According to history.state.gov, the United States remained in Cuba as an occupying power until the Republic of Cuba was formally installed on May 19, 1902 following the defeat of Spain in 1898. On May 20, 1902, the United States relinquished its occupation authority over Cuba, but claimed a continuing right to intervene in Cuba. Diplomatic relations and the U.S. Legation in Havana were established on May 27, 1902, when U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary Herbert Goldsmith Squiers presented his credentials to the Government of the Republic of Cuba. Following an act of Congress, the U.S. Legation in Havana, Cuba, was raised to Embassy status on February 10, 1923, when General Enoch H. Crowder was appointed Ambassador. The United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961, citing unwarranted action by the Government of Cuba that placed crippling limitations on the ability of the United States Mission to carry on its normal diplomatic and consular functions.
Today, after over 50 years, a new day. For once, instead of boots on the ground, diplomatic negotiations and engagement made this day possible. It appears that we have rediscovered the non-coercive instruments of statecraft (as Ambassador Chas Freeman spoke about so eloquently), that persuaded the Cubans that they can benefit by working with us rather than against us. A big shout-out to our diplomats who labored so hard to get us here!
“I remain mystified by the fact that the use of a private e-mail account apparently went either unnoticed or unremarked upon during the four-year tenure in office of the former secretary” […] ”Simply put, where was everyone? Is there any record indicating that any lawyer, any FOIA officer, any records person, any high-level official ever respectfully confronted the former secretary with reasonable questions about the practice of sending e-mails from a private account? It is unfathomable to me that this would not have been noticed and reported up the chain.”
The American Foreign Service Association will honor Ambassador Bill Harrop with its 2015 Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the Department of State on June 9, 2015.
When Ambassador Harrop was IG (he was the last Foreign Service Officer to serve as Inspector General), there was a non-career, politically appointed ambassador in a Scandinavian country who was actually going out and picking up prostitutes in a park of the capital city. Yup, happened before. And there was that career Foreign Service ambassador whose wife was writing a book and using the ambo’s Foreign Service secretary and word processor and copying equipment for the project. Boy, oh, boy! He also served as Principal Officer in Zaire in the 1960’s where his ambassador complained about the president and the foreign minister saying, “I am awakened at all hours of the night, either by the megalomaniac or by the schizophrenic. I never know which one will be on the other end of the line with some crazy ultimatum.”
On why people get a Washington job:
The “culture” of the Foreign Service had been that people who came into it expected they’d be mainly living overseas. There was some resistance, but gradually people began to understand that if you wanted to have an impact on policy, perhaps the best place to be was Washington. In my view the work was more difficult, more demanding, less well compensated financially, and certainly more fatiguing in Washington, with fewer diversions, less interest and variety than overseas. However, ambitious people began to see that Washington was probably a place they should focus on if they wanted to get ahead in their careers. That view was beginning to be appreciated by 1960.
And even more appreciated now. Ambassador Harrop was interviewed for ADST’s Oral History project. You may read the transcript of that interview here (pdf).
The award announcement via afsa.org:
The American Foreign Service Association is delighted to name career diplomat William C. Harrop as recipient of the 2015 Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award, honoring his extraordinary commitment to advancing the field throughout his career in the Foreign Service, as well as through subsequent diplomacy-focused efforts in the nonprofit sector.
During his 39-year career as a Foreign Service officer, Ambassador Harrop served as U.S. Ambassador to Guinea, Kenya, Seychelles, Zaire and Israel. He also held positions as Inspector General of the State Department and Foreign Service, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, member of the State Department Policy Planning and Coordination Staff, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Australia. While the breadth and prestige of his appointments attests to the quality of Ambassador Harrop’s diplomatic work, his excellence in the field has also been recognized officially. Ambassador Harrop received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award and State Department Distinguished Honor Award, as well as the 2001 Foreign Service Cup.
Since 1958, Ambassador Harrop has served as an influential leader within AFSA. He was chair of the Scholarship Committee in his first year of membership and, through hard work and dedication to the organization, rose to become AFSA President in 1971, a position he held for two years. Ambassador Harrop continues to demonstrate his commitment to his fellow Foreign Service colleagues and friends as a director of the Senior Living Foundation. He also sponsors AFSA’s F. Allen ‘Tex’ Harris Award for Constructive Dissent by a Foreign Service Specialist and the Nelson B. Delavan Award for Exceptional Performance by an Office Management Specialist. He also provides support for AFSA as director of the Delavan Foundation.
In his post-career work, Ambassador Harrop continues to show a remarkable level of commitment to the profession, dedicating his time and expertise to numerous organizations that seek to recognize the importance of diplomacy in American life and history. He has worked with the American Academy of Diplomacy, American Diplomacy Publishers, and the Henry L. Stimson Foundation. As president and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Museum Council, Ambassador Harrop spearheaded the effort to create the U.S. Diplomacy Center, a museum and education center that focuses on the vital role of American diplomacy in our nation’s past and future. Thanks to the efforts of Ambassador Harrop and the rest of the committee, construction on the USDC began this year.
Ambassador Harrop has contributed to several books and publications on diplomacy. As chairman of the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Program Committee, he launched the books First Line of Defense (AAD, 2000) and Commercial Diplomacy (AAD, 2004) and provided support for American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013), as well as America’s Other Army (CreateSpace, 2012). In association with the Foreign Policy Association, Ambassador Harrop is currently developing a PBS film on notable U.S. diplomats.
The innumerable ways in which Ambassador Harrop has sought to advance the field of diplomacy serve as a testament to his lifelong commitment to the profession. His contributions demonstrate his determination to garner for diplomacy, and his fellow diplomats, the recognition they deserve as essential to the formation and execution of U.S. foreign policy.
Previous recipients of this award include U. Alexis Johnson, Frank Carlucci, George H.W. Bush, Lawrence Eagleburger, Cyrus Vance, David Newsom, Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering, George Shultz, Richard Parker, Richard Lugar, Morton Abramowitz, Joan Clark, Tom Boyatt, Sam Nunn, Bruce Laingen, Rozanne Ridgway, William Lacy Swing, George Landau and Charles Stuart ‘Stu’ Kennedy.
AFSA invites friends and colleagues of Ambassador Harrop to attend the AFSA Awards Ceremony on June 9 at 4:00 p.m. in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the Department of State. There we will celebrate Ambassador Harrop’s incredible generosity, fortitude and devotion to the goal of making the achievements of the Foreign Service known to the American public.
We’d like to note that Ambassador Harrop has extended his remarkable generosity to this blog. He is one of 375 individuals who generously supported the GFM campaign to help keep us online this year. Our heartfelt felicitations!
On May 5, Secretary Kerry made a brief stop in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. He is the first Secretary of State ever to visit Somalia. He met with Somalian leaders at the Mogadishu airport but did not go into town. State Department official told the press that this is due to “a huge, huge logistical and security challenge.”
