After more than a half century living and working in and around the Nation’s Capital, I have had an opportunity to meet a number of Chiefs of State. The years have brought perfunctory handshakes with three American presidents (Kennedy, Johnson and Carter) as well as with foreign leaders like Tito of Yugoslavia, Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto of Indonesia, and Nguyen Van Thieu of Vietnam. They do not bestow the same quality of remembrance as do up close and personal encounters with leaders of counties — as recalled here.
From 1976 until 1981 I served in the Carter Administration as the Assistant Administrator responsible for all the Agency for International Development programs from the Khyber Pass to Hawaii. This brought me in contact with Asian leaders, often a context of negotiating agreements on development programs. Upon occasion those discussions would involve a Chief of State. Here are stories of three such encounters.
My first venture into a presidential office was in Bangladesh in 1978. I went alone to meet Ziaur Rahman, a major figure in the country’s independence from Pakistan who was considered a reformer. He had fostered multi-party politics, freedom of the press, free speech and free markets. He had initiated large agricultural efforts and initiated social programs. The U.S. was assisting him by massive shipments of food that could be given away or sold to provide funds for government services.
Even before I took office, those shipments had become a problem. Critics were showing photographs of American “Food for Peace” grain piling up on Bangladeshi docks or in makeshift earthen “warehouses” where rats were feasting. At the same time, however, some USAID personnel were telling me that there was insufficient food stockpiled and a danger that famine might return to the country. Reaching the correct balance in supplies was critical — and my responsibility.
That day, however, I was to speak to President Zia about reducing the amount of food on the idea that such imports discouraged domestic production of grains, something Zia was himself interested in doing. It was just the two of us in his modest office. He was very patient about hearing me out and the said very quietly, “Mr. Sullivan, if food shortages occur the rioters will not be coming to hang you, they will be coming for me.” Internally I had to agree and left without further argument.
On my way out in the parking lot I noticed the Volkswagon Beetle that Zia famously drove to work in by himself — no chauffeur — and marveled that a man who already had had a dozen coup attempts aimed at him could move about with so little security. His luck ran out in 1981 when he was assassinated by disgruntled Army officers. Bangladesh lost a marvelous leader.
My next adventure with a Chief of State was in Sri Lanka. For reason I still have never figured out, one or two scientists at the Smithsonian Institution in 1979 had decided that Sri Lanka was not doing well by its elephants and, through higher ups in the Agency, insisted that I meet personally with President J. R. Jayewardene, shown right, to discuss the problem. I had been in Sri Lanka before and had no experience of those noble animals being abused.
Regardless of my personal misgivings, I asked for an interview and Jayewardene granted one on a Sunday at his home. After a life in political activism he had become president of the country in his 70s and was noted as a “tough old bird.” Nevertheless, he was very gracious as he ushered me onto a comfortable couch in his library and offered tea. He was alone except for servants. I explained why I was there and the concerns of my fellow Americans.
After hearing me out, almost lounging in his chair, Jayewardene responded: “I am the biggest environmentalist in Sri Lanka and the greatest protector of the elephants. Where a railroad crosses a well-used elephant trail, we build a trestle so that the elephants can cross underneath.” I had seen and photographed just such a structure. He followed up: “Do you do that for wildlife in your country?” I gulped hard and had to admit — no — and left shortly after.
In 1978 the Carter Administration had decided to re-establish an aid program to India that had been cut off at the time of the Bangladesh War. A skeptical Congress decreed that the Indians first would have to ask for aid. An equally skeptical Indian government thought the U.S. formally should offer it first. How to break this dilemma? One dark and rainy night in 1978 the USAID Administrator, John Gilligan, and I went to the residence of Prime Minister Moraji Desai in hopes of a breakthrough.
Greeted by Desai’s aides, we were strictly advised that our meeting could go on for no longer than 15 minutes and that we would be timed to the second. Desai arrived alone. The early conversation between Gilligan and the prime minister was theological, comparing Hindu religious thought with Christianity. Five minutes went by along those lines — and then another five. I could feel the cold sweat beginning to run down my sides. Transmigration of souls was dominating the dialogue as both participants seemed to be warming to the subject even more intensely. A voice inside my head began shouting: “Time, time, time” as more minutes slipped by and we had yet to begin the real discussion.
Barely a minute remained when Gilligan broke off the theological discourse and asked abruptly: “If the United States were to offer foreign assistance, would you be willing to take it.” In an Zen-like response, Desai replied, “If we were willing to take it, would you offer it?” There ensued barely perceptible affirmative nods on both sides. Satisfied that the Gordian Knot had been cut, Gilligan immediately stood up, shook Desai’s hand, told him we would meet with his top government officials the next day to hammer out details, and we left. Fifteen seconds remained. We did not look back.
If lessons can be taken from these three interactions with Chiefs of State, it is that they are meetings of high intensity for the visitor whose outcomes can never be accurately predicted beforehand. One inevitably leaves relieved that the encounter is over — but with memories for a lifetime.