Frederick Irving, FG46

By Amy Poftak

When 24-year-old Frederick Irving arrived at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1945, he felt lucky to be alive. Just one year earlier, his B-24 bomber had been shot down over Hungary. After parachuting to the ground and narrowly escaping death at the hands of local farmers and German soldiers, Irving’s captors drove him through Budapest on the back of an open truck and urged bystanders to throw rocks at him.

Ambassador Irving's 1979 visit to Tufts to give a Lounge Lecture. Photo from Tufts University, Digital Collections and Archives, Medford, MA

“For the next day or two, I did not know whether I was dead or alive. I suddenly came to life and decided I was not going to give the enemy the satisfaction of dying,” says Irving, now 91, who spent the next nine months as a prisoner of war, primarily at the Stalag Luft III prison camp later made famous by the film The Great Escape.

Irving says the horrors he experienced in World War II cemented his decision to pursue a Foreign Service career. “It made me more convinced than ever that I must play a role in preventing war,” he says.

Early Lessons

Before entering the Foreign Service, Irving made a fortuitous detour that would serve him for the rest of his career. Upon graduating from Fletcher, Irving took an economist position at the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget).

His first week on the job, he was charged with writing a memorandum to President Truman asking him to endorse a check from the Shah of Iran. Irving says the experience taught him how to write so effectively that years later, President Nixon told him how much he enjoyed reading his telegrams. “I got to the point where I could boil down what was significant in U.S.-country relations in four lines,” Irving says.

Cold War Diplomacy

Irving joined the State Department in 1951 and spent the next 28 years posted abroad in Austria and New Zealand, and in stateside policy positions.

In 1972, Irving got a call that would catapult his career and ultimately preserve a key listening post during the Cold War: He was to be ambassador to Iceland. It was a critical time. Iceland’s new government coalition was threatening to shut down the U.S. Naval Base in Keflavik, which monitored Soviet nuclear submarines transiting into and from the North Atlantic. Understanding that the base’s detractors were concerned with being “taken over” by another country’s culture, Irving immediately renamed the base the “NATO Base.” After lengthy negotiations, the base was saved—an accomplishment that earned Irving a reputation for being both fearlessly direct and culturally responsive.

“Fred managed the relationship with the Icelandic government brilliantly,” says Lee E. Dirks Professor of Diplomatic History Alan Henrikson, director of diplomatic studies at The Fletcher School. “He not only had managerial capacity but also the gift of inspiring trust because he was practical, he was real, and he was a problem solver.”

Assignment: Jamaica

In 1976, Irving was appointed by President Ford to run the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and in 1977 President Carter called on him for a second ambassadorship. The assignment: Jamaica.

Irving’s charge was to soften the attitude of Jamaica toward the U.S. He quickly established solid relations with both political parties, offering to escort them to meetings so they would not be assassinated. And he employed personal diplomacy to forge a relationship with Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, at the time a socialist and key figure in the developing world’s non-aligned movement. “Fred once told me he and Michael Manley would drive to a mountaintop and just talk,” says Henrikson. “His ability to work with Manley at a time when Americans were perceived as pugilistic was a great diplomatic and human achievement.”

Irving puts it another way: “Word got around I was not such a bad guy, and that maybe the Americans aren’t so bad.”

“The Unpaid Equal”

Irving attributes much of his success abroad to his wife Dorothy, who was a diplomat in her own right—in Iceland, for example, she endeared herself to the local population by learning Icelandic.

The couple, who married at Fletcher’s Wilson House in 1946, firmly believed theirs was a joint career—Irving called her the “unpaid equal.” In her book, This Too Is Diplomacy, Dorothy wrote of their partnership: “We each felt we had responsibility for building bridges between countries.”

A Strong Foundation

This ability to build bridges took root at The Fletcher School, says Irving, which he credits with teaching him to communicate and negotiate across cultures.

“Fletcher gave me an opportunity to have discussions and arguments with people of different nationalities,” says Irving. “It broadened my outlook and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

As thanks, Irving has given generously to Fletcher through annual gifts and a bequest in his will.

The Last Post

Today, Irving is living in Amherst, Mass. His wife Dorothy died in 2010. In addition to spending time with his three children and eight grandchildren, he keeps up with foreign affairs and belongs to a writers’ group.

Last November, Irving’s doctors delivered the news that he has inoperable cancer and would likely not live to celebrate Thanksgiving 2012. He hopes to beat their expectations, just as he beat those of his World War II captors some 67 years ago.

“I think I might prove them wrong,” he says.