Story of Diplomacy
In July 1979 Kate Koob arrived as a Foreign Service Officer in Iran — a country in the throes of a massive political and social revolution. When the embassy was captured that November, Koob would be held hostage for 444 days.
Eugenie Anderson, America’s first female ambassador, was a pioneering practitioner of people-to-people diplomacy, which she called “people’s diplomacy.” As U.S. Ambassador to Denmark from 1949 to 1953 and U.S. Minister to Bulgaria from 1962 to 1964, Anderson engaged with the public to promote trade and strengthen economic ties.
In January 1952, Quick magazine, a popular pocket-sized headline news publication, emblazoned on its cover a photograph of the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Eugenie Anderson, with the caption: “Is Diplomacy a Woman’s Job?”
Inside, the article noted Anderson’s work along with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s diplomatic career as a delegate to the United Nations, U.S. Minister to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta, and the names and titles of women holding similar positions from India, Chile, and Brazil.
Championing Roosevelt as the UN’s “center of attention,” the article proudly proclaimed that the “Reds…duck debating with her.” Anderson’s “forte” was “simple directness,” establishing a rapport with the Danish people, talking with Danes—in their own language—on the street,” and speaking in person with dairy farmers concerned with the United States’ trade ban on imported cheese.
The emphatic answer for Quick’s readers was yes: diplomacy was indeed a women’s job. And Eugenie Anderson, the first woman to hold the rank of ambassador, excelled at diplomacy during her remarkable thirty-plus year career in domestic politics and international affairs as a leader in the Minnesota Democratic Party, Ambassador to Denmark (1949-1953), 1958 national Minnesota Senate candidate, Minister to Bulgaria (1962-1964), and delegate to the United Nations (1965-1968).
Anderson’s political activism and interest in international affairs were sparked in 1937 during a tour of western Europe. Then a young mother and housewife, she wanted to see for herself what she had been hearing on the radio about Hitler’s rise to power and the growing threat totalitarianism posed to global peace.
Traveling alone and crossing the border between France and Germany, the sight of small boys “marching in the street… goose-stepping” and shouting “Heil Hitler” shocked her, and she was “suddenly really afraid of what was happening there and of the menace that this represented for [her] country too.”
Upon returning home, she joined the League of Women Voters and began speaking publicly during World War II for the homefront effort, and later advocated strongly in support of the United Nations. A former Republican, Anderson also emerged during this time period as a “New Deal Democrat,” supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic and international policies favoring bilateral and multilateral global relationships.
It was through her interest in the Minnesota Democratic Party that she became acquainted with Hubert Humphrey, a leader in the party and later a long-serving U.S. Senator and Vice President under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Anderson’s energy and intelligence impressed Humphrey, and he encouraged her to run as a district party delegate. She won, and became one of Humphrey’s closest allies and champion of liberal anti-communist political activism, condemning “Communism in any sphere of politics, local to global.”
Her grassroots work and assistance with speechwriting helped elect Humphrey to the U.S. Senate and Harry S Truman to the presidency, garnering national attention in the Democratic Party.
Fatigued from months on the 1948 campaign trail, Anderson was at first “astonished” and “hesitant” at the idea of an ambassadorship. But with her husband’s encouragement and Denmark identified as the likely posting, she grew intrigued and eager at the idea of serving in a country the United States had identified as a strong trade partner, a North Atlantic Treaty member, and a bulwark against the encroachments of eastern European communist nations.
Tireless lobbying from India Edwards and Senator Humphrey secured her the nomination, and the Senate confirmed Anderson as the first woman Chief of Mission to hold the rank of ambassador with “little controversy.”
Anderson arrived in Denmark in December 1949, family in tow, to a post filled with male, career foreign service officers and quickly earned their respect and admiration—as well as that of the Danish people.
The Ambassador practiced what she called “people’s diplomacy,” an extension of the people-to-people approach she had taken on the campaign trail back home, meeting and speaking directly with the Danish people in their own language. John O. Bell, the embassy’s economic officer, noted that Anderson was the “first Ambassador from anywhere that ever bothered” to learn the native language, surprising the newspaper reporters when she gave her first public speech in Danish.
Before Anderson’s arrival, the newspapers had been critical of U.S. race relations, and Bell recalled that in this speech, she addressed the issue honestly, “taking the wind out of their sails.” Her directness, he continued, “made her a sort of folk heroine to the Danes.”
Similarly, Anderson gave a July 4, 1950 speech in Danish in front of 30,000 at the annual Rebild Festival emphasizing the strong military and trade alliance between the United States and Denmark, saying, “It is my sincere hope that the mutual recognition of the new unity of interests between our two countries will deepen and increasingly strengthen the precious bonds which already exist through our common humanistic and democratic ideals.” After a moment of silence, the Danes broke out into “thunderous” applause. “You got more applause than the King,” Anderson’s worried public affairs officer said. “And that’s not good.”
