Folk Songs in Georgetown With JFK: A Memory from a Different Era
Nicholas Platt was a distinguished American diplomat, who served as ambassador to Zambia, the Philippines, and Pakistan. In the first days of the Kennedy administration, however, Platt was a young Foreign Service Officer in Washington studying Chinese language — when he and his wife were unexpectedly invited to join the president for a small party at the Georgetown home of columnist Joseph Alsop.
Nick and Sheila Platt were friends of Joseph Alsop through Sheila’s mother. Their invitation to dinner included a request that they provide musical entertainment. Nick brought his guitar and the two performed folks songs popular in that era to an audience that included Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the British ambassador, and other Washington notables. A vignette from a decidedly different era.
Nick Platt’s career also included important service in the administration of Richard Nixon, whom JFK had just defeated in the hard-fought 1960 election. Platt was one of the self-described “China Boys”—U.S. government officials who helped Nixon and Henry Kissinger open the door to China in the 1970s.
This interview was conducted by David E. Reuther on March 7, 2005.
Drafted by Connor Akiyama.
Read Nicholas Platt’s full oral history HERE.
“The idea of singing for John F. Kennedy terrified us both, but we accepted immediately.”
The Platts Sing for the Kennedys: “Vivid glimpses of Washington glitter enlivened the plain daily grind of [Chinese] language learning. The columnist Joseph Alsop, an admirer of Sheila’s mother, had befriended us when we arrived in Washington as graduate students five years earlier. He included us in some of his famous Georgetown dinner parties, where he gathered the top officials and policy makers of the day
One summer morning, he [Alsop] telephoned to say that he was organizing a dinner for “the Young Man.” Would we join him, bring the guitar and provide the entertainment? The idea of singing for John F. Kennedy terrified us both (by now duets with Sheila were our best numbers), but we accepted immediately.
Georgetown was bathed in a lovely summer evening light as we approached Alsop’s house, guitar case in hand, shadowed along the street by discreet well-dressed men with hearing aids. They closed in as we moved to enter the house, and thoroughly inspected the case in the most decorous Secret Service manner. Once inside, we found Joe’s closest friends, people like William Walton, British Ambassador, Phil and Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, the Chip Bohlens, all straining to create a natural atmosphere for the “Young Man,” who was, in turn, relaxed and cordial. Jacqueline Kennedy was in Newport, so the gorgeous Mary Meyer kept the President company on this occasion…
Later in the garden, Sheila and I sang (“St. James Infirmary,” “I’ll Fly Away,” John Henry”). The President listened politely. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, arriving late from a trip to Michigan, chinned himself in a nearby tree.”
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in European History, Harvard University 1953-1957
MA in International Relations, Johns Hopkins University 1957-1959
Joined the Foreign Service 1959
Washington D.C.—Chinese Language Training 1961
Beijing, China—Chief of Political Section 1973-1974
Lusaka, Zambia—Ambassador 1982-1984
Manila, Philippines—Ambassador 1987-1991
Islamabad, Pakistan—Ambassador 1991-1992