“The last thing we need is something to happen when the Secretary is on the ground. And I don’t think we have the confidence of taking him out of – off the grounds of the airport…
[W]e’re making plans to make our presence more enduring in Somalia. As you know, we announced a new Foreign Service career ambassador for Somalia, and once that ambassador is on the ground, our office will continue to be here in Kenya. But once the ambassador is on the ground, we’re going to have a much more enduring TDY footing in Somalia. We’re going to be there much more regularly with a bit of a – a bit more larger footprint.
Below is a quick recap of US-Somali relation via history.state.gov:
1960 | Somalia achieved its independence in 1960 with the union of Somalia, which had been under Italian administration as a United Nations trust territory, and Somaliland, which had been a British protectorate.
1960 | Diplomatic relations were established on July 1, 1960, when the U.S. Consulate General at Mogadiscio (now Mogadishu) was elevated to Embassy status, with Andrew G. Lynch as Chargé d’Affaires.
1969 | The Somali army launched a coup which brought Mohamed Siad Barre to power. Barre adopted socialism and became allied with the Soviet Union. The United States was thus wary of Somalia in the period immediately after the coup.
1977 | Barre’s government became increasingly radical in foreign affairs, and in 1977 launched a war against Ethiopia in hopes of claiming their territory. Ethiopia received help from the Soviet Union during the war, and so Somalia began to accept assistance from the United States, giving a new level of stability to the U.S.-Somalia relationship.
1980s | Barre’s dictatorship favored members of his own clan. In the 1980s, Somalis in less favored clans began to chafe under the government’s rule. Barre’s ruthlessness could not suppress the opposition, which in 1990 began to unify against him.
1991 | After joining forces, the combined group of rebels drove Barre from Mogadishu in January 1991. No central government reemerged to take the place of the overthrown government, and the United States closed its embassy that same year, although the two countries never broke off diplomatic relations. The country descended into chaos, and a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions began to unfold.
1991| The U.S. Embassy closed on January 5, 1991, and all U.S. personnel were withdrawn after the collapse of the central Somali government.
1992 | In December 1992, the United States began Operation Restore Hope. President George H.W. Bush authorized the dispatch of U.S. troops to Somalia to assist with famine relief as part of the larger United Nations effort.
A Marine sentry prepares to close the gate to the Joint Task Force Somalia headquarters during the multinational relief effort Operation Restore Hope. (Department of Defense/Joe Gawlowicz)
1993 | On October 3, 1993 Somali warlord Muhammad Farah Aideed’s forces shot down two Black Hawk helicopters in a battle which lead to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis. The deaths turned the tide of public opinion in the United States. President Bill Clinton pulled U.S. troops out of combat four days later, and all U.S. troops left the country in March 1994.
1995 | The United Nations withdrew from Somalia in March 1995.
2013| The United States did not sever diplomatic relations with Somalia. Through the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, the United States maintained regular dialogue with transitional governments and other key stakeholders in Somalia, and after January 17, 2013, with the newly recognized central government of Somalia.
The 2016 presidential election is some 18 months away. Some folks who are hoping to land a gig at some of our European embassies are expecting to get busy just about now. About 2/3 of all ambassadorial appointments will go to career diplomats but about a third will still go to top supporters of the winning candidate, most of them heavy lifters when it comes to rounding up funds to help get their candidate elected. That’s not going to end anytime soon. See list of Obama Bundlers via OpenSecrets. Click here for Obama’s ambassadors during his first term, click here for the current appointees. Click here for George W. Bush’s Pioneer Fundraisers who got similar appointments. @PhilipArsenault has the breakdown of appointments for both presidents, both terms here.
In any case — apparently, the not quite so rich has a new lament this election cycle. “Who needs a bundler when you have a billionaire?” One fundraiser interviewed on WaPo says, “Bundlers felt they were part of the process and made a difference, and therefore were delighted to participate. But when you look at super-PAC money and the large donations that we’re seeing, the regular bundlers feel a little disenfranchised.” All that money is moving the ground under their feet, and disrupting the status of the new incarnation of rangers, pioneers, and bundlers.
It is highly unlikely that the next President of the United States will appoint Super-PACs as ambassadors to Paris, London, Madrid or Brussels, etc.. So folks, calm down! While waiting for the call, folks should gear up learning about what American ambassadors do. Oh, interested individuals also need to figure out which posts to avoid for various reasons. It could be that the official ambassador residence is too small, or smaller than the house the appointee is accustomed to, or too old, or needs a new roof, or new paint, or new floors, or has bad toilets (and new appointee ends up supervising repairs and all that). So put that on the to-do list but for now, an excellent book to read is Ambassador Dennis C. Jett’s book, American Ambassadors, The Past, Present and Future of American Diplomats, because it’s delightful and informative and everyone should know what he/she is getting into. Also mark your calendars; the author will be giving a talk on the book at AFSA on June 11th from 2:00 to 3:30 pm. Many thanks to Ambassador Jett and Palgrave Macmillan’s Claire Smith for permission to share an excerpt from the book with our readers.
On the face of it, the first ambassador for whom I worked seemed perfect for the job. If the director of a movie called up central casting and told them to send over actors to audition for a role as an ambassador, he would have been a shoo-in for the part. He had, in fact, been an actor, costarring in movies with Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Temple. He had also been a successful politician, elected to Congress twice and as governor of Connecticut. The Connecticut Turnpike is named after him.
He came from a wealthy and illustrious lineage—his family included a senator, an admiral, and another ambassador. They could trace their roots back to the pilgrims. Tall, handsome, and silver-haired, he was fluent in several languages. According to one expert on style, he was “one of the most polished gentlemen in America” for more than half a century. He was also named ambassador three times by three different presidents. In referring to him, a journalist once wrote: “If the United States could be represented around the world the way it is represented in Argentina, it would be loved by the peoples of all nations.”
In reality, the ambassador was a disaster—and a dangerous one at that. Although he seemed to some to be the perfect diplomat, those who knew him better considered him, in effect, a threat to national security. The reason for such a divergence of opinion is that there is more to being an ambassador than simply glitz and glamour.
And when it came to John Davis Lodge, there was little else.
I did not know all of that when I was assigned to Buenos Aires as my first diplomatic posting. In early 1973, I had only been in the Foreign Service for a few weeks. All newly minted Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are introduced to the State Department through a six-week course, a kind of boot camp for bureaucrats. There the raw recruits get basic training about the government they are to represent. Toward the end of the course, the fledgling FSOs are given a list of all the postings in the world that are available for their first tour of duty. They have to decide on their preferences and then hope that the personnel system answers their prayers.
