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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.

Drafted by Connor Akiyama

Ambassador Platt’s oral history interview was conducted by David E. Reuther on March 7, 2005.

Read his full oral history HERE.

“Sheila and I valued [the meeting] later as we became one of the very few couples of our generation to have met Chinese leaders from both sides of the civil war, Zhou Enlai and Madame Mao in Peking, President and Madame Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan.”

Meeting Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang:  (from the diary of Sheila Platt)  “When we arrived, tired and dirty, at the Embassy in Taipei, we found an invitation to tea with the Generalissimo and Madame Chang waiting–very elegant and formidable. We had no proper clothes with us, of course (white gloves were necessary) but friends in Taichung had unbeknownst to us sent some up and the whole school was in an uproar because the President’s office had called about the invitation! It turned out to be a very large tea indeed, and we were all delivered in big black cars, and sorted out on arrival into categories: Diplomatic corps, A.I.D., U.S.I.S., and something called “others.” We were Others and at the very foot of the line with some Fulbright professors.

We all snaked through the residence and shook hands with Madame (fierce) and the Generalissimo (old and rosy) and then were herded to the Others tables in the garden. Soon up rushed an elderly Chinese lady called Miss Pearl Chun, Madame’s American secretary for 28 years, who urged us to get something to eat. We did, whereupon she urged us to eat it. We did, in front of her eyes, and she said, “Good, now I can go and tell Madame you have had something to eat” — she hot-footed it off to do so. We were walking around admiring the garden… when up panted Miss Chun, perspiring heavily, and said that Madame wanted to see us and would we please follow her, which we did, galloping after her through the surprised guests.

Madame and the [Generalissimo] were sitting in a pavilion, and we were charmingly greeted, seated on pillows, talked to, and given tea, while the embassy people stood around with their eyes out on stalks. Needless to say, this was all due to Sandy, whom she really likes. She is expecting to see him when he comes out, asked fondly after him, and really made a royal fuss. We were impressed, charmed, and generally bowled over by all this, and really had a lovely time on the reddest carpet you’ve ever seen. The Generalissimo speaks no English, but we were about to murmur appropriate politenesses in Chinese to him, which was lucky, and the crowning touch to the whole thing was that on the way out, as the Madame and the Gimo made their way through the crowd, she said loudly to me “Goodbye Mrs. Platt,” which practically finished the Embassy people.”

Madame Mao’s “idea of urbane viola players and oboists lacing their martinis with cassia flowers made Sheila and I shriek with laughter . . . but it was a genuine gesture.”

Madame Mao, Mineral Water, and Cassia Flowers: “At the reception [after a concert featuring Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra], Madame Mao was most cordial, saying she had remembered meeting [us] at a basketball game. She presented Ormandy with an autographed 1870 edition of ancient Chinese songs from her own library, in traditional notation, which, she said, resembled “bean sprouts.” To Mrs. Ormandy she gave a large polyethylene bag of Cassia flowers picked from her garden with her own hands. She suggested that the petals be used to flavor wine and cakes for the musicians. The idea of urbane viola players and oboists lacing their martinis with cassia flowers made Sheila and I shriek with laughter later, but it was a genuine gesture. . . . After a mineral water toast to the continued development of contacts between the peoples and artists of the two countries, the entire party returned to the stage for mass photographs. Mrs. Mao insisted on shaking the hands of all 107 musicians.”