The Catholic University of America

Alumni Relations

John McGuinness, B.A. 1967, retired U.S. Department of State foreign affairs officer

We asked this month's spotlight a few questions. Below are his answers.

AR: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

JM: I grew up in Detroit, Mich. as the oldest of 12 children in an Irish-Catholic family. After attending Catholic grade school and high school, I won a special
diocesan scholarship to Catholic University and arrived as a freshman in September of 1963. Graduating in June of 1967 with a degree in physics, I entered the Marine Corps and received my commission as a reserve officer in December. Tours with the Marines included stints as an embarkation officer with a Hawk anti-aircraft missile battalion at Twentynine Palms, Calif., and as a materiel officer with the headquarters squadron of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in DaNang, Vietnam. Going off active duty in November of 1970, I earned an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and then joined the foreign service in the fall of 1972, subsequently serving as a vice consul and commercial services officer in Izmir, Turkey, and as a first secretary and politico-military officer at the embassy in Madrid. I eventually transferred to the civil service as a foreign affairs officer in March of 1989 and worked on United Nations (U.N.) affairs, then on military and strategic analysis until retiring in 2009. I currently teach philosophy as an adjunct professor at Northern Virginia Community College.  

AR: How did Catholic University prepare you for your current career? Any specific courses that you took/experiences you had while a student?

JM: CU gave me a solid grounding in basic scientific knowledge and basic reasoning. In the religious domain, the whole atmosphere of the University was infused with the purpose of "faith seeking understanding" through the development and use of the human capacity for reason. The concurrent progress of the Second Vatican Council also generated a strong interest in considering how to update the Church for its mission in the modern world, and how to implement this "aggiornamento." This helped inspire in me an interest in seeking to contribute to the improvement of life in our times through playing a role in international affairs.

Father Smolko's course in the history of philosophy further stimulated my interest in philosophy and helped spur me to get my M.A. in the field.

AR: Were there any specific faculty members who mentored you?

JM: Jerry Daly, a graduate assistant in the physics department, strongly encouraged me to stick with physics as my field of concentration.

AR: What clubs and organizations were you a part of, if any? How did they prepare you?

JM: I was in Phi Kappa Theta fraternity, serving as chapter president in 1966. In the Air Force ROTC program, I led the Brennan Rifles drill team in 1964-1965. These experiences helped develop leadership and management skills that proved invaluable in my subsequent work in the military and diplomatic services.

AR: What was it like to be a foreign affairs officer? What were your duties?

JM: A foreign affairs officer works in Washington at the Department of State in support of U.S. diplomatic efforts worldwide. I spent the bulk of my 20 years as a foreign affairs officer working on the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In particular, I served as the U.S. negotiator on institutional arrangements to support the outcomes of the conference, culminating in the establishment of the U.N. Committee on Sustainable Development. The latter part of my work on foreign affairs involved supervising intelligence analysis on military affairs and on the threat of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction.

AR: What sparked your interest in going into this field?

JM: My time at Catholic University during the Second Vatican Council stimulated an interest in doing some good in the world, and my service in the Marine Corps as well as my studies in ethics at the University of Chicago reinforced this interest and helped direct it toward international affairs.

AR: How did your work assist the State Department?

JM: Foreign affairs officers provide a more continuous basis for institutional memory in support of the diplomacy generally carried out by foreign service officers who are posted abroad and reassigned from place to place every two or three years.

AR: What is the most interesting thing that you came across in your line of work?

JM: My two years spent in preparing for and then attending the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development and helping to negotiate the establishment of the follow-on Committee on Sustainable Development was perhaps the most productive experience that I had as a foreign affairs officer. In terms of pure interest, the nine months I spent in late 2000 and early 2001 as a special negotiator with the Government of Sudan on improving counter-terrorism measures provided the most exciting experience, with 10-day trips to Khartoum every month and a half during a period when the official U.S. presence in Sudan had been reduced to a bare minimum.

AR: Have you traveled extensively? With your family -- what was unique about that?

JM: We were posted to Izmir, Turkey, for two years, 1973-1975, and to Madrid for three years, 1981-1984. Both were enriching experiences for me and my family. We had extensive opportunities to immerse ourselves in the Turkish, then in the Spanish, cultures and acquire some working knowledge of the Turkish and Spanish languages. These experiences helped stimulate my daughter Dawn's interest in an Army career as a foreign area officer specializing in Japan, and my son John's interest in serving as a Peace Corps volunteer and subsequently as a high school science teacher in international schools overseas.

AR: What is the difference between a foreign service officer and a foreign affairs officer, if any?

JM: Basically, foreign service officers constitute the diplomatic and consular capabilities of the United States abroad; foreign affairs officers provide the substantive and administrative support for U.S. diplomacy at the Department of State in Washington. In the case of the United Nations, however, foreign affairs officers also engage directly (along with foreign service officers) in diplomatic negotiations as representatives of the United States.

AR: Do you keep in touch with friends or classmates from CUA? If so, how?

JM: My principal and most important contact among my CUA classmates is with my wife, Rosemarie Contini McGuinness, B.A. 1967, whom I met while at CU. Frankly, the most important part of my experience at CU was the opportunity to meet and subsequently marry Rosy. Secondarily, Rosy and I attend class reunions every few years and maintain correspondence with a few of our fellow classmates.

AR: How do you feel your CUA degree has helped you in your career?

JM: My degree in physics gave me a general scientific background that proved extremely useful in my work with an anti-aircraft missile unit in the Marine Corps, and subsequently in my work with the State Department on weapons of mass destruction and nuclear non-proliferation.

AR: Since this year you will be celebrating your reunion, what is one of your favorite memories of your time at Catholic University?

JM: My favorite memories are of the times I spent socializing with my classmates, and especially dating Rosy Contini, whom I subsequently married. My most interesting memories concern the assassination of President Kennedy during the fall of freshman year in 1963, and extensive memorial and funeral ceremonies following the death of the President. Those experiences are etched indelibly on my mind, but not all of them are unrelievedly grim. A few of us dressed up as seminarians, wearing black or charcoal grey suits and CU sweatshirts with white collared shirts, both turned around to look like clerical garb (if not examined too closely). With these "disguises" we were able to get into the Capitol rotunda to view the President's casket via the line provided for clergy and religious visitors, rather than enduring the much, much longer line for the general public. It wasn't very reverent, but Kennedy didn't seem to mind!

AR: Any advice you would give to CUA alumni looking to enter into this (foreign policy) field?

JM: Serve in the military or Peace Corps. Take the foreign service entrance examination. Stay abreast of foreign affairs by diligently reading the Washington Post and the New York Times. Consider subscribing to The Economist and Foreign Affairs, or at least visiting the library regularly to read the publicly available copies. Stay aware of the efforts of the Catholic Church in the world -- most of the action is abroad!

AR: Any additional information you would like to include?

JM: Cardinal McCarrick was the chaplain for undergraduate students during the mid-60's at CU, and was active -- and accessible -- in making and maintaining contact with the students.  He seemed to be someone both genuinely interested in the students, and genuinely interesting as a person. ( Some of the more "politically oriented" students speculated that he was so good, he might eventually be a candidate for a red hat!  Obviously that was a bit of a stretch...) This is just a noteworthy example of the value of the contacts lay students can make with the clerical and religious students at CU --  the University provides a unique opportunity to interact with the front-line elements of the church militant in a more casual and unofficial manner than one normally finds available in ordinary parish life.  These are people worth getting to know as people and fellow Catholics.


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