Indiana, PA - Indiana County

MONDAY Q&A: Diplomacy defined career of woman who traveled world on behalf of U.S.

by on March 18, 2013 11:00 AM

Martha Buckley worked with the U.S. Information Agency and with the State Department as a foreign service officer. Throughout her life she has lived in many different places, experiencing different cultures and customs. Now retired, she calls Indiana home and is an active member of the Indiana Players drama group. She recently sat down for a chat with Gazette staffer Ellen Matis.

Question: Through the years you've held a lot of positions within the USIA and State Department. How would you sum up your work?

Answer: Well, our job was, in a nutshell, to get people to think "warm and fuzzy thoughts" about the United States. That was what our efforts were. The field is now called public diplomacy -- so you're doing diplomacy, but rather than doing government to government you're doing people to people. Our role was to get Americans and people from whatever country we were living in in the same room talking to each other. The subject was whatever they were expert in … so we could be talking about libraries in the morning, and then in the afternoon we're doing drug abuse prevention, and then in the evening the subject might be English teaching. The actual subject varied a great deal, but the bottom line was: get Americans and the people in those countries talking to each other in an effort to build people-to-people bridges. When you get people in the same room talking to each other, they discover that "oh my goodness, they're people." They're not the others, they're not "those people," they're people -- and that's very valuable for people to grasp at, to have in their bones.

Question: If you had to define the mission of your work … how would you do that?

Answer: The official term was called "mutual understanding" -- for people to understand where the other people are coming from, because you tend not to see yourself the way other people see you. My favorite example of that: I was talking to someone in El Salvador and he said his favorite thing to do was to drive from El Salvador to the United States … so he had to drive through Guatemala, he had to drive through Mexico … and get up to the United States and drive around because he just loved it. But, he said that he found U.S. geography to be very confusing. What's confusing about it? He said, "Well, South Dakota is in the north, North Carolina is in the south, and West Virginia is in the East…" And I said, you know, that's true, I never thought of that before.

You see things from different angles that just never occurred to you before, and it's valuable for people to understand that. A lot of times things get in the way, like religion, prejudice, the news, popular culture. If all you knew about the United States was what you saw on television and what you saw on movies, you would think, "oh my goodness, Americans, first of all, eat nothing but hamburgers, and there's gunfights everywhere, every day."

When I first joined (the Foreign Service), I had a Spanish teacher. She was terrified to go to the United States because "there's tornados and earthquakes and hurricanes and people shooting each other up in the street," and she didn't want to come. Her husband needed to come, so there she was in Washington, D.C., and she was walking around that first day and she says "this is boring."

There's nothing like actually being there, meeting people, and realizing, "OK, maybe this isn't what I thought."

Question: What inspired you to do this work?

Answer: Well, my father worked for USIA and he started working about the time it began (1953). Before he retired from USIA, my sister joined the State Department, and before my sister retired from the State Department, I joined USIA. There's been a Buckley in the Foreign Service from like 1954 to 2010.

I was working in New York and had discovered that I was leaving my jobs every three years, I would have one year to learn it, one year to do it, and one year to get bored with it. So I thought, "Well, I need a pension … how can I change my job every three years and still get a pension?" And then I thought "hmm, this will work."

Everybody that I had met through my father and sister who worked in the Foreign Service were really interesting people and had gone interesting places and done interesting things, and I thought, "I can work with these people."

I knew I had to pass the Foreign Service Exam, so I went to college, got a degree in political science and then took the Foreign Service exam. I don't know anybody who passes that the first time. I passed it the second time, and then you go through a background check, medical tests, oral tests, the whole nine yards, and then I got a call: "Do you want to do this?" I said, "Oh yeah."

Question: You've lived in quite a few countries during your work: El Salvador, Argentina, the Philippines -- the list goes on. What was it like trying to get accustomed to a new culture every few years or so?

Answer: I had the fortune to spend most of my career in Latin America, so each country in Latin America is different from each other, they are very much not the same. But, at least I was in the same language, and they weren't so completely foreign to each other. It's not like going from Finland to Japan, so that wasn't too bad. There's always something that kind of catches your attention, though -- like my first post in Paraguay, when I first got there I couldn't help but notice that women were going around with baskets on their heads. Everywhere you turned there were women with baskets on their heads. Six months, a year later, "Well, of course women are going around with baskets on their heads, that's perfectly normal."

There's a normal sort of cycle. In fact, a friend of mine said that she's very careful the first six months she's in a country to write down all the things that she finds different, because by the time she leaves they're not different anymore.

