China scholar Richard Solomon, who was an essential component of the “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the thaw in relations between the United States and China, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After getting a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966, Solomon taught political science at the University of Michigan. He left in 1971 to join the staff of the National Security Council, where he was responsible for Asian Affairs and worked with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on the normalization of relations with China. Solomon joined the Rand Corporation in 1976. Ten years later Secretary of State George Shultz recruited him to the State Department to lead the policy planning staff.
President George H.W. Bush nominated Solomon to be the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1989. In that role, Solomon helped to negotiate the 1991 Paris Agreement which helped end a long-running conflict in Cambodia. Solomon facilitated nuclear non-proliferation discussions between South Korea and North Korea and served in 1992-1993 as ambassador to the Philippines. Read more
In 1991, the U.S. led a coalition of over 30 nations to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait after Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion and annexation of the small oil-rich country. Although the invasion caught many throughout the world by surprise, those who had worked in the Middle East had been seeing tensions rise for some time. In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq was devastated economically and owed its Gulf Arab neighbors a tremendous amount of debt, which they refused to waive or lower.
Iraq also had complaints about its lack of access to the sea and demanded that Kuwait cede two islands in the nether part of the Tigris Basin. Coinciding with the end of the war, the very same Gulf neighbors to whom Iraq owed money began to substantially increase their oil output, thereby driving down the price of Iraq’s main foreign-currency earner at a time when it needed every petro-dollar. Baghdad even accused Kuwait of stealing oil from an Iraqi oilfield near the border by slant drilling.
During this time, the U.S. worked to mediate and maintain peace in the region. Diplomats from Iraq and Kuwait were often in touch with the State Department hoping for a solution to the growing friction between the two countries, but none was found. In fact, mixed signals sent by the Administration in Washington to Iraq and a lack of communication with the American embassy in Baghdad gave Saddam the impression that he could use his military might without repercussions from the U.S. Such events, coupled with Saddam’s paranoid nature and fragile temper, led to the invasion and annexation of his southern neighbor on August 2, 1990. Read more
When President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger vowed to find a way to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam quickly and honorably without appearing to cave in to communist pressure. The U.S. launched a secret air campaign, thirteen major military operations, against North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. Cambodia’s neutrality and military weakness had made its territory a safe zone where North Vietnamese troops established bases for operations over the border.
President Richard Nixon gave formal authorization to commit U.S. ground troops, fighting alongside South Vietnamese units, against North Vietnamese troop sanctuaries in Cambodia on April 28,1970. The incursion was possible because of a change in the Cambodian government in which Prince Norodom Sihanouk was replaced by pro-U.S. General Lon Nol. News of the military action in Cambodia ignited massive antiwar demonstrations in the U.S., in part because the determination to invade was made secretly.
Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, which had closed in 1964, was in the process of reopening. The fact that only a small circle of people in Washington knew what the Nixon administration was planning to do in Cambodia, including the April 1970 incursion, complicated the work of U.S. diplomats there. Read more
Considered by many the most accomplished diplomat of his generation, Thomas Reeve Pickering served as U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, and Russia. While serving as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations TheNew York Times described him as “arguably the best-ever U.S. representative to that body.” He was Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and ended his federal government career as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs.
Born in Orange, New Jersey in 1931, Ambassador Pickering received a B.A. in history from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He went to the University of Melbourne in Australia on a Fulbright Fellowship and was awarded a second Masters. After serving three years in the U.S. Navy, Pickering joined the Foreign Service in 1959.
Beginning in 2003, Charles Stuart Kennedy conducted a series of oral history interviews with him. Pickering’s detailed accounts of the major diplomatic events of his forty-year career provide historic insights for scholars and tradecraft tips for today’s diplomats. Pickering served during a number of changes of Administration and noted how those transitions allowed leaders at the State Department to change the way the Department conducts business and implements foreign policy.
From 1973-74, Thomas Pickering served as Executive Secretary of the Department of State and Special Assistant to Secretaries William P. Rogers and Henry A. Kissinger
Sometime along in the fall of ’73 it became apparent that Ted Elliott was going to leave the Executive Secretariat. He had been engaged for I think three or four years in long battles with Henry (Kissinger) and the National Security Council (NSC) and the NSC staff. Actually, it emerged finally out of all of the contests they had that Henry had a lot of respect for Ted and for what Ted was doing and grudgingly, at first, but then later quite generously mentioned it…
I worked with Secretary (William) Rogers (seen at left) on a number of other things, including our ratification of the 1925 Protocol on Gas Warfare… so it became apparent after a while that they wanted me to take the Executive Secretary job, which I was delighted to do. I had been in (the Political Military Bureau) from ’69 until the summer of ’73. I was pleased to go on to a new job and anything as prestigious and interesting as the Executive Secretary was very welcome. I had no inkling that when I started to work for Rogers he was going to be gone in a month and that Henry was going to come in and we would go through the Middle East (Ramadan-Yom Kippur War) war, among many other things in that very short period of time. Henry would then ask me to go to Jordan [as U.S. ambassador] at the beginning of the year.
The Executive Secretariat, when I first came in, was pretty much involved in a couple of things: the Operations Center was pretty much coming into its own, a regular long-term watch beginning to standardize procedures. It had become an alerting center for the Secretary and for the Seventh Floor principals, becoming in effect a standard way of coordinating in the intelligence community on judgments and impressions and opinions about fast-breaking crisis developments, and obviously staying in support with the Department’s principals, in those days particularly with the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary.
The second piece was the Line, in which a group of excellent young officers reviewed paper prepared for the Secretary and the seventh floor principals for completeness – for, obviously, ability to hang together in terms of the policy advice – and to make sure that the rest of the Department was signed off for clearance. There were, I think, in Bill Rogers’ time, very few bypasses of the Line. In Henry’s time they began to multiply with great rapidity.
