices, VOA, and the field posts on USG daily pronouncements on a wide range of policy issues. He also served as Deputy Press Spokesman in the State Department.
PAO El Salvador – 1986-88
Jake’s assignment as PAO in El Salvador took him from high policy on a global scale to a messy civil war with Cold War implications, at least as viewed by many in the DC policy world. He had to learn early and quickly the limits of his work in that very dangerous guerrilla war situation:
“Embassy people could travel in roughly one-half of San Salvador. The rest was off-limits. My first week there I told my driver and bodyguard I wanted to go to the cathedral. These were two very brave young guys, and I thought they would [agree]. They said, “come on.” And the bodyguard said, ‘I’ll look, you stay in the car.’ And he got out, he walked around. He said, “Well, okay, and I got out. I said if you can walk around, I can walk around. He said no, no. The Embassy was still uptight. Six months before I got there in what was known as the Zona Rosa, which was in a very upper-class neighborhood, it was restaurants and bars, very nice ones. Five off-duty Marine guards were sitting and having a beer. Guerillas drove by and just let them have it, killed them all. In an Embassy that was already a little uptight, this really shut them down and I arrived in that….”
In the course of his two+-year tour in San Salvador, Jake had to face almost all of the elements that can truly test one’s service in dangerous places around the globe. The revolutionary situation was almost out of control, there were major public outcries over the U.S. intel, and military communities using Salvador as a staging point for support to opponents of the Contras in Nicaragua. Names such as Hasenfus and Rodriguez were the source of serious policy, political, and public contention in Salvador, the U.S., and abroad.
“Then,” as Jake recalled, “on the Friday before Columbus Day weekend in October 1986, at approximately 12:00 noon, San Salvador was hit by a massive earthquake. It ripped through any number of the city buildings. . there probably were four or five thousand people who were killed. The Embassy sat right on a fault, literally, or right next to one but not the main one. … The top three floors of the Embassy were destroyed. It was a four-story building, and the top three floors were never used again. Donna Oglesby, USIA Deputy Director for Latin America and my Washington boss, was there. She and I were sitting with a temporary TDY Cultural Affairs Officer talking with the FSN who did the Fulbright program in the Cultural Affairs Officer’s office when it hit. … I grabbed her and put her in a doorway, and I put the other two in another doorway, and I jumped in with Donna …. The quake went on for what seemed a very long time. It ended, I got them out, and then I spent probably [what] was not more than 15 or 20 minutes but it seemed like forever, making sure that everybody was out. Then with the young man who was my driver, … we went to the film and book section. He and I were throwing books and films over because that had all collapsed and there were–we thought there were three people back there, but there were only two. We all got out of the building.”
A visit by Secretary of State Shultz after the earthquake made for a highly complex test for US Embassy public affairs, and the U.S. and international press covered the civil war in Salvador with increasing intensity. It was very difficult to be the honest broker for the press at the same time as protecting the U.S. Mission.
Those were the times of Duarte, the FMLN, ARENA, and Fernando D’Aubuisson.
“Duarte had come back earlier and set up the Christian Democratic Party to oppose what was known as the ARENA, the right-wing party. The…party’s leader was Fernando D’Aubuisson Riso, who was a terribly charismatic man, but I sincerely believe in almost 40 years of service overseas, I don’t think I ever met anyone else who I think was really evil, but this man was….”
“…. In any case, we did succeed in some ways. There were things that still were remarkable, I think, and one was the types of things that we still managed to do as an institution…. I was a press officer and an advisor to the Ambassador. Those were the things that I did, mostly. But, starting when Pen Agnew was CAO before I arrived, we developed an Exchange Program that worked. One of the things in crisis in a place like that is you do get money and we were sending International Visitors off regularly, a lot of them; there was a new program under the academic exchange system that was set up. We had a small Fulbright program. USIA provided a great deal of money and the emphasis had to be on students who were not yet in university and who were not wealthy, poor. …. The new Cultural Affairs Officer, Gene Santoro, and the academic exchanges’ assistant, Jorge Piche, really developed a terrific program. Students went to the States for a year of English to make sure they could function in a university and then they sent them to small state teachers colleges around the country. It was a wonderful program.”
What a change in emphasis from ‘50s and early ‘60s USIA premium on media placement and established leaders!
