Walter Mondale, born in Ceylon, Minnesota on January 5, 1928, was the 42nd Vice President of the U.S. under Jimmy Carter, after having served 12 years as a senator from Minnesota. He later ran against Ronald Reagan as the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1984. After the loss, he spent a few years working for a Minnesota law firm (Dorsey & Whitney) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs until he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Japan by President Clinton in 1993. He was in Tokyo for three years, after which he returned to the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney. In an interview with ADST’s David Reuther in April 2004, Senator Mondale discusses his long career in the U.S. government: his time in the Senate, his tenure as Vice President, including his dealings with South Africa, China, and the Iran Crisis, and his frustrations and insights from his years as Ambassador to Japan.
Changing Views of the Vietnam War
I came into the Senate the last day of 1964. The war was just starting to heat up. I believed and said that this was analogous to Europe, that we didn’t stand up to Hitler and he came to cause all that tragedy, and that this was a similar kind of challenge and we had to stand up to North Vietnam and China and so on. I was wrong. But that was how I started out.
For a few years, I supported the war. But as I watched and listened, that 1965 trip to Vietnam helped me to understand. I remember a general taking me aside to say things weren’t going well. Some of the reporters covering that war like Johnny Apple from the New York Times and so on started talking to me about what they were seeing and my doubts began to build. So I didn’t go there with a set foreign policy. I didn’t go there in any other pose than to learn, see, try to understand better what was going on.…
When you have American lives involved, you’d better learn rapidly. You’d better know what you’re doing. My excuse – and I don’t have one – is really that I was brand new, first impressions, listening to our government, believing what I was hearing, and then slowly becoming aware that there was a much more complex and disturbing underpinning to the whole thing.… [It was] a real problem for Americans who wanted to believe, as I did, that we were in there to do the best, that we wanted to reform this country so that things worked. We put out stories of a number of projects we had done and this and that, stories about how the public liked us and so on, but we now know that the public there saw us more as a successor to the French, as people coming in as colonialists trying to gain influence there in order to block the North Vietnamese, and so on. We were never able to shake that idea about ourselves in the eyes of the Vietnamese and we paid an awful price learning that lesson….
On Congressional Trips Abroad
I’ve talked about that many times, that the most dangerous thing to have in America are ignorant members of Congress who haven’t traveled, who don’t know what’s going on in the world, who are unable to relate what we do here to what happens overseas. I think the better members of the Congress are people that have taken trips and taken them seriously and used them as learning experiences to broaden their understanding. I think that’s one of the best things that can happen….
On His Time as Vice President
Carter and I had a long talk right after the election about what I would do as Vice President and there is a document somewhere. We put it in writing. One of my functions was to represent him in foreign policy matters, to travel on his behalf, and to be his eyes and ears on the Hill and his spokesman around the country, and so on. I did a lot of that during my four years. The first thing I did was that trip right after the inaugural to Western Europe – Italy, France, England, and Germany – to sort of introduce our new administration and get our agenda started over there. Then I flew to Iceland and Tokyo. A long trip….
If what you’re trying to do is not publicly endurable back home, the chances are, unless real leadership changes the public, it won’t endure. So how the American people feel about fundamental things is central to an effective foreign policy….
[I]n his inaugural address [Carter] said, “Because we are free, we must fight for freedom everywhere.” It had a religious basis. He felt that every person was entitled to the dignity of being a human being and protection of human rights. He may have calculated that it was good politics back home, but I think he saw that it helped express to our nation and abroad what he felt he and the nation should be about. This whole thing of pushing human rights was very, very deep in him and it showed up time and time again. I was very heavily involved in it….
I saw myself as someone who helped the President. I wasn’t an assistant president. I wasn’t a co-president. I wasn’t a prime minister. I wasn’t any of those things. And those issues are things to be considered today, where I think there has been a shift here. But I was engaged. I had access to the same information the President had. I had the President’s Daily Brief. I was invited to every meeting. I was entitled and encouraged to talk to anybody I wanted to. Before I went on these trips, I would call State Department specialists and leaders to help me and the Defense Department, Treasury, whatever you want, and we’d work on those and when I went overseas, principals would travel with me, so we had what we needed as we traveled.
