When Ellsworth Bunker accepted the invitation of his old Yale rowing coach and friend Secretary of State Dean Acheson to leave a successful career in the sugar business and take on the difficult assignment of ambassador to Juan Peron’s Argentina in 1951, neither man anticipated that the appointment would lead to Bunker’s becoming one of the outstanding American diplomats of the Cold War decades.
Already in his late fifties, Bunker initially viewed the Buenos Aires embassy as a brief stop on the way to a quiet, retired life, not as the start of a full-fledged, highly distinguished second career in public service. But before he finally left the diplomatic front lines in 1979 at the age of 85, he went on to become ambassador to Argentina, Italy, India, Nepal and, most famously, South Vietnam. As special diplomatic negotiator and troubleshooter, he helped resolve major challenges to U.S interests in such far-flung places as Indonesia, Yemen, Panama and the Dominican Republic. When no diplomatic appointments were available, he served as the first full-time salaried president of the American Red Cross. His years in diplomacy and public life climaxed with the complex negotiations and arduous domestic political effort that resulted in the signing and ratification of controversial treaties governing the operation and security of the Panama Canal. Following his retirement, he became board chairman of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, where he passed on his experiences and insights to younger generations.
Acheson rightly called Bunker a “rara avis,” a natural professional in diplomacy, while Dean Rusk said that he considered himself blessed to have Bunker’s services. Both of these Secretaries of State joined many others in the foreign policy world — not least seven presidents, from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter — in prizing him as an accomplished diplomatic craftsman, perhaps the most skillful of his time. He won similar respect from foreign leaders as different from one another as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India and President Sukarno of Indonesia. Foreign policy practitioners and observers alike hailed him as an icon of American diplomacy.
The prominence of Bunker’s role as a “hawk” in wartime Saigon and the controversies that still surround it should not obscure the major contributions he made to the successful practice of American diplomacy. Many of his accomplishments in promoting U.S. interests in areas of continuing significance to our national security remain relevant now, almost a quarter-century after he retired from public life.
In his assignments as ambassador and special negotiator, Bunker dealt with problems on four continents. Some of them seemed far removed from America’.s confrontation with the major communist powers, the focus of much of postwar U S. foreign policy. But virtually all of these problems could have seriously jeopardized American interests in regions import to the United States had they not been resolved or effectively managed. His assignments as ambassador to Vietnam and chief negotiator on the Panama Canal treaties involved controversial issues at the heart of both America’s relations with the world and its domestic policies.
Bunker played three broadly defined roles during his 25 years as a diplomat. first, in his troubleshooting role he acted as a third-party mediator between hostile governments or civil war factions and as a negotiator representing the United States in bilateral disputes. Second, he headed three U. S. embassies that carried out essentially conventional diplomatic operations. His responsibilities in Vietnam fell into a third category. For six critical years there, he led a huge mission whose activities went well beyond those of other U. S. overseas posts and were arguably unprecedented in scope and magnitude in American diplomatic history.
Bunker brought to his assignments the classic skills and qualities that are vital to diplomatic success — integrity, creativity, realism, precision, and an ability to step into the shoes of his negotiating partners and understand their priorities. He had seemingly infinite patience, and innate courtesy, and a talent for convincing foreign leaders and officials that he was genuinely interested in helping them reach settlements that would satisfy their needs as well as his own. His impressive physical appearance and his gentlemanly, seemingly aristocratic manner contributed to his effectiveness.
Bunker lucidly spelled out and, in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere personally practiced the principles a good negotiator should follow. These largely conformed to the maxims set out by classic commentators on Western diplomatic practice as updated to take account of 20th-century political changes.
Although Bunker held that every negotiation is different, several common techniques stand out in his third-party and bilateral efforts. The most distinctive hallmark of a Bunker-led negotiation was his tactic of creating an informal atmosphere in which the contending parties could develop easier personal relations, preferably in a pleasant and secluded setting. Another was his practice of putting forward early in the negotiating process a set of draft proposals that became the terms of reference for the bargaining that followed. The teams he set up to assist him were somewhat unusual in American diplomacy. They were almost always small so that they could move swiftly and decisively to develop fresh approaches before others could second-guess them.
Despite the importance top officials in Washington attached to the issues Bunker dealt with, he enjoyed a remarkable degree of independence in developing tactics and strategy in his negotiations. The confidence of the White House was a great boon to him, helping to restrain the bureaucracy from its normal penchant to micro-manage negotiations. Only in the Panama Canal negotiations did he become more involved in bureaucratic infighting. But given the stakes, the large number of powerful actors involved, and the sharp differences of view on this highly emotional national issue, that was inevitable. He proved himself adept both in dealing with the bureaucracy and then, in a new role in his diplomatic experience, in selling the treaties he had negotiated to Congress and the American people.
A Modern Ambassador
In his sober, elegant way, Bunker made friends for America. He traveled a good deal outside national capitals and got to know something of his host countries. But his was a rather detached and impersonal style. He did not see himself as a “cultural bridge,” as some other successful ambassadors have, and developed only a limited interest in his host countries’ culture, traditions, and history.
Bunker brought his business experience to the management of his embassies and also used it to de-demonize modern capitalism among those who considered multinational business organizations immoral and dangerous. He followed a relaxed management style, giving his deputies responsibility for the day-to-day operation of his missions and interfering relatively little in the work of individual embassy offices. He recognized that public affairs and economic assistance had come to stay as important mission functions.
