The law of nations gives diplomats safe conduct even in wartime. But when things fall apart they are always at risk, from mishap or malice. Ever since longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadaffi was toppled by a revolution in the fall of 2011, fighting has continued between the new government and various militias—some allied with al-Qaeda. On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered in a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The situation is just as precarious elsewhere in the region. In the wake of the Stevens murder, demonstrators stormed U.S. embassy compounds in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Sudan to protest a film made in the U.S. that mocks Islam.
Our diplomats have confronted similar risks in the past. Elihu Washburne, American ambassador to France, was caught in two of the bloodiest episodes of late-19th-century Europe—the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune. He survived, thanks to the different role America then played in the world and to luck, but it was never easy.
Washburne was a congressman from Galena, an Illinois mining town, and an early leader in the Republican Party. During the Civil War he was a patron of Galena resident Ulysses Grant. When Grant became president in 1869 he rewarded Washburne by sending him to Paris—a plum diplomatic assignment.
The Second Empire of Napoleon III was as gaudy as overripe fruit. “Princes and Dukes, Marquises, Counts and Barons maintained their butterfly existence,” wrote Washburne in his memoirs, “and the grandes dames…promenaded in their gilded phaetons” up and down the Champs-Élysées. Washburne’s duties in this pleasure dome included officiating marriages for Americans abroad. If the bride was pretty, he kissed her; if not, he let his first secretary do the honors. But the empire was doomed. Liberals and radicals chafed under authoritarian rule. Napoleon III, looking for patriotic distraction, declared war on Prussia in July 1870, only to be taken prisoner after a disastrous defeat in September.
That month the Prussians encircled Paris. The city was defended by a ring of walls and forts, and the Bois de Boulogne, its great romantic park, had been stocked with sheep and cattle. But as the siege stretched into winter, supplies ran out. After the livestock had been eaten, Parisians turned to horses, zoo animals, pets and vermin. The tony Jockey Club served rat pies and stews. In January the Prussians added terror to starvation by bombarding the city with heavy Krupp artillery.
Washburne was the only representative of a major power who chose to stay in Paris, and his diplomatic status gave him one privilege. Even though the Prussians had cut the city’s telegraph wires, he continued to receive regular delivery of diplomatic pouches, which included out-of-town newspapers. But otherwise Washburne suffered along with everyone else, including eating the meager food. Bread, Washburne wrote, was “black, heavy, miserable stuff, made of flour, oatmeal, beans, peas and rice. The cook put a loaf of it in my hands and I thought it was a pig of Galena lead.” He was also at risk from Prussian artillery shells, which fell at random. One day, as he walked from his home to the American legation, he saw a direct hit on the Arc de Triomphe. “Pop went the weasel,” he noted in his diary.
The siege lasted until the end of January, when France finally accepted harsh Prussian terms. The disgraced empire gave way to the Third Republic, which made its headquarters in the old royal suburb of Versailles. But Parisian radicals, unnerved by their ordeal and enraged by surrender, wanted madder music. In March they took over the city and set up a revolutionary government called the Commune. The capital of France was at war again, this time with the rest of France.
The Commune replaced the republican tricolor with a red flag, and arrested priests, including Monsignor Georges Darboy, archbishop of Paris. Washburne, a middle-ofthe-road Midwesterner, was revolted. “Anarchy, assassination and massacre held high carnival,” he recalled in his memoirs. The Communards were “desperate and wicked men, unlimited, unchecked and unrestrained by any human power.” He visited Darboy twice in jail, smuggling in Madeira and a newspaper, and tried to arrange a prisoner swap for a radical held by the Versailles government. He failed; Darboy was shot.
Yet the Commune honored Washburne’s diplomatic status. When a party of radical militiamen tried to seize his house, he complained up the chain of command, and the attack was called off. He was able to travel back and forth between rival governments at Paris and Versailles to conduct business. “I was never interfered with,” he wrote, “nor was there ever an affront to my person.”
The Commune wasted its energies on stunts like toppling the Vendôme column, a memorial to Napoleon I. The Versailles government bided its time and attacked the city at the end of May. The Commune’s generals, a collection of hastily promoted amateurs, had left a gate in the walls undefended. Once the Versailles troops entered the city, street fighting went on for seven days, called Bloody Week. “The rage of the soldiers,” wrote Washburne, “knows no bounds.” Outside the Paris Opera, he saw 500 men, women and children who had been rounded up from a Communard neighborhood. They were “the most hideous and sinister-looking persons that I had ever seen.” But he knew they had been “arrested indiscriminately,” and were bound for summary execution.
Washburne survived the bloodbath for the same reason he survived the siege: None of the combatants cared about America one way or the other. The United States had been unhappy with Napoleon III for invading Mexico in the early 1860s, and once the Civil War ended we made him leave. But France’s main concern, whether as an empire or a republic, was with other European powers. The same was true of Prussia. The rebels of the Paris Commune could barely run their own affairs, and had no thought to spare for international relations.
America will never be so inconspicuous again, certainly not in the Middle East, where we are involved in a host of issues from the security of the oil supply to Arab-Israeli wars to fighting terrorism. We have sent troops to Lebanon and fought two wars with Iraq. Radical Islamists have sought to turn us into a religious enemy: the Great Satan. Our high profile makes targets of our diplomats: In the 1970s, Cleo Noel and Francis Meloy, ambassadors to the Sudan and to Lebanon, respectively, were murdered by Palestinian terrorists; Iranian “students” held the staff of the Tehran embassy hostage for 444 days.
But luck also plays a role in a diplomat’s safety, whenever violence is afoot. If a Prussian shell had swerved a bit, or if a Communard militiaman had been unusually drunk one day, Washburne might easily have been killed. He had no protection, only the help of a few secretaries and a French servant and messenger, Antoine. We take better care of our ambassadors now than we did in the 19th century. But Marine guards and embassy walls are only a stopgap. Ultimately every ambassador is on his or her own, and the paths of diplomacy can always turn deadly.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.