But what I didn’t do and I think it’s very important for a Vice President not to do, is to “Big Foot” the career government in our own government. In order for that process to work properly, our specialists and policymakers throughout the government should be permitted to send their views up the ranks and they should be – perhaps not all of them but the ones that are worthy of it – ventilated somewhere up there in the policy level. If a vice president comes in and says, “This is our position,” before that process has matured, I think a lot of people think that’s the president talking and it chills what should be an open and vibrant consultative process within the government. That’s what I tried to do. In other words, I would have my discussions with my friends and others, but if there was something that I didn’t like, I’d just go and talk to the President. I never did that in public. Or maybe [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski, maybe [Secretary of State Cyrus] Vance I’d talk to. But I always tried to respect the fact that it was the President that had to make the call and that’s who I had to talk to if I thought something should be changed….
On South Africa
I believe it was one of the truly high points of the Carter administration. I had the distinct joy of working on a lot of this stuff, particularly with Prime Minister Vorster and those guys down in South Africa…. I met Vorster in conference in Vienna in ’77-’78. We had a two or three-day real shootout there when I told him that we could not have good relations unless they got rid of apartheid, that what they were doing was destroying chances for their own people and we as a nation were no longer going to be seen as accepting it. There had been a kind of a cynical policy toward those apartheid nations where at least one ambassador told me that our leaders had told him, “Just keep this stuff off the front pages. We don’t want to hear about it.” Well, we were taking a different position. We wanted it on the front page. We wanted these issues confronted by those governments. When Mandela finally was released from prison, I think at some point he said something about American policy having encouraged him and the others. I don’t know if your records have that meeting with Vorster, but…talk about hard-nosed diplomacy, that was really something. I was an old civil rights worker myself. He’d bring up all of this crap that we used to hear from segregationists. “Well, can they do it? They don’t want to. They don’t know how to handle their own affairs. They don’t know how to deal with money. They’re not smart,” and so on. Boy, I could relive my whole life with them again. I was under orders from Carter to let him have it, so I did.
Normalization with China
Now we’re going to China. That was one of my most important trips. We had had the opening to China about a half a year or a year before when we established…, in fact, broke the ice and announced that our presence in Taiwan would be some kind of a foundation, a non-governmental relationship, and that our relationship would be with one China whose capital was Beijing. Following that, we had normalization. Then there seemed to be a kind of a dead spot for four or five months where we had gotten the bare bones in place, but then things were starting to drift downward in stasis. So my trip was designed to try to get some momentum started in our relationship.
As we prepared for this trip, I did something that I did on all my trips that I thought worked very well. That is, we’d sit down and figure out every conceivable thing that could be an issue, in this case with China, and every conceivable significant interest that we had pursuing with China and their leaders to serve our national interest. We had a big agenda there because we were trying to open up trade, we were trying to establish a cooperative intelligence relationship, we were trying in this case to get some yet secret cooperation that allowed us to better watch the Soviet Union, we were breaking the ice with a country where it had been awfully icy. So one of the first things you do when you do that is you realize that a lot of decisions in our own government that are deadlocked or paralyzed or hidden or unresolved, the intradepartmental disputes and so on, and that was one of the things I could do as Vice President. I could shoot those issues out of there. Then when I came to China, we were really ready. [Secretary of State] Cy Vance has said this was one of the most successful trips in our four years.
We took a lagging relationship and turned it around and they really felt good about it, the Chinese did. We worked out Ex-Im Bank credits. We worked out new trade relationships. We developed new rules on export controls that were different than that on the Soviet Union, which they really liked. They allowed me to speak to the University of Beijing on national television…. I think it really worked and it showed how a vice president can push through changes in the American government so you can come ready to do business. They saw that and it made a big difference…. One of the things we did was open up that consulate in Shanghai…, once again, trying to put flesh on the bones and show that we were serious about this. I still feel very good about that trip.
The Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis
Q: At the same time in a different spot on the globe, you had the whole changing government in Iran that we had to adjust to. The administration let the Shah into the United States. That was a trigger for a whole bunch of events in Iran. How do you recall the decision to let the Shah into the United States?
MONDALE: Very painful issue.… The President was concerned and said so at least in private that if we let the Shah into America, it might trigger a reaction in Iran, and I believe there were some American officials in our Iranian office that had communicated their concerns to the State Department. Carter was very concerned about that. In his book, he writes about how people were encouraging him to allow the Shah in for health care and he asked them all, “If the Iranians react negatively, if they should seize our State Department officials there and make them hostages, then what is your policy?” The room went dead, if not ashen.
