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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

October 2005

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.In a vignette on events that took place almost half a century ago, the author recounts how one group of people, with a little help, reacted to the ravages of nature. The similarities to the storms only just finished, and the havoc they wrought, are clearly evident. --Ed.

Torrential Rainstorms in Sri Lanka -- 1957

Recent problems in managing the hurricane problems along the Gulf Coast reminds me of problems we faced in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in December 1957.

I had gone to Ceylon in 1956 from India at the suggestion of James P. Grant, at that time the regional legal advisor for the U.S. aid missions in that part of Asia. We had had frequent dealings with one another on various aid projects as I prepared the documents for legal review. After I returned from a long trip to southern India, he stopped me as I was going through the office hallway. He mentioned that he had just been named as the director of a new mission in Ceylon. He said he would like me to join him. I agreed to do so.

My salary at that time was smaller than that of a program officer. Jim suggested that I be the acting program officer. When I accepted, I was all set for a new job.

Jim had a special way of doing things. He arranged for a team of temporary consultants with expertise in various fields to join us in Colombo. He then held a seminar in which the economy of Ceylon was reviewed in depth. Outstanding problems were reviewed, and the group, including myself, had a chance to recommend what we thought were the best approaches to problems within the abilities of a U. S. team assisting Ceylon.

Jim and I also visited the prominent Ceylon officials responsible for economic planning and coordination with foreign aid programs. The most prominent one was Raju Coomaraswamy, senior assistant secretary of the ministry of finance, who subsequently signed most project agreements on behalf of the government of Ceylon. First, however, I wrote an agreement to cover the entire cooperative program, which was signed by the ministry of foreign affairs and the American ambassador.

We got started on a number of programs, some requiring contracts with American institutions. They included activities in agriculture, public health, university education, etc. When it seemed that everything was going well, something happened that disturbed us greatly.

In December of 1957, torrents of rain took over the whole island. The daily newspapers reported mass starvation, the spread of illnesses, and increasing deaths. We in the aid mission were quite disturbed by these events. One day I approached Jim at his desk. I stated that we needed a flight of American planes to drop food and medicines around the country. Jim replied that if I really believed that, I should send a cable to Washington requesting such action. I did that with Embassy concurrence.

The first reply was disappointing. The Washington cable suggested that the Indian Government, located much closer, was in a much better position to release aircraft for that purpose. Shortly thereafter, however, came a second cable, stating that a U. S. Navy task force was sailing down the east coast of Asia, and would be stopping at Hong Kong and Singapore to pick up food and medical supplies.

The USS Princeton, an aircraft transport, arrived at Colombo harbor. By this time we had held conversations with key Ceylon Government officers who advised on the problem. U.S. aircraft then flew to the worst afflicted portions of the island, dropping needed supplies.

Something else happened, also, something we had not planned on, but which resulted in very good publicity for the United States. Local reporters hitched rides on many of the missions, and every day the newspapers carried stories of the work of the U. S. Navy pilots and the aid they supplied to the suffering Ceylon population.

When the rains finally ended, the USS Princeton held a little ceremony aboard ship attended by many prominent Ceylonese. I happened to be present when the dean of engineering asked the ship's captain if this ship was the largest of its type in the U.S. Navy. "No Sir," replied the captain. "It's the smallest!"

We soon learned that the Ceylon government appreciated our efforts, as newspapers publicized a very favorable statement by the minister of health, who happened to be a woman. The remainder of my assignment in Ceylon was a very pleasant one, and all Ceylonese were, I guess naturally enough, quite friendly.


Carl Fritz is a charter member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of directors.

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