She was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania during the Vietnam era. It was the early 1970s: she believed in the war at the time. But one day she rode a train from Haverford, Pennsylvania along with wounded soldiers from Valley Forge hospital. Many of them had lost arms, legs, eyes. Seeing those young men on the train shocked and changed her: she became familiar with the cost of war—and was convinced it cost too much.
The young woman on that train was Faith Ryan Whittlesey. She could never guess the role she would soon play in fighting the Cold War and advocating a prudent foreign policy—rising from her law career and work in Pennsylvania politics to serve the Reagan administration, both in the White House and overseas as an ambassador to Switzerland. At home and abroad, in public and private life, she would quell conflicts and champion a reality-based conservatism, bridge seemingly impassable diplomatic chasms, and take staunch if unpopular stances for what she believed to be right. Her gentility and iron resolve would soon launch the woman on that train into the national and international spotlight.
Born in 1939, Whittlesey was brought up by an Irish Catholic father and Methodist mother in northern New York. Her parents were both Republican—her mother was a social worker skeptical of the government’s “ability to do anything positive in society,” Whittlesey says. After high school, Whittlesey received a full-tuition scholarship to Wells College in upstate New York, where she majored in history. Afterward, she attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she met her husband-to-be, Roger Whittlesey. They married in 1963 and went on to have three children.
Three years later Roger became president of the Young Republicans of Center City Philadelphia and in 1968 executive editor for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Faith worked as a law clerk to federal Judge Francis Van Dusen, then as special assistant attorney general. Historian Thomas Carty, author of a Faith Whittlesey biography entitled Backward in High Heels, emphasizes that she was working in what was “overwhelmingly a man’s world”: more than 95 percent of U.S. judges and lawyers were men.
In 1972 Roger was invited to represent the 166th district of Pennsylvania in the state House of Representatives. He declined, but Faith decided to take his place. When the district’s Republican establishment refused to endorse her, “I cried and cried,” she says. But Roger told her, “This is the best thing that could have happened. Now we owe them nothing, and we will beat the pants off them!”
He was right: starting as an outsider, Faith forged her career independent of party pressure. She won the Republican primary against six men and came to prize the fact that she wasn’t beholden to the establishment. This independence helped differentiate Faith from the Vietnam and Watergate-era scandals: “As a woman and mother, she brought a special quality that allowed her to mobilize housewives and young people who might otherwise eschew politics as dirty and corrupt,” Carty says.
But in March 1974, tragedy struck: after a long struggle with depression, Roger Whittlesey committed suicide. Faith was suddenly a single mother and sole provider for her family. Despite her grief, she says, “I was totally consumed by the task in front of me. I had very little free time, running a large house by myself.” She entrenched herself in Pennsylvania politics, building a reputation for her maverick stances and honesty.
In 1976, she clashed with Pennsylvania’s Republican Party leaders over the presidential nomination. President Gerald Ford was the establishment candidate, but Faith Whittlesey favored the outsider: California Governor Ronald Reagan. She valued his commitment to limited government and his resolve to fight communism. Though Reagan did not win that year, Whittlesey supported him again when he decided to run in 1979. She became co-chairman of Pennsylvania’s Reagan-for-President Committee and traveled all over the state delivering speeches.
“I became fluent in explaining Reagan’s foreign policy during that period,” Whittlesey says. “I had to go out into the far reaches of Pennsylvania to explain it to ordinary people.” In November, when he won the presidency, Reagan also won Pennsylvania.
In 1981, Reagan offered Whittlesey the position of ambassador to Switzerland. She had extensive knowledge of European culture, having visited several times as a student, and was an eloquent, passionate advocate for Reagan’s policies. Nevertheless, her appointment was “controversial,” according to Boston University Vice President Doug Sears, who was a member of Whittlesey’s embassy staff in Bern. In the Foreign Service, he relates, career appointees often disparage political appointees.
Career diplomats don’t mind if political appointees “just do the social scene, if they don’t do anything.” But “what made [Faith] special was that she was serious … about doing her job—and not the way the career people told her to do it, but the way she believed to be right.”
Whittlesey invited many distinguished guests to the embassy—leading Swiss bankers and businessmen, ambassadors from other countries, college professors, authors, and others—in hopes of better explaining Reagan’s policies to the Swiss. Sears says he was always a little terrified of these embassy dinners: they were strictly diplomatic in nature and each staff member was instructed to foster discussion with Swiss guests.
“Your job was to find someone, engage in conversation, and make sure that there were opportunities to advance the U.S. position on something correctly,” he says. “She’d look daggers at you if you were off in the corner with another American.”
Ambassador Whittlesey traveled to Swiss cultural and political events at every opportunity and accepted interviews with local and national media outlets—sharing Reagan’s foreign-policy vision wherever she went. During her travels, she met a student at the University of Zurich named Patricia Schramm. Schramm calls Whittlesey “a tough, iron lady. She was a very outspoken, determined ambassador.” Schramm remembers vividly a time when Whittlesey spoke at the University of Zurich about the Iran-Contra affair. The event quickly turned chaotic: anti-American protesters tried to steal the American flag out of the room and a violent tussle ensued. “There was a lot of anti-Americanism in Europe at that time,” Schramm observes. “But she was out defending the U.S. position.”