[Former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger was very heavily involved in here, calling around. David Rockefeller was very heavily involved. There were others, I’m sure, but those were the ones that I remember, because at least Kissinger called me personally and he called a lot of people personally, saying that not to allow the Shah in was a national disgrace, that America is not a police state, the Iranian radicals are trying to isolate him, but the man is sick and he should be able to come to a hospital that can do something for him. That idea carried the day. I must say, I went along with it at the end because I found it humiliating that these people could press the United States to do something that was really different than the openness that is so essential to our country. But what Carter feared happened and really changed our lives and may have been fundamentally responsible in throwing us out of office.
Others paid a higher price, but once that revolution started and our hostages were taken…, try as we will, we couldn’t find a pattern for their release. We tried the ill-fated rescue mission. The rest is history. It really sort of consumed us for the better part of a year or maybe more.
It wasn’t that we wouldn’t have time to do other things. We did. It’s that the international environment wasn’t willing to think about other things. Being vulnerable as we were with our hostages, other countries knew we were vulnerable. This was a good time for them to negotiate on things they wanted. Our adversaries knew we were pinned down there and they too thought this was a nice new spring of opportunity for them. The news about this swamped everything. If you wanted to start a new initiative, people learning about Iran, that’s when [ABC’s] “Nightline” started as a program reporting on the Iran hostage situation and they had a program that ran every day to make certain that “Nightline” got a good show at our expense, burning flags or moving of our people around blindfolded and all that stuff that we remember. So, it wasn’t that we couldn’t do other things. It was that the sort of milieu that ensued from the capture of our hostages and the way they played the game really paralyzed us. I forget the timing right now; I think that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was part of that. It weakened our image of strength, no question about it….
It’s something that I think is hard to explain to people who haven’t been through it. The moral stature of America, the integrity with which we stand for the values that we claim as being central to our being here – human rights and social justice, international stability and peace where we can find it – all those things are, in ways that are almost palpable when you’re in the diplomatic service or where I was, things that work in your direction when you have them and weaken you when you don’t. Because so much of what goes on is based on trust or it’s based on respect or it’s based on their publics having confidence in us and who we are and in our strengths, and with it a lot of things are possible. Without it, America’s power just seeps away. It’s something that has to be remembered, particularly by those in America today who think that every American problem in the world can be answered with military power. There are things that have to be answered by military power, but there are a lot of things in how people think, how they view us, whether they respect us, what they understand us as being, and so on, that has a lot to do with where we’re going to be able to go.
On Becoming Ambassador to Japan
Q: Let’s jump forward to your ambassadorship to Japan. You took up your post as ambassador in August ’93. This is a post at which there’s been a long tradition of non-Foreign Service people being the ambassador. How did this opportunity to be ambassador arise for you?
MONDALE: Well, Clinton had asked me to be Ambassador to Russia and I accepted and then called him back the next day and said I didn’t think so. I figured that was the last I’d ever hear from him. But in about three months or so, [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher called and asked me whether I might be interested in being looked at as Ambassador to Japan. I said, “Yes, I’d like that.” I was selected….
I have had a lifetime style of really soaking in things. In other words, if I’m going to do something like this, I want to read it all, I want to hear from the best, I want to sort through and weigh the issues and how they might work out, the politics of the thing and so on. So from June or so to August while I was going through the vetting process and the confirmation process and the rest, I had any number of meetings with State Department officials, with think tanks in Washington. I went up to Harvard, Columbia Universities. I was out at the University of Washington and maybe Stanford. I spent a lot of time digging into this stuff. A lot of people came to see me like Haru Reischauer, the widow of Edward L. Reischauer, who is a relative of ours.… She’s the first one to tell me I was going to be ambassador. There was a leak somewhere and she came out here and we spent a couple days together and she gave me the book I was supposed to read, You’ve Got to Have Wa [the Japanese term for unity and team play]. So, we spent an awful lot of time on that. Then I started to connect with the career people that were going to help me: Bill Breer, Rust Deming, Desaix Anderson, Japanologists that could help me better understand what I was going to handle. So that’s what I did….