[By “bypass” I mean] a piece of paper that wasn’t vetted through the Line, but got on the Secretary’s desk anyway. There were a number of ways to do that. One way was obviously to go to one of the Secretary’s executive assistants and bypass the Executive Secretariat, and another was to come to me as Executive Secretary and see if I would personally put it in, given a) its sensitivity or b) the need to move it in a hurry.
This is always dangerous because often these represented a single person’s point of view, often an Assistant Secretary or a bureau point of view, but without all the competing interests brought in. There was a certain value in this, in the sense that it tended to rise above the lowest common denominator Department opinion, so it was always kind of a close call. I wanted to be involved in those even if they were not clearly vetted by the system, and I tried to hold those down to a small minimum.
It was also very clear that the Executive Secretary in those days did an awful lot of work, particularly with Kissinger, that the Secretary personally wanted done. Some of it had to do with personnel at very high levels – bringing people back to help staff the Department that the Secretary wanted and which he used the Executive Secretary rather than the personnel system at least to talk with the ambassadors overseas.
Ted had developed the LIMDIS/EXDIS/NODIS (Limited Distribution/Executive Distribution/No Distribution) channels during his time and regularized those. We attempted to use those and he had developed several versions of the NODIS Channel on call. One was “Cherokee” which was reserved for the Secretary’s personal use. We got a lot of use out of that particular channel as things developed with Kissinger, who wanted things particularly close-hold and also who at the same time wanted to be totally in command of what was going on in the Department.
We were at the period where jobs were being filled and he hadn’t yet brought back Dean Brown who was coming back from Jordan to be his managerial focus. Joe Sisco was going up to be Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Roy Atherton took over NEA (the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs) and a number of other people around were being shuffled one way or another. Henry was spending, as you remember in those days, half of his time at the NSC and the other half of the time in the Department — usually mornings at the NSC and afternoons and late evenings in the Department.
It was an interesting arrangement and it became one of the major ways in which Henry (seen at right) stepped into the Department. I can remember that I heard of Bill Rogers’ departure just about the time everybody else did. I think he called me in one morning and said that he was about to leave and shortly thereafter it became a public fact, and then Henry’s announcement by the President proceeded almost on the heels of that, if not with it.
Then Henry came over and I can remember I had a fascinating opportunity with Ted to see Henry when he called the two of us out to San Clemente in California. We spent a whole afternoon. Ted was about to leave and I was about to take over. I came back with a short list of three hundred action items from Henry of every conceivable type. I became the initial liaison between Henry and the Department to get all these things done or to get them underway. It was everything from his security detail to what we were doing about a whole series of foreign policy issues, to the funding of his office to everything else you could conceivably think of.
Years later on several occasions, Henry was kind enough to say that after he left the Department, he was shown a memo I had prepared after San Clemente “eyes only” to the Regional Assistant Secretaries. I spoke to them frankly about my assessment of the Department under Henry, what he was expecting and how I thought they should respond. He said that he thought that I was right on in my judgments and made gratifying statements about how and what I had done to help mobilize the Department to support him.
I think that initially he arrived in the Department with a lot of skepticism. He had known some Department officers and had respect for them. The ones particularly who fought with him, I think he had more respect for. So he began immediately to start picking people.
Using the Transition from Secretary Kissinger to Vance to create OES and win Budget Battles
From 1978-81, Pickering served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
(The organization that eventually became the Bureau for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, OES) arose because at one point after I had left the Department to go to Jordan, Henry asked the usual question, “Why do I have all of these special assistants I never see?” He said “let’s take a look at reorganizing” and I think that Larry (Eagleburger) who was there and maybe George Springsteen and a couple other people said, “Well, we have a common thread of science and scientific-like work, why don’t we sweep these all into a bureau?” And they set up a bureau. They had a very good guy who was not a career Foreign Service Officer but had been in the Department long enough and had been an expert in this area for a significant amount of time to become the first leader of this new bureau. It became OES.
It was a bit like PM (the Bureau of Political Military Affairs), how PM was organized in the period before that in the early Nixon period, when a bunch of folks working on arms control and related issues were pulled into PM and I went over there fairly quickly and worked for Ron Spiers, who was the second director of PM… We had a bunch of people floating around the Department who did work which was similar, and that made sense not to have them as special assistants to the Secretary any longer, to kind of tax his staff and not function in a coordinated way, but to coordinate those into a new bureau for such Pol-Mil purposes.
OES in those days was fairly large. I think we had 185 or 200 people on the Washington end, and almost nobody overseas to speak of, except the science counselors and attaches. We did lots of interesting programs all over the place and as a result we had a huge range of contacts with the executive branch, departments and agencies. We managed a lot of those. We actually looked over how HHS (Health and Human Services) and its cooperative agreements was working with other organizations in foreign countries and international organizations. We had a wealth of international organizations of a scientific character that we were working with — UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization) was one…
Then we had a huge range of contacts on the Hill. The Whale Lobby was one of my favorites — and I was not one of theirs — but it was interesting. We had all the animal protection treaties. The CITES treaty [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1973] covered in part the non-importation of ivory. There was just a huge panoply of very interesting things going on all the time.
One of the most interesting experiences I had was that, during my second year, my budget was cut fifty percent by a disappointed Congressman who worked his vengeance on me because I wouldn’t dismiss someone in order to hire one of his diving buddies to be a Deputy Assistant Secretary in my bureau to deal with oceans and fish. At least that was, in my view, the reason. This came to us out of the blue. The Department, Congressional Relations, didn’t pay much attention to it. I had a couple of very good special assistants who watched the Hill for me and they discovered this very quickly. I was then left on my own by the Department to go out to defend and try to restore on the (Congressional) floor the fifty percent cut made in committee.
