In this post, Alex Penler explores the role of American diplomatic wives in historical U.S. global health and vaccine efforts. She argues that these initiatives are important manifestations of U.S. public diplomacy that can create strong ties between the United States and peoples around the world. 


Over the past few weeks, as pharmaceutical companies produce increasing numbers of COVID-19 vaccines, there has been more conversation about vaccine diplomacy and its potential. The New York Times proclaimed “The Era of Vaccine Diplomacy is Here” and Forbes has called it a “new frontier in international relations” while The Conversation described it as “the newest entry to the pandemic lexicon”. What commentators are missing though is that it is not a new frontier or a new strategy to increase soft power; it’s been around since the Cold War and smaller individualized programs have been around even longer, created by an unlikely source: American diplomatic wives. These women prove how global health and vaccine diplomacy can succeed and create lasting ties between the United States and countries around the world.

In 1963, Frances Martin, the wife of U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic John Bartlow Martin, founded the Little Clinic of Higuey with funding from the United States in which children under 5 years old could receive vaccines and medical care. The clinic was staffed with local doctors, housewives, and even a Peace Corps volunteer. Around the same time, Martha Rau, the wife of a Foreign Service Officer in India, volunteered at a Harijan Clinic there while diplomatic wife Marion Post Wolcott helped Pakistani women set up their own clinic in Lahore. Clinics like the Little Clinic of Higuey or similar well-baby clinics were not created solely out of the goodness of the women’s hearts or American volunteerism spirit, but instead from a desire to create strong bonds between the United States and the local country, an early version of global health diplomacy. The initial postwar and Cold War period was the golden era of public diplomacy, when the United States fought the battle for hearts and minds of peoples around the world through education, informational broadcasting, and even health initiatives, much more successful campaigns than its military actions.

What diplomatic wives learned first-hand still has lessons for today: people think well of those who help keep their families healthy. Every bag of rice and grain delivered during a famine by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has the words “From the American People” emblazoned on it in bold. Healthcare workers vaccinating children have USAID vests with the same slogan. Whether they’re a diplomatic wife in 1961 or a USAID worker in 2010, they’re engaging in people-to-people diplomacy and creating goodwill for the United States.

During a cholera and typhoid epidemic in Tehran in 1943, Grace Dreyfus, the wife of the U.S. Minister to Iran, started handing out bread and medicine using her own money. After the epidemic, she started a clinic and orphanage, and after she and her husband left Iran, a bi-national board, composed of Americans and Iranians, to oversee the charity, which was well-funded by American organizations. It was said that Dreyfus had “captured the hearts of the Persians, not only as a charming hostess, but also a sympathetic and tireless worker in the slums of south Tehran”. Katherine Allen, the wife of a future U.S. ambassador, said Americans’ work in the clinic “showed the Iranians that we were interested in working with them as fellow human beings”. The clinic became a symbol of bi-national support and the strong bilateral ties between the United States and Iran. Tehran’s local government later gave land to the clinic and an Iranian construction company offered to build a new clinic and orphanage. The clinic was funded by donations from the American and Iranian people until the Iranian Revolution. While it is impossible to know today if people who were treated by the clinic have friendlier attitudes to the United States than the majority of Iranians, Grace Dreyfus still stands out as a symbol of American benevolence amidst a tumultuous history.

This has also been seen in other countries. Foreign Service wife Margaret Sullivan noted while serving in Indonesia that American diplomatic wives often had a much more welcoming experience that official U.S. diplomats. When Ambassador Marshall Green arrived in Indonesia in 1965, he faced protests due to U.S. policies in Vietnam and Malaysia and signs written with “Go home, Green, or we will kick you out”. Yet Sullivan consistently mentions how wonderful of a reception she had in Indonesia during this time, especially from other women. Mary Jones, whose husband was Ambassador to Indonesia from 1958-1965 during the tumultuous early years of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, wrote a memo to the State Department describing how welcoming Indonesia had been to the American Women’s Association (AWA), which funded local clinics and other various social welfare projects. In just 5 years, the AWA raised funds for numerous charities, clinics, orphanages, schools for disabled children, and the Red Cross/ Red Crescent. They collected toys and books for children in hospitals and even bought furniture for a children’s tuberculosis ward. Just one of their mother-child clinics served over 1,000 Indonesians in a week. The AWA was able to counter negative narratives about the United States through goodwill and aid that persisted among the general population of Indonesians.

