An American Studies Scholar Looks Back on his Days as a Diplomat
Professor Michael Aaron Rockland is a writer known for taking on eclectic, unusual, and sometimes edgy subjects. The founder of the American Studies Department at Rutgers, Rockland has penned novels like “A Bliss Case,” which centers on a tenured professor’s decision to join a cult in India. He also contributed to the scholarship of ethnicity with his book “The American Jewish Experience in Literature.” And he co-authored with Professor Angus Gillespie an acclaimed exploration of America’s famously maligned highway, “Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike,”
But his latest book is his most personal and reaches back to an earlier time in his life, before his arrival at Rutgers in 1969. “An American Diplomat in Franco Spain” is a memoir that chronicles Rockland’s four lively years in the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, part of his seven-year stint in the foreign service. The book, which includes chapters detailing his encounters with Martin Luther King and Ted Kennedy, reflects the young Rockland as a product of the Kennedy era - youthful, idealistic, and hopeful - even in the face of a world in tumult. In the interview below, Rockland talks about his experiences in Spain. He will speak about the new book on Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. at the Douglass Student Center.
Q: What prompted you to join the diplomatic service in 1961?
A: I was at the University of Minnesota where I had completed an MA and was finishing a Ph.D. in American Studies. Then John F. Kennedy came along with ‘ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.’ Suddenly government was attractive. The era of the New Frontier and Camelot were upon us. I was a classic case of ‘Here I am Jack.’ But it wasn’t just Kennedy. The director of the United States Information Agency was one of my heroes, (legendary CBS newsman) Edward R. Murrow.
Q: You were a cultural attaché. What were your responsibilities?
A: My basic job was to promote cultural exchange. I would present jazz, Mark Twain, and American folk music to the Spaniards. I’d try to get hot, new American writers to Spain. I had a long correspondence once with Philip Roth and another with Tom Wolfe; I was unsuccessful in both cases in getting them to come to Spain. But it was fun corresponding with them. Sometimes you would bring over a whole symphony orchestra. Can you imagine the logistics? Normally you would bring a small jazz band.
Q: You wrote about avoiding shaking hands with the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco. How did you manage to do that?
A: The Spaniards were having a national art show. The American ambassador received an invitation and passed it on to his deputy, who in turn passed it on to someone else. Eventually, the invitation made it down to my level. I had to go. There was no one lower than me.
So there I am and the place is filled with ambassadors, generals and bureaucrats. Suddenly the Spanish chief of protocol tells us all to get in a line. I look up the line and I said ‘my God it’s Franco.’ He’s s coming down the line and shaking hands. He is coming closer and closer, and I am really sweating, because I know in my heart I cannot shake his hand. Behind me there’s a freestanding panel where some of the pictures are being shown. It’s not a permanent wall so very slowly I back up and get behind it. After Franco passed by, I just oozed back into the line.
Q: Were you scared?
A: I was terrified the Spanish government saw me and would throw me out of the country. But nobody saw it. Not even the two ambassadors next to me.
Q: What was it like spending a day with Martin Luther King?
A: He had been with Pope Paul VI the day before in Rome. He was going to be in Spain for one day of rest and relaxation before going to Holland for an international Baptist convention. The ambassador asked if I would look after him. I had written my thesis on the Montgomery Bus Boycott so I was tuned into King perhaps more than the average person. I told the ambassador: I’d give my left arm for that assignment.
Q: How did you spend your day?
A: We had a press conference. He didn’t want to do it, but I told him that the press will drive you crazy. We had lunch together. I took him to my favorite restaurant in Madrid. We spent the whole afternoon walking in the main park of Madrid. He insisted I call him Martin. He called me Michael. It was like you and me hanging out right now.
Q: How did your experience in Spain shape you as a professor?
A: If I get high evaluations from my students, I believe that comes from my life experiences, including two years in the Navy and seven years in the foreign service. This is what interests the students the most. Perhaps it was the experience of living in Spain under a dictatorship, but my job as a professor has always seemed to me to be a tremendous privilege. If I won the lottery tomorrow I would be back in the classroom the next day. I never take it for granted.