Mongolia—sparsely populated, largely nomadic, and surrounded by nuclear superpowers. The end of the Cold War could not have been the easiest of times for Mongolia. With over 250 sunny days per year, the “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky” was very much uncharted diplomatic territory. Mongolia’s close geographic and diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union inhibited close relations with the United States, which did not recognize Mongolia until 1987. While Vice-President Henry Wallace visited the country in 1944, it would be another forty years until a U.S. government official would be formally received in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.
In 1984, three years before the United States would establish official relations with Mongolia, political officer at the embassy in Beijing Donald C. Johnson discovered that no officer had visited Mongolia for years. Driven by curiosity, Johnson got tepid approval to visit from the State Department. In his memoir The Long Hello, he recalled how—with some boxes of vegetables to share with Japanese and British diplomats in Ulaanbaatar—he took the Trans-Siberian railroad through the yellow-brown landscape of northeastern China into the great wide-open land of Mongolia. While humble about his role in the normalization of United States-Mongolia relations, Johnson was pivotal in laying the foundation for subsequent diplomatic ties. Between 1994 and 1996, he would serve as the third U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia.
Johnson, who joined the Foreign Service in 1974, has had an extensive career abroad. In addition to his ambassadorship to Mongolia, Johnson held ambassadorships to Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde, and previously also served in Guatemala, Spain, Taiwan, China, Honduras, and Moldova. In addition, he was one of three members of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), which oversaw the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons in Northern Ireland during the peace process that led to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ceasefire and Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended most of the violence of the Troubles.
The following excerpts are from Donald C. Johnson’s memoir, The Long Hello.
Read a more extensive excerpt of Donald C. Johnson’s memoir HERE.
Read an account of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia in 1988 and early U.S.-Mongolia relations HERE.
Drafted by Alek Blonk
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“As far as I could determine, no officer from Beijing had visited Ulaanbaatar for years.”
Minimal relations with the “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky”:
If anyone had asked for a description of U.S.-Mongolian relations in the fall of 1984, “going nowhere” would have been the words most likely to spring to mind. After decades of sporadic contact, and having tried and failed to normalize relations during the early 1970’s, things were at a standstill. Like a jeep in the Gobi with four flat tires, things were not looking very hopeful at all.
Consider this: We had not had a single American diplomat received officially at the Foreign Ministry in Ulaanbaatar since Vice President Henry Wallace made his ill-starred visit to Mongolia in July 1944. (With regard to Henry Wallace: He actually spent the 4th of July 1944 in Mongolia….Fifty years later, I arranged a photo exhibit of his visit, and was able to track down a Mongolian official who had participated in it. He recalled for me how on the morning of the Fourth of July 1944, a patriotic officer in Wallace’s party had fired off his pistol in celebration of the day; for a few very tense minutes, the Mongolians had thought the VIP camp was under attack.)
In September 1984, while serving at the American Embassy in Beijing, I happened to look through our Embassy background material, wondering when the last trip to Mongolia had taken place. As far as I could determine, no officer from Beijing had visited Ulaanbaatar for years. A few may have transited the Mongolian capital on the Trans-Siberian railroad, but that was the size of it.
As it happened, the newly-arrived Political Counselor at the Embassy—Darryl Johnson, who later served as U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania and Thailand—had visited Ulaanbaatar from Moscow a number of years before. He had been received by officials at the Mongolia Academy of Sciences, but not at the Foreign Ministry. Furthermore, Darryl told me that he thought nobody else had traveled there from Moscow since then.
“There was just not a whole lot of interest in what I had proposed.”
A tepid approval:
I asked him if it would be alright if I approached the Mongolian Embassy in Beijing, which was located only a few blocks from our own Chancery, to see if I could make a visit. If the answer was “no,” so be it, and I would not bother him (or them) about it again. The Office of China and Mongolia Affairs at the State Department was duly consulted on the matter, and I have to say that the approval that I received was tepid at best. The China Desk’s position might best be summed up like this: “We’ve been waiting for a response from Mongolia for years; if they want to move, it’s up to them to send us a signal.” There is no need to exaggerate the point—there was just not a whole lot of interest in what I had proposed.