Whittlesey was often “stirring up attention in the press,” according to Sears. “There were a lot of big issues on the world stage that made Ronald Reagan controversial. But if you know of one Switzerland ambassador who is still believed and looked up to, it’s Faith.”
This is because, despite her staunch “iron lady” beliefs, Whittlesey was also a gracious diplomat. At the very beginning of her term as Swiss ambassador, she faced a tense U.S.-Swiss disagreement over U.S. stock markets and Swiss banks. “U.S. authorities pressured the Swiss to alter longstanding national laws to protect client privacy in the financial industry,” Carty explains. When Whittlesey discovered that the U.S. Treasury Department was preparing to file lawsuits against Swiss banks, she put pressure on U.S. officials to come to Switzerland and hold discussions with the bankers.
“Whittlesey personally coached both sides to pursue a mutually acceptable solution that would maintain the United States’ reputation as a trusted trade partner to Switzerland,” says Carty. The two countries came to a solution, and the crisis passed.
This desire to both understand and explain characterized Whittlesey’s work. “She projects a conservatism characterized by humility and respect for differences,” says Carty. “Rather than attempt to impose U.S. values as universal, she applied the same limited government principles to foreign policy as she did to domestic policy.”
After she had spent just over a year in Bern, Reagan’s Chief of Staff James Baker called Whittlesey and offered her the position of director of the Office of Public Liaison back in Washington. She accepted, eager to share Reagan’s vision with an American audience.
“Reagan’s foreign policy was strongly opposed—not only by Democrats, who ferociously opposed it, but by the establishment wing of his own party,” Whittlesey says. “He was called a warmonger and a cowboy.” Whittlesey began a careful and thorough outreach program from within the White House, seeking to explain Reagan’s foreign and domestic programs to a variety of interest groups, as well as to the media.
“We engaged the public, explained Ronald Reagan’s policies,” she says. “But we were just explaining: not trying to influence public opinion, but to let people know that his policies were based on facts, so they could make up their own minds once they heard the facts rationally presented.”
It wasn’t the first time: when Whittlesey campaigned for the Pennsylvania legislature in 1972, she was pregnant with her third child. As the November election neared, her pregnancy “became an object of contention,” says Carty. “Some Republican leaders cautioned Faith that tradition-bound Catholic and other voters might not vote for a pregnant candidate, and one Pennsylvania Republican leader predicted to her that she would lose the seat because of her pregnancy.”
But Faith won, and in ensuing years she cultivated a strong following of women volunteers throughout the county. Feminist groups opposed or ignored her—as Whittlesey told Carty, “They were really not ‘for all women,’ just for certain, mainly Democratic, bigger-government women.” But “ordinary women, mostly housewives and professional women, came out in droves to help me.”
Despite her disagreements with liberal feminists, Whittlesey never stopped fighting for women’s place in the political world. “The smoke-filled rooms are filled with men. I was certainly not invited in. I fought my way in,” she is quoted as saying in Carty’s Backwards in High Heels. (The title itself is a reference to how much harder Ginger Rogers had to work than her costar Fred Astaire: she had to do everything he did, only backwards and in high heels.)
Whittlesey was certainly an outsider in the White House: from March 1983 to March 1985, she was the only woman on Reagan’s 18-member senior staff. Upon her arrival in Washington, she found to her surprise that Baker and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver were planning to assign her specifically to “women’s issues.” She found the proposal demeaning. “None of these men wanted to deal with the women members of the establishment Republican Party,” she told Carty. “They wanted me to do that, which was, I believe, a completely sexist approach. In my entire political career I had repeatedly declined to be pigeonholed as someone dealing with women’s issues.”
Whittlesey “had disrupted her family life for the opportunity to serve the Reagan administration by promoting the president’s full range of administration policies,” Carty writes. She wasn’t about to be relegated to the role of “token woman on the senior staff.”
Many in the White House were worried about the “gender gap” in Reagan’s support and wanted Whittlesey to deemphasize his pro-life stance in order to garner more female voters. But she refused to ignore or gloss over Reagan’s stand. She believed a strong conservative agenda, well explained, could appeal to voters regardless of sex. Syndicated columnist Sandy Grady wrote at the time, “Women who want a strong White House voice on feminist issues, abortion, and lower Pentagon spending may not be thrilled by Mrs. Whittlesey’s views. She’s probably as far right as Reagan himself.”
In April 1985, Whittlesey returned to Switzerland for a second term as ambassador. She served there for three years, then resigned in 1988 and moved back to New York City to be closer to her family. That fall, a delegation from the American Swiss Foundation asked her to assume leadership of their association. The organization was created in 1945 to foster greater knowledge of Switzerland’s unique political traditions among an American audience and to build strong private connections between the two countries. Whittlesey accepted the position.
The most prominent of her projects at the foundation has been the Young Leaders Conference: a travel program that brings together young American and Swiss professionals. Those who attend the conference travel around Switzerland participating in a weeklong series of events, learning more about Swiss culture and government.