PAO Madrid – 1989 – 1994
Jake arrived in Spain in 1989, a time of significant change and challenge for Spain as it sought to strengthen its nascent democracy and looked forward to several historic celebrations in 1992, including the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s journey to the New World. Politics in Spain remained a significant divide between left and right. As the U.S. stepped up preparation and then support for Desert Storm, Spain figured to play an important part through U.S. use of our several bases there. Jake had to caution U.S. leadership about potential public unrest while showing Spanish media that America cared about their nation’s autonomy.
“For the first Gulf War, virtually every piece of equipment, every person who was flown to Saudi Arabia for that war flew through Spain. And by early ’91 there were aircraft taking off and landing virtually every minute. As soon as one was off another would come in and it would be fighter planes that were going out; it could be C-5As that were loaded with enormous loads of equipment, and that was just non-stop.”
“The problem was you were in a country, … where the fascist dictator had only been dead for 10 years. They had had a … new democratic constitution and government only for eight years. They’d had one successful change of power, and the government of Felipe Gonzalez, a Spanish Socialist,…was in power. They had, throughout their history, been anti-NATO, anti-Franco, and anti-U.S. They blamed the U.S. for propping up Franco with the bases agreement, which we made in the ‘50s. You can argue this either way ….”
Jake, like PAOs in a number of nations in the Mideast and Europe, was concerned that Desert Storm would provoke public outbursts, but for many reasons, public reaction in Spain was mild to the massive use of U.S. bases.
The Madrid Middle East Peace Conference later in 1991 was a far easier responsibility.
“…. It was a remarkable seven days. Bush came and then Secretary of State Baker stayed for almost a week afterwards, continuing to negotiate with the Israelis and the Palestinians, trying to get negotiations going. And they made some headway. I think [it was] actually successful in that it got something started that has never really completed but it is ongoing.
“And then came the Seville Expo, the Olympics and the 1492 celebrations.
“I was downstairs with the Public Affairs Officer from Barcelona, Guy Burton, who was taking care of Arnold [Schwarzeneger]. And he said Arnold is going to do an interview later and … he’s supposed to meet me. Well, ..[h]ere was the Terminator, and kids saw him and surrounded him. He signed autographs and he was doing that with a great big cigar in his mouth. Suddenly, Mary Jo Fernandez and Gigi Fernandez, who had just won the women’s doubles gold medal, with their medals on their neck came in the lobby. And the kids, the whole group just moved like a cloud from Schwarzenegger to the athletes and he was standing looking somewhat bewildered. He couldn’t understand. Where has my audience gone?”
“…. One special friend was a man named Pepé Ortega; José Ortega is a historian. He is the son of José Ortega y Gasset, the famous Spanish philosopher. And there is an Ortega y Gasset Foundation in Madrid and it is a Brookings-like institution, a think tank where they have a number of visiting scholars. Pepé very kindly started to include me in their weekly luncheons when there were American fellows who were there or anything like this, and he and I just started to have lunch frequently and chat with each other. And one day he said to me, Jake, when did you get over your civil war? And he was very serious. When did you, as a country, really get past all of the things after the civil war? And this is a man who has studied at great length in the United States, who knows the United States well. But I could see where he’s going. I said I know it took us a long time….”
Director USIA Foreign Press Centers – 1993-97
After Spain, Jake was named Director of the Foreign Press Centers, located in DC, NYC, and Los Angeles. He loved the job and the people in the FPCs, a lively mix of civil and foreign service professionals, and he valued the opportunities to relate to the vitally important international press corps in the U.S.
Executive Director, Inter-Agency Exchanges Coordinating Committee – 1997-99
Jake rounded out his career by chairing an innovative but little-known inter-Agency committee that gathered information on the exchange activities of USG agencies and the Smithsonian Institution. The proposed merger with State seemed to be fated:
“ …. I had sat on several of the committees dealing with the consolidation of USIA into the Department of State. This was not a happy time for me. I loved USIA. I thought it was a great mistake to do away with it, but what upset me most was I thought that they were planning the consolidation in ways that would make things less effective or just not work. USIA worked … because it was small, it was flexible, you could shift resources quickly, it could come up take ideas and put them into action relatively quickly; because it was small there were few bureaucratic layers. We made perhaps more mistakes than we would have because we moved quickly. But as a friend of mine, who had worked for USIA, once said “USIA doesn’t have bombs; it’s never going to kill anybody. The mistakes that we made, we corrected, apologized, and went on. But that didn’t happen that often. USIA had a lot of professionals. …”
“In any case, one morning in late ’98, I woke up and I sat down at breakfast with Susan, and I said I think I’d like to retire. And I did. Looking back I loved what I did, I loved the people I worked with from all agencies. I think that over the almost 40 years that I did it and what I saw, I worked with some remarkable people, I met some remarkable people. We really did pretty well. The United States has moved; if you look at 1961 and where the world is today, even with all of our problems we’ve really moved a long way and the world is a better place. I don’t know how much we had to do with it. The United States is safe, lives in a good place, and I think they miss USIA. I think I was correct.”
I had the pleasure of working with Jake in the Bureau of Policy and Programs when he directed fast media guidance for USIA and represented the Agency on inter-agency groups dealing with East-West power politics and the issue of INF emplacement. Our paths crossed often in the 70s and 80s and as neighbors in retirement. His years of experience, knowledge of these very complex issues, and his wide professional association with USG leaders and others who shaped US policies made a big difference in our counsel and support for USG goals.
I especially admired Jake’s ability to take on the tough issues directly, his care for his colleagues and love of family and friends. What a quintessential mix of bonhomie and serious purpose, love of home country, and fascination with others — a competitive sportsman, a raconteur, and a principled person.
Retired FSO Richard Gilbert summed up the feelings of diverse people who worked with Jake:
“Jake was one of my very best friends over the years, from the time we first encountered each other in 1971 in the freshly painted psychedelic art decorated corridors of the 11th floor training division of 1776.
“I was a USIA newbie just returned from a JOT tour in Thailand, and Jake was already an Africa veteran officer (to me). We had lots of encounters over the years, from my perch in EU and Jake in the Netherlands or from his desk in the Wireless File. We bonded when my spouse, Carol Urban, and I (newly retired) showed up in Madrid in 1992, Carol [Urban] as PAO Jake’s Admin Officer.
“That was the memorable (and challenging) year of the Barcelona Olympics and EXPO 92 in Seville. And oh, did we have good times, wearing out the greens and fairways of the golf course at Torrejon air base, eating out at “Sal’s Diner” … and debating almost everything over a bottle or two of wine and tapas on the patio of the PAO residence overlooking Calle Ayala.
“.… Carol and I counted ourselves among Jake and Susan’s best friends and, no matter where we were, the “summer at the lake” Christmas card of the ever-growing Gillespie family enjoyed a place of honor on our refrigerator. Home again, we were neighbors for a brief time off Connecticut Avenue, enjoying innumerable hours of golf at Rock Creek Park or Falls Road. (Jake would want me to affirm for all that he always covered his debts promptly at the end of the round ().
“After we settled in the mid-Hudson Valley, we paid regular visits to Jake and Susan in Washington and Ipswich (ah, everyone to Woodman’s for clams!). Jake had a multitude of friends from his many guises, and I feel privileged to have been one of them. He was a great contrarian, and our conversations–politics, the demise of USIA, the latest press outrage–could often be counted on to raise one hackle or another, to the dismay of our patient spouses. I’ll miss that pleasure, and I’ll miss his company.”
A pretty good run – from Cairo to North Oaks, Baltimore, Hanover, DC, Accra, Bujumbura, Leopoldville, Montevideo, The Hague, San Salvador, Madrid!
Michael Schneider is former president of PDAA.
Jacob Priester Gillespie, 82, a Foreign Service Officer who served his country for 38 years in capitals both dangerous and delightful, died October 30, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Born on the 4th of July in Cairo, Illinois, raised in Chicago and Baltimore, he graduated from Baltimore City College High School in 1957 and Dartmouth College in 1961. Jake joined the Foreign Service soon after college. He was the youngest of 20 officers sworn in by Edward R. Morrow to the United States Information Agency. His assignments included Accra, Ghana; Bujumbura, Burundi; Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Montevideo, Uruguay; The Hague, Holland; San Salvador, El Salvador; Madrid, Spain; and multiple positions in Washington. In retirement, Jake did short-term press officer assignments with FEMA in disaster sites and was a volunteer reader for recordings for the blind, watched and attended many sports games, and enjoyed spending time with his family in Ipswich, Massachusetts and Kezar Lake, Maine. His wife, Susan Wagner Gillespie, was the love of his life. They were married 59 years. In addition to Susan, Jake is survived by his children, Jim Gillespie and his wife Kristen, their children Jacob, Kathleen, and Molly; Betsy and her husband Ian Lipson, their three children Jack, Bryson, and Abraham; and his sister Mary Jane Gillespie. The family will hold a private celebration of life.Published by The Washington Post on Nov. 7, 2021.