At least 12 Vanderbilt alumni have served as United States ambassadors. As the top American in a foreign country for a period of three to four years, it was their job to explain, promote and defend U.S. foreign policy and American values.
In practice that meant mounting a Southern charm offensive on unfriendly Chinese leaders, speaking truth to power to the embarrassment of a corrupt Panamanian government, and personally whisking a Haitian president to safety after a military coup. It meant engineering a mega-sale of American-made Apache helicopters, educating local people on how to run their new democracies, and weathering a four-day siege as thousands violently protested an American bombing.
It meant not only witnessing but having an impact on the end of the Cold War, the end of South African apartheid, the Bosnian War and the Iraq War. For one of our ambassadors, it even meant leading the Foreign Service itself into a very changed post-Cold War world and the next era of diplomacy.
Of the ambassadors profiled here, five were career diplomats and two were political appointees from outside the State Department–similar to the overall proportions of roughly two-thirds career ambassadors (for which politics traditionally plays no role in appointment or confirmation) to one-third political ambassadors (who generally get the glitzier assignments).
Only one is a woman, which also reflects the makeup of the Foreign Service prior to the 1990s.
Several were part of a “tandem couple,” meaning both spouses were in the Foreign Service and coordinated their assignments. All of them, however, credit their spouses, who accompanied them to all their posts, with sharing the job. “It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” said one. The whole family must be onboard, which requires a lot of sacrifice.
They all loved serving their country, and grew to love the countries they served in. Among them they speak 16 languages and have served in every corner of the world.
Grandson of a New York governor, son of a flamboyant Pan Am executive, and U.S. ambassador to three far-flung countries before the age f 50, Alvin Adams is the kind of old-school oreign service officer you might see in the movies.
The opening scene would find him personally escorting a deposed president out of an inflamed country in the dead of night, sitting with him on a runway, waiting hour after hour for a U.S. rescue plane, and hoping he could keep trigger-happy soldiers at bay.
Our leading man would soon receive a U.S. State Department Citation with Award for Valor “for acts of heroism, taken at great personal risk, to protect the safety and well-being of President Aristide during the September 1991 coup in Haiti.”
Adams never sought the limelight, instead making a career going places no one else wanted to go. He was U.S. ambassador to Djibouti, a “hot as hell” Islamic country on the edge of Africa; Haiti, the least developed and most volatile country in the Western Hemisphere; and Peru, where fierce homegrown terrorist organizations with a special hate for Americans meant he never made a move without 15 bodyguards.
Why did he accept these assignments? “It was fun,” he says. “And I was asked to.”
Foreign service officers take an oath to go where they are needed. And where Adams was needed most was where democracy and free elections were under threat.
When he arrived for duty at Haiti’s Port-au-Prince airport, he made his intentions clear by speaking directly to the people in Creole (unheard of for a foreign ambassador) and putting the military government on notice that it was time for Haiti to have democratic elections for the first time in its history. Even though the president refused at first to accept his credentials and Adams couldn’t shake anyone’s hand for fear of deadly voodoo powder, he ultimately succeeded in helping bring elections to Haiti, leading to Aristide’s first presidential election in 1990.
In Peru, where the president had thrown out the legislature, “we were quite determined that the country would remain democratic,” Adams says. “The U.S. had been very critical of President Fujimori, which did not help me in developing personal relations up-close and friendly.
“But you’re not his representative to Washington,” he continues. “You are Washington’s representative to him. You sometimes have to do difficult things, say difficult things publicly. The president was very embarrassed sometimes by the comments I felt I had to make about human rights and democracy. But I’ll give him credit: By the time I left, things were a lot better.”
Some people would give Adams a lot of credit, too. Former Secretary of State George Shultz called him “one of a special cadre of Foreign Service professionals–the shock troops of our diplomacy–with the grit, savvy, imagination and hard-headedness needed by this department.”
From the segregated American South, Marshall McCallie ventured out into the world to spend almost his entire career in sub-Saharan Africa, serving in Zambia and South Africa before becoming U.S. ambassador to Namibia.
His first stop after a global-minded upbringing in Chattanooga, Tenn., was Vanderbilt, where he participated in the Vanderbilt-in-France semester abroad and credits Alexander Marchant’s Western Civilization course and Henry Swint’s Historiography course (”a marvelous lesson in skepticism” of written history) with greatly broadening his world.
