by Dr. Alicia J. Campi
Editor’s note: The U.S. and Mongolia established diplomatic relations in 1987, after earlier failed attempts and many years of Cold War frostiness. In this account, Dr. Campi describes the negotiations leading up to relations with the Mongolian People’s Republic, at the time a communist country closely allied to the Soviet Union, and her own role in the process.
Many outstanding personalities were involved in the question of opening diplomatic relations with Mongolia. In 1985, when former Senator Mike Mansfield was serving as Ambassador to Japan, the Mongolian Government in Ulaanbaatar sought out the Japanese Ambassador to Mongolia to ask him to be an intermediary to the United States. The Mongols remembered that Mansfield during his time in Congress had been sympathetic to Mongolia and worked with President John F. Kennedy to allow the accession of Mongolia to the United Nations in 1961. Since Japanese Ambassador Ota was a good friend of Mike Mansfield, he agreed to pass the Mongolian offer to open negotiations on mutual recognition. Ambassador Mansfield thereupon delegated responsibility for exploring the issue to the Political Section chief Donald Keyser. Keyser and his wife, who also was an officer in the embassy, arranged a dinner meeting with Mongolian Embassy official Ravdan Bold, his embassy’s China specialist and an English-speaking intelligence officer. Unimpressed by Bold, Keyser reported to Mansfield that the approach by the Mongols was not serious so further discussions were not necessary.
Several months later, Ambassador Ota again approached Ambassador Mansfield to encourage him to reach out to the Mongols. Having heard that I, a consular officer working in the Embassy’s Visa Section, was involved in dissertation research on U.S. contacts with Mongolia in the 1920s for my Ph.D. in Mongolian Studies at Indiana University, Mansfield assigned me to recontact the Mongolian Embassy in Japan. To prepare for the meeting with Bold, I first asked Keyser why the dinner meeting was unsatisfactory. He responded that the Mongols had insulted him by sending a junior official of lower rank who was only a Second Secretary and that this man had unbearable table manners. (This latter comment struck me as quite peculiar, having dined with many Mongolian officials working at their U.N. Mission in New York. During many meals with Bold over the subsequent 30 years, I never witnessed any bad manners or strange mannerisms.)
At our first meeting in the fall of 1985, Bold and I found that we shared a deep academic interest in Chinese and Mongolian history and were strongly motivated to assist in the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. I told Bold that the two of us must succeed where previous attempts in the 1960s and 1970s had not, because failure was not an option.
Because of the lack of bilateral relations, all of our meetings, perhaps some 15 in total over 18 months, took place outside embassy offices. One time in the winter I invited Bold to dinner in my Tokyo apartment with American, Swiss, and Pakistani diplomats also present. The Mongolian-style live charcoal-fired hot pot that I prepared on the balcony was still very smoky when I brought it inside. Quickly my apartment filled with thick smoke, which caused the fire alarm in the building to sound. As we all began to choke, my guests, including Bold, did not move a muscle. Suddenly Japanese firemen wearing yellow mackintoshes and oxygen tanks burst through the door to air the place out and disable the alarm. The 10-story building’s residents, including my supervisor, Consul General Patricia Wazer, and their various pets, had to walk down the stairs to evacuate the building while all of us just sat and watched the proceedings in my apartment. What could I say after this totally embarrassing event? I smiled at the guests, told them I hoped they had enjoyed the evening’s entertainment, and then suggested we all eat! Fortunately, this bizarre dinner party did not derail my talks with Bold which continued once or twice a month over the next year.
My written reports of the meetings with Bold were sent only through the embassy’s Department of State classified channels directly to Washington. Initially, the Political Section, headed by Keyser and his superior, William Breer, who was the Ambassador’s right-hand man, wanted to read them before transmission, but they soon lost interest in the contents. My only meeting with Ambassador Mansfield related to the Mongolian negotiations was that first meeting described above. All further instructions or commentary in response to my reports came directly from Washington through the State Department’s Office of China and Mongolian Affairs, leaving me basically on my own in how to approach my Mongolian counterpart. I later learned that Bold’s reports on his meetings were not transmitted back to Ulaanbaatar through the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ channels. Rather, he was using Mongolian intelligence and Ministry of Defense channels that led directly to the Politburo. Although this reveals the weak position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in directing negotiations on recognition, it seems to have been the key to the successful results that followed.