One of the first things an outsider like me had to learn was that what appeared to be kind of a single agency running the embassy, the State Department, was in fact that plus all these separate agencies represented by their people. Although you have the famous president’s letter to all of them that you’re it and you can throw people out of the country and so on, it doesn’t work that way and you have to develop cooperative attitudes and respect to make it work….
Dealing with North Korea
While you may think your job is the U.S. ambassador to Japan, in fact because of that you get involved in all kinds of regional issues that bear on how Japan fits with those other countries. You don’t run Japan, but together you’re talking and working to resolve these issues in a way that together makes a solution more practicable. So, North Korea is a very good example. It still dogs that part of the world. I think one of the many reasons why Japan and the United States are very close is they share a common fear of what an irresponsible North Korea might do.
[Carter’s] first visit to Kim Il Sung was June of ’94. I was over there. I think he came by Tokyo on the way out and he told me about what he had talked about. He was very hopeful that this would help resolve the North Korean issue, that they were willing to open up peninsula talks, they were willing to put strength behind the idea that there should be no nuclear weapons on the peninsula, that Kim Il Sung was ready to talk to his counterpart in South Korea, that they would return American bodies still there from the Korean War, and Carter thought he had made good connections there….
And this is a good thing for the State Department to ponder. The fact of it is that Carter’s talk with Kim Il Sung came at the last moment that that was possible. He was soon dead.… I think that what you have there is the special prominence and stature in this case of a former president who can gain access with a guy like Kim Il Sung and have serious, multi-day discussions about things that none of us could have talked to him about. But in the doing of it, how does our government control the brief that the president uses? How do you tell a former president, “Here’s your talking points. Here’s what you can say?” To get the best out of people like that, we have to find ways of doing both. I think there’s strength there that sometimes the traditional diplomatic system can’t fully reach.
Mondale’s “Big Edge” in Japan
I think one of the things that helped me a lot was the feeling by the Japanese government that I had access back home, that if there was something that was important to the relationship, that I could get into the highest levels, I could talk to the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and do what had to be done to make certain that my concerns about our relationship or about various things would be heard expeditiously at the highest level. That in turn gave me an improved ability to work with the Japanese leaders. Everybody I’ve talked to like Baker and Foley and Mansfield felt that that was a big edge and advantage.
If I thought there was something compelling, I would go to the President, I would go to Christopher. I remember talking with [Secretary of Defense] Perry many times about the defense guidelines and Futenma decision, we worked almost every day…. That’s an exaggeration, but whenever I wanted him, I’d call him.
And I remember one day the vice minister wanted to know something about a policy that we had in the UN that wasn’t apparent from the stories, so I called [Ambassador to the United Nations] Madeleine [Albright] and in a half hour called back and said, “Madeleine Albright tells me that this is what they want.” He said, “That’s very helpful.” That’s one thing you can do.
I thought the people working [at the embassy in Japan] were wonderful. I really enjoyed it. My wife was active in the arts and there was a group of people in that side of the embassy that worked very closely and she was able to do what she wanted. They loved it. Everything you do every day is part of this public. You go out and give speeches. You travel around the country. You meet with their leaders. You meet with various groups from Japan. You write articles for the newspaper. You hold news conferences. You go over and see the prime minister or the cabinet secretary or this person or that person. The idea is to create a public presence and the development of public issues in a way that strengthens the relationship.
I was somewhat disappointed in [the resources]. We were going through a time of budgetary restraint. We weren’t quite there yet, but we were about to go through this issue of whether USIA [United States Information Agency] was separate or to be folded within the State Department, which created some anxiety in the USIA. We had closed the cultural consulate in Kyoto, which I thought was a terrible idea. It had been there for 40 years. They had tried to close the one in Sapporo. I think they got it back, but I was fighting rear guard action all over trying to protect the little presence we had. They closed a lot of the libraries down before I got there and while I was there. The people we had were very talented, but we didn’t have much of a budget to work on with a country that size.…
I think [consulates are] very important. In many ways, per capita, they have more clout than maybe the embassy. That consulate down in Naha, Okinawa is tremendous. The one up in Sapporo is very important. These consulates have on-the-ground, in-touch, relationships. I remember when the State Department was going to close Sapporo because of budget reasons, the governor of Hokkaido came down to see me. He said, “We’ve made a decision. We’ll pay for it. Don’t close it. We’ll pay for it. We want you here.”
