My First and Last Diplomatic Event

The Chinese invasion of India on October 20, 1962, gave me the first opportunity to test my diplomatic skills. Nothing as mundane as negotiating avocado quotas. Oh, no. This was to be an assignment of prime international importance: I was asked to help India win its war with China.

My ambition after graduating from college was to enter the Foreign Service, having been aroused by writing a senior thesis on a diplomatic subject. After doing poorly on the State Department’s standardized entrance exam, I had two choices: to enroll in a Masters Degree program in international affairs at Georgetown or to become a successful politician. Since I did not have the means to pay for the tuition and my college grades were, I thought, insufficient to earn a fellowship, my only option was the latter, the American diplomatic system differing from the English in this respect. My first step was to become a member of the New Haven Democratic Town Committee. Actually, that was the second step: the first was to find lodging in the First Ward where such a post was vacant. I leased a spacious, elegant apartment at 271 Orange Street in that ward and was soon appointed its Democratic Chairman. However, that presented me with another problem: the rent for the two bedrooms, kitchen, living room, and dining room was too expensive for me. All I needed and could afford was a single room in which to sleep. Consequently, I first shared the apartment with a lawyer and, when his clerkship ended and he moved out of town, with two architectural students. They graduated and forced me to find someone to replace them.

Someone like Siddhartha, that catalyst with his burette and verve, someone young from India, working on his Ph.D. in chemistry at Yale and married to someone unhappy in the elsewhere. My spacious quarters were more than adequate. He seemed to be intelligent, attractive, congenial, and a tad contentious. He did not mind sharing the facilities with an unmarried man. We agreed on the arrangements: the small bedroom nearest to the door for me; all the other rooms for them. Not only did I not know how to cook, I had no desire to learn and ate my meals in restaurants. They occupied the apartment while I was at Camp Drum in New York on my two-week tour of active duty with the Connecticut National Guard. I looked forward to associating with them, to teaching them about our way of life, our laws, our national ethos and to learning about theirs. I hoped this would be living diplomacy, but I never imagined the nostrum to which this experiment would lead.

I returned to a jeremiad of complaints from the irate, upper-income residents over the exotic smells of spices wafting in the summer breezes through the open windows of their non air-conditioned rooms and sounds of strange, musical instruments and singing when others congregated and conversing with an English language polished by their landmass intonations; complaints from the suspicious landlord, who also was the pastor of the Trinity Lutheran Church next door, for not having asked his permission to take in boarders; complaints from the unnerved parishioners about the strange, colorful garments that were hung to dry on a clothes line in the parking lot behind the building and next to the church, fluttering like large, sub-Sahara flags, while they made their way to Sunday services; and rumors spread by a political opponent that I had joined the Navy after renting my apartment to “Negroes,” as African-Americans were known in those days, and when integration was uncommon, even in our “enlightened” North. To my neighbors these Delhi denizens were thought to be from Dixie. Summoned to the Pastor’s office, I explained the arrangements I had made twice before without adverse consequences. Vouching for their compatibility, I offered to invite every neighbor to a reception to meet Siddhartha and his wife, Mina, and to smooth the ruffled feathers in our aviary on Orange Street, in that discombobulated edifice ironically named “Emerson.”

A week later my retired and semi-retired, Caucasian acquaintances gathered in our quarters for American and Indian delicacies, together with the Pastor and his wife, and even my mother and aunt, who wanted to see for themselves what the fuss was all about. Siddhartha was at his charming best, although Mina was as always somewhat shy. The residents were quite polite. Indeed, they seemed to have enjoyed sizing up my roommates, as though they were the admissions committee of some country club or condominium. And they had no trouble partaking of the tasty treats. Just before the time to leave, I asked Mina to sing a song. She sat on the floor in the middle of the room in her lovely, silk sari, with earrings in both sides of the nose, a long black pigtail, a large red circle on her forehead and with a small hand-held accordion chanted a plaintive song in her native tongue, a fado in a different key, a moan not for a spouse out fishing on the high seas but for her three, small children across the sea, back home with her mother. The guests, whose musical tastes ranged from hymns to ballads on the Lawrence Welk Show, sat in courteous silence and, then, quietly departed. The presentation was a success; there were no further complaints.

The political gossip also evaporated: it was clear that I was not in the Navy and was still a ward chairman, be it of the smallest populated ward in the city, comprising the original nine city squares, the result of the first American city plan, designed by John Davenport and the elders soon after they had arrived in 1638. (A few years later, after having been elected as alderman of that ward, at a public hearing, I supported the redistricting of the 33 city wards to be in compliance with the “one man, one vote” Supreme Court edict and did so knowing, if it came to be, I would have more work to do to service more constituents. Concluding the present boundary lines were unfair, I stated what I thought was obvious: since I represented 300 voters and 150 pigeons that populated the New Haven Green, my vote on the Board of Alderman carried the same weight as that of the alderman of the largest ward with twenty times as many constituents. It astonished me that several aldermen believed I desired more constituents in order to gain more power, which was in fact the opposite. Such was the competence with which I had daily to deal. I was followed by a Republican speaker who said he always suspected I was “…for the birds.”)