Having grown up and been educated mainly in New Mexico, where the Hispanic and Native American cultures had an influence on even a transplanted Northeasterner like me, I decided Latin America would be my first choice. Because Argentina seemed the most exotic of the possibilities in the southern hemisphere, that country was at the top of my list. As luck would have it, none of my peers ranked it as high, so the job was mine. But first I had to take additional training, including learning Spanish.
It was then that I came across an article in the Washington Post about Lodge written by Lewis Diuguid, the paper’s Latin American correspondent. In essence, the article said that Lodge was all style and no substance; dinners at the elegant ambassadorial residence inevitably dissolved into songfests, with Lodge belting out his favorite tunes from Broadway shows. The article claimed that Lodge kept four staff members in the embassy’s information section engaged full time in trying to get the local press to run photos and articles about his latest social activities.
Diuguid implied that Lodge’s desire to appear in the newspapers did not extend beyond photographs and the society pages. The article went on to quote anonymous sources, who said a serious conversation with Lodge was impossible and that if anyone had any real business to conduct with the embassy, they went to see the deputy chief of mission, the number two person in any embassy and one who is always a career diplomat.
As I read the article, I found it hard to believe it was not grossly exaggerated. I wondered how someone in such an exalted position could be such an apparent lightweight. A few weeks after arriving in Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to witness Lodge in action. He gave a large formal dinner at the residence for a visiting official from Washington. It was not a social occasion but rather an important opportunity to gather impressions on how the new government would conduct itself. One big question was whether Peronist officials would even come to the dinner. It was feared they might not if hostility toward the United States was going to again be one of Peron’s policies.
The evening unfolded, however, as if the Diuguid article had scripted the event. At the end of the sumptuous meal, as coffee and dessert were being served, Lodge called over an accordionist who had been providing soft background music. With this accompaniment, he burst into song while still seated at the table and rolled off a number of tunes. We all then adjourned to the ballroom, where he continued the entertainment. Among his favorite Argentine guests was a couple whom he summoned to join him at the grand piano. While the husband played, the wife and Lodge sang duets from Porgy and Bess and other Broadway hits.
As the show dragged on, the Peronist officials signaled they wanted to talk to the visiting official and the deputy chief of mission privately, so they all slipped off to the library. The Peronists made it clear that the new government would be open to a constructive and productive relationship with the United States, unlike in the past. This was a significant shift in policy that would be welcomed in Washington.
Finally, after the songfest, the guests began bidding the Lodges good night and thanking them profusely for the evening. The embassy staff members were always the last to leave; it was customary to stay until dismissed by the ambassador. As we waited for this to happen, Lodge learned of the discussion that had taken place in the library while he was singing in the ballroom. He became furious at his deputy, ranting that he had been stabbed in the back before but never in his own home. Unmoved by the success of the discussions, Lodge continued to berate the poor man in front of all of us. That evening I learned an important lesson: a country is not well served by an ambassador who thinks entertaining is the most important of his duties.
When Henry Morgenthau, Sr. resigned in 1916 as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, his reasons included his “failure to stop the destruction of the Armenians.” Ambassador Morgenthau’s story is available to read online here. It was not until the Second World War when we had a term for the intentional destruction of an entire people.
In 1943 Raphael Lemkincoined the word “genocide” to characterize the intentional mass murder of a whole people, basing the concept on the Nazi extermination of Jews and the Ottoman massacres of Armenians. He worked tirelessly to achieve the United Nations Convention against Genocide and was among the representatives of four states who ratified the Genocide Convention. Raphael Lemkin is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary for coining the term “genocide” by combining Greek genos(γένος), “race, people” and Latin cīdere “to kill” in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) (via).
via WWI Document Archive
This is a follow-up post to 1915 Armenian Genocide — The “G” Word as a Huge Landmine, and Diplomatic Equities. In February 2005, Ambassador John M. Evans who was appointed to Armenia the previous year, went on a speaking tour in the United States. During the tour, he used the word “genocide” to refer to the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 and lost his job for it. His oral history interview is an interesting window into the bureaucracy, about “not rocking the boat, about dictated apologies (he didn’t write his), and how to apologize but not on substance. His story also includes how the local Armenian employees at Embassy Yerevan mistranslated the “events of 1915” into “Armenian genocide” on the embassy’s website. Then, there was a senator who strongly complained that when “a U.S. policy compels an ambassador to distort the truth or at the very least to engage in convoluted reasoning it’s time to think about changing the policy.” Can you guess who is this senator?
Ambassador Evan’s trip started in New York with meeting the Archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and parishioners, a visit to the Hovnanian School in northern New Jersey, and a stop in Watertown outside Boston, which, apparently is an old center of Armenian settlement and where there is a small Armenian Library and Museum.
Q: Somewhat akin to the collection at the Holocaust Museum.
EVANS: That’s right. And I toured the museum and was very much, I must say, touched by that. I then went into a community discussion and the question did come up and it was there in Watertown that I first said, “yes, I do believe that your people suffered a genocide.” And I went on to try to explain U.S. policy and to say that this event took place 90 years ago, the United States has broad and deep interests in the Middle East. Turkey is a nation of some 70 million, of enormous strategic importance, economic importance, political weight and particularly now, after 9/11, when our relations with the Muslim world are fractured. And so I was honest about my conviction that this event had taken place but I clearly had stepped over a policy line; the State Department did not use the word “genocide” although President Reagan had used it in 1981, for example. And, as I later found out, in 1951, in a formal filing at The Hague, the United States had referred to the Armenian massacres as a prime example of the crime of genocide. So there the line was crossed in Watertown.
I next flew from Boston…Oh, I should say that the reaction of the crowd was subdued. First of all, I wasn’t telling them anything they themselves didn’t already know. We continued our discussion over dinner, a very intelligent crowd in Boston, as you could expect, very well informed. And the next day I flew to Los Angeles.
I expected that perhaps the word of my transgression would have reached Los Angeles but it hadn’t and I continued with my program, which involved a very large student/faculty group at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) where the issue came up again, and again I repeated the same thing, basically, that yes, I did believe that there had been a genocide in the terms of the Genocide Convention of 1948, and then I proceeded to explain the equities involved in U.S. policy, why we needed the cooperation of Turkey. And so there was some debate and discussion about that.
EVANS: And I remember being impressed by the fact that in one two-hour period one afternoon we visited four different Armenian churches of different, what do you call them, different denominations, Protestant, Armenian, Gregorian and so on and so forth.[…] And we also stopped at California State University in Fresno and had a very good discussion there, which also included the issue of the genocide. And that evening, I was giving my normal talk about conditions in Armenia and a young man in the back stood up and he said, “Mr. Ambassador, are you going to give us that same cock-and-bull story that the State Department always gives us about how there was no genocide?” And somebody was taping this, which I hadn’t realized. My wife, apparently, had noticed this, but the tape has since been recovered and so I know exactly what I said at that time. To paraphrase it, I said “I accept your challenge to talk about this, and let me say what I think. I do believe it was a case of genocide.” And then I went on in the same vein and talked about U.S. equities, why U.S. policy was so attentive to Turkish public opinion and so on and so forth. But again, I had crossed over that line.