My folks who had all of these contacts on the Hill and around town did an absolutely fantastic job. We just lobbied the Hill tremendously while the State Department hung back in Congressional Relations. I was trying to build up my bureau and the State Department in the eyes of this big community to convince them that we could work their issues and be successful. I had a sense of responsibility with respect to them. They all suddenly turned around and saw this cut coming.
The people I worked with on the outside of the Department understood they were going to lose much of the relationship they had in the State Department through OES and any influence in State along with it. So those outside people also worked hard to save us. We actually saved the budget in a floor debate which went on for a couple of hours. We ended up with something like 160 votes in the floor of the House in favor and 80 against restoring the OES budget.
As UN Ambassador, Working with President Bush’s and Secretary Baker’s Teams
Pickering was U.S. Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations from 1989-92
[On being asked to return to the Department and working with Secretary Baker] I think Baker had by then begun to put together his own team. Bob Kimmitt who I worked with extensively and perhaps the most directly relevant Baker person is, if you know Bob, an absolutely sensational person to work with, — very open. Bob was military academy graduate, had been a military officer and done other things in the government and knew how the government worked and came in as Under Secretary for Political Affairs.
Larry Eagleburger (seen left) was Deputy Secretary. So Larry obviously also interfaced with the career service. I had a lot to do with both of them and they were much more in my line. (North Carolina Senator) Jesse Helms had wanted John Bolton to come in and be Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizational Affairs, which was not obviously my first choice. I didn’t know much about John, but what I did know about John did led me to believe he was someone who thought the UN would not be a useful instrument of American foreign policy, if I can put it that way. So John came in after the time that I got up to New York, but I had an opportunity through mutual friends to meet him and we talked.
We had a civil relationship throughout the whole period of time, but I had, from time to time, to call Secretary Baker when I felt that I was being asked to carry out instructions that were not accomplishable and talk to him about what we were doing. He was always willing to receive calls. I didn’t bother him frequently but on those infrequent occasions when I did he was helpful. And from time to time in the middle of difficult negotiations in New York over resolutions I needed to resort to him to help on tie-breaking and he was extremely good. He didn’t always take all of your recommendations but had ways to suggest moving ahead and had his own ideas about can you get this, can you get that and I said, “Sure, let me try that.” So we had a very good professional relationship on that basis…
George Bush, Sr. you know had grown up in foreign affairs. He was ambassador to the UN, represented the U.S. in China before we had full relations, and was Director of Central Intelligence. His background and his interest was very broad… It was very clear he was fascinated with what was happening, extremely interested in what was going on. Brent (Scowcroft) would often join in. I have the greatest respect for Brent. He is tremendously able, remarkably capable, a very, very strong analyst of foreign affairs and obviously has kept his hand in intensively since the time he worked first with Henry Kissinger as his deputy and then subsequently as National Security Advisor for Nixon and Ford. He then was brought back by President Bush. President Bush had a great deal of respect for him — and a great deal of give and take with Brent about these major issues.
I found from my first days at the UN, when George Bush was still Vice President, he had me over and we spent 45 minutes in the Vice President’s office then talking about the issues that were coming up and where the UN would fit in it and how he would see that develop. He remained very active on things like the important resolution on the use of force to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 1 August 1990. It could never have been achieved without the tremendous amount of leg and telephone work that both Secretary Baker and President Bush did to make that happen. You know big countries don’t go to war because their Perm Reps at the UN say that is the right thing to do. That was above the pay grade there. It was very clear and very obvious that to bring something like to happen required that highest-level effort.
Pickering as a Seminole?
Ambassador Pickering served as Ambassador to Russia from 1989-’92
What happened [during President Clinton’s Administration] was that the State Department had begun a search for a new ambassador to Russia under conditions of change; Yeltsin had come in. Bob Strauss had gone out just at the time of Yeltsin’s standing on the tank on the barricades in August 1991 and supported Yeltsin. Bob had been there a year and decided that, with the Clinton administration, the Clinton administration should go find a new ambassador. The Clinton administration, according to the historical reports to which I later had access, looked around at a few people. They couldn’t find a willing volunteer from among the preeminent and widely noted. So, as usual, it dipped down into the Foreign Service and somehow Yours Truly’s name came to their attention.
I had an interesting experience over this because in December after the election I was called to Little Rock to interview with President-Elect Clinton for another job… We had a very nice interview and a good discussion; I came out very pleased with the results. I got on a plane and stopped over in Frankfurt. I got a call from Warren Christopher who had been handling personnel and Warren informed me at the Frankfurt airport that the job had gone to somebody else, which was obviously something that was disappointing to me but nevertheless…
So I went back to India, but Christopher had said that they certainly had things in mind for me. So along about –it must have been mid-January or so — I had a call at three o’clock in the morning from Peter Tarnoff, who was Under Secretary at the time. Peter said in a kind of cryptic way in the middle of the night — and I was half awake — “We would like to have you go to FSU. I said, “Well Peter, why would you want to send me to be a Diplomat in Residence at Florida State University? Are you really unhappy with the job I’ve done here or do you have somebody who you think is going to do a better job in India?”
I said, “I don’t have any real interest in going to Florida, maybe I can have my choice.” So he said, “No, no, no I was being cute; it’s the former Soviet Union.” It was Russia. So I said, “Well, obviously this is something I would like to do. It will not be easy here because they had just been four months without an ambassador before I came, or five months without an ambassador, and they will be unhappy. They will want to know if somebody is coming to take my place and if so who and all the rest of it.” He said, “Well I can’t tell you the answer to all of that because that hasn’t been decided yet. But at an appropriate time in a few weeks we’ll be announcing this…”
I came back from India at the end of March 1993. I headed for Moscow in May. I was there around the 20th of May. Clinton had just come into office in January and Yeltsin, of course, had been in place for a couple of years in Russia. But this had been one of our most important and difficult, tense, strained and significant relationships — so it was a high priority.