Although his public style was rather formal, he tried with considerable success to reach out to different sections of society. He had no interest in “going native.” His character and his deep roots in American life helped make him an excellent spokesman for the United States.
Bunker’s relationship with the Washington bureaucracy was strong and mutually supportive. He had little interest in the gamesmanship familiar in the corridors of the State Department and elsewhere in Washington. His effectiveness on Capitol Hill dated back to his years as a spokesman for the sugar industry and he was always well regarded there.
Bunker largely accepted the objectives and strategy of U.S. policy toward the countries in which he served. His recommendations to Washington were mainly designed to advance those policies, not to challenge them, and he had few original proposals to offer on broader issues. In Italy and India, countries with which the United States enjoyed friendly relations, his policy recommendations often included calls for greater economic assistance and, in India as its rift with China deepened, for provision of military hardware. This reflected the “clientitis” that afflicted many ambassadors in those Cold War days, and still does. But Bunker kept such special pleading within limits, and it did not undermine his credibility in Washington.
He displayed no special concern about domestic political issues in the countries in which he served except as they demonstrably affected U.S. interests, especially in the economic development sphere. In Italy and India, he shared Washington’s satisfaction with the existing political dispensation and made only marginal efforts to tinker with it. But this diffidence did not rule out clandestine efforts to thwart local communist parties. He unapologetically supported such moves as other American diplomats did in the Cold War.
A Hawk in Vietnam
His policy preferences and recommendations on Vietnam policy made Bunker one of the most outspoken hawks on the war in the top ranks of the U.S. government. His advice to Washington often reflected his view that the war should be waged more vigorously, especially through actions designed to choke off the movement of troops and supplies through privileged sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.
Bunker’s major influence on Vietnam policy was most evident in his first year in Saigon. President Johnson carefully read his special weekly messages. As good ambassadors recognize, carefully crafted messages supported by convincing evidence play a powerful role in establishing the policy environment in which decisions are made. By significantly shaping the way top Washington policy-makers assessed Vietnam, Bunker’s cables and other sanguine reports sent from Embassy Saigon during his tenure probably had a greater impact in shaping policy than any specific recommendations on strategy or tactics that he made. The excessive optimism of this reporting eventually damaged Bunker’s credibility, especially among those who had misgivings about U.S. policy.
Bunker always remained a hawk on Vietnam and never regretted having taken that position. But he quickly recognized that the American people would not indefinitely support a conflict of the scale the war had reached in the year he came to Saigon. This helped make him a strong supporter of Vietnamization, which he believed could successfully transfer the defense of South Vietnam from American to local forces. He enthusiastically welcomed President Nixon’s making the concept central to his administration’s withdrawal strategy.
As the massive U.S. stake in Vietnam required, Bunker and his mission involved themselves in all facets of South Vietnamese political and economic life in ways that went far beyond the more limited approach he had adopted in his previous ambassadorial assignments. In his dealings with President Nguyen Van Thieu and other Vietnamese leaders, his guiding principle was to persuade the Vietnamese to recognize the advantages to themselves of policies the United States recommended, not to impose those policies on them. He repeatedly tried, with limited success, to convince Washington to be more forthcoming with Saigon in disclosing what it was trying to accomplish in the negotiations with the North. Thieu and others in his government seemed to recognize and welcome Bunker’s approach, and gave him much respect. But even Bunker’s careful ministrations were insufficient to bring Thieu around at crucial points. Some Americans and Vietnamese argue that had Bunker taken a tougher, less accommodating line with the evasive and indecisive Vietnamese president, things might have been different. But this must remain tantalizingly speculative.
A Diplomatic Craftsman
If he had any philosophical approach to American foreign policy, it was a generally Wilsonian view that included a strong emphasis on the right of self-determination and the improvement of the lot of ordinary people.
In his later years, Bunker came to typify the old-fashioned American who was ready to shoulder arduous, difficult, sometimes dangerous tasks in the country’s service. He never questioned America’s greatness or the values that he thought had made it great, and came across to foreigners and compatriots alike as an authentic American in the best sense of that term. Beneath the cool exterior of an adopted New Englander, Bunker was a passionate patriot who was proud to be an American and never reluctant to say so.
Ellsworth Bunker died in 1984 at the age of 90. At the end of his days, Bunker was serenely pleased in his quiet way that he had been able to serve the United States when it could use his talents to carry out its new global responsibilities. Although he was troubled by the erosion in a changing America of old-time values he cherished, and upset by the debacle that had undone his accomplishments in Vietnam, he remained the contented and self-confident man he had been for so long. He had dedicated his skills to the diplomat’s trade, often in trying circumstances, in keeping with the country’s best patriotic tradition.
From its beginning, America’s survival has depended on the few who, like Ellsworth Bunker, were prepared to set aside their private concerns to serve the nation.
From ELLSWORTH BUNKER: GLOBAL TROUBLESHOOTER, VIETNAM HAWK by Howard B. Schaffer. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press (www.uncpress.unc.edu). Previously published in the Foreign Service Journal, November 2003.
The author, a retired career U. S. Foreign Service officer, was ambassador to Bangladesh (1984-87) among his numerous senior posts, mostly in or pertaining to South Asia. Now the director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and the author of a new book with the same title as this extract, as well as Chester Bowles: New Dealer in the Cold War (1993).