In none of these cases up to now had anything been reported in the news media but that wasn’t to be the case in San Francisco, which was our next stop. We got to San Francisco and there was a big dinner. First of all, we visited a school, an Armenian school, where the question of Nagorno-Karabakh came up and I was asked if the United States wasn’t prepared to sell out the Armenians in Karabakh. And I said that’s nonsense, we are mediating between…along with Russia and France we are mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan to find a peaceful and lasting settlement to that conflict. I mention this because later on I was accused of having violated U.S. policy on that question too. But the main event was the big dinner and…I’m sorry, it wasn’t a dinner, it was at Berkeley and it was again a student and faculty meeting. And there again, in addition to…after talking about the assistance and the economic challenges I was asked about history and once again I said the same thing, that I believe that there had been a genocide and I tried to put that in the context of modern diplomatic challenges. That got reported by a young reporter in the audience and I don’t know how quickly it got back to the East Coast but it was definitely by this time on the public record.
The next day, with Robin Phillips and my wife, I flew back to Washington and the next morning I went directly into the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, to the deputy assistant secretary, Laura Kennedy, and I said Laura, “you won’t be happy to hear this but I have breached the taboo on the word ’genocide’.” Laura was quite upset, said “I wish you’d told me first,” but then invited me to take part in a meeting with the State…what was he? Something equivalent to a State Secretary from Ankara, a Turkish, high-ranking Turkish official, to talk about U.S.-Turkish relations and about the Caucasus, and I was instructed not to say anything about the genocide. And I agree to that. So we…it was about a half a day of discussions with this Turkish official, his name was Akinci and I should get his title. Unexpectedly, towards the end of the session, Ambassador Akinci said “by the way, I just want to tell you all that there never was any such thing as the Armenian Genocide. You know, people make up the history they need and the Armenians need the Genocide to be Armenians. And besides, if we had really wanted to kill them all we would have used bullets and so this is hogwash” and on and on in that vein. The American side of the table was dumb-struck; I certainly was dumbstruck. This was a rant on the part of the Turkish official and it contained, within itself, such questionable assertions that, if anything, it only redoubled my conviction that this was an active process of denial. I parted with the Turkish ambassador by saying that the best thing that could happen…that we in Yerevan would love to see a Turkish ambassador accredited to Yerevan. Now this was my way of saying, really, you’ve got to establish diplomatic relations.
Anyway, just to finish up this story, I left Washington… and then got back to Yerevan, where I found on my desk two telegrams, one of which was a dictated apology for my words, written by the State Department, which I was instructed to post on the website of the embassy; in fact, it was already being put on the website by the time I got there. The other telegram was a fierce, very harsh excoriation of me for my actions written by Beth Jones, the assistant secretary, instructing me to respond on my first day in office, to explain my actions and to apologize personally to her for what she termed my “willful behavior.” And so I did respond and I apologized for having upset her but I did not retreat on the substance and I pointed out that Ronald Reagan had used the term as president and I don’t remember the exact…I basically apologized for my breach of my diplomatic duty to her but I did not apologize on the substance or I did not recant on the substance.
There followed a little hiccup in the placing of the apology on the website. In the process of transcribing the dictated apology, which used the term “events of 1915,” the transcribers putting it on the website, who were Armenian, substituted the term “Armenian genocide.” And so when it went up on the website the term “genocide” was there and apparently the Turkish ambassador or some member of his staff, in checking the Web, found that, called the State Department and said your ambassador is still using the term “genocide.” Well, as bad luck would have it, our power went off and I couldn’t get any…or the e-mail went down, more properly speaking. I couldn’t get an e-mail back to the State Department to explain what had happened and I didn’t really know what had happened. I called in my public affairs officer and said “how did this happen?” And he claimed that in the Armenian language version of the apology it had correctly used the euphemism but that in the American — the English — version it had used the term “Armenian Genocide,” and that it was an inadvertent mistake. Well, it certainly wasn’t I at that point who wanted to compound this difficulty but it happened and the fact that the e-mail was down meant that everybody in Washington was absolutely livid until I could…they could get my e-mail. They were still mad but at least they saw that it was a screw-up and not me again.
So this made life very difficult. For the rest of that week I contemplated — this was the beginning of March now of 2005 — I talked to a number of people on my staff and I came within, what would you say, within inches of resigning over this issue. And then I got a call from my wife who had stayed back in the United States and she said, “look, you haven’t told a lie, you haven’t said anything that the world doesn’t believe. The State Department is wrong about this; just stay there and do a good job.” And she had been talking to a lot of people too, and I said well, I think that’s what I’m going to do. So I did not resign.
Now, this was the Bush Administration where almost nobody ever resigned for doing things much worse than what I had done. So I decided to just stay there, see what would happen.
EVANS: They’re there. And indeed, in our last session I described to you my frustration at not being able to get the European Bureau to align its own Background Notes with the President’s much more forward-leaning statements on the Armenian Genocide. The President had referred to those events as “massacres,” as “murder,” as “forced deportations;” that is virtually using the definition of genocide without using the word genocide, whereas the State Department lagged behind the White House. The Background Notes suggested that the…said nothing about the year 1915 and suggested that the skies were blue and there was nary a cloud in the sky. And it was indeed the Turkish Mafia in the State Department, which is strong. We have a big contingent at all times in Turkey; we have consulates, we have people assigned there and coming back to the Turkish desk and, quite frankly, Laura Kennedy, the deputy assistant secretary, an old friend, had served in Turkey, and it was she who basically said “no, we’re not going to rock the boat at all.” And so when I did this it was out of frustration that we could not put our best foot forward on this issue as the White House had done; we the State Department were behind the White House.
This was a time of change in the State Department. I had made my remarks right at the cusp when Secretary Powell had left and Secretary Rice was just coming in and Beth Jones was ending her tenure. In fact, the Monday on which I sent my apology, my cable response to her was her last day at work. The new team that came in with Secretary Rice was composed of people who had been at the White House, and they apparently came in with a mandate to straighten out the State Department after the Powell days when they thought that the State Department was soft on Bush Administration positions. And I believe I got, to some extent, caught up in that.
After my apology had been published on the website in the correct version, not using the term Armenian genocide but the euphemism, I of course did not return to that subject as ambassador in Armenia. But then the award came through, the Christian Herter Award nomination, and I was asked would I come back in June to receive the award and I thought no, better not do that but I will send a statement. And in the statement that I composed I said “in all fairness this award should be given posthumously to President Ronald Reagan, who was the first American official to correctly term the events of 1915 a genocide, and not to me.” And then I said that the monetary award should be given to the AFSA scholarship fund.