One major obstacle in my negotiations with the Mongols came from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Although my reports went only to Washington, the Department’s Office of China and Mongolian Affairs was relaying them to the Political Section in Beijing. Watching with growing concern, the officers there thought that such serious and delicate preliminary diplomatic negotiations should be handled only by experienced “China Hands” working in the Beijing embassy. Embassy Beijing, not Tokyo, was technically responsible for Mongolian matters, and, they believed, I was too inexperienced to do the job. However, Ambassador Mansfield insisted the line of communication stay in Tokyo through me, since the approach had been made there.
Nevertheless, taking advantage of the Chinese long May Day 1986 holiday, Beijing Political Section head Donald C. Johnson, who had once visited Ulaanbaatar in 1984, decided to go there to investigate the seriousness of the intent of the Mongols to establish bilateral relations. He did not inform me or the U.S. embassy in Tokyo prior to his trip. Johnson, who later served as U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia 1993-1996, told a 1995 conference on U.S. – Mongolian bilateral relations that “…I got on the train again and went back up to UB. It was a very frustrating visit. Nothing happened…Nobody was there to receive me at the Foreign Ministry. I shrugged my shoulders, thought, man, we are chasing a mirage again, and went back to Beijing.”
Johnson remained in UB for one week waiting for contact with the Mongols. Although he asked Ambassador Ota to arrange a meeting, all the officials were on May Day leave. Finally, Johnson went himself to the Ministry and knocked repeatedly on the main door. When a janitor/guard in the building leaned out a window to ask what Johnson wanted, he shouted back in Russian that he was an American diplomat who needed to speak with a Foreign Ministry official. On the last day of his visit, Johnson was suddenly contacted by a young English-speaking Mongolian official named L. Davaagiiv, who had been trained in England and would later become the second Mongolian Ambassador to the United States. Davaagiiv himself told me that when Johnson asked him about Mongolian interest in opening diplomatic relations, he replied that he himself knew nothing at all about this.
After Johnson’s disappointed departure for Beijing, Davaagiiv was finally able to notify First Deputy Foreign Minister (1973-1990) Daramyn Yondon about the visit. Yondon strongly blamed Japanese Ambassador Ota for being the instigator of the unsuccessful, ill-fated trip. In fact, the Foreign Ministry’s lack of knowledge of our Tokyo meetings confirms that Bold was not communicating through the Ministry; he was reporting in channels that went directly to the Politiburo itself. The unfortunate result of the journey was that Johnson wrote a blistering report back to Washington, which was forwarded to me in Tokyo. He believed that the information coming out of Tokyo about Mongolian interest in diplomatic relations likely was a ruse or a game being played on naïve me. The Washington desk demanded an explanation and instructed me to ask Bold three military-related questions, warning that if Bold did not produce acceptable answers within a month’s time, my contact with him would be terminated.
I knew that the next meeting with Bold was crucial if our negotiations were going to continue. When I asked why the Mongolian Government would not receive Johnson in Ulaanbaatar, Bold noted in frustration that officials were on holiday in Mongolia, just as in communist Beijing. I passed Bold the three questions Washington sent that dealt with Soviet troops and weapon strength along the Mongol-Chinese border. He gasped and said that he did not know the highly classified answers to such questions. I explained that it was likely the U.S. Government already knew the answers through our sensitive satellite technology and was just testing to see if Mongolia were serious about the Tokyo discussions or for some reason just deceiving me. I suggested that the Mongols give statistical responses expressed in terms of ranges rather than precise figures and urged him to get me the answers quickly so our contact would not be broken and hope for diplomatic relations again die. Near the end of the summer, almost a month after our last meeting, Bold called to hand over the answers to the three questions. I then relayed them to Washington, and soon afterwards was notified that the Department had decided to move further negotiations to New York City.
In New York, the U.S. was represented at the United Nations by well-known diplomat and fluent Russian speaker Ambassador Vernon Walters and his First Deputy Herbert Okun. Their Mongol counterpart was Ambassador Gendengiin Nyamdoo, who later would become Mongolia’s first ambassador to the U.S. After Nyamdoo received Okun on August 28, 1986, he wrote a private letter to Mongolian Deputy Foreign MinisterYondon that emphasized how important it was to finalize as soon as possible the negotiations on diplomatic recognition. Yondon informed Mongolian Premier Jambyn Batmonkh and the Soviet Embassy in Ulaanbaatar. The embassy contacted Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze who sent back a telegram reading: “It is important for Mongolia to establish diplomatic relations with the USA. No change in our position that was conveyed to your side during my visit [January 23, 1985].”