Wives were seen as official Americans, but more approachable than their husbands. Through this official but informal position, diplomatic wives had the option to show how generous the U.S. could be but at the same time could say they were not responsible for U.S. policies. Similar to a Fulbright scholar or a Peace Corps volunteer, they had the potential to represent the best of the United States to the world and could deflect any blame for unpopular policies by pointing out their gender and unofficial status. In daily interactions with ordinary people, diplomatic wives were the ones on the ground and some, such as Jeanne Foote North, were even employed by the U.S. Information Agency and USAID.

The global health and vaccine diplomacy we know today has early roots in USAID’s history as well. In 1966, a few years after Frances Martin brought vaccines to children in the Dominican Republic, USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the first U.S.-funded smallpox eradication program in 20 West and Central African countries. The smallpox eradication program was actually fueled by the Cold War, with Russia and the United States competing over who could get the most vaccines to emerging countries.

Like in the 1960s, the United States is waging a soft power war with Russia and China. The U.S. still spend millions of dollars supporting Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, both remnants of the Cold War. Yet the United States was noticeably absent when China and Russia were distributing masks and PPE to hard hit countries around the world when the pandemic began. These countries noticed the disappearance of U.S. foreign aid and saw an opening to expand their own influence.

This also has roots in the Cold War. After World War II, the United States was eager to be the largest superpower, replacing the British and the French who had colonized over half the globe a century before but were now focused on rebuilding at home in the conflict’s aftermath. With rapid decolonization, the United States saw an opening, similar to how India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates see the world today. India and China are fighting over who can get the most vaccines to neighboring countries and who will be the dominant power in the region, while the United States is focused on vaccinating Americans only. It is a double-edged sword; if the U.S. is seen giving vaccines away before Americans are vaccinated, they will lose support at home. If they don’t give vaccines away abroad, they will lose support overseas. Vaccinating other countries can help improve a country’s image, create goodwill, and is an important conduit of soft power.

Nowadays, social media means a photo of an airplane full of vaccines is worth more than a thousand words but in the 1960s, the United States had to rely on people on the ground: USAID staff, Peace Corps volunteers, and diplomatic wives. What we can learn from these women is that people-to-people diplomacy and foreign assistance can go a long way in building bridges between the United States and other countries around the world. Today’s society is even more globalized than it was 60 years ago, and the Internet has connected every remote corner of the planet, so one photo of any country delivering vaccines can spark favor in anyone around the world, even if it doesn’t directly impact them. National branding, or the branding of NGOs like UNICEF, goes hand in hand with social media today, since it’s something recognizable, like the American flag. NGOs, companies, and governments use gestures such as vaccines to garner positive attention and then amplify that message through social media, much easier than the way diplomatic wives had to spread their own narratives through grassroots efforts during the Cold War.

Global health diplomacy is only going to get bigger in the next decade as the world emerges from the current pandemic and prepares for the next one. The United States has learned first-hand how global health can be a national security issue and at the same time a greater frontier and conduit for soft power. The world has greatly changed since Grace Dreyfus and Frances Martin but their lesson for the future remains: global health and vaccine diplomacy are important public diplomacy efforts that can create lasting ties between the United States and peoples around the world.


Alex Penler is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at LSE. Her research focuses on the role of American diplomatic wives in the origins of U.S. public diplomacy.

Featured Image: Vice President Kamala Harris receives the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on 26 January 2021. Photo taken by the Office of the Vice President of the United States.