A lot of people think it’s kind of striped pants/cultural effete arrogance. In fact, it’s the most fundamental kind of connectivity that really helps sew our relationships together.
And it’s people with language skills, with cultural background, with a sense of history. Many of them over the years have developed a connection of contacts and friends and sources of information and advice that is invaluable to our country.
The Importance of Soft Power
There is a current fever that may be abating that supports the idea that it’s only simplistic macho slogan-type certainty that can tap American strength and influence abroad. It’s the only thing that guarantees that we’ve got a he-man at work, that subtlety and nuance, the sorts of things that the best officers in the State Department help us achieve, are things that diminish national strength. I think that is horribly distorted to the point of risking national security, that understanding others – their languages, their histories, their compulsions, how their systems work, what’s driving their sentiment, all of those things – must be understood in order to be strong.…
To me, it’s a question of respect. What I tried to do when I was ambassador was take every opportunity I had to build the sense that my interlocutors are people I respected and a country that I respected with a history that I respected with a potential that I respected. And you could feel it. I used to tell American VIPs when they came through – and they always had these talking points that you guys had prepared for them – and they’d say, “Well, I’ve got these seven points….” I’d say, “Okay, that’s good, but here’s what I suggest. When this meeting starts, introduce yourself, tell him how happy you are to be there, and listen to him, let him talk. He may not want to talk, but the fact that you wanted to hear from him first will be noted by him and it’ll make it easier for you to give your points than if you start right out, ‘This is our agenda’.” It’s a respect thing. I believe that that’s the great strength of America. There is an inexhaustible supply of dignity around. You can give it to people and there is more around to give to other people. You can show respect without reducing your supply of respect. And the idea that America wants to like others and to work with others wherever we can because we like them or we respect them is a subtle but powerful tool for us and for our future.…
I think there’s something about living the life of a politician, if you’re any good at it, that…if you go at it right you’ll see the power of trust and respect to do things that you need to get done and may be difficult.
What Does an Ambassador Really Do?
I felt like I was America’s desk officer. You had a lot of people with a lot of agendas that would try to come in through different agencies or come to us directly to push their agenda. It might be a commercial agenda. It might be a weapon they wanted to sell. It might be any number of things. I always felt that it was my duty to look at the total relationship and respond to them based on what I thought best served our country. If I didn’t like the idea, I didn’t think it helped, I’d sometimes tell them. Sometimes I wouldn’t tell them, I’d just handle it that way. I’d get orders, “Take this immediately to the prime minister” on something I knew was not appropriate at that level and something I knew the prime minister would think I was crazy, so I’d say, “We’re going to get right to it” and I’d send some lower level assistant over there and tell them to leave a message or something. You had to do that. I think that’s how an ambassador has to operate. If the government doesn’t think he’s doing it well, get somebody else, but I don’t think you can just let this stuff come unfiltered into the country….
And sometimes you can’t get decisions out of the government that have to be made quickly. When that girl was raped [during the military occupation of Okinawa], I immediately apologized. I didn’t wait for instructions from the federal government. I just went out and did it. When they had the 1995 annual memorial service for those killed in the firebombings of Tokyo that terrible night, I went to it. I wasn’t taking sides in the war, but I let them know that Americans were sorry about what happened to innocent people, and I know it made a difference. I got a lot of bad mail from over here, but it was something that made us human, it showed that we cared, and I just did it.
One issue is rarely isolatable from other issues. If it’s significant at all, they relate to each other and they push the agenda of what’s possible. So, if you really pressure trade issues, you might have security issues or other kinds of questions that come up that will be presented in a way that’s not as favorable as if you didn’t have those issues. So, whenever you press another nation to do something that’s significant, you have to ask not only what is it that you want and how you’d be glad to get it, but what is it that you might have to pay, perhaps elsewhere or in the relationship itself, and is that worth what you’re asking for.…
The essence of diplomacy is trying to understand their needs as well as your own in seeing how you can align them and make it easier for both sides.… If these politically-appointed ambassadors that we sent over there, like [Senate Majority Leader Mike] Mansfield and myself and [Senator Howard] Baker and [Speaker of the House Tom] Foley, bring anything, it’s that we spent a lifetime trying to see how the process works, and you’re no good at that game unless you first understand what the other side must have and try to find common ground.