Working with the Clinton Team on Russia
The President had asked Strobe Talbott (seen right) to come in to cover Russia. Strobe was an old friend and roommate of the President’s at Oxford. They had been together for a long time and talked a lot. Strobe in effect became “Mr. Russia” for the State Department. Warren Christopher had brought him into the State Department. He became Special Assistant to the Secretary and Ambassador-at-large for the area of the former Soviet Union. This piece of what had been in the European Bureau when I came in was in the course of being established as Strobe’s virtual bureau for dealing with the former Soviet Union. It included not only Russia, but the other former republics of the Soviet Union, absent, interestingly enough, the Baltic States, which went to EUR [the Bureau of European Affairs] right away and stayed with EUR. It got the initials S/NIS which stood for the Secretary’s office dealing with the Newly Independent States…
The administration and management stayed with EUR. Strobe was in effect operating as the Regional Assistant Secretary on the policy issues, but his own broad contacts with the administration and his own background both as a journalist and in politics and with Clinton meant, in fact, that he was very much at ease working with Tony Lake at the White House. Tony was then the National Security Advisor with Sandy Berger as his deputy. Nick Burns was over at the White House about that time dealing with Soviet affairs. Toby Gati went over there for a while and then later came over as head of INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research] at State.
The group was quite tight knit; they had pretty much a broad-gauged view. Jim Collins who was holding the fort as the embassy’s DCM and charge when I arrived, stayed with me until roughly from May till October. Then Strobe asked him to come back, which was very much his preference, to become Strobe’s deputy on NIS affairs. I worked very easily with both Jim and Strobe from Moscow at that time. I learned a lot from Jim in particular while we were together. Then I got Dick Miles, who was ambassador in Azerbaijan, to come up and take over the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] job. Dick had had long experience in Russia and had the language. He had been part of the Soviet-Russia crew for a long period of time. I thought that was essential for continuity to make sure that we got the best of his expertise and the expertise of that organization integrated in the embassy while I was there learning Russia. Yet again this was another learning experience for me.
As Under Secretary, Breaking Down Stovepipes within the Department
Pickering was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs 1997-2001
I think the notion of creating a separate bureau had lots of pros and cons. My view is that the smaller the bureau, the less time and attention the Assistant Secretary gets from the Secretary, because the range of issues is smaller…
I have long argued that we should go back to a five-bureau structure for the regions and something comparable for the functional bureaus. As you know, we have in general support bureaus in the State Department, like the Legal Advisers Office and INR, and we have management and administrative bureaus, but a rule of five for each of those would reduce something like forty-plus now Assistant Secretary-level officials to something closer to twenty reporting to the Secretary. That would make sense even in a rarified bureaucracy like the State Department.
In my view the State Department has numerous problems of how to deal with functional issues and regional issues all at one time. It’s obviously going to continue to be a matrixed organization. We are not going to let one point of view solve all problems, but the fewer people we have in the room representing the diversity during key decisions, the more likely we are to get white smoke out of the chimney rather than black soot.
The Department should be able to settle policy issues in the main at a reasonably low level… I felt that the Under Secretaries by 1996 had become much too stove piped. Too many issues were being dealt with by them within a cluster of bureaus that they considered reported to them, and not across the Department. My view was always the Under Secretary role should be as a surrogate for the Secretary on issues the Secretary was not going to take an interest in. If the Under Secretary, by dealing with all the bureaus interested in a problem, could solve the problem for the State Department, that would take a lot of weight off the Secretary. That meant having in the room people not only who were in the “cluster” of the Under Secretary’s bureaus, but people from all the bureaus interested in and relevant to the decision. That was the way to get at the answer on behalf of the Secretary and it made sense…
(On his views upon taking the position of Under Secretary) There are a couple of things that might be worth considering here. One was my appreciation of the job as I came into it and the things that I felt needed to be done. Then secondly to follow on from that, because it’s a logical segue, is the interest that Madeleine Albright had in trying to bring about some reforms in the operation of the State Department. I volunteered to help. Then those ideas eventually got morphed or aligned into process ten years later, when Secretary Rice undertook to look at the same issues and where I joined her committee looking at transformational diplomacy…
I came to the Under Secretary’s job with a sense that this was the ideal job for a Foreign Service Officer and I left fully reinforced in that view. In that sense it is considered usually the highest-level job a Foreign Service Officer can get aspire to. People like Walt Stoessel, John Negroponte, Bill Burns and Larry Eagleburger were all Deputy Secretaries and then Larry [Eagleburger became] Secretary of State. So there isn’t a total glass ceiling, but there is a kind of glass ceiling in which Foreign Service Officers who have the luck and, I suppose, a reasonable amount of success can aspire to hit up against.
Secondly, there is a tendency to see that job as a combination of a number of things. One, the Department’s crisis manager — and certainly I had that role in many crises and with many issues — obviously subject to the Secretary’s and Deputy Secretary’s own interests. But in the main, I was either the crisis manager or supported the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary if they wanted to do that. It all worked out quite well. In that context I worked closely with the inter-agency process in the Deputies Committee at the White House and with the special group to deal with terrorist threats…
“Stove piping” is a word that has now achieved general currency, but it means that information, activities, policy recommendations and ideas are channeled through narrow conduits within the bureaucracy up the line to the Secretary so that outside reflections and other ideas are either eliminated or prohibited or — because of the bureaucratic arrangement — often never let other ideas from the outside see the light of day. I should begin by saying that anybody that looks at it for half a minute will understand that the State Department is a matrixed organization. That means that on every policy issue there are always competing bureaucratic interests. These are essentially best represented in the ‘matrixing’, if I can call it that, by the regional bureaus, the five or six bureaus that, in effect, divide up the world, have the money to run the embassies and are the major workhorses and powerhouses of the State Department and the functional bureaus set up over the years to represent the series of world wide-scale issues such as arms control or climate change.
