Sunday, December 6, 2009

The plot thickens... and check out that salary

I’m kicking myself because I never knew this before. When my mother was a “girl ‘foreign secretary,’” as her hometown paper described her in a profile (see below), she worked as the secretary to the Chief of the U.S. Escapee Program in Frankfurt, West (as it was then) Germany. I’d never heard of this entity, nor this episode in her single life.

The USEP had existed as a covert program since at least 1949, but it was brought out into the open in 1952 under the auspices of the State Department’s Office of Refugees and Migration Affairs. Its mission was to encourage the flight and the resettlement of “escapees” from behind the Iron Curtain. For ideological reasons, these folks, coming as they did from the “captive nations,” were not “refugees” in the traditional sense, but rather a new legal category. (One of the things this did was allow them to bypass the U.S.’s existing national-origin immigration quotas, which were then particularly exclusionary for Eastern Europeans.) Ballet stars, scientists, and other propaganda-worthy figures were highly sought after.

Unsurprisingly, USEP was also used for intelligence purposes, since those fleeing the Communist Bloc might have vital information to share, and might be turned into spies for the West. Of course, the escapees could also be spies for the other side, hoping to get through during all the chaos and mole themselves into the kapitalists’ own plush/decadent dens (“We will bury you!” thundered Khrushchev; ever notice how our enemies, real and imagined, just knock our socks off us when it comes to hyperbole? My god, we suffer from a rhetoric gap, we've got to hyperbole up!) That send-‘em-back project seems to have been a bust: the CIA’s REDSOX program, in which escapees were returned to their homelands as insta-spies, had a failure rate up to 85%, failure in this case often meaning disappearance and presumably death. I wonder how much of this stuff my mother was aware of? She started working for USEP in ‘55 and was there until she married my father in May ’57. Good gravy, did my mother come in from the cold???

No, that's not my mother up there. That's Alida Valli in The Third Man. Best I could do for the ol' cloak'n'dagger vibe. You can find a picture of my mom here.

Here are some of the highlights of the article, "She Sees the World: Collinsville Girl ‘Foreign Secretary’" by Bob Kennedy of the Journal Collinsville (Illinois). She was interviewed here on home leave, after finishing up in Baghdad and before going to Frankfurt:

A 25-year-old Collinsville secretary is proving you don’t have to join the Navy to see the world. She’s seeing much of it as an employe [sic] of the state department.
Travel and opportunity to meet interesting people are the principle attractions of overseas work. The annual salary is attractive. The starting salary is $3,150 a year. Miss K[] has advanced in two years to $3,927 a year. This includes an allowance for housing.

Girls who think there is no opportunity for dates or a social life abroad are wrong, Miss K[] said. There are enough young men from various government offices and other overseas posts for all the young women.

However, all was not sweetness and light in Bagdad [sic]. Food was a big problem. Only beef is available and the menu contains only one vegetable at each meal.
Miss K[] is eagerly awaiting arrival in Frankfort. Friends in Bagdad who previously served in Frankfort describe life there as Utopia for the overseas secretary.

1 comment:

amarilla said...

Well at least they paid for housing. Wish they had fed her better, though.