Well, the next thing that happened was we were in the midst of a visit by a senator and a cable came in summoning me immediately to Washington. And I said I’ve got to finish this congressional visit but I can be there such and such a day so I came back to Washington on that day, arriving late in the day at Dulles; I was immediately asked to go see Dan Fried, the new assistant secretary of state for European affairs. When I got there it was clear this was a hanging court. A representative of the director of personnel was there, somebody from the European management bureau and Assistant Secretary Fried excoriated me in the harshest possible terms. What I particularly remember is he said, “how dare you jam the President on this?” And my answer was I had no intention of “jamming the President”; I simply was not going to continue in this misleading of American citizens. And he said, “well, what are you doing about the Christian Herter Award? Did you reject it?” And I said “no, I didn’t.” And he said, “well, you had better arrange that they don’t give it to you.” It turned out the following week the Turkish prime minister was to be in town and had meetings at the White House.
So I called my friends at AFSA and I said “look, I very much appreciate this award, it’s very kind of you to think of me. I know you probably felt you were throwing me a lifeline but maybe you ought to rethink it.” So the AFSA people went back and scratched their heads and came up with a technicality and rescinded the award, which they’d never done before. So that year, 2005, the Christian Herter Award was not awarded to anyone.
And the other thing that came out of my meeting with Assistant Secretary Fried who, by the way, previously had worked for me on the Soviet desk, he said “well, you’re going to have to leave.” And I said “well, it’ll take you a year to get another ambassador out there. Why don’t you at least let me finish up. I’m doing a great job.” And nobody disagreed that my work there in Armenia was fine. And he sort of mumbled and grumbled and I went back to Yerevan. We were just about to celebrate July 4 and I got a cell phone call in which Dan said “your job will be listed as a vacancy in this cycle and you will be leaving a year early.” I said, “okay.” But now, nobody else on my staff knew that; I was the only one who knew that I was to be replaced a year early.
So I continued doing my work and I, if anything, knowing that I only had another year, I was hyperactive, probably. I traveled all around, I did everything I could and packed a lot into that final year and then, sure enough, in the spring of 2006 it was announced that the President intended to nominate Richard Hoagland to be my successor. And I conveyed that to President Kocharian and obtained the agrément of the Armenian government.
But what happened back here in Washington was that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when it came time to confirm Dick Hoagland, who’s an old friend, as my successor, picked up on some things he said about the, I think it was that he said the “alleged Armenian Genocide” or the “alleged genocide,” and the committee did not confirm him. It was split not along party lines; there were Democrats and Republicans on both sides. What I didn’t know at the time was that one of the senators on the committee wrote a very strong letter to Secretary Rice saying that when U.S. policy compels an ambassador to distort the truth or at the very least to engage in convoluted reasoning it’s time to think about changing the policy. That senator was Barack Obama. I had, however, to comply with the…Well, when Dick was not confirmed I asked the State Department if they wanted me to stay and they said no, come home, and then of course it was clear that I had to retire. So I came home in September 2006 and retired even though I still had time, theoretically, on my clock and the post was vacant for another year until a new nominee was put forward, Masha Yovanovitch, who handled the question rather more adroitly. I think also the State Department had learned something by then. Dan Fried had gone so far in testimony in March of 2007 as to term the events of 1915 “ethnic cleansing.” Ethnic cleansing is a euphemism for genocide. It is what the perpetrators call genocide but it is considered in international law to be a crime. So the State Department had moved a long way and it was felt that it was time for there to be another American ambassador there. I also think that Masha was better in her…she conveyed a sense of sympathy, a sincerity about the tragedy that befell the Armenians, which helped her be confirmed.
Q: Were you getting any reflections of your statements and all in the United States in Yerevan, from the government, from other people because was this played up or was there- Well anyway, was there recognition?
EVANS: Yes, it did become controversial in Yerevan although I continued not to discuss the issue publicly. I was mute on the issue publicly with one exception. After the AFSA award was given to me, my wife organized a birthday party for me in the middle of May, 2005. And to my surprise she got up at to make a toast and she told the guests at the dinner…there were about 18 people there and I guess some of them were Armenian officials, the deputy foreign minister was there and there were some ambassadors and my own deputy, Anthony Godfrey, and she read the citation for the Herter Award and said she was so proud of me for having won this, and I had to respond and I said, I made a kind of joke of it, I said “you know, having spent so many years in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union now I know what it feels like to be a dissident.” Now somehow that remark got back to the State Department and they were not happy. But there was controversy in the Armenian press; I mean, they were very complimentary of me for having said what I said but there were also conspiracy theories that you tend to get in that part of the world. Some of them may have been Iranian, instigated from Iran, I don’t know, but there was quite a swirl of controversy, and of course the Armenian-American newspapers were full of this news as well.
Now, perhaps…There were two things that happened. Because it was 2005 — the ninetieth anniversary of the genocide — there was a major international conference that took place in Yerevan and the foreign minister invited all ambassadors to attend it. I was told by my staff that I had better ask the State Department. I requested permission to attend and permission was denied — but my wife went.
And the other thing was that on April 24 of 2005…I’m sorry; it was on April 24 of 2006 now, when it was clear that I was going to be replaced and everyone understood the reason by this point or they guessed at the reason, I went to the commemoration, the annual commemoration of the Genocide, to lay a wreath, as the American ambassador has done since Harry Gilmore first did it without instructions, our first ambassador to Armenia. And when I got there, first of all there was an enormous display of yellow ribbons that had been put up by Armenians during the night. There was a long string of wires to which thousands of Armenians who go to the top of the hill to pay their respects, there’s an eternal flame there, there had been some American Armenians, “repatriates” as we called them, had gotten these yellow ribbons and they had…the Armenians, children, old people and so on, had put them on this enormous yellow wall in support of me and against my being recalled. I had been instructed to say absolutely nothing at the event, the commemoration event. When we were filing up towards the eternal flame with our wreaths, I had my defense attachés with me and the rest of the embassy staff, in fact, there was a small group of Armenian students with bells wearing yellow tee shirts, tolling their bells, and they had a big poster of some sort saying, quoting Martin Luther King, saying “in the end what we will remember is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” And that was in both Armenian and English. So I couldn’t say anything, but I noted this group of young people. And then I laid my wreath. My wife was with me and the staff. And then as we exited there was a huge group of television cameramen and reporters and the way it works is you emerge from a kind of a staircase and there was this phalanx of reporters but I had instructions to say nothing. But there were about 10 microphones in my face and I said “God bless you all” and then went to my car. I’m told that people cried, viewers of the television that day broke into tears, at that point.
Ambassador Evan’s full oral history interview via ADST is available here (pdf). Also the LA Times has a recent piece on Ambassador Evans in The diplomat who cracked.
