Back Issues of PDAA Today

Back issues of PDAA Today, PDAA’s quarterly print newsletter are now online and available for download.

Richard Holbrooke: An Appreciation

Morton S. Smith

The mountain of information in the media about the passing of Dick Holbrooke accurately reflects the scope and impact of his abilities. No one who worked for and with him came away unchanged. Many of us who had that experience felt that references to him as “a Force of Nature” were significantly understated.

Vital to his style and substance was a natural sense of public affairs importance. Policy and politics, and what was said or what would be said about them, were one, hence his constant and acute interest in press relations. He maintained his own wide contacts with the media, understood their role and, in turn, received their respect, and — as can be seen by their comments — at time awe.

I was the Public Affairs Director for the East Asia and Pacific Bureau at State when he came in as Assistant Secretary following Jimmy Carter’s election. Having been a junior foreign service officer with Viet Nam related experience before he left the Department, he was known to many in the Bureau as very bright, very ambitious and very energetic. Returning to the Department as an Assistant Secretary at age 35, he proved all these characterizations true, and then some.

I had been in the habit of attending, uninvited, the Assistant Secretary’s small meeting with the DAS’ at the start of the day, believing strongly that a PAO had to know the context in which policies were formed in order to represent them effectively. Holbrook’s predecessor, Phil Habib, for whom I also served as PAO in Seoul, never objected to my presence at his morning meeting, although some of the DAS’, as they privately told me (in later years) wondered what I was I doing there.

Holbrooke contributed significantly to what we now call public diplomacy, and in ways that went well beyond the usual agency courtesies.

Holbrooke never blinked at all at my presence, and often invited me to meetings that others would have considered the PAO the last to be invited. It is only now, reading accounts of his own actions as a junior officer getting involved in meetings much beyond his pay grade, can I understand better his tolerance of my being there.

A prime Carter Administration policy was to put the Viet Nam War behind us. Soon after taking office, Holbrooke organized the Woodcock Commission to visit Viet Nam and Laos to discuss obtaining more information about missing-in-action troops (MIAs) in Southeast Asia. Obviously, there also was a strong desire to move towards a more normal relationship with the Vietnamese. On the Hill, however, MIAs were by far the prime consideration. Other issues were relegated to corridor discussions. Holbrooke asked that I be the Commission spokesman and look after the five-man press pool.

The Commission brought back some MIA remains and led to a series of meetings in Paris with the Vietnamese to keep the momentum going for additional searches and returns. Holbrooke led these meetings and asked me to be the spokesman for the American delegation. Following three days of intense discussions the first meeting adjourned with agreement that each side would conduct its own press conference at each respective Embassy.

The Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister had his press conference before the keenly interested world press in the morning. He reiterated their belief that Uncle Sam had promised them big bucks as reparations for the war, a view we rejected. Our turn came later in the day, presumably to be handled by Holbrooke. However, knowing the political sensitivities of the talks, and not wanting to overplay their importance at that time, he asked me, about 15 minutes before the start, to do the press conference. It turned out well. I had enough of the substance of the issues to satisfy most of the press, and Holbrooke did not have to tread on tender, potentially dangerous political ground that early in the game leading to normalization. After all, isn’t that what a spokesman is for?

Later in 1977, I returned to USIA and an assignment as East Asia Area Director. Holbrooke was still EA Assistant Secretary One of the major problems I found was that USIA still had no representation in China. Normalization had not happened yet but the U.S. maintained a small Liaison Office in Beijing staffed primarily by State officers. The number of Americans in the Office was fixed. There were many USIS-type program possibilities growing but State adamantly opposed a USIS officer on the staff. I met with Holbrooke, laid out the issues and found him quickly agreeing on the substance of the matter.

However, he also knew that State’s bureaucracy would continue to oppose us, but he agreed to look into it. Soon thereafter, he called to say that he had prevailed over the seriously strong objections at State. We got our first USIS person into China, as a member of the political section (John Thompson). And that ultimately led to Thompson becoming our first fulltime PAO after normalization in 1979.

There were many other opportunities to work with Holbrooke, most notably including me in the Warren Christopher-led delegation to Taiwan, after the announcement of normalization with the PRC. This provided an opportunity to ensure a significant USIS presence on the island despite the strong anger (and riots) against Uncle Sam normalization sparked.

Holbrooke contributed significantly to what we now call public diplomacy, and in ways that went well beyond the usual agency courtesies. He was not afraid to run against the tide and not just in principle. When a highly political ambassador in Singapore fired his DCM he surprised not a few by asking me to go out as DCM to ease sensitivities and get a small but important embassy back on the track. That I was a USIS officer made no difference to him.

The only problem with Holbrooke was that he was unique. Finding another leader who so strongly combined political and public affairs ability with the energy and determination to achieve specific goals in meaningful timeframes is highly unlikely. But he showed what was possible. And those who had worked for him had vastly higher goals to aspire to.

Morton S. Smith is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Please share ...
Pin Share