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A Tribute to Paul Blackburn

by Michael Schneider

Paul Blackburn’s JOT class, held in connection with the DOS junior officers. USIA officers are in capital letters. FIRST ROW: Dwight Mason; JOEL ROCHOW; Bruce Hirshorn; Edward Richards; Frederick Ashley; Gordon Streeb; Keith Smith; Joseph Lake; Arnold Nachmanoff; LEONARD BALDYGA; James Ragan.
SECOND ROW: Chester Beaman; Linda Irick; JOAN DICKIE; Lauren Jackson; MARY FATTU; Lois Matteson; MARY ANN RANEY; MARJORIE MARILLEY RANSOM; ANNE HENEHAN OMAN; Joan Thielbar; Sandra Gransow; Thomas Duffield.
THIRD ROW: BARRY BALLOW; Bruce Kinsey; John Kelley; Laurence Anderson; Godfrey Harris; CHARLES COURTNEY; LEON LEDERER; Robert Coe; Edward Kreuser; John Boritas.
FOURTH ROW: Arthur Plaxton; Robert W. Smith; ALBERT BALL; Wilfred Declercq; PAUL BLACKBURN; Harry Gilmore; Martin Rosenberg; Alexander Sleght; Arthur Klampert; DALE MORRISON; Leroy Debold; ROBERT MCLAUGHLIN; Robert Kohn; Thomas Rohlen; PETER WOLCOTT.
FIFTH ROW: KENNETH WIMMEL; William Humphrey; William Weingarten; Townsend Friedman; FRANK STARBUCK; John D. Coffman; Ralph Oman; HAROLD RADDAY; Duane Butcher; Lewis Macfarlane; Robert Morley; Richard Greene; TALBOTT HUEY; James Newcomer; ROBERT GEIS.

In almost 60 years since we met as JOTs, I never saw Paul Blackburn miss an opportunity to encounter new ideas, engage others in a discussion, or take on a creative project. He always looked forward through mastery of the traditions and languages of other cultures.

We met in October of ’62. Our class was sworn on the day JFK announced our military embargo on Cuba. Russian ships steamed toward Havana; the world held its breath in a nuclear standoff; and we all wondered what we had signed up for.

Paul and I both went to our first posts at about the same time; he to Bangkok and I to Calcutta. We next worked together in DC in 1968 when he was Special Assistant for Dan Oleksiw, Assistant Director for East Asia and the Pacific. I doubled up as media coordinator for the Vietnam Working Group and special projects officer for the region. Times were fraught – the Tet offensive fundamentally changed the winning-losing calculus in the eyes of publics.

“Big Dan” was a demanding boss and could be blunt, but he also valued and cared for his very talented staff in IAF – Policy officer Mort Smith, then Dave Hitchcock and Ike Izenberg, desk officers Jodie Lewinsohn, Stanton Jue, Len Robuck, Ted Liu, Sandy Marlow, and Otis Hays, Jim Richardson, David Hakim, Patsy Redding, Delores Brabham, and others such as Sandy Bruckner, who started her career in IAF. Paul helped smooth the way for Dan and for the rest of us. He had a whimsical sense of humor and an uncanny capacity to preclude conflict in that pressure cooker office.

There was rebellion across the nation over Vietnam; many in the foreign affairs community also protested an antiquated and rigid bureaucracy. State created the dissent channel; USIA Director Frank Shakespeare created a Young Officers’ Policy Panel in which Paul played a leading role. He always asked why – or why not – depending on the issue. In one instance, he persuaded the Agency leadership to allow us to review a $300,000 contract with Arthur D. Little (in FY ’70 dollars) to examine and propose the reorganization of USIA. Paul’s analysis led to the cancellation of the contract, which we thought would be a waste of precious funds.

We shared academic experience in the Ph.D. program at American University. Paul had a penchant for concepts and a wonderful ability to write quickly and effectively. I saw this skill daily as his colleague in the Agency’s office of policy guidance in the late 70s.

Paul spent most of his 40-year career in four East Asian posts – Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, and China. Bea Camp remembers a time in Paul’s tour as PAO Bangkok (1984-88):

Paul practically bounced into a room. He was outgoing, caring, knowledgeable; he embodied public diplomacy. When I worked for him in Bangkok, USIS Thailand was actively involved in issues ranging from narcotics to refugees, economic development, POW/MIAs, American studies, education, and cultural programs. Paul oversaw it all with verve; working with him was fun.

For all the big diplomatic events we were part of, it’s the off-beat ones that stick with me:

Paul was enthusiastic about USIA’s new WorldNet television channel; we put up a huge TVRO (television receive-only) dish on the USIS compound in Bangkok, with monks coming to bless the installation, and plunged into programs. The one that drew the most attention was a semi-finalist for Miss Universe, a Thai woman living in Los Angeles. Paul describes in his ADST history how this WorldNet program, which was viewed skeptically in Washington for its fluffy content, dominated all the Thai channels that night and the print media the next day, a public affairs coup. I mainly remember how we managed to disguise Miss Pui’s weak Thai language skills via an off-camera interpreter who helped her understand and respond to the questions. Thai audiences reacted very positively to this young woman who movingly described how she missed her homeland while expressing her love and appreciation for the United States.