The internal debate is not new. A good reading would probably be the oral history interview with Ambassador John M. Evans who was ambassador to Armenia from 2004-2006. He lost his job during the Bush II administration after calling the Armenian killings a genocide. See Country Reader Armenia via ADST. Excerpt below on how the “g” word has become a bureaucratic landmine.
Q: Did you, while you were getting ready, did you touch into the Turkish desk?
EVANS: No, I did not. I had, during my Cox Fellowship, done a lot of reading on Ottoman history. I knew people who had been involved in Turkish affairs, of course; I’d known people all along but at that point I did not make a formal appointment at the Turkish desk.
Q: Well then, did-
EVANS: I should add to that, though, that my old friend Eric Edelman, who had succeeded me as DCM in Prague, was then ambassador in Turkey, and in a very casual encounter we had in the lobby of the State Department he said “John, don’t forget our position on the Genocide is that it was the chaos and fog of war.”
Q: So- Because the genocide or the “g” word was a huge landmine; anybody dealing-
EVANS: It was, first of all, taboo. It was not something we were to discuss. We just learned that; we weren’t told it precisely. I knew from my previous study of Ottoman history that there was a problem around this question. I didn’t know much about the facts of it and I didn’t know much about the definition of genocide, either. But I did start reading about it in the weeks leading up to my departure for Yerevan and I read more about it when I got to Yerevan. I also, before leaving, made a point of calling on the expert in our legal advisor’s office who has the unenviable job of thinking about genocide full time, and I asked him point blank, I said “had it been the case that the Genocide Convention of 1948 was in effect in 1915 would not the events of 1915 have been characterized as genocide?” And he said, “yes, of course. It’s a matter of policy, not fact; it’s a matter of policy that we do not refer to it as genocide.”
Q: Okay, why don’t we take it why? I mean, at the time, we’re talking about 2004, was it? Why was this, I mean, what was the rationale for having a policy not to call it genocide?
EVANS: I was never given a point-by-point rationale for why we did not refer to it as genocide. What I clearly understood, and I think most other people understood, was that it was Turkish official policy to deny that there had been a genocide. Turkey was our good ally, our faithful ally in NATO, had fought with us side by side in the Korean War and so on and so forth. We had big — enormous — strategic interests in Turkey and therefore in deference to Turkish policy we simply did not talk about those times or events.
Q: Did you- still talking about the early days when you were getting ready to go out there- did you chat with anybody else of your colleagues in various positions; did they bring this up or was this sort of-? You know, when you say “Armenia” it sort of- it’s hard almost not to think about the…
EVANS: Well, I did not discuss it with very many people but I did discuss the question with a couple. One was a State Department employee of the Historian’s Office, a man of Armenian background. We had a furtive lunch one day in which he told me what he knew about the question. He told me about Rafael Lemkin, the Polish legal scholar who lost 49 members of his own family in World War II in the Holocaust but who had been led to the study of atrocities and mass crimes by his hearing of the Armenian massacres in his law school days in Krakow and who had asked his professor at that time why was it that if a man commits murder and he is sent to jail whereas if a government murders a million men, women and children there’s no retribution? And his law professor had no answer and so Rafael Lemkin went out to try to find a way to make a crime of these things.
The other person I spoke to before going was, of course, Elizabeth Jones, the assistant secretary. I called on her along with the Armenia desk officer, Eugenia Sidereas. I had noticed that the Background Notes that the State Department furnishes for the use of mostly schools about each country that we have diplomatic relations with said nothing whatsoever about the events of 1915 or massacres of Armenians or anything of the sort, not to mention using the “g” word, but there was absolutely no mention of that period of history, no mention of the fact that millions of Armenians had — or at least some number of Armenians had — fled Ottoman territory and ended up in what was then Russian Armenia. There was no mention of it, whereas our President, several presidents, had made veiled and euphemistic mentions that went quite far. President Bush had talked about “massacres,” “forced deportations” and used quite…and there was even… the word “murder” had been used in a presidential statement. But the State Department’s Background Notes glossed over it entirely. And I pointed this out to Beth Jones, who’s a very smart and sensible person, and I said “don’t you think that we ought to revise the Background Notes so they at least convey as much knowledge and sympathy as the White House statements that have been made do?” And she said, “yes, I think any issue that’s of interest to our clients,” — meaning the people who read the Background Notes — “ought to be addressed.” At that point the telephone rang and we weren’t able to continue our discussion and we had worked so much together that I felt I had a very good understanding of what she wanted and how she expected her ambassadors to conduct themselves.
Q: Well in a way, when you’re looking at it, you’re trying to have relations with an important country and what’s the point in pulling the scab off, you know? Now, there are reasons for it but you know, we kind of let the Japanese get almost a free ride on World War II, on the rape of Nanking and its behavior in China.
EVANS: Yes. No, I am fully aware of the dilemma that this issue poses and you’ve put your finger on it; it is a dilemma. The dilemma is between the truth of the issue, which is now virtually unassailable when you look at what has been done in the last 20 years by historians and not all of them Armenian-American or Armenian. There are some very distinguished historians, such as Donald Bloxham in the UK (United Kingdom) and others who have made it clear that yes, what happened in 1915 did fit the definition of genocide, whatever the…I mean, it was done against the background of World War I, yes, there had been rebellions by some Armenian armed groups, yes, but if you look at that definition, the shoe fits. The dilemma for us is precisely as you said; we have a loyal NATO ally, a good ally, although in 2003 Turkey’s parliament did vote against our troops going into Iraq through Turkey and that enraged a lot of people on Capital Hill as well as in the Executive Branch. But still, the dilemma here is between historical truth, which is still disputed by Turkey but by no one else, and our diplomatic equities.
Q: First place, with Armenia, how close is- is Armenia really the- sort of the center of Armenians or is this sort of an offshoot or what? Because you’ve got Armenians in Lebanon and Syria and other parts of Turkey and all.
EVANS: Of course the Armenians as a group go way back for thousands of years, probably 3,000 or more years. They’re mentioned in the Bible, they consider themselves to be descendants of Noah’s — one of Noah’s sons — and the real…they were all over the Middle East; in various times they had had their own kingdoms but by the 19th and early 20th century the largest number of Armenians were in the Ottoman realms. The historic dividing line was between those who were in the Persian world, and that included most of the Caucasus and those that were in the Ottoman domains. So when one talks about today’s Armenia it is really on the land that way back in the 18th century was under the Persian shah, but then when the Russians moved into the Caucasus it became Russian Armenia. The genocide struck at the community of the Ottoman Empire but about 60 percent of today’s population of Armenia is descended from, or related to, those Ottoman Armenians who either fell victim to the genocide or escaped it. So in today’s worldwide Armenian community, which is about 10 million, most of those people are descendants of the Ottoman community that was so decimated: they fled to France and the United States and other places.
Q: Did you have a city full of visitors from Armenian communities in the States or elsewhere, like, you know, in France there’s a big Armenian community.
EVANS: We did have visitors from America, not from France, but we…I remember one of the big Armenian community groups, the Armenian Assembly, sent a large contingent through Armenia, through Yerevan, in the fall, it would have been in October or November of 2004, and I addressed them. And I might mention that that was the only time, in all the time I was in Armenia, that the question of the Armenian genocide arose. It never…I was never asked by an Armenian journalist about the genocide but I was asked a question by a member of this traveling group from the Armenian-American Assembly. The man got up and said, “I know what the State Department position is, that there was no genocide, but then how can you explain to me that I had no aunts, no uncles and never knew any grandparents?” And I explained to him that the United States Government had never denied the facts of what had happened in 1915, and to my knowledge we have not denied the facts, but what is at issue is the characterization of those events. And I probably at that time said that there was a question of whether there was “intent” on the part of the Ottoman officials.
Now, I should say a word about the Genocide Convention, if I may, because it was during this time that I became better educated on what the Genocide Convention really says. And what I discovered is that most of us Foreign Service officers are woefully ignorant about what the Genocide Convention says is genocide. There are basically four conditions that have to be met. First of all, “one or more persons” needs to have been killed. Now, that’s not very many: “one or more.” The group must be a “national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” It says nothing about political groups. There must be “intent” on the part of the perpetrators to do away with the group “as such,” to eliminate the group “in whole or in part”; that’s the terminology: “in whole or in part.” And the fourth condition is that these actions must take place in the context of a “manifest pattern of such actions in the past,” of discrimination against the group in the past. So all those conditions need to be met for it to be considered genocide and what had seemed to be missing was the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” members of the group.
Now, we have never found and probably nobody ever will find, a firman signed by the sultan or orders in cabinet saying, “destroy the Armenians.” In the case of the Holocaust we still have no written order by Hitler to destroy the Jews and we probably never will find that, although we do have Hitler’s signature on the Nuremburg Laws. That’s not the way these things happen. The word gets out there what’s to be done but it’s not…there’s no good paper trail because in the case of such a crime one would be a fool to leave such a paper trail.
But in 2003 and 2004, under the leadership of Marc Grossman, who had been Under Secretary of state for political affairs, there was organized something called the Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission, and that group was an independent, track-two kind of group composed of some well-known Turks and Armenians and it was called the TARC. David Phillips was the executive director of if and this Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission looked at the events of 1915, looked at the Genocide Convention, and came to the conclusion that at least some of the perpetrators of those events did know that their actions would lead to the destruction of the Armenians of Anatolia and therefore to refer to those events as genocide was fully justified, and that journalists and historians and others would be fully justified to continue to use that term. But, at the same time, the Genocide Convention could not be invoked ex post facto to — in a legal sense — bring anyone to justice. So, in short, what this commission basically decided was that historically it was a genocide but in legal terms to press that claim against the government of Turkey would be unsuccessful. And I think that was a fairly wise way of splitting the difference. All the perpetrators of those events are now, by definition, gone, most of the victims are gone. There are only…there are fewer than a hundred very old people now who were small children in 1915 and so it seems to me that’s a fair way of splitting the difference, to let the Armenians call it genocide in a historical sense but not to try to pin that crime on the Turkish state or the Turkish people today. And I was…I made myself familiar with those findings, they were brought to my attention; I met with one of the people who had worked on that and I must say I thought this was a very reasonable way forward.
Q: Well then, was sort of the bureau pushing on all this or was this something that you all thought should be done?
EVANS: Well, neither. I mean, the EUR Bureau was just carrying on its daily business as it does every day, driven by the news on the front page primarily. There was no desire to unearth old history. But it was around this time that I was asked to make a speaking tour through the United States, particularly to communities where there was a dense population of Armenian-Americans. So I was scheduled to make a tour, a speaking tour, in February 2005, starting in New York, moving up to Boston and then going to the West Coast to Los Angeles, which is the biggest concentration of Armenians in the United States, and then to San Francisco. And it was right about this time in the beginning of late January of 2005 that my wife flew back to the United States to be with our daughter, who had discovered that she needed to get a divorce from her then-husband and she was emotionally a wreck. So my wife came back to the United States, leaving me in Yerevan with a lot of books to read, and one of those books was the very fine Pulitzer Prize winning book called “Genocide: A Problem from”– no, it’s called “A Problem from Hell: America and Genocide” by Samantha Power. And so I had time to read that. And I also read a compendium of essays edited by Jay Winter of Yale University; I think it’s called “America in the Age of Genocide.” In the same period I read Peter Balakian’s prize winning book called “The Burning Tigris,” which was also about America’s response to the Armenian genocide. So whereas most ambassadors don’t have much time to read, the absence of my wife and a fairly quiet winter social season left me in my library consuming these books and becoming more and more disturbed about the dissonance between established historical fact about what happened in 1915 and U.S. policy, which seemed to me to be very much propping up the Turkish official denial of what had happened in 1915. So I became more and more, as the date for beginning my speaking tour in America came closer and closer, I realized that I was facing a huge dilemma here. I knew that I was expected to repeat the tired old message that we didn’t take a position on the genocide, that we questioned whether there had been “intent” and so on, and yet I had read enough by this time to realize that the great preponderance of historical opinion was that indeed, there was no question about it, yes, there was a genocide of the Armenians that took place 1915 through ’18. So I set off for the United States not knowing how I was in the end going to respond to questions about the Armenian Genocide.
There’s something else I ought to add at this point, Stu, about the period we were living in, and that is that our Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who I had huge admiration for, had in September of 2004, after a State Department study of the matter, Colin Powell had come out and said that he thought that what was happening in Darfur in the Sudan did constitute genocide. That was a very brave thing for him to have done. I agreed with him from what I knew of that situation and his action emboldened me to endeavor not simply to be a bystander on a question of genocide but to stand up and say something about it. Even though it was 90 years in the past I felt that someone needed to take a stand on this issue and call it what it was. I knew that this would cause difficulty for me, I knew that it was contrary to the policy of the State Department and yet I felt that I was caught in a terrible dilemma between knowingly distorting the facts of history or coming clean and trying to deal with the facts while explaining the reasons for our policy, and that was the trap that I — or those were the horns of the dilemma — that I faced. And I must say that I really didn’t know when I set out on that speaking trip which course I would take.
We will post separately the lead up to Ambassador Evan’s dismissal and eventual retirement after he used the word “genocide” during a speaking tour in California.