Despite possibly stealing the King’s festival thunder, before her resignation in 1953 at the beginning of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, Anderson was able to negotiate a 1951 mutual defense pact that established a U.S. air base in Greenland, a Fulbright agreement for the exchange of Danish and American scholars and students, and a new Treaty of Commerce and Friendship between the two nations—“the first in 100 years, making Anderson the first American woman to sign a treaty.”
Anderson’s diplomatic career, however, was far from over. She returned to Minnesota, serving as Adlai Stevenson’s foreign policy advisor in his 1956 bid for the presidency, and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1958.
After the 1960 election of President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, to the presidency, Anderson’s old ally (and JFK’s rival for the 1960 Democratic nomination), Hubert Humphrey, advanced her name for another ambassadorship. While unknown to Kennedy, he was impressed with her credentials and her successful people-centered approach to diplomacy that she had taken in Denmark.
Kennedy thought a similar tactic could be used to reach the hearts and minds of the people living in countries controlled by Soviet-style communism, and in 1962 offered Anderson the position of U.S. Minister to Bulgaria. While acknowledging this post to be “a rare opportunity and a rare challenge,” Anderson welcomed the opportunity to serve her country once again while simultaneously battling what she believed to be “the inhuman, stupid, cruel system” of communism. She would be the first American woman to serve behind the Iron Curtain.
Arriving in the capital city of Sofia, Anderson quickly took a liking to the Bulgarian people, but the constant surveillance, censorship, and lack of access to the western world made diplomatic work extraordinarily difficult. Private conversations at either the ambassador’s residence or the legation were impossible, as both buildings were constantly bugged by Bulgarian officials or the Soviet secret police. The legation itself had only one “safe” sound-proofed glass room that was swept daily, and, at home, Anderson and her husband took to writing notes to each other instead of speaking, then promptly tore them up and flushed them down the toilet.
Within the first six months of her arrival, Anderson had repeatedly clashed with Bulgarian officials over the daily harassment of her legation staff and how the police tried to intimidate her as she walked through the city’s streets and markets shaking hands and speaking Bulgarian. Undaunted, she thought she had “convinced them that [she] was not going to be just a gentle woman that they could push around.”
At the annual 1962 International Trade Fair at Plovdiv, a small city southwest of Sofia, Anderson displayed a dogged determination to not back down in her commitment to advance America’s democratic, free-market principles when Bulgarian officials confronted her.
Inside a small exhibit designed to spark interest in trade relations, the Bulgarian people could see a modern American kitchen, a Mercury spacecraft, and a Ford Thunderbird. U.S. legation staff had created a small pamphlet as an exhibit take-away, featuring photos and words of greeting from President Kennedy and Minister Anderson.
Even though the Bulgarian government had reluctantly approved the brochure, when fair police saw how desperate people were to get one, they began snatching them from people’s hands and roughing them up in the process. Anderson met with officials and sternly informed them that she would instruct her staff to keep giving out the pamphlets, even forcefully if necessary. The Bulgarian police backed off; the Minister of Foreign Trade privately admitted that they “underestimated the determination of [the U.S.] minister” and that they “didn’t know the Americans could be so tough.”
In addition to the harassment, Anderson, her husband, and the legation staff were in danger of physical attack. After news broke of President Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, the Bulgarian people left notes and objects at the legation in condolence—much to the anger of their government.
In December, a Bulgarian diplomat assigned to the United Nations was arrested in Moscow accused of spying for the United States, and a mob of 3,000 young men attacked the legation, smashing windows, beating up American diplomats, and overturning cars. The smashing of the windows was especially symbolic, as Anderson had always carefully chosen pictures to hang in the windows depicting American life and culture, drawing curious throngs daily. Anderson angrily demanded that the government replace the windows and continued to update the photos, even when the state-sponsored vandalism continued.
Anderson resigned from her post in 1964 due to her husband’s ill health but did not retire from international affairs.
In 1965 she accepted an appointment to the United Nations, serving as the U.S. delegate on the Trusteeship Council and working on supporting newly independent nations in Africa and Asia. She also sat briefly on the National Security Council, becoming the first woman to do so.
In 1968, she resigned from the UN to work on Hubert Humphrey’s continuing political campaigns, remaining a Democrat for the remainder of her life. She also remained committed to the democratic ideals and values she had practiced as an American diplomat abroad, championing civil rights legislation and humanitarian causes at home.
Mary Dupont, Mrs. Ambassador: The Life and Politics of Eugenie Anderson (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2019).
Philip Nash, “Ambassador Eugenie Anderson,” Minnesota History 2005: 250.
The National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) is celebrating women in diplomacy – Her Diplomacy – women who have blazed trails, negotiated peace, served alongside their partners, strengthened diplomatic relations, survived dangers, and opened doors for sharing of cultures and ideas. They have made vital contributions to our nation, but their stories remain largely unknown. Discover more of these dedicated women and their stories: