Automobile Diplomacy, 1961

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Many factors enter into the world of diplomacy and international relations.  Appearances count.  One need only note the imposing edifices erected by some countries to house their embassies overseas.  Something as mundane as the cars in which diplomats ride at their posts can also affect how people in other countries see them.  In a July 1961 letter, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn Thompson wrote “I should like to state that I know of no mission more important than Moscow for the United States to put its best foot forward and where the type of vehicle assigned to the Chief of Mission should be the best we can provide.” 

blue 1961 cadillac on show room floor
07July2021 A 1961 Cadillac four door hardtop on display in the Cadillac LaSalle Museum at the Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners Michigan.

In late July 1961, Henry M. Ford, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Operations, sent a letter to the chiefs of mission at U.S. diplomatic posts.  The subject was automobiles.  Ford explained that the Department of State provided U.S. diplomatic posts with either a limousine or a heavy sedan for use by the chief of mission, depending on the class (size) of the post.  He went further, however, and acknowledged that other factors had to be weighed in making those determinations, especially security and representation.  On the latter point, he wrote “it is our belief that a careful country by country review should be made of the degree of ostentation desirable.”  After those factors were considered, the personal desire of the chief of mission could come into play.  Before asking for the chief of mission’s opinion, he stated “[i]t is our frank opinion that greater use of less expensive vehicles can be made.”

In the following letter, Ambassador Thompson responded with perhaps more detail and candor than expected.  As noted above, he argued that Moscow was the most important embassy for the U.S. to display its best image car-wise.  Among other things, the ambassador also explained the problems the U.S. embassy in Moscow had with the second-hand Cadillacs the Department provided, noted the poor impression those vehicles made, proposed a solution to that problem, explained the propaganda value of new (and top-of-the-line) new cars every year, discussed the practices of the Soviet Union with regard to cars for its diplomats, and described the vehicles used by several other diplomatic missions in Moscow.   

Later U.S. ambassadors to Moscow, Arthur Hartman (1981-1987) and John Beyrle (2008-2012), made their official trips around Moscow in Cadillacs.  Today, most American Ambassadors ride in large armored SUVs. 

Sources: Henry M. Ford, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Operations, to Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, July 24, 1961, and Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson to Henry M. Ford, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Operations, July 28, 1961, file 121.616.7-2461, 1960-63 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  For more about Ambassador Thompson, see The Kremlinologist: Llewellyn E. Thompson, America’s Man in Cold War Moscow by Jenny and Sherry Thompson (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).