Soon after I returned from camp, I sensed that something in the apartment was different; that somehow the gray walls in the long corridor that connected the front door with the living room seemed grayer. I mentioned this to Siddhartha, who immediately opened the bottom drawer of a cupboard and pointed to a picture he had removed from a wall, the front of which was leaning against the back of the drawer. It was the laminated reproduction of the World War II Japanese Surrender Document that had been given to my father by a distant relative that his company had produced, along with an enlarged laminated photograph of my father and my sister on the day of her First Holy Communion. I had hung them in the hall for decoration. Siddhartha being a pacifist, found the document to be offensive. I told him I regretted the unintended affront and had no objection to leaving it hidden. The Viet Nam War was raging, and Siddhartha was raging at what he regarded as an attempt by tall, powerful, white British types to dominate smaller men and women of color. Just a few short years before, his homeland had shaken itself free of such servility. He was raging as well at the racial injustice in American. A few months later, a college classmate visited me for a football game at the Yale Bowl. Siddhartha exhorted him about this maltreatment, precipitating a strange debate with a segregation pot calling a caste-system kettle black. Lacking the skill of reconciling differences, the trademark of great diplomats, I was happy when the time came for us to leave for the opening kickoff.

Sometime in the middle of that October, President John F. Kennedy came to town for a campaign rally in support of Democratic candidates to Congress. There was a small stage set for about twenty dignitaries with a pedestal for JFK and two large bleachers on either side, for the dozens of political acolytes like me. A rather large, grassy sward separated the civic hierarchy from the congregation, on ground reserved for worship since the city’s founding. The security was in evidence but somewhat casual, compared by a local savant to a swarm of mid-summer mosquitoes and about as harmless, in those pre 9/11 halcyon days. Their main task seemed to be permitting only those with proper passes to one of the bleachers. Mine was in order, and I took my seat.

Afterwards, I asked Siddhartha, who had attended, what he thought of the crowd, estimated at one hundred thousand. He gently shook his head and said that such an event in his country would have attracted over a million people, with hundreds standing on the roofs of all the surrounding buildings and, too often, with many being trampled to death. Then, he showed me a photograph that he had taken of Kennedy delivering his stump speech, from what seemed to be only a few feet in front. I was stunned and asked him how he had gotten so close. He smiled with a sly I-have-my-ways look.

A few days later, the crack People’s Liberation Army of China overpowered the slack Indian Army defenders in two disputed border areas, threatening both Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of non-violence and Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of non-alliance. Collections were taken for weapons: Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, donated her gold jewelry. Speeches were given. Reinforcements and equipment were rushed to the front. And the Indian community in New Haven coalesced in patriotic fervor. They convened a plenum to consider alternatives and made the strategic decision to entrust me with the future of their homeland.

Siddhartha, breathless, asked me to immediately appear at a meeting in the Yale Law School. I went there but was kept waiting outside for an extended period, hearing the muffled sounds of excitement, if not hysteria. When I was finally ushered in, I became aware that the two dozen or so graduate students, scientists, and junior faculty members had become an ad hoc think-tank. The chamber was swabbed with the patina of utter seriousness, in stark contrast to the gaiety of the social occasions I had spent with several who then sat with others in rapt solemnity, in a state of anxiety, as intense as if we were trapped in a stalled elevator-car on the 50th floor of an office tower. The moderator of the session was a law school student, whom I knew to be the nephew of the person next in the line of succession after Ms. Gandhi. He introduced me as a Representative of the Government of the United States.

“What was that you said? A representative of what?”

“As a Representative of the Government of the United States, we would like you to undertake a most important mission.”

“But I am not a Representative of the Government of the United States.”

“Oh, yes, you are.” said Siddhartha. “You were with President Kennedy on the Green the other evening.”

“I am nothing but a mere ward chairman in a small city.”

“As an official of the United States Government, we have chosen you to deliver an urgent request. We have considered this matter quite carefully and are all agreed.”

“You want me to do what?”

“We want you to talk to President Kennedy and deliver this request to him.”

“You want me to meet with President Kennedy? I can’t do that. He’d never see me. I couldn’t even get to see his secretary. You want me to contact him directly?”

“Yes. We want you to talk with President Kennedy.”

“And if I could get in to see him, which I couldn’t, what do you want me to say?”

“We want you to ask President Kennedy to sell India an atom bomb.”

“And what will India do with an atom bomb?”

“Drop it on China,” said Siddhartha.

I felt faint but recovered enough to mumble something about how difficult it would be to see Kennedy and something about taking the matter under advisement and something about my septicemia acting up and forcing me to leave, which I promptly did. Within hours, fortunately, China declared a unilateral cease-fire, ending the crisis. The irenic Indians returned to their daily routines. The security of their country no longer depended on me. Like last week’s want ads, my first diplomatic flier slipped from possibility to memory and was in fact my last.

Bill Rees
New Haven, Connecticut
June 24, 2004, edited on October 22, 2013