He liked to be called Richard Holbrooke, but I never called him anything but “Dick.” We had adjoining offices on the Fifth Floor of the State Department from 1978 to 1981, both of us as Executive Level 4 federal officials, he as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific and I as Assistant Administrator of USAID for East and South Asia and the Pacific.
Those days were brought back to me forcefully by a new book from author George Packard entitled “Our Man, Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.” Having read the book over the past several days I am emboldened to put down my own memories of this accomplished American diplomat.
We first met during the early 1970s when I was a staff consultant for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs in Asia on assignment to review the operations of the Peace Corps. Holbrooke at that time was the Peace Corps director in Morocco but sent to Asia on Corps business from time to time. We encountered each other in a waiting room of the Djakarta, Indonesia, airport and began to chat. All flights had been grounded in anticipation of the air arrival of President Suharto and our conversation stretched into four hours during which we found ourselves in general agreement on Peace Corps, the Vietnam War and other topics.
Fast forward five years and the election of President Jimmy Carter. Holbrooke had been named Asia and Pacific secretary, the youngest ever to hold that position, and I had been nominated for USAID’s Asia Bureau. The only question was my future office, with the most desirable one overlooking the Lincoln Memorial. Although I had not seen him since Indonesia, Holbrooke intervened, declaring that my office should be adjacent to his to facilitate close communication. That turned he decision and I was assigned the prime location.
Not long after, Dick called me on the day of his swearing into office to ask a favor. After the ceremony, he asked, could I take his two sons, David and Anthony, to lunch in the State Department cafeteria and bring them back to the celebration he was planning in his office. Recognizing that he only recently had undergone a divorce and no mother would be present, I readily agreed. At lunch I found Holbrooke’s sons withdrawn, almost sullen. Subsequently, David has revealed that his father was in the habit of dropping off the boys — uninvited and unannounced —at the homes of friends just to be free of them for the day. Then I understood their unease with me.
During the four years we served together in the Carter Administration, Dick and I never had a disagreement. On one or two occasions he had an project he wanted to pursue with USAID funds in an Asian country. After reviewing his proposals I found them to be good ideas, allocated the funds, and they turned out to be a productive use of funds.
Most of all, however, I remember Holbrooke’s unwavering support for my central effort at USAID. Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? was a 1967 best selling book by brothers William and Paul Paddock. Population had outrun the feeding capacity of the world, they claimed. As the world’s leading food producer, the Paddock’s urged, the U.S. should practice a “triage” system leaving behind, apparently to starve, countries like India and Egypt.
Their predictions ignored developments in agricultural science that were making great strides in developing new strains of wheat and rice in association with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, controlled water-supply, and new methods of cultivation. As these agricultural methods advanced in the 1970s, they became known as “The Green Revolution.” Because the threat of famine was still a concern in 1977, along with officials of the World Bank and other developed countries, I concentrated as much assistance money as possible, ultimately reaching close to $1 billion a year, to spreading the Green Revolution to the smallest farmers throughout Asia.
In this effort, I had Dick Holbrooke’s unrestrained support. In our meeting he expressed his deep concern about the possibility of people starving from a world-wide shortage of food. In the end, the concerted international effort was successful. The famine predicted by the Paddocks was averted through the instrument of the Green Revolution and its adoption. Packard refers to Holbrooke as a “humanitarian” and I found him so.
The author, however, does not hesitate to detail Dick’s unbridled ambition, his betrayal of friends, his power struggles, and his sexual liaisons. Much of this history was revealing to me, having only my four year experience to guide my opinions. Although Holbrooke favored the war in Iraq, a mistake he later acknowledged, he will be best known for negotiating the Dayton Accords that brought a measure of peace and stability to the Balkans. Some thought he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
When he died in 2010 at the age of 69, Holbrooke was a special envoy to Afganistan and Pakistan, attempting to bring that long running regional conflict to an end. It is reported that as Dick was readied for unsuccessful surgery for a severely torn aorta, he said to the doctor, “You’ve got to end this war in Afghanistan.” To the title of humanitarian, I would add another, Dick Holbrooke was a peacemaker. Through all the chaff thrown up around his name, much of it of his own doing, he deserves to be remembered that way.