Question: Did you have any experiences in one of these countries that stuck out more than another to you? Any that you would consider life-changing?

Answer: I think that many of the things that I saw gave me a very deep appreciation for what we have.

In so many places I saw children who were visibly malnourished, who had the big bellies, and blonde hair, not because they were genetically blonde, but because they didn't have enough nutrition to turn their hair the color it was supposed to be.

I certainly appreciate traffic laws. My niece came to visit me … she had just gotten a ticket for making an illegal U-turn … she was livid. Then we went driving on the highway and she discovered what driving was like when there aren't any rules -- she decided she liked traffic laws then.

I appreciate democracy. One conversation I had in Paraguay just absolutely blew my mind:

One thing about the Third World countries -- you either have a maid, or you are a maid. There's no middle. I had gone to have a meeting with a woman, and when I had gone to Paraguay they had just gotten rid of a dictator who had been in power for something like 35 years. Their democracy was literally about a year old. This was all new to them. I was meeting with the woman and she was telling me about how her family had suffered under the dictatorship … they had really had a difficult time. Now it was a democracy and things were so much better, and I'm sitting there thinking, "Yes! This is great!" Then she stopped herself, and said, "Do you realize, though, that my maid's vote counts as much as mine? Can you believe that?" She completely blew my mind, I kind of panicked for a little bit and finally managed to come out with something about the importance of universal, free, public education so that everybody has the education needed to be able to vote intelligently in elections. It's that kind of thing that just hits you and makes you think, "Oh, I'm not in the United States anymore."

Those sorts of experiences kind of hit me and gave me an appreciation for what we have.

Question: What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment during your career?

Answer: The one problem with what I did is that you don't see your own results, you see the results of what your predecessors did. You just have to trust that the programs you're doing will have an impact in the future.

One of the things, for example, that I enjoyed doing the most: In El Salvador they had had that vicious civil war, and they were trying to put their country back together again. They have a terrible problem with earthquakes and they had an anthropology museum … it had been destroyed in one. One of the things the government really wanted to do was rebuild the museum, and, in fact, we had a treaty for cultural preservation. The U.S. had agreed under this treaty to help the Salvadorians protect their cultural heritage. So, one of the things that I did as part of the implementation of this treaty was to bring in an expert on museums. I brought in someone who was an expert on museum security. …

The museum wasn't finished before I left; I was heartbroken about that. A couple of years after that, I was on a business trip to Central America, and I went to El Salvador, and I told our people at the embassy, "You will take me. I want to see it." It was beautiful, it was just lovely.

Mostly its just lots of little things -- the people realizing, "Oh, I didn't know that about the United States."

It was very interesting and very rewarding in many ways.

Question: You've settled down in Indiana now. What keeps you busy?

Answer: I retired in February of 2010 and I am very active with the community theater, a) it's fun, and b) I think community theater is important. For a lot of people it might be the only theater they have access to. Not everyone has the time or means to go all the way into Pittsburgh, but they can get to the Indiana Players. And it's something that families can do together. It teaches teamwork every bit as much as sports does, because when you're in a play, everyone has to be doing what they're supposed to be doing, saying what they're supposed to be saying, or else it makes a mess of things. And it's fun!

I volunteer twice a week at the Career Learning Center. I was very impressed by a lot of the people that I met that I worked with overseas, because they kept telling me, "Well, my country doesn't have a volunteer culture." One person I was talking to, I couldn't figure out how they earned a living, though, because they volunteered a lot. … I was humbled by that. I thought, "You know what? I need to contribute a little bit more." If they can do it while working full time, I can do it while I'm retired. And I like teaching, but I'm not sure I like standing up in front of a classroom, because it's a good compromise.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Do you know someone who would be a great subject for the Monday Q&A? If so, please call Jason Levan at (724) 465-5555, ext. 270.


Residence: Indiana County

Where I grew up: Born in Germany, lived in Vietnam, the U.S. and Argentina

Hobby: Needlework

Favorite food: "Yes."

Food I refuse to eat: Calves brains

Favorite movie: "The Russians Are Coming"

Favorite way to spend a day: Eating chocolate chip cookies

Pet peeve: Hearing the word "disrespect" used as a verb


Ellen Matis is the digital media coordinator and a staff writer at The Indiana Gazette. She is the person behind the Gazette's social media. A 2012 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Ellen has a degree in journalism and public relations. Follow her on Twitter, @EllenMatis, or email her at
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