Tepid or not, the Department’s approval was good enough for me. I got on my bicycle and pedaled the few short blocks to the Mongolian Embassy. I parked my bike, and presented my passport and my diplomatic card to the rather startled clerk at the entrance, explaining that I was an American diplomat who wished to apply for a visa to go visit his country. I got a “Please wait a few minutes” response, and the official disappeared. So I waited, and when the receptionist returned, it was to tell me that I would have to travel to Mongolia “as a tourist.” I said that was perfectly all right with me, did the paperwork and left.
When I returned to pick up the passport, though, the visa was very clearly marked “Diplomat” in big Cyrillic letters. I thought that was fine too, got my tickets for the Trans-Siberian train, bought a couple of bags or boxes of vegetables to share with Japanese and British diplomats in Ulaanbaatar, and left Beijing at 7:40 AM on the morning of September 19, 1984. That notation was one of the first in the journal I kept of my trip; it has survived umpteen Foreign Service moves and is still with me….
“It was still the only country in the world completely surrounded by nuclear-weapons states.”
The geopolitical context:
Fascination is one thing, but the international situation and context is quite another. I therefore think it useful to look back very briefly to consider what was happening around that time. Relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were not exactly warm. The Carter administration had been replaced in January 1981 by a Reagan administration that had embarked on a much tougher policy in dealing with the Soviet Union.
By the fall of 1984, we were busy challenging the Soviets on at least three important fronts—in Afghanistan, in Angola, and in Central America. We had put Pershing 2 missiles in Western Europe to counter the Soviet SS-20s. U.S. defense spending had been ratcheted upwards. Relations with China were as warm as they had ever been. Thousands of Chinese students were flocking to U.S. universities, and tens of thousands of American tourists had rushed to “discover” China. Presidential elections were under way in the United States, but by late September 1984, it was clear that Ronald Reagan would win a second term as President, too.
For Mongolia, it could not have been the easiest of times. It was still the only country in the world completely surrounded by nuclear-weapons states. Ulaanbaatar was the only capital city in East Asia that could not be reached by regular air service from any other capital in East Asia. (And if one rules out flights from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar, there was no regular air service to Mongolia from anywhere in Asia. Not from China. Not from Japan. Not from Korea.) Which explains why I was sitting on the Trans-Siberian train.
“Goats running wild right across from the train platform.”
Into the great wide open:
I don’t know whether it still does, but at that time the Trans-Siberian actually went under the Great Wall of China near Badaling, and then moved slowly across the yellow-brown landscape of northern China. I had never had a chance to see this landscape close-up from a train, and I was fascinated from the very start. It came as a huge surprise to me that earthen watch towers and stretches of wall much older than the Ming Dynasty Great Wall near Beijing could easily be seen all along the way….
The train reached the China-Mongolia border just before 9:00 PM, the entire train’s wheels were changed from the narrower Chinese gauge to the wider Soviet/Mongolian one and the Chinese restaurant car was replaced with a Mongolian one, and we crept across the border to Zamiin Uud for another stop, where I was stamped into Mongolia just after midnight on September 20. Just after dawn that morning, we stopped at the town of Sainshand, and I still can remember how crisp and clear the air was in comparison to Beijing’s. In my journal, I also noted “Goats running wild right across from the train platform.”
The Mongolia that I visited in 1984 still had 50,000 Soviet troops posted there, scattered at bases all around the country. We took it for granted that the Soviet air bases dotting the countryside had nuclear weapons on them. One of these bases was easily visible from the train as we neared Ulaanbaatar; the combat aircraft could be seen by anyone who glanced out the window, as they were parked in and around the huge concrete bunkers at the edge of the base’s runway. That too offered a sobering thought about where I was.
