by W. Robert Pearson
This month we celebrate the 25th anniversary of American Diplomacy Journal, the life of Ambassador Edward J. Perkins, and Black History month. Diplomacy’s strength lies in using the lessons of our past to make the future better; each of these three remembrances reminds us of our duty and our devotion.
With this first issue in 2021 of American Diplomacy Journal, we begin the celebration of our 25th year of publication. The Journal is the first and thus the oldest digital periodical worldwide to publish continuously since 1996 on American foreign affairs and the American Foreign Service.
We express our deep gratitude to the University of North Carolina, which has hosted our publication from the very beginning. Special thanks go to the Delavan Foundation and to Ambassador (ret) William C. Harrop for indispensable support in the telling of diplomacy’s role in the world.
Tribute to Ambassador Perkins
On this occasion, we also want to pay tribute to a man whose life reflected the best that American diplomacy could be: Ambassador Edward J. Perkins, who died in December 2020 at the age of 92. Were he with us today, he would repeat for us the same advice his grandmother, who raised him, gave him many years ago, “You take what you’ve got and you keep on walking,” he said she had told him. “If you stop in the middle of the road, you won’t go anywhere.” That’s the promise we also make to ourselves and to the future of American Diplomacy Journal. It is fitting that we offer this tribute as we begin our celebration of Black History month, the annual reminder of all that Black Americans have done and are doing to shape our future to match our dreams.
For a very long time to come, Ambassador Edward J. Perkins will stand tall in the annals of American diplomacy. Though he would become a four-time ambassador and Director General of the Foreign Service, the Foreign Service did not embrace him warmly when he joined in 1972. Yet he was the kind of person we all aspired to be when he ended his career.
The fact that he lived and worked among us made those of us in the world of diplomacy feel that we were better than reality showed, and encouraged us to hope and to stand for a better day. He was where we all thought we could be as a people, and he inspired us all individually to excellence in our profession. He represented to us and to the broader world the promise and the right of all humankind to freely enjoy the fruits of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was easy to look up when Ed Perkins was around.
If it ever occurred to him that he was not in the place he was supposed to me, he never showed it. Born in Louisiana and growing up in Arkansas and Oregon, with military service in the Army and the Marine Corps, he was fully aware of the obstacles for him in American culture—and in the Foreign Service. What strength of character he had and whence it came, we will never fully know. He was truthful and unassuming about the personal experiences that brought him to the practice of diplomacy.
If he ever questioned whether he was on the path to where he wanted to be, it never showed. The Foreign Service, he said, was his dream. He just walked through every closed door looking for common ground for good diplomacy to make a positive difference. He knew lasting solutions were found in shared space, not on the sharp margins. His own quiet and assured confidence infected those around him. They believed in him, and they believed in themselves by working with him.
That is the strong impression I take with me from my memory of him. I only got to know Ambassador Perkins after he retired. When I became Director General of the Foreign Service in 2003, I knew I would need a lot of help. One result was a day in Washington to which all the former Directors General were invited to talk about their lessons learned, to offer any advice they wished, and to share the comradery with those who had had the same responsibilities. The wealth of insights and thoughtful advice I received became my guidebook for my time in the position.
That day Ambassador Perkins and I had a chance to sit down just the two of us and have a good long talk about the job and its demands and opportunities. Among other responsibilities at that time, he was executive director of the International Programs Center for the University of Oklahoma. I asked if I could follow up the Washington visit with one to Oklahoma. He agreed, and I went to visit him for several days. The University’s president then was David Boren, who had been governor of the state, a three-term senator, and chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Boren as chair of the SSCI had worked with Ambassador Perkins to build American support for the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. The measures we took during my time as Director General to create a more diverse Foreign Service came from those conversations. I regret that we did not accomplish all we sought, but I am very proud of the relationship with Ambassador Perkins that inspired the effort.
The passing of this singularly accomplished American leaves us now with his memory and the achievements of a splendid life lived and lasting contributions made. His victories were gained with the power of his character and skill to teach the world that hatred and division over race never serve any good purpose and cannot withstand the truth. It would be no exaggeration to say that we will have reached the pinnacle if the future American Foreign Service becomes what Ed Perkins showed us could be done—and what ought to be done. May it be so.
Ambassador (ret) Pearson is the President of American Diplomacy Publishers, former Director General of the U.S. Foreign Service, and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.