American Diplomacy

May 2005

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Nonpartisan Global Troubleshooting at Its Best
Review by Michael W. Cotter
Ellsworth Bunker: Global Troubleshooter, Vietnam HawkEllsworth Bunker: Global Troubleshooter, Vietnam Hawk. By Howard B. Schaffer. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 380. $34.95 cloth.)

"Bunker was able to bring to a successful conclusion negotiations that would (and, in fact, did) wear out most other negotiators. The fact that he brought few of his own political preconceptions to the task made him a valued advisor to every president from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter."

Howard Schaffer, a retired career Foreign Service officer and former U. S. ambassador, is abundantly qualified to write the first biography of Ellsworth Bunker. Many readers will no doubt recall Bunker as the U. S. ambassador to South Vietnam during the critical years from 1966 to 1973. As Ambassador Schaffer explains in some detail, that assignment was just the most noteworthy in a second career as government advisor and public servant that spanned more than thirty years.

This well-researched biography covers Bunker's life from his formative years through his career as a sugar industry executive and lobbyist, but focuses primarily--as the title suggests--on his government service. That second career began in 1951 when the fifty-seven-year-old year old Bunker was appointed by President Truman as ambassador to Argentina. He went on to serve as America's ambassador to Italy, then India and Nepal (concurrently), before being assigned to Saigon. In between these assignments, Bunker served as president of the American Red Cross, led negotiations resulting in the Netherlands relinquishing control of West New Guinea, brokered a settlement of a dispute between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, headed an OAS team that helped restore democracy to the Dominican Republic, and negotiated the Panama Canal Treaty which returned the canal to Panama in 1979. These critical assignments speak volumes about the high regard in which Bunker was held by successive American presidents.

Unfortunately for the author of this biography, Bunker did not write his memoirs, although Schaffer was able to access a collection of letters from Bunker to his wife, as well as a draft manuscript--co-authored with a Harvard professor--that was to have covered Bunker's Vietnam experience. Much of the other material that the author cited consists of declassified official U. S. documents such as telegrams to and from Bunker on his various assignments, and interviews with officials with whom he had worked with over the years. The result is less an insight into Bunker's own thinking than an excellent summary of some important, but often overlooked, American diplomatic triumphs of the Cold War era. A wealth of material on such events as the 1954 crisis between the Netherlands and Indonesia over West New Guinea, the 1965 Dominican Republic crisis, and the negotiations leading to the return of the Panama Canal can be found in these pages.

Truly, as this biography's subtitle suggests, Bunker was a nonpartisan "global troubleshooter" extraordinaire. A man with an insightful mind, a commanding physical presence, and seemingly infinite patience, Bunker was able to bring to a successful conclusion negotiations that would (and, in fact, did) wear out most other negotiators. The fact that he brought few of his own political preconceptions to the task made him a valued advisor to every president from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, all of whom came to rely on him extensively.

That the author's treatment of Bunker's diplomatic assignments is weighted toward his critical time in Saigon isn't surprising, as his assignments to Buenos Aires and Rome lasted only ten and eleven months, respectively. Schaffer does cover Bunker's four year plus tenure in New Delhi in greater detail, providing some interesting insights into U.S.-Indian relations during the Nehru era. But fully one-third of this volume is devoted to Bunker's six-year assignment as ambassador to South Vietnam, which covered the critical phase of the war from the height of America's troop buildup through the 1968 Tet Offensive and ending with Vietnamization and the gradual withdrawal of American troops. This portion of Schaffer's book explains the "Vietnam Hawk" in its title.

Because the author was forced to rely largely on the official record, the account tends to focus much more on official communications between Bunker's embassies (and missions) and the State Department and White House. Not surprisingly, discrepancies arise between those messages that reflect Bunker's personal views and those reflecting his staffs', albeit in most cases vetted with him. Unfortunately, Schaffer is not able--due to the paucity of sources--to make clear these distinctions. Consequently, much is ascribed as representing Bunker's views that in reality are probably the thinking of the bureaucracy he headed. What is clear throughout the book, however, is Bunker's nonpolitical and nonjudgmental stewardship of the tasks handed to him. Indeed, he was able to handle the incredible variety of missions he undertook precisely because he was able to work within policy guidelines set at higher levels--sometimes in Foggy Bottom, but usually--given the nature of his missions--at the White House. Though rarely noted specifically and not part of the author's overall theme, this essential facet of Bunker's diplomatic skills suffuses Schaffer's portrait of this very talented and loyal ambassador.

While characterizing Bunker a "Vietnam Hawk" will undoubtedly boost the book's sales, it is nonetheless, misleading. Yes, Bunker was a hawk during his Vietnam posting, but arguably that was due to the fact that he worked for administrations which held a "positive" (i.e., hawkish) position on the conflict and the prospects for victory over the Vietnamese communists. Consequently, those sections of the book that deal with Bunker's diplomatic assignments probably reflect "official" embassy views and administration policy more than they do the ambassador's personal predilections. This "fault," if one may call it that, makes the book less compelling as a biography, but more valuable as an important and interesting case study of Cold War American diplomacy.

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Ambassador (ret.) Michael W. Cotter was a career Foreign Service officer who served in seven countries during his thirty-two-year career with the State Department. His first posting was the Republic of South Vietnam where, in addition to serving as a district advisor in the Mekong Delta, he was staff aide to Deputy Ambassador Sam Berger from 1970 to 1971. His final posting was as U. S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan. Retired to the Chapel Hill (NC) area, Cotter writes and lectures on international topics, travels, remains involved in volunteer community activities, and serves as vice-president of American Diplomacy Publishers.

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