To read about the frustrations of dealing with inaction from Washington, see Ambassador Prudence Bushnell interview, A Soul Filled with Shame via ADST. Below is an excerpt:
Once the RPF took over Rwanda, I was sent to check things out. It was yet another surreal experience. The countryside of one of the most populous countries in the world was literally deadly quiet. Berries ready to harvest were rotting on the coffee trees; houses stood vacant. The man who served as the ambassador’s driver drove us. When we were stopped by child soldiers at checkpoints, I learned never to look them in the eye. As we drove we heard the story of how the driver had hidden and what happened to some of the other embassy employees. Many were dead.
I participated in a memorial service for the FSNs [local Foreign Service employees] who were killed. I will never forget looking into the stony faces of employees who had been abandoned by the U.S. government. American officers who came up to speak would weep, to a person. The Rwandans just looked at us. I can only imagine what they were thinking and the trauma that was still with them.
She was asked what was the rationale for not getting involved:
“We had no interest in that country.” “Look at what they did to Belgian peacekeepers.” “It takes too long to put a peacekeeping operation together.” “What would our exit strategy be?” “These things happen in Africa.” “We couldn’t have stopped it.” I could go on….
I could and did make the argument that it was not in our national interest to intervene. Should we send young Americans into a domestic firefight, possibly to be killed on behalf of people we don’t know in a country in which we have no particular interest? From the perspective of national interest, people like Richard Clarke will argue we did things right.
In terms of moral imperative there is no doubt in my mind that we did not do the right thing. I could have a clear bureaucratic conscience from Washington’s standpoint and still have a soul filled with shame.
The first female ambassador was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first term. She was the first female member of U.S. Congress and the daughter of the 41st Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.
Owen, Ruth (Bryan) (1885-1954) | Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, Denmark 1933-1936 (see Wikipedia entry).
During his second term, President Roosevelt appointed a second female ambassador, this time to Norway.
It was not until 1953 under President Eisenhower when the first female Foreign Service Officer was appointed ambassador. Frances E. Willis was appointed Ambassador to Switzerland in 1953, Ambassador to Norway in 1957, and Ambassador to Sri Lanka in 1961. She was the first female FSO conferred with the rank of Career Ambassador on March 20, 1962.
Forty years later, John Gunther Dean recalls one of the most tragic days of his life — April 12, 1975, the day the United States “abandoned Cambodia and handed it over to the butcher.”
“We’d accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise. That’s the worst thing a country can do,” he says in an interview in Paris. “And I cried because I knew what was going to happen.”
Five days after the dramatic evacuation of Americans, the U.S.-backed government fell to communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas. They drove Phnom Penh’s 2 million inhabitants into the countryside at gunpoint. Nearly 2 million Cambodians — one in every four — would die from executions, starvation and hideous torture.
Below is an excerpt from Ambassador Dean’s oral history interview conducted in 2000 for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training:
Our messages from Phnom Penh were crystal clear: if the Khmer Rouge takes control of the country, there was going to be a bloodbath. The exact word was “bloodbath.” It turned out to be even worse: a genocide.
Certainly by the end of February and the first week of March, the Khmer Rouge were pressing hard. We used that time to move as many Cambodians, Americans, and foreigners as possible to safety in Thailand. We had set up a system imagined by Robert Keeley (DCM). Ray Perkins (Chief political Section), and Tim Carney, a junior officer who spoke Cambodian. Tim became Ambassador later in his life. All those who felt endangered were sent out by plane over a period of 8 weeks before our departure. In addition, we had set up a procedure whereby key Cambodian leaders were told to send an assistant or secretary to the U.S. Embassy at 6:00 a.m. every day to find out the situation and decisions taken by us regarding taking people to safety. That system worked rather well when on this fateful day of April 12, 1975 we had decided to leave Phnom Penh by helicopter. These aides and secretaries all came on the morning of April 12. One of them was the aide to Sirik Matak. We had prepared during the night a message stating that we were evacuating, and urging the recipient of the note to come along. In his reply to this message, Sirik Matak wrote one of the most heart-wrenching letters ever sent to an American official:
Phnom Penh 12 April 1975
Dear Excellency and Friend,
I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.
You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we all are born and must die (one day). I have only committed this mistake of believing in you the Americans.
Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.
(signed) Sirik Matak
On that fateful day, I said to General Palmer that I wanted to be the last person to leave Cambodian soil. I felt like I was the captain of the ship and, as the tradition goes, the captain is the last man to leave the ship. My wish was granted. Awaiting to be called to move to the extraction site, I was sitting in my office, fully aware of the meaning of the moment for our country. I read the letter from Sirik Matak which had arrived about 45 minutes earlier. Looking out of the window, I saw the Marines taking people to the helicopters and to safety. I watched the Embassy personnel driving themselves to do all they could to help those who had thrown in their fate with us.
Nobody was turned down for evacuation, including at the last moment, Sydney Schanberg’s Cambodian staffer working for the New York Times. We took foreign nationals out, for whom we had responsibility, or even if we had no responsibility. We did not distinguish between illiterate gardeners and highly educated intellectuals. We took the Cambodian girlfriends of some of our bachelor staff members out to safety. I asked our resident military and the Marines in charge of the evacuation to take out anybody who wanted to go with us. At one point in my office, I took a pair of scissors and cut the American flag and the President’s flag off the staff of the poles which were in back of my desk in the ambassador’s office. I was trying to figure out a way of giving some form of protection to the symbol of our country and to the people whom I represented in Cambodia. Tears were rolling off my cheeks. I was alone. I took the two flags and put them over my arm. I got some plastic so they would not get wet. Unkind newspaper people wrote that I had put the flags in a body bag for dead soldiers. On our way to the helicopters, I stopped at my residence where the American flag was flying, and I struck the colors. I took the flag, the third flag, and put it with the other two flags. I asked the Cambodian staff at my residence whether they wanted to go with me. Some of them had been sent to safety before. Those who were still at the residence on April 12 thought they could stay behind without fearing for their safety. At that point, I abandoned the ambassadorial limousine and walked the rest of the way to the waiting helicopters with the American flags draped over my arm. As a Boy Scout in Kansas City, as an officer in the United States Army, and as a Foreign Service officer, I respected the Stars and Stripes as a symbol of our country. I was the last man in our Mission to leave Cambodia in a very large helicopter. One of the correspondents of an American broadcasting system sat next to me weeping because he understood what was going on. We landed on an American aircraft carrier. The entire extraction was called “Operation Eagle Pull.”
Ambassador John Gunther Dean‘s oral history interview for ADST is here (pdf-Cambodia starts on p.99). He was appointed Ambassador to Cambodia in March 1974 and he served in that posting until the Embassy was closed and all US personnel were evacuated on 12 April 1975, 5 days before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Sirik Matak, a member of the Cambodian Royal family previously served as Prime Minister of the Khmer Republic. He was offered political asylum to the United States with other high ranking Khmer Republic officials but declined. He was reportedly executed on April 21, 1975.