During his Vanderbilt years the university began to integrate black students. A quarter-century later, says McCallie, “when I got to South Africa as deputy chief of mission, which is essentially deputy ambassador, they were going through much of what we had gone through in the ’60s in the United States–opening up to people of every ethnic background, finding the richness of ethnic diversity–and going through the difficult negotiating process that I had seen in the American South.”
McCallie was in South Africa for the beginning of the end of apartheid, when President Frederik de Klerk released African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela from prison and began negotiating with black political parties. Economic and moral pressure from the U.S. played a part, McCallie says, and the American taxpayer played a critical role by helping fund college educations for South African people of color so the possibility of success when the government became more democratic would be more likely.
Because of his long relationship with the new Namibian leaders, including President Sam Nujoma, McCallie was sent to Namibia as ambassador not long after it gained independence from South Africa. As one of his first acts, he lined up training when the leader of the Upper House asked him for help in educating parliamentarians, who’d never had a chance to participate in the democratic process.
Africa has never been a top priority of the U.S. government, says McCallie–a challenge for any ambassador there. “I wanted to get more aid and assistance,” he says. “I thought that if we were to be as good as our word about what we believe in, about the values of our country, then we would invest in economic and political development in these countries. I argued that in the long term, our world would be more secure if we had secure states throughout Africa. As we’ve seen later, states with ineffective government and constant turmoil are hotbeds for incubation of terrorism.”
Despite witnessing firsthand a lot of that turmoil, McCallie has never given up hope for Africa.
“I saw some leaders who clearly were capable,” he says. “Mr. Mandela in any group of world leaders would be stellar, an enormous moral figure. I saw a level of caring and compassion in Africa that we don’t see in the news–wonderful family relationships and community relationships from which I felt good things could grow.”
Coming from outside the diplomatic service, political ambassadors typically have to learn on the job, establishing their foreign-policy credentials with the world watching. It was no different for Jim Sasser in China, despite the fact that he’d been a three-term U.S. senator from Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and seemingly next in line to be majority leader before his upset loss to Bill Frist in 1994.
There were some who doubted Sasser had the expertise to be ambassador to China at a time when relations between the two countries were all but hostile, reported The New York Times in 1998. But “the new warmth in Chinese-American relations,” the paper continued, “is in part a personal victory for Mr. Sasser. … By all accounts Mr. Sasser personified the American effort to create friendlier ties despite the deep differences over issues like human rights. His Southern style–polite, charming and attentive–was an evident hit with President Jiang Zemin, who also valued his closeness to his old Tennessee colleague, Al Gore, in the White House.”
When President Clinton first called to ask if he would be interested in being an ambassador, recalls Sasser, “I told him, no, I would not–unless I can be ambassador to China.”
China, Sasser realized, was becoming one of the most important countries in the world, and it was dangerous not to establish a working relationship. Before long he had escorted President Jiang Zemin on a momentous 1997 visit to the U.S., and convinced President Clinton that it was smart to make his well-received reciprocal trip to China sooner rather than later.
The new and improved relations between the two countries were tested soon enough when, in May 1999, American-led NATO forces inadvertently bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War, killing four embassy staff. The Chinese people reacted violently.
“Thousands and thousands of them descended on the embassy and the ambassador’s residence,” says Sasser. “I was unable to get out of the embassy for four days and four nights. All our cars were destroyed, fires were set, and all the windows broken out.
“My wife [Mary Gorman Sasser, BA'59] and son [Gray Sasser, JD'98] were at the residence,” he continues. “They took refuge in another little house in the compound, which had bars on the windows, and they got under tables and spent the night there while the crowds continued to assault the building.”
Eventually it quieted. “In times past,” he says, “if you bombed somebody’s embassy and killed their diplomats, it was an act of war. But we had so strengthened the relationship between the two presidents, President Jiang knew in his heart that President Clinton would not do that on purpose. We had built a relationship of mutual trust.”
Brian Carlson reached the top ranks of the Foreign Service through an expertise in public diplomacy–the art of winning hearts and minds through strategic communication and cultural and educational exchange. At the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), Carlson started the organization’s public diplomacy programs in the newly liberated states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. By the time he became ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Latvia, he’d seen firsthand what could be considered public diplomacy’s greatest success: the end of the Cold War.
“The old regime of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact fell down because we undermined it from beneath and within,” says Carlson. “In our cultural and educational exchange activities, we brought people from these countries to the United States, expanding contacts with artists and writers, and sent performers and exhibits of art abroad. All that human contact we insisted upon and pushed for–we started to see things come around.”
