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Sheila Platt: A Diplomatic Life Bridging Both Sides of China’s Divide

Few Americans have met personally with the leadership of both Mao Zedong’s China and Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan. Sheila Platt, and her husband Nicholas Platt, are among that select group.  Sheila Platt dropped out of Radcliffe in 1957 to join her Foreign Service husband in a storied diplomatic career that led him to ambassadorships in Zambia, the Philippines, and Pakistan. Much of his career — and her experience — was focused on China.  Sheila did pioneering social work, led embassy activities, and advanced the cause of American diplomacy in all these assignments. When she began her work, the State Department did not permit married women to serve as Foreign Service officers. Hers is a story of the grit, determination, and unremunerated service of Foreign Service spouses in that era.

As the Communists swept through a devastated post-war China in 1949, the battered Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and set up government there. While the Taiwanese government was neither democratic nor free, it was a U.S. ally because of its staunch anti-communist position and willingness to work with the United States to advance diplomatic, military, and intelligence objectives in the region.  Nick and Sheila Platt went to Taiwan in 1962 to study the Chinese language, then moved to Hong Kong, where Nick served as a political officer. In 1971, President Nixon made his famous visit to China and began the process of normalizing relations with mainland China under Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. Nicholas Platt was intimately involved in these overtures, working closely with Henry Kissinger. Nick and Sheila were among the first Americans to arrive in China and serve at the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing — where the United States still had no official embassy.

While language students in Taiwan, the Platts were invited to a swank reception at which Generalissimo Chiang and the formidable Madame Chiang summoned them to the pavilion where they were holding court.  Nicholas Platt’s uncle, Joseph H. “Sandy” Choate III, had been a counselor to one of Chiang Kai-shek’s rivals, and the Chiang family respected his work. Many years later, both Platts met Mao Zedong’s equally formidable wife, the feared Madame Mao, at a reception.  Nick Platt read excerpts from Sheila Platt’s diary concerning the Chiang Kai-shek incident into his ADST oral history. He also recounted their meeting with Madame Mao following a concert in Beijing by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In addition to her work at embassies, Sheila Platt pursued a career in social work that began in Hong Kong, where she cared for refugees from mainland China. She would later help orphans in Tokyo and serve as a mental health advisor in Zambia and the Philippines, with a speciality in post-traumatic stress disorders.

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Whistle-Blowing on American Corruption in Russia

USAID unearthed a major corruption scandal in Russia in the late 1990s involving Harvard University’s Institute for International Development.  Dr. Janet Ballantyne, USAID’s mission director, blew the whistle. In her oral history, Ballantyne discusses the consternation this caused with U.S. Embassy leadership, and the repercussions of her reporting on relationships with key Russian officials.

Throughout the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia worked together to implement privatization and other economic reforms. USAID funded the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) to help design and implement major economic reforms in the country, including privatization and market reforms.  In 1997, however, HIID contractors were found to be using their access to insider information for their own benefit. Harvard later settled with the U.S. government in 2005 and paid what is believed to be the largest settlement ever by a university in a case of this type.

Not long after being rejected from her dream job of becoming a spy right out of college, Janet Ballantyne began her career with USAID in the Latin American Bureau. A strong personality who fought hard for every assignment she set her sights on, Ballantyne landed posts in Peru, Nepal, Morocco, and Nicaragua, and eventually worked as the Mission Director for USAID in Russia (1996-99).

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Helping Rebuild Rwanda After the 1994 Genocide

Rebuilding Rwanda after the genocide was no easy task.  USAID tasked George Lewis to head up that agency’s efforts to help a nation heal after one of the most horrific episodes in recent history.  He faced extreme ethnic animosity, a destroyed country, and an “epic event in the history of human movement,” the return of a million refugees.

In April 1994, members of the numerically dominant Hutu ethnic group in Rwanda began a genocide against the Tutsi minority and any moderate Hutus who defended the Tutsi. Rwanda had struggled with a longstanding ethnic hatred between both groups, a hatred that was exacerbated by Belgian colonial rule, which had historically empowered the Tutsi minority. In 1994, the shooting down of the plane of Hutu Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, and the insurrection of Uganda-based Tutsi refugees, were used as a justification for the killing of the Tutsi population. It is still not known who shot down the plane, but what is known is that approximately 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in a short, 100-day period. The response of the existing UN peacekeeping force was valiant but woefully inadequate, as its commander later detailed.  France mounted a belated and controversial intervention, with primary focus on protecting French citizens. The genocide ended when predominantly Tutsi forces under Paul Kagame retook the country, prompting a massive outflow of Hutu refugees. Rwanda became a symbol of the failure of the international community to act.

George Lewis was named head of the USAID mission to Rwanda in 1996 after 25 years with the agency. Lewis discusses the difficulties in reconciliation and the successes of USAID in a time and region marked by despair and tragedy.  In a 1998 visit to Rwanda, President Clinton declared, “We can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope.” It was George Lewis’s task to help deliver on this promise. Lewis’s interview was conducted by John Pielemeier on January 11, 2018.

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Removing Corpses from the U.S. Embassy: Behind the Scenes of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia  

After the fall of  Somalia’s dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, a civil war broke out between warlords.  In the ensuing conflict, an estimated 350,000 Somalis died because of famine, disease, and war-time casualties. With the death toll mounting, President George H.W. Bush sent a U.S.-led humanitarian force to Somalia.  It was among the earliest examples of humanitarian intervention in armed conflict. General Anthony Zinni served as Operations Officer in what was dubbed “Operation Restore Hope.” In his oral history, Zinni recalls arriving at the ruins of the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu to set up command, on a compound filled with refugees, stray animals, and dead bodies.  General Robert B. Johnston commanded the force, which later gave way to a UN peacekeeping operation. Zinni went on to serve as President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

General Zinni joined the Marine Corps in 1965, after completing his BS in Economics at Villanova University. During his first tour in Vietnam as Second Lieutenant, he trained South Vietnamese Marines. The tours following Vietnam included Japan, the Philippines, Germany, and Yugoslavia. General Zinni has held positions such as Deputy Director of Operations for the United States European Command (EUCOM) and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). General Zinni was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2007.

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