“Through this program, Faith has brought together over 1,000 leaders,” says Schramm, who now serves as president of the foundation. “Tocqueville talked about the importance of private associations, and her work exemplifies that. She’s built a very active foundation into a very important and powerful private association.”
“The Young Leaders Program is her baby,” Sears says. “It builds a class of people who know Switzerland better and generates a personal network. To the extent that we continue to have a good relationship with Switzerland, it will be because of those personal networks and private relationships.”
Whittlesey’s work in private diplomacy is not limited to Switzerland, however: she has also made six trips to China since 1979 and has worked extensively to better the country’s relationship with the United States.
She never thought China posed the threat to the U.S. that the Soviet Union did. “It was becoming clear to me and others,” she told Carty, “that the Chinese would be increasingly important to the U.S.—and in world events—and that communication and better understanding were desirable, despite our continued strong disapproval of their oppressive governing system.”
On a trip to China in 2005, she was alarmed at the hostility she sensed amongst the Chinese toward the U.S. because of the Iraq War and George W. Bush’s interventionist policies. “They seemed to think everyone in the U.S. was a warmonger,” she says. Whittlesey tried to explain that she—along with many other Americans—did not agree with the administration’s bellicosity and was in fact desirous of a more cautious foreign policy.
The next year, she was invited to bring a larger delegation to China and seized the opportunity to introduce the country’s officials to a broader array of conservatives. Her delegation included Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and Georgetown University Professor Joshua Mitchell.
Whittlesey was a “constant diplomat” on the trip, Mitchell recalls. She presented her delegation as those who had reservations about U.S. policies in the Middle East. The team was diverse, and its participants disagreed on various political issues. But uniformity was not the point—indeed, Mitchell says, “she knew there were differences among us. She knew the dance we’d be doing together with different positions. She just let it happen, she didn’t dictate.”
“I brought groups over there to have discussions,” Whittlesey says. “It was private public diplomacy. But I believe we have to work on a peaceful resolution of our differences with China. I know some in the Republican Party believe a conflict with China is inevitable, but I believe it would be disastrous. We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario but be constantly working on a best-case scenario.”
Whittlesey often surprises those who view Reagan’s foreign policy as interventionist or neoconservative. She adamantly argues that Reagan would not have supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She expressed this view one day at the Heritage Foundation’s showing of “Reagan,” a documentary on the president released in 2011. There’s a section at the end of the movie, Whittlesey points out, which “purports to show why Reagan would’ve supported the Iraq War.” After the viewing, Whittlesey stood up. She said, “I had the privilege of working with Reagan for eight years, and I think differently. I don’t think Reagan would’ve supported these wars.”
While Reagan had a clear understanding of the threat posed by the Soviet Union, Whittlesey explains, “He decided the benefits of launching a land war would not justify the cost, and he did not respond militarily. He was cautious and prudent: he believed in giving freedom fighters in other nations material means to fight tyranny but not American boys and girls.”
Sears says he was surprised when he first heard Whittlesey express uncertainty about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “In the fullness of time, we’ve seen her skepticism validated,” he says. “She’s always watching, she understands human nature and motivation. And she cherishes life. She’s known some hard times, her life has been marked by some tragedies, and you can feel it when you’re with her. The idea that we’re sending young men and women into conflict without a clear understanding of why really gets to her.”
Whittlesey believes the current plight of religious minorities and refugees in the Middle East is a direct result of U.S. interventions in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “Every time we go in and change a government in the Middle East, it seems to get worse,” she notes. While we should be grateful for our unique political system, she says, we mustn’t forget that it is inextricably tied to our historical background. “To send our precious young men and women to impose this system on other countries that don’t have our historical background is folly, and a waste of their lives and limbs.”
Schramm observes that America’s relationship with much of Europe has been severely damaged by foreign interventionism. “Faith’s example of diplomacy is to go to that country, listen to the leaders and what they think, take them seriously, and let their opinions flow into the public discourse in the U.S.,” she says. “This would prevent us from running roughshod over foreign relations.”
This sort of diplomacy deeply influenced Whittlesey’s standing amongst the Swiss: despite the unpopular stances she often had to take during her years as ambassador, Carty writes that she cultivated a strong friendship between the two countries, “based on shared understanding and mutual respect.” Sears says Whittlesey is “revered” in Switzerland: “I can’t think of any American ambassador who is respected as she is.”
Yet despite the esteem she has garnered overseas, Whittlesey’s name is still relatively little known in Washington. “She leads discreetly in the background,” notes Schramm. “In a way, perhaps, she is a bit of a loner. People don’t really understand her politics: how can you be a former Reagan Republican who is against interventionism abroad?”
But in this sense, as Mitchell notes, Whittlesey is simply a traditional conservative, who believes that limits and tradition still matter. “She is trying to reestablish what Republicanism should mean to the broader public,” he says. “She wants a refined view in simple formulations. She will fight if necessary, but she starts with diplomacy. Decorous conservatism—this is Faith.”
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.