Preeminent among them and perhaps the most important and perhaps the longest-lived is the Economic – now Economic, Business and Agricultural – Bureau of State It reports in a stovepipe up to and through the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. So, in this matrixed organization, I believe in the Christopher period of the Clinton administration, the process was, from what I understand, very heavily stove piped. So that my predecessor Peter Tarnoff had, as I did, supervision over the regional bureaus ,and to some extent — while it wasn’t formal in any way at all — we looked carefully at the work of the International Organizations Bureau, and to some extent the Intelligence Bureau, which was heavily relied upon by the regional bureaus although not part of ‘political affairs’ cluster.
What I did when I came in with respect to that was a couple of things that I think in my view helped to improve the performance of the State Department while I was there, although I’ll let the historians judge that matter. I don’t think they were permanent, although Marc Grossman who succeeded me kept a number of them on…
But what I tried to do — and it came about in an uncanny way because as I was being asked to take this job –Stuart Eizenstat (seen left) who had been Chief of Staff to President Jimmy Carter and who was a superb lawyer and public servant and someone I had worked with for years, called me. I had gotten wind of the fact that he was also being solicited to become Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. He said, “I will take this job, Tom, if you do the political job.” Nice of Stu to say that; it wasn’t necessary. I said to Stu, “I always felt the same way about you Stu, so let’s go ahead.”
Then he said, “Well, I have one question for you.” I said, “Sure, what is it?” He said, “Can your people attend my meetings?” And I said, “I don’t know what you mean.” He said, “Well, I understand that the regional bureaus report to you and are in somehow locked into you and the tradition is that they don’t go to meetings that involve economic issues.” I said, “Stu, that’s a travesty, of course they can come to your meetings. One of the things that I will do is encourage that and — if there is any problem, please let me know if you have any difficulty – ensure participation in your meetings goes ahead.”
And that the second thing is that I will do the same and I will tell you that my approach will be that I will certainly, on the basis of my close relationship with them, meet with the Assistant Secretaries for the regional bureaus whenever they want to meet on a private basis. But when we have a decisional meeting to discuss foreign policy recommendations to the Secretary or for my decision, I will have all the players in the room whether they are from the Economic Bureau or from the Legal Advisors Bureau or from whatever bureau it may be.”
So we agreed to work that way and it worked out splendidly. I don’t think we ever had any problems.
Relations between the U.S. and Ireland have traditionally been strong, thanks to common ancestral ties, history and shared values. Irish citizens immigrated to the thirteen Colonies, fought in the War of Independence and were among the first to drive cattle westward. Prompted largely by the Great Irish Famine, from 1820 to 1860 two million Irish arrived in the United States. These ties have been strengthened throughout the years by scientific and educational agreements as well as business and economic advances. American multinational corporations have established subsidiaries in the Emerald Isle to take advantage of low taxation; the U.S. is Ireland’s largest export partner and second-largest import partner.
But U.S.-Irish relations have not always been as comfortable as the proverbial “warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night.” Areas of bilateral dispute have concerned aviation landing rights, the support of some Americans for the Irish Republican Army, and differences in business practices and cultures that have complicated commerce between the two nations. Read more
Born in Philadelphia, Harold “Hal” Saunders graduated from Princeton and Yale before serving in the U.S. Air Force. After working in a liaison role in the CIA, he began his career in diplomacy by joining the National Security Council (NSC) in 1961, where he advised on Middle East policy for over a decade and was the NSC’s Mideast expert during the June 1967 Six-Day War. Moving to the State Department, he was Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research (INR). He joined an elite negotiating team led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, shuttling between Israel and Arab states and helping to mediate several Middle East agreements as Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs (NEA). Saunders played a key role in negotiating the 1978 Camp David Accords and the Sinai Disengagement Agreements. In 1979, following the revolution in Iran, Saunders coordinated efforts to secure the release of 66 members of the U.S. embassy staff and held hostage for 444 days. Saunders served under six U.S. presidents.
A pioneer of diplomatic thinking, Saunders was credited with coining the phrase “peace process” to describe U.S. efforts to negotiate a settlement in the Middle East and with developing the “sustained dialogue” model for resolving disputes. He continued his intellectual contributions to the study of international relations by working at several think tanks and writing four books on diplomacy following retirement from the U.S. Government. Thomas Stern interviewed Saunders in November, 1993.
“My education…taught me to look at problems from different perspectives”
SAUNDERS: I consider that the most important part of my background that led me into the foreign affairs field was my college education. It was inter-disciplinary. Specifically, I joined the “American Civilization” program at Princeton, majoring in English.
That program exposed me to a number of disciplines which permitted me to study American literature and culture in a broad context. It raised my awareness to the sensitivity to the complexity of human interactions, which are the substance of literature.
After graduating from Princeton in 1952, I went to Yale where I received my Ph.D. in American studies–literature, art, history, architecture, sociology, political science–in 1956. Those four years were also spent in an inter-disciplinary program.
I emphasize that aspect of my education because it taught me to look at problems from different perspectives. When you work for the National Security Council and the President of the United States, it is vitally important that you look at an issue not only through the eyes of a diplomat or a military officer, but through as many eyes as possible.
My dissertation at Yale was in American intellectual history and specifically on the processes of social interaction; that stood me in good stead later in the 1980s while I was participating on the Middle East process.
When I received my degree in 1956, I was twenty-five and a half years old. That made me eligible for military service. At the time, CIA had a junior officer training program which had a relationship with the US Air Force.
