Biography and History

Jacob Beam was born in Princeton, N.J. in 1908. As a young man he traveled to Europe with his father, a German language professor at Princeton, and visited his uncle who was an American minister to Yugoslavia. He attended the Kent School, and in 1929, received his B.A. from Princeton University. He studied languages in England for a year before joining the U.S. Foreign Service in 1931.

As his first assignment, Beam helped monitor the League of Nations in Geneva and was subsequently made vice-consul to the U.S. embassy there (1931-1934). From 1934 to 1940 he served as third secretary to the embassy in Berlin, and collected the embassy's first data on the Nazi movement.

An expert in European affairs and languages (he could speak Russian, French, German, Serbian and Polish), Beam was promoted to second secretary of the embassy in London (1941-1945), and was transferred back to Germany after the war to act as political advisor to the occupation forces (1945-1947). He was counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia (1949-1951) when it gained its independence from the Netherlands and served on a United Nations commission for the country. He was counselor also to Yugoslavia (1951-1952).

Though an important post, Beam's assignment as acting head of the Moscow embassy (1952-1953) offered little in the way of public glory. Because presidents and their advisors regularly bypassed the State Department during the Cold War, Beam was not given the authority that he might have had in another era. Furthermore, Soviet officials proved difficult to access and negotiate with. Thus, Beam's bemused, self-assured style was compatible with his position. He wrote humorously in his 40th Reunion book of how he helped bury Stalin in 1953: “For that event was named Special Ambassador for four hours so that the United States would not be at the end of the funeral procession. All other countries did the same, so ended up last in line.” A supervisor once commended Beam on the willingness with which he had covered “more than one annoying assignment.”

But Beam's easy-going appearance and ironic humor belied an often stubborn character, which was, according to the New York Times, “toughened in arguments and negotiations with Hitler's Nazis, Stalin's Russians and Marshal Tito's Yugoslavs, not to mention President Sukarno's Indonesians, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's Germans and General de Gaulle's Frenchmen.” Named to Communist countries by such cold warriors as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon, Beam gained the reputation of a tough-minded, “cool career diplomat,” able to take the place of a generation of Sovietologists retiring from the State Department in the 1960s.

Beam earned his first ambassadorship in 1957, when Eisenhower sent him to the U.S. embassy in Poland. During the period of his assignment (1957-1961), Poland was the only official channel of communication between the United States and Communist China. He was also ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1966-1968) during the time of the Soviet invasion, and to the Soviet Union (1969-1973) during the Nixon-era rapprochement.

In addition to these assignments, Beam held a number of titles at the State Department in Washington, including head of the Central European Division and director of the policy planning staff (1953-1957).

Beam retired after fifty years of service, though he continued to give talks and write articles about the Soviet Union and arms control, and to supply researchers with anecdotes from his experiences. He also served as a director of Radio Free Europe (1974-1977). In 1978 Beam published his memoirs of Moscow, entitled Multiple Exposure: An American Ambassador's Unique Perspective on East-West Issues. The book, which one reviewer claimed was “well written despite the author's lifelong service in the bureaucracy,” covered Communism and U.S.-Soviet politics from 1947 to 1973.

Beam died in 1993 at the age of 85.

Source: From the finding aid for MC186


  • Diplomats -- United States..
  • Jacob D. Beam Papers. 1920-1980 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC186

    Jacob D. Beam, class of 1929, was a career diplomat, serving as United States ambassador to Poland (1957-1961), Czechoslovakia (1966-1969), and the Soviet Union (1969-1973). The collection contains correspondence, reports, newspaper clippings, photographs and assorted memorabilia, documenting sixty years of Ambassador Beam's life and service.