On another occasion, we arranged a reception on the Chao Phraya River, realizing only after all the guests had boarded and the boat left the dock that there was no liquor on board. Quickly dubbed “the cruise without booze,” the evening was saved from disaster as Paul marshalled the staff to repair the situation. In less than 30 minutes, a fleet of small boats were pulling up to our craft delivering Johnny Walker and other necessities for a diplomatic reception in Thailand. He made things happen.

Long after our time in Bangkok, Paul and I remained connected, sharing an affinity for Thailand. One year, at a Loy Krathong party we hosted at our house in Arlington, Paul and another guest somehow discovered they had met five decades earlier when he was a young USIS officer and she a Thai high school student headed for an AFS year in Alabama. She remembered nervously asking him to show her on the map the small town where she was headed, and her consternation when he couldn’t find it. She later became a State Department interpreter while Paul went on to a long and distinguished diplomatic career.”

One of Paul’s initiatives as PAO in Japan from ’92 to ’96 had regional impact. According to Don Bishop, Paul’s Deputy in Beijing: “…. the Seminar on East Asian Security (SEAS, with a SNEAS sub-initiative) — lasted probably two decades, bringing together leading thinkers on national security from around the region, giving them an opportunity to visit neighboring countries. As the group traveled, visits to US forces in, say, Hawaii, Japan, and Korea, were combined with meetings with regional government people. While I was in Beijing, SEAS and SNEAS came to China, which in earlier years of the Seminar had been omitted from the schedule.”

Paul became Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs in Beijing from 1997 to 2000, three critical years in US-China bilateral relations. Among other challenges, he had to deal with the errant U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. He recalled in his oral history:

“….As the demonstration got under way that afternoon, I rode my bike to a street corner by the Embassy where I could watch what was going on – all the while trying to look like a harmless senior-citizen foreigner….” Weaving throughout the demonstrators, the city near the embassy a powder keg, Paul was able to gain a sense of the crowd for Embassy reports.

Don Bishop recalls,

After the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was bombed by a ‘NATO’ aircraft (a B-2 from Missouri) in 1999, there were furious demonstrations in front of the three American Embassy compounds each night for some days. Three ranks of Chinese police with interlocked arms at the chancery gate barely held them back. At the USIS compound, shattered glass filled our offices.

When the danger eased and American and Chinese staff gathered for the first time in our conference room, Paul showed the Chinese copies of the front pages of People’s Daily and the Washington Post, pointing out how different the reporting was. Our local staff, staying at home during the disturbances, were on edge because they had only seen angry Chinese media reports. He told us all that the different coverage showed the distance between nations that we had to bridge with our Public Diplomacy programs. It was effective. That afternoon, he outlined a plan for an immediate series of small conferences with Beijing’s many government, Party, and university institutes, many associated with ministries, all now hesitating over the future of US-China relations. A Foreign Ministry official later told me that it was Paul’s initiative that restored dialog and began easing the tensions.

[Paul believed that] ….working in China was tremendously stimulating. The energy and excitement of the place were palpable. Though it retains many of the unpleasant characteristics of a totalitarian dictatorship, the country is changing so fast and in so many ways that its future directions are one of the great stories of our age, a fact that accounts for the presence of legions of foreign correspondents there. Every day I would wake up expecting – and unusually finding – some mind-blowing and major change occurring right under my nose….

….{I]n USIS, we pushed the envelope in many ways. For instance, with ‘rule of law’ being a priority of the Chinese leadership, our post, our speakers, and Fulbright Lecturers organized conferences on such topics as… legal education in America and the relationship of law and the media….

A recent note from a junior FSO, Chaniqua Nelson, represents Paul’s impact on so many younger professionals:

I had the honor and privilege of working with Dr. Paul Blackburn at the U.S. Department of State in the FOIA office. One thing that was so awesome about Dr. Blackburn was that although he was extremely accomplished, he was so kind, nice, and not pretentious at all. He had a way of making anyone he talked to feel valued, heard, and respected from the interns to the Secretary of State.

During my time in the FOIA office, I would always seek out Dr. Blackburn to be the reviewer in my case because he was such a joy to work with and he always told the best stories. I remember when I found out I was a finalist for the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship, he made sure I knew what the dimensions of the Foreign Service were and I went into the interview more confident than I was before our conversation. Although I didn’t receive the fellowship at that time, I applied a couple of years later and was awarded the fellowship. I am so sad that I wasn’t able to tell him that I ultimately received the fellowship and became a Public Diplomacy-coned Foreign Service Officer. Dr. Blackburn will sorely be missed.

Paul pushed the professional envelope wherever he worked. If anyone wants to follow the evolution of a master public diplomat, go online to the ADST Oral Histories and click on Paul’s name. Savor the honest, thoughtful summary of a career well-lived, and consider Paul’s ideas for the future of public diplomacy, still important in 2020. Cherish his delight in working with others and his care for their well-being. And for another dash of whimsy, picture Paul in one of his wardrobe of colorful shirts – a true son of Honolulu.¤


Michael Schneider is former President of PDAA.

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