So I joined CIA and then went into the Air Force where after a year of training I was given a commission as a Lieutenant. . . . I did not join CIA just because of the arrangement it had with the Air Force; I had intended to join CIA as a career. . .
I had a friend at the Yale Law School who led me to CIA and its junior officer training program. That seemed tailor-made for me because it would have permitted me to use my analytical talents in a field — foreign affairs — which interested me. I had no background in foreign affairs beyond the courses I had taken in American diplomatic history, but the subject matter intrigued me. . . .
Lower-level Staffer at the NSC, 1961-1963: “I would summarize the Kennedy period as one that shook the bureaucracy”
One of President Kennedy’s major initiatives was an exploration to see whether a better relationship with Egypt might not be developed. At the time, [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, the President of Egypt, was one of the “big five” in the non-aligned world…
Jack Kennedy became personally involved, and so decisions on economic assistance and PL 480 [the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954] began to be viewed as possible avenues toward this goal. Involved even became the issue of the financing required to save the Abu Simbel temple which attracted Jackie Kennedy’s interests. Once she even sent a hand-written note to Nasser on the subject. (Jackie Kennedy seen with Nasser at right.)
So there was a general effort on the part of the Kennedy administration to re-orient our Middle East policy towards establishing better relationships with Nasser.
Of course, this new orientation had to be managed carefully lest the Israelis might come to believe that such an opening was inimical to their security interests. That would have raised a number of domestic political problems that the administration wanted to avoid…
Kennedy was a very much “hands on” President in foreign policy. So the informal nature of the White House staff was really the result of the President’s operating style.
The NSC staff was small enough — probably never exceeded fifteen professionals during the Kennedy administration — that a fluid operating process could work well. There was a lot of interchange among the NSC staff, partly because many of the issues cut across areas of responsibility… We worked on an inter-disciplinary and inter-regional basis with considerable collegiality. I must admit that it took the State Department a while to become accustomed to the informality of the process… So the process on a personal basis worked quite well. The government institutions had some reservations.
In the weeks following the Kennedy assassination and Johnson’s assumption of power (Johnson and Kennedy are seen at left), word was sent down to the regional bureaus from the State Department’s leadership that any calls from the White House were to be returned not from the officer who had received the call, but from an office director or higher.
That new approach affected me particularly because I had been accustomed to working with a desk officer on an issue that may have been raised by a memorandum that had come from the Department. I would, if necessary, try to get clarification of a point by calling the drafting officer.
But after Kennedy’s assassination, I could no longer talk to the desk officer, but would have to deal with the office director or more senior officials… It was during this transition period that one national magazine —Time or Newsweek — quoted someone in the Department referring to us as “White House meddlers.”
I would summarize the Kennedy period as one that shook the bureaucracy. Individuals made the informal relationships work quite well. But when Johnson became President, the institutions took advantage of the change and reestablished a more formal process.
Senior Staff at NSC, the Six-Day War of June 1967: “The President’s first concern was the Soviet reaction”
There were lots of warning signs. I saw some of them during my visit to the area in early 1967. There had been an aerial engagement between Israeli and Syrian planes. I saw a Syrian plane that had crashed at the northern end of Lake Tiberius.
From February on, there were signs of increasing tensions. Matters came to a head when [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser expelled the UN Force with [United Nations Secretary-General] U Thant’s acquiescence. There were several points during this sequence of events where the war could have been prevented…
The crises started really in early May; by mid-May the UN Forces had been expelled and Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran. That last action was of particular importance to us because in the aftermath of the Suez crisis, Eisenhower had insisted that the Israelis withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula.
In exchange, he had made certain commitments about the Straits of Tiran, which were the entrance to the Gulf of Eilat or Aqaba, depending on whom you are talking to. It was the channel for Israeli import of Iranian oil. In essence, Eisenhower had promised to keep the Straits open.
So after its closing, intense diplomatic efforts were made to reverse Nasser’s action and to head off the war, but they were not successful.
Johnson was personally involved in the crisis, as has been well documented in a number of writings about this period. About ten days before the outbreak of hostilities — after Nasser had closed the Straits, Abba Eban, then the Foreign Minister of Israel, came to Washington to find out what the United States intended to do about Nasser. (Eban and Johnson at left.)
Johnson chaired an NSC meeting, which included some officials who were not usually present at NSC meetings…
The whole meeting was a perfect illustration of the Johnson style. It was perfectly staged; the presentations were clear and logical; all the facts, including the intelligence analysis, were on the table.
He had to decide what he would say to Eban that evening. At the end of the meeting, Johnson said in his Texan fashion: “Come sundown, I am the one who has to bell this cat. What should I tell Eban?”
Everyone around the table had an opportunity to make his suggestion. Johnson did not do what Nixon would have done. He did not write down the pluses and minuses on a yellow pad; he collected human judgments…
[During the June 5-10, 1967 war between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria], there were numerous “hot line” exchanges with the Soviets and multi-national efforts in the UN. When it came to specific issues, like the attack on our electronic [intelligence-gathering] ship The Liberty, there were intense exchanges with the Israelis.
The first White House reaction was a very interesting one; it came from the President himself. He instructed the staff to call the Soviets on the “hot line” to inform them that we were deploying a couple of extra ships to the area in response to the attack and for rescue purposes. So the President’s first concern was the Soviet reaction; he wanted to make sure that our ship movements would not be misread…
Of course, during this period, Johnson was preoccupied with the Vietnam War. He couldn’t afford to have another major US involvement in another part of the world and certainly not in the Middle East. That accounts for much of the rationale behind diplomatic efforts to avert the conflict.