During Carlson’s time in Latvia, the country was invited to join the European Union and NATO, and he worked constantly to help get it ready for NATO membership. He likened Latvia to a greenhouse, recovering from the Soviet years and growing its economy at 8 to 12 percent a year. “Add free-market economics and incentives, and it’s amazing how an economy will just start up by itself.”
But cultural diplomacy remained a priority for Carlson, who once there learned that famed American artist Mark Rothko was born in Latvia and that the 100th anniversary of his birth was approaching. He went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and, with the help of the State Department and a year’s worth of lobbying, finally got an exhibition of 21 Rothko works sent to Riga, Latvia, and exhibited at the state art museum. (Latvia owned no Rothko paintings, which have repeatedly set records at auction.)
“It told them America cared enough to send the very best,” he says. “It played very well.”
Unfortunately, in times of budget cuts like those the Foreign Service weathered in the 1990s and again today, cultural and educational programs are among the first to go. In 1999 the USIA was abolished.
That may prove to be a mistake, Carlson warns, in times of trouble. “If we don’t invest today in public diplomacy, I’m worried about what we’ll get 25 years from now. You can’t walk up to somebody and say, ‘Here, let me tell you about the war on terror.’ You have to come at it through relationships. It’s all about relationships.”
Carlson is now involved in a movement in Washington that is calling for a semi-independent, public/private institution that would bring in people from academia to provide a reserve of ideas and innovations to help bolster America’s relations and reputation abroad.
“To see,” he says, “if we can’t get back a little bit of what we seem to have lost.”
“When I came into the Foreign Service in the mid-’70s, there was a lot of stereotyping of women,” says Linda Ellen Watt. “There weren’t women ambassadors. And more important, you never saw a woman deputy chief of mission, who is really the manager and leader and often the most senior career person. Never.”
Not until the late ’80s and ’90s were women represented in significant numbers. Though she had few role models herself, Watt was one of the trailblazers, serving first as acting
ambassador to the Dominican Republic and then as ambassador to Panama.
Watt, who studied Spanish and history and participated in the Vanderbilt-in-Spain program, got to Panama not long after the U.S. had turned over control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. There was quite a sense of excitement as the country looked forward to a more equal relationship with the United States rather than one of big brother/little brother, she remembers.
But at times the Panamanian government still needed big brotherly–or sisterly–advice. In a speech to Panama’s Chamber of Commerce that prompted a crisis for Panamanian politicians, according to the local English-language newspaper, Watt “blasted the pervasive culture of corruption in Panamanian politics and warned that it’s hurting our international reputation and driving foreign investors away.”
Watt’s main goals in Panama were building trade relations, maintaining canal security and combating drug trafficking, but she also supported women’s efforts in business and community development and spent a lot of time with the poor and the voiceless.
“Americans have had an image in Latin America, and Panama specifically, as being elitist or arrogant and only interested in business and politics and strategy,” says Watt. “It was my absolute mission to disabuse Panamanians of that stereotype.”
Certain U.S. government policies will always be unpopular abroad, and it’s an ambassador’s job to support those policies publicly irrespective of her personal views or political beliefs.
“That’s a point of professional pride among members of the Foreign Service,” Watt says. “We realize that no one elected us, and it’s our job to carry out the government’s foreign policy. If you don’t agree with our policy on Cuba or Darfur or Iraq, your choice is to hit your pillow, kick your cat, or find another line of work.”
Watt herself says she couldn’t have found a better line of work. The hardest part for her, as for most diplomats, was the impact the job had on family. “If it’s a strong marriage and strong family, it will be strengthened, but if it isn’t, it’s not going to work.”
Appointed by President Clinton to be U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Terry Dornbush was not so much a “Friend of Bill” as a “Friend of Al,” having served as vice chairman of the Georgia campaign when Gore ran for the presidency in 1987 and, at Gore’s request, working for the Clinton/Gore ticket in 1992.
But afterward, says the Vanderbilt economics major, investment banker, global real-estate developer and cancer activist, “it turned out I was not the only one who worked on the campaign who wanted a government job.” Of the 3,300 jobs that were presidential appointees, he learned, only about 160 were ambassadorships. He lobbied for the Netherlands post because of strong ties between that country and his home city of Atlanta, where there are more Dutch businesses than in New York or Chicago.