Final discussions took place in December in NYC between Walters, Nyamdoo, Okun, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia J. Stapleton Roy, who had been trained in Mongolian language in Seattle two decades previously. In January the Mongolian Politburo adopted a resolution to establish diplomatic relations and both sides agreed to the date of January 27, 1987. Secretary of State George P. Schultz represented the Reagan administration and Ambassador Nyamdoo signed the agreement for the Mongol side in an official ceremony in Washington, DC. Back in Tokyo Bold and I had a steak dinner with champagne and cognac to toast the happy occasion.
Bold would go on to become Mongolian Ambassador to the United States in 2004-2007, Secretary of Mongolia’s Public Security Agency, Ambassador to Australia, and today is Ambassador to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Israel. I would get my Ph.D. in Mongolian Studies in 1987, and eventually produce a book in 2009 on the history of bilateral contacts between the U.S. and Mongolia entitled The Impact of China and Russia on United States–Mongolian Political Relations in the 20th Century. I left the Department in 1991 to start my own consulting company on Mongolia and become President of The Mongolia Society in Bloomington, Indiana since 2007. My second book, Mongolian Foreign Policy: Navigating a Changing World will be released in 2019.
Before the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations in 1987, there was minimal recognition by historians and political scientists of American contacts with Mongolia. My Ph.D. dissertation on The Political Relationship Between the United States and Outer Mongolia 1915-1927: The Kalgan Consular Records presented new primary evidence about the relatively broad-based nature of political and commercial relations between the United States and Mongolia in the years after World War I. The main sources for the dissertation’s research were the records of the U.S. consulate in Kalgan (today’s Zhangjiakou in north China) in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These archival records consisted of fifty bound volumes—a treasure trove of new information, including priceless and until then unknown diplomatic documents. This dissertation research substantiated the existence of a bilateral relationship of much broader depth and scope than previously realized decades before the establishment of diplomatic relations.
In 1990 I was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, where my duties included attending Mongolian language classes as the first American student at Mongolian National University and conducting negotiations as Cultural Affairs Officer to establish the Peace Corps program in Mongolia. During this same exciting six-month period, I was an eyewitness to the fall of the Mongolian communist government by peaceful, democratic street demonstrations. It was in Ulaanbaatar in 1990 that I met the co-author of my first book, Mrs. Ragchaa Baasan, a distinguished member of Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for over 30 years. When Mrs. Baasan was posted to the Mongolian Embassy in Washington, D.C. in the late 1990s, we conceived of the idea to write a book together on our nations’ long quest for official political relations. Such a volume was the first analysis in diplomatic history by two female diplomats who were active in forging policy from the two concerned countries.
When I was young, I read a book about the great Mongolian world leader in the 13th century, Chinggis Khaan. It was my interest in him that led to Asian and Chinese studies, and then to a career in the Foreign Service. Now I have moved my area of expertise far beyond Chinggis Khaan and the Mongol empire, but he is the one who brought me into diplomatic service and to contemporary Mongolia. Having been a diplomat and an active scholar for decades in Mongolian Studies, especially in the analysis of contemporary Mongolian history and the growth of the U.S.-Mongolian relationship, I was able to meet many young Mongolian officials posted to New York City, Washington, and later in Japan and Ulaanbaatar, who were to become important national leaders and lifelong friends. Among all my many experiences dealing with Mongolia, the special years in Tokyo, where I was able to assist in the preliminary negotiations leading to the establishment of official bilateral relations, certainly were memorable and enabled me to make a positive contribution to my country’s diplomatic history.
Alicia Campi is a former U.S. diplomat and president of the Mongolia Society, the U.S. Mongolia Advisory Group and the Chinggis Khan Foundation. She holds a doctorate in Mongolian studies from Indiana University and a master’s degree in East Asian/Mongolian studies from Harvard University. Campi is the co-author (with R. Basaan) of “The Impact of China and Russia on United States-Mongolian Political Relations in the 20th Century.”