Charles (Chip) Bohlen (1904-1973) was a Russian specialist who served in various government positions, including U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and interpreter and advisor to various presidents on Russian affairs.
Charles Eustis Bohlen was born on August 30, 1904, the son of Charles and Celestine (Eustis) Bohlen in Clayton, New York. One of three children, Bohlen grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, where his father, who had inherited a small fortune, was a banker and sportsman. At age 12 Charles moved with his family to Ipswich, Massachusetts. He graduated from St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and matriculated at Harvard College, where he majored in modern European history (with one course in Russian history), gained admission to the exclusive Porcellian Club, and played scrub football. His friends dubbed him "Chipper," later reduced to Chip, his nickname.
After Bohlen took his B.A. at Harvard in 1927, he went on a world tour on a tramp ship. Although he had not intended to become a diplomat, his extensive world travels with his family as a child and his course work at Harvard caused him to enter the Foreign Service in Washington in 1929. He was assigned as vice-consul at Prague until 1931, when he became vice-consul at Paris. Here he began serious study of the Russian language. He attended Russian church services and perfected his language skills with Russian emigrees in street cafes. Assigned to study Russian language by the State Department (which anticipated recognition of the Bolshevik government), Bohlen spent one summer with a Russian family in Estonia.
When the United States resumed diplomatic relations with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1933, Bohlen was named vice-consul under Ambassador William C. Bullitt. Later he served as third secretary at the American Embassy, during which time he travelled extensively throughout Russia. Bohlen returned to Washington in 1935 to join the Division of Eastern European Affairs. Although Bohlen treasured his experiences in Russia, he conceded that he always felt a breath of refreshing air when he crossed the border. Returning in 1938, he found Russia was in convulsion because of the political purge trials which he personally observed. He scored somewhat of a diplomatic coup when in 1939 he learned details of the Russo-German pact which led to the Nazi attack on Poland, starting World War II.
The State Department reassigned Bohlen to Tokyo in 1940, and he was interned with other embassy personnel in 1941 after the Pearl Harbor attack. When Bohlen returned to Washington, he impressed presidential aide Harry Hopkins. As a result, he became President Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal Russian interpreter. Bohlen continued his diplomatic travels in 1943 when he accompanied Secretary of State Cordell Hull to the Moscow Conference which set the diplomatic framework for the United Nations International Organization. He remained in Moscow as first secretary until summoned in 1944 to be Roosevelt's interpreter at the Teheran Conference of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. After serving at the Washington conference at Dumbarton Oaks on international organization, he became liaison between the secretary of state and the White House until Roosevelt took him to the Yalta Conference as his interpreter, a task he would later perform for Harry Hopkins on his mission to Moscow. He attended the United Nations conference at San Francisco and went to the Potsdam conference as President Harry S. Truman's language expert. Increasingly he was not only serving as an interpreter but as an adviser to secretaries of state, including James F. Byrnes, George C. Marshall, and Dean Acheson.
Controversy surrounded Bohlen's appointment to Moscow as ambassador by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Opposed by Wisconsin's Joseph R. McCarthy, who attacked Bohlen for his role at the Yalta Conference, he eventually won Senate confirmation by a vote of 74 to 13. McCarthy's performance so outraged Senate leaders Robert A. Taft and William Knowland that it marked the beginning of McCarthy's demise.
Political turmoil highlighted Bohlen's five years in Moscow as ambassador, a period which saw the rise and fall of Georgi M. Malenkov, the execution of Lavrenti P. Beria, the emergence of Nikita S. Khruschev, de-Stalinization, the revolt in Hungary, and the Suez crisis. Although his tenure was characterized by highly charged exchanges with Soviet diplomats, the Russians were disappointed when he was moved to the Philippine Embassy, a transfer that resulted from long-standing differences with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Later he became special adviser on Soviet affairs for Secretary of State Christian Herter. He finished his diplomatic career with five years of service at the difficult Paris Embassy for President John F. Kennedy and one year as deputy under secretary of state for political affairs, concluding over 40 years of service with the State Department. At age 69, Bohlen died of cancer in Washington, D.C., on December 31, 1973.
Further Reading on Charles (Chip) Bohlen
Bohlen's obituary appeared in the New York Times on January 2, 1974. Other references may be found in the New York Times Index and the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. His diplomatic correspondence may be found in the annual volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States published by the State Department.
Bohlen wrote a superb autobiography just before his death, entitled Witness to History, 1929-1969 (1973) and background materials can be consulted in Alexander DeConde, A History of American Foreign Policy (1978) and Paul Y. Hammond, The Cold War Years: American Foreign Policy Since 1945 (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Ruddy, T. Michael, The cautious diplomat: Charles E. Bohlen and the Soviet Union, 1929-1969, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1986.