I was met at the Ulaanbaatar train station by a Zhuulchin travel guide, and after reaching the venerable Ulaanbaatar Hotel at the edge of Sukhbaatar Square at the center of the city, I swiftly made arrangements to deliver the rather wilted boxes of vegetables that I had brought for the British and Japanese Embassies. (My journal notes that the broccoli was looking rather the worse for wear upon delivery.) When my Zhuulchin guide asked what I would like to see during my visit, my journal records, “Made request to see people at factories, schools, Academy of Sciences, and Foreign Affairs Ministry.” The theory, I suppose, is that there is no harm in asking; I certainly was not demanding to see any of these. Nobody in the Department was insisting on this, either. My journal records the following: The Zhuulchin guide asked “what subjects I would raise,” and my reply: “Mongolia’s foreign policy, and particularly its relations with [its] two neighbors, the Soviet Union and China.” Again, I suppose there is no harm in stating the obvious.
“[He] pulled out the December 1983 Background Notes on Mongolia and asked about the statement that the U.S. has never recognized Mongolia ‘as an independent state’ or the status of the Mongolian People’s Republic.”
The first U.S. diplomat formally received since 1944
Let me now jump forward a few days, during which time I traveled by plane down to the Gobi Desert, where I actually bought a camel saddle (for hard currency) from an amazed but nevertheless hard-bargaining Mongolia camel herder.
On September 25, I was told that it “might be possible” for a meeting to take place at the Foreign Ministry. That was not exactly a commitment, so I continued with the planned visit to Karakorum.
I reached Karakorum all right, but bad weather made it impossible to fly back, so I had to make a jolting nine-hour jeep ride back to Ulaanbaatar on September 27. My journal records that the following morning, on September 28 at 9:05 AM, I was told that I would have a meeting at the Foreign Ministry at 10:00, so I walked across the street from my hotel to the appointment. I had no briefing books, no Department-supplied talking points, but a good deal of curiosity.
At the Foreign Ministry, I was ushered into a meeting room, and received by First Secretary J. Choinkhor. I noted in my journal that “He came equipped with a stack of briefing books and a couple of gift books on Mongolia, and he had obviously been preparing to talk about the agenda items I had suggested before.” He outlined Mongolian Foreign policy with some detail—all recorded in my journal. He was very thorough, professional, and precise. (Quite a few years later over dinner, when we were recalling our first meeting, he told me that his meeting with me had been approved “by the Central Committee.”)
My journal records the following from near the end of that meeting:
“At the very end of the conversation, he asked about the American position on [bilateral] relations. I told him I had no instructions on this, but would be happy to convey any message or points that he might wish to give. He said he had none to give me, but then pulled out the December 1983 Background Notes on Mongolia and asked about the statement that the U.S. has never recognized Mongolia ‘as an independent state’ or the status of the Mongolian People’s Republic. He said they had gotten the Background Notes from the United Nations library or information service. I told him that the Notes should be read to mean what they say, no more no less. He focused on the independent state language, and my guess was fishing to see if we were giving support [to] the putative Chinese claims to sovereignty over Mongolia, and also to see if there was any other message I could give him. He didn’t get it, but I did tell him not to take the words and make more of them than they were. I also thanked him for his time (1 1/4 hours) and for the hospitality shown me in Mongolia. … They saw me to the door, and another very curious Western official emerged about then, and watched as we shook hands and I went out the door. I walked over to the hotel, settled my bill, and headed out the door for the train station, with only about 10 minutes to train time.”
It was an exciting and fascinating trip for me, and I dutifully reported on my trip as well as the meeting at the Foreign Ministry. The State Department did not send us instructions to follow up on the trip or probe more deeply with regard to diplomatic relations. I had traveled to Mongolia, been received at the Foreign Ministry, but that was that. Life returned to its normal rhythms. (It was only much later that I could establish that I was the first U.S. diplomat to be formally received at Mongolia’s Foreign Ministry since the 1944 visit by Vice President Henry Wallace.)
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA, Lewis and Clark College 1970
JD, Lewis and Clark College 1974
MPA, University of Oklahoma 1975
LLM, George Washington University, 1978
Joined the Foreign Service 1974
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia—Ambassador 1994–1996
Chișinău, Moldova—Head of Mission, OSCE 1996–1997
Praia, Cape Verde—Ambassador 2002–2005
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea—Ambassador 2006–2008