If Ambassador Dornbush thought he was going to have a trouble-free post focused on growing business between the two countries, he was soon to learn that every position representing the U.S. in a foreign country can suddenly involve matters of life and death.
During the Bosnian War and Srebrenica Genocide, when 400 Dutch U.N. peacekeeping troops were the only force that stood between 10,000 Serb troops and their Muslim targets,
Dornbush was drawn into controversial decisions and responses made by both the American and Dutch governments. No one knew at that time that the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II was taking place, with the killing of more than 8,300 Bosnian Muslims. But it was clear that the Clinton administration was trying to avoid committing ground troops to that war, even though Dornbush was present when the secretary of defense assured the Dutch, “If you get in trouble, we’ll get your people out.”
It’s anyone’s guess what may have happened if they had, “but they never asked to get out,” says Dornbush.
A war effort he had more control over proved to be the one thing of which he is most proud during his service. “The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had been authorized by the U.N. in May 1993, and when I arrived in March 1994, it was just sitting there stillborn. It was our embassy that energized Washington. We kept knocking on doors until we finally found somebody with enough power to get something to happen … and we got 21 temporary staff members who came in to give this thing life.”
Dornbush also engineered a business deal, bringing together President Clinton and the Dutch prime minister, in which the Dutch and, consequently, the British purchased a combined $900 million of American-made Apache attack helicopters over a competing French-German helicopter–despite European Union loyalties.
“It was an economic competition,” says Dornbush, “and that’s my cup of tea.”
Robert Pearson grew up on a farm near the tiny town of Bells, Tenn., to become deputy chief of mission in Paris, deputy chief of mission to NATO, ambassador to Turkey and, finally, director general of the Foreign Service, responsible for the careers of 50,000 fellow diplomats and for setting the path the Foreign Service would follow in the new millennium.
That path, he explains, is out of the developed world and–in greater and greater numbers–into the developing world. In other words, emphasis is moving away from those coveted jobs in European capitals toward hardship posts and hardscrabble places where representatives of American policy and values can make a real difference.
“By the middle of this century, the combined population of all of North America, including Mexico, and all of Europe, including Turkey, will be 10 percent of the world’s population. Take a look at the ’second-tier’ countries,” Pearson says. “China, the Philippines, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil, Chile … If we don’t succeed in convincing those people that an open economic system and democratic values are the better choice, then American national security will be severely damaged.
“My point,” he continues, “is that we are living in a world that is completely different from the world we lived in during the Cold War. Since we’re the strongest single country in the world, we have a responsibility diplomatically to place ourselves where things that happen in the world are going to have the gravest consequences, either for good or for bad.”
Pearson got a taste of this new world order serving as ambassador to Turkey as the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had arrived in Turkey in September 2000, feeling the country was stable and on the right track and looking forward to all the positive things he thought they could accomplish. “I wasn’t expecting any kind of meltdown,” he says.
Within a few months a political in-fight caused the Turkish lira to lose half its value, sending Pearson to bat for Turkey at the International Monetary Fund to negotiate a loan rescue package. Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after which Turkey went to bat for the U.S., joining the war effort in Afghanistan.
It wasn’t until the Iraq War that the two countries found they could no longer play ball. It was up to Pearson to ask the Turkish government to allow U.S. ground troops to enter Iraq through Turkey. “My principal reasoning was that–not trying to be ideological about the war so much as the relationship–I thought that whatever happened, it would be far better for the United States and Turkey to be working together than to find themselves on different tracks.”
Turkey put the decision to a democratic vote and decided not to allow access to American ground troops, straining U.S.-Turkey relations. As the Iraq War progressed, the gap between the two countries widened and anti-American sentiment in a once-strong ally escalated dramatically.
By that time Pearson was back in Washington, leading the Foreign Service into a future in which diplomacy seems more important and imperative than ever.
These alumni have also served as ambassadors:
William Cabaniss, BA’60
Ambassador to the Czech Republic, 2003-06
William Prentice Cooper Jr., ‘15
Ambassador to Peru, 1946-1948
(Died in 1969)
Marion Creekmore, BA’61
Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka and to the Republic of Maldives, 1989-92
Guilford Dudley, BA’29
Ambassador to Denmark, 1969-71
(Died in 2002)
Thomas Ferguson, BA’55, JD’59
Ambassador to Brunei, 1987-89
© 2015 Vanderbilt University
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