The Kissinger Shuttles, 1973-1975: “I became the scribe”
The NSC assignment became my first step into the foreign policy development work. I never returned to CIA, but the fact that I was an alumnus of that organization proved to be very significant and useful later on, especially during the Kissinger shuttle era, when, as one of the members of the very small negotiating team, I became responsible for the analytical underpinnings for Kissinger’s mediation efforts.
I relied then on various elements of the intelligence community and especially CIA… I am sure that having been an alumnus gave me greater credibility in CIA; it was always interested in assisting policy makers, but since I had been “one of them,” that made it much easier for everybody. (Sadat and Kissinger at right.)
In the late 1960s and the 1970s, there was this strong professional commitment to making government work well … If you review Middle East policy from 1967 through the end of the Carter administration, I think you will find that it was developed by one of the better, if not the best, continuous relationships under three different Presidents and different National Security Advisors…
By the time we worked on the Kissinger shuttles–1973-75–we had a unique diplomatic process and a unique operating way. We worked together as closely as it was humanly possible…
I became the scribe … We all, and Henry especially, saw the peace process as what I later described as “a series of mediated agreements imbedded in a larger political process.”
When we went to the Middle East, we always stopped in a number of Arab capitals, before and during the negotiations. On several occasions, I was sent to Algeria or to Saudi Arabia to brief the leadership of those countries on what was happening at the negotiating table. We would regularly send letters from the plane to various Arab leaders to keep them advised on the peace process. . . .
I remember that on one trip, Joe and I were frantically collating. One would hardly expect that to be in the job description for the Under Secretary for Political Affairs.
In any case, on that occasion, Kissinger came out of his compartment and looked at a page and said that he had specifically instructed us to make certain changes on that page.
I said: “Oh, hell, Mr. Secretary, there are too many pages!”
But I took the page and gave it to the typist to redo. But by the time she got finished, we were already on our glide path and couldn’t reproduce the page. When we landed at Giannakla airfield — a military base — in the Nile Delta (a wine grape growing area with a Greek name), we had to copy this page in 110 degree temperature while the Egyptian Foreign Minister was waiting outside to greet us.
I asked the pilot over the intercom not to stop the plane but to keep it rolling on the ground until we had all the copies made and collated. I don’t know where he went, but he taxied long enough for us to finish the job. The party on the ground that was awaiting us must have thought we had lost our marbles…
“When the Egyptians found out that the reserves were in still in Israeli territory, they would feel that they had been double-crossed”
The willingness of the intelligence community to work with the [Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs] directly was extremely important and useful. In 1975, when we working on the last of the three interim agreements — Sinai II — we needed substantial analytical support.
I relied heavily on CIA, [Wat] Cluverius [then a Near East specialist at the State Department] and others for work on two issues. [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat had laid down two conditions for his agreement to Sinai II: a) Israel would have to leave the oil fields in the Gulf of Suez and b) Israel would have to abandon the two Sinai passes (Mitla and Giddi).
The first condition required us to have some knowledge of the oil fields if we were to serve as mediators. Fortunately, there was a woman in CIA who apparently had devoted much of her career to a study of oil fields. With her help, we actually ended up knowing more about the size and location of the underground reserves than the Egyptians did, even though, they, with the help of the ENI — the Italian government firm — had operated those fields for almost ten years.
During the shuttle, when we were negotiating a demarcation line between the Egyptians and the Israelis, the latter gave us a proposal which left most of the oil rigs on the Egyptian side. We knew, however, that most of the reserves would still remain in Israeli hands if that line stood as proposed.
We had the capacity, through overhead photography, to show the Israelis that their proposal just wouldn’t meet Sadat’s requirements. In fact, if the line were to be drawn where proposed, our mediation role would be greatly jeopardized because when the Egyptians found out that the reserves were in still in Israeli territory, they would feel that they had been double-crossed and would find it very difficult to work with us and the Israelis thereafter.
I have always believed that the Israelis knew what they were doing, although I have no way of proving it. So we told the Israelis that their proposal, even though on the surface meeting Egyptian demands, was just unacceptable. CIA’s capacity to have that analytical knowledge saved our role as an honest broker. . . .
Another illustration of the importance of a broadened institutional support for the peace process came when Simka Dinitz, then the Israeli Ambassador in Washington, came to us on the Saturday before we were to leave on the shuttle which led to the Sinai II agreement. (Mitla Pass is seen at left.)
He brought a map with a demarcation line drawn on it and said to Kissinger that that was the line that would bring about an agreement. As soon as he left, Henry called me and asked me to check out the map.
I had some advance notice that Dinitz might do that; so I had the National Photo Intelligence Center ready in my office to look over the map. They had their photographs spread all over the floor. Then they drew the Israeli suggestion on their photographs and it became immediately clear that the line did not place the passes in Egyptian hands; in fact, it did not touch on the passes at all.
I reported these findings to Kissinger who instructed [Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Joseph] Sisco to have Dinitz come back to the Department to review our findings. Henry insisted that Israelis redraw the map so that the passes would clearly be in Egyptian hands, and he wanted that done by the time he got to Jerusalem.
That was just another illustration of the analytical capacity that a bureaucracy can provide which is invaluable to peace negotiations.
The Iran Hostage Crisis, 1979: “We all missed the boat on Iran…”
Maybe if I had spent more time thinking about Iran, if I had perhaps talked to more people about the situation there, if I had given it the attention I gave other issues, perhaps I could have detected the underlying currents and warned my colleagues that the political stability was very fragile and was not of the same nature of previous unrest that the Shah managed to calm.
There were some unknowns. For example, we did not know that the Shah had cancer. There was a lot of critical information that was not available to us. I feel worse about our policy development process as it concerned Iran than any mistakes we may have made in the Middle East peace process.
We all missed the boat on Iran — bureaucrats, scholars, experts… Our people in the consulates in Iran … could not understand why we didn’t see the handwriting on the wall. The main reason was that their reports were not being forwarded by the Embassy in Tehran to Washington. So it took too long for those signals to reach us in the [Near East] Bureau.
It wasn’t until November that Ambassador [William H.] Sullivan sent in his cable “Thinking the Unthinkable”. Of course, by that time, the Shah’s cancer had spread and his living days were numbered.
By the end of 1979, the hostage crisis was at a peak and it became my overwhelming preoccupation.
Let me just say a few words about the conduct of the hostage crisis. If I were to be proud of our government’s handling of a particular situation, I would obviously be very positive about the Arab-Israeli peace process, not just because of what was achieved, but also because the way we managed it.
We had terrific team-work; we had a sound analytical basis for our policies; the professionals involved were very competent; and we had as much political support for making progress as we wanted and needed.
Strangely enough, I would give the hostage crisis the same high marks. First of all, we must recognize that when the hostages were taken, we faced a terrible mess. We may, as I suggested earlier, have made mistakes in the pre-1979 period that led to the hostage crisis.
In any case, once the hostages were seized, despite several strategic decisions that might be argued, I think the government performance was quite exemplary… In terms of the management of a crisis, I think the hostage was one that was meticulously implemented. It was a very, very complicated problem with many facets.
That ranged from the resentments of the Iranian students in American academia to the protection of their rights and visas; the question of impounding arms shipments for which the Iranians had already paid; trade embargoes, freezing assets, etc. There were many issues that cut across the responsibilities of various Cabinet departments and agencies…
One of the interesting things that happened was that we had lost almost all intelligence and information collection capacity when the Embassy was overrun.
But Henry Precht [director of the Iran Office, Bureau of Near East Affairs] knew that he could dial Tehran directly. He began to call as many Iranians as he could. He would call people in the business community or the medical community or whoever he could. This went on throughout the crisis.
We also soon became aware of how many relatives of senior Iranian officials had married Americans and had American relatives in the US. We asked them to call their friends and relatives in Iran; we talked to them and through them to senior officials in Iran. That led to some very interesting connections…
On May 25, 1985, seventy-three South Korean students barged into the United States Information Services (USIS) library in Seoul and began a three-day occupation. The students’ primary demand was an apology from the U.S. Ambassador, Richard L. “Dixie” Walker, as the representative of the American government, for the United States’ alleged role and complicity in the 1980 “Kwangju incident,” a massacre of hundreds of protesters in Kwangju, South Korea on the orders of President Chun Doo-Hwan.
Though the United States had no involvement in the Kwangju incident and was distancing itself from the repressive Chun regime, lingering resentment toward the U.S. and misunderstandings about Kwangju persisted through the end of the twentieth century. After three long, tense days, the students, having shared their concerns with the Americans and with the larger South Korean public, peacefully left the library. The resolution of the occupation of the U.S. Embassy’s library was seen as a case study in successful crisis management. Read more
Defining the border between Mexico and the United States has not always been in the hands of politicians; at one point, a shift in the Rio Grande River created a new boundary and generated a diplomatic dispute. In February 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and designated the Rio Grande the boundary line between the two nations. However, due to flooding and the changing flow of the river, over time, the banks of Rio Grande shifted. The alteration was so significant that a 600 acre piece of land between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Jaurez, Chihuahua, known as the Chamizal, went from being in Mexican territory to north of the river in American territory.
Americans began to settle in the Chamizal and incorporated the land into the city of El Paso. In 1895, the Mexican government, which claimed the land as part of Mexico, elevated the dispute to the International Boundary Commission (IBC), a body of U.S. and Mexican officials. Four years later, the IBC created a cement track to redirect the Rio Grande and avoid future floods, a project jointly funded by the U.S. and Mexico. This man-made alteration moved yet another piece of land, Cordova Island, from the Mexican to the American side.
Later, the Arbitration of 1911 awarded the Chamizal to Mexico, but the land remained disputed and Americans continued to live there. Cordova Island, an essential “no-man’s land” for decades, became a haven for illicit activities from drug smuggling to human smuggling. Both the Chamizal and Cordova Island remained a source of friction between the countries. Read more
A crisis between India and Pakistan erupted between November 1986 and March 1987 after India launched the largest-ever military exercise in the subcontinent, called Operation Brass Tacks. The exercise took place in the desert area of Rajasthan, a few hundred miles from the Pakistani border, and included nine infantry, three mechanized, three armored and one air assault divisions.
Pakistani analysts interpreted Brass Tacks as a threatening exhibition of conventional force and responded with maneuvers of its own near India’s state of Punjab. International concerns spiked when Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan was quoted as saying in March 1987 that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb. U.S. diplomats sought to diffuse tensions between the two countries to prevent a nuclear war. Before the end of the decade, India and Pakistan would again nearly come to war over military exercises, prompting the intervention of Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates. Read more
The Helsinki Final Act, an agreement signed by 35 nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on August 1, 1975, addressed a spectrum of global problems and had a lasting impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Helsinki Final Act dealt with a variety of issues divided into four “baskets.” The first basket dealt with political and military issues, the second economic issues, trade and scientific cooperation. The third basket emphasized human rights, and the fourth formalized procedures for implementing the agreements.
The multilateral negotiations were stressful and demanding. In this case, one means of reaching decisions on the four baskets came in the form of basketball. But just as in the case of diplomacy, in basketball you can run across “ringers” – people whose abilities may not be readily apparent. Not everyone knew that Soumi – Finland – had its share of athletic diplomats who could make a lay up. Jonathan Greenwald, who served as the Legal Advisor to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin from 1973-1977, highlighted the role that basketball played in bringing together different delegations during the negotiating process of the Helsinki Final Act, in an interview with Raymond Ewing in March 1998. Read more