Hard Times for the Africa Bureau 1974-1976: A Diplomatic Adventure Story.

Author:Easum, Donald

Note from the Editor: A distinguished diplomat recalls a tempestuous period for the AF Bureau at the State Department culminating in his being relieved of duty as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the behest of the man who hired him--Henry Kissinger. --Ed.

In Washington in late January 1976, meeting his American counterpart for the first time, the Nigerian Foreign Minister Joseph Garba told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: "You have a good man in Lagos." Kissinger replied, "Good for whom, you or us?"


It was a very hot summer in 1973. My family and I were finishing our second year in Ouagadougou, where I was serving as United States ambassador to Upper Volta. "Family" meant my wife Penny and our four children--Jeff, David, Susan, and John, born respectively in Managua, Djakarta, Fairfax, and Dakar. Penny, from Alabama, had held Foreign Service assignments in Addis Ababa and Madrid before we met in a Department of State elevator in Washington in late 1953. "Family" also meant my parents in Madison where I grew up--my father Chester V. Easum, Rhodes Scholar from Illinois and history professor at the University of Wisconsin, and my mother Norma B. Easum, piano recitalist and church organist.

Now known as Burkina Faso, this small West African country was among the world's poorest. Its population of five million was largely rural, dependent for survival on the annual harvest. Identifying and implementing a U.S. national interest there was not easy.

But our small State/AID/USIA team was determined to do its best. Our tools consisted of a modest economic assistance program, cultural exchange and public information initiatives, and an enthusiastic Peace Corps contingent of seventy young Americans doing good works with their Voltan counterparts. We had two excellent deputy chiefs of mission during this period--Pierce Bullen and wife Helene succeeded Dick Matheron and wife Kay. David Fields and then Tom Widenhouse were splendid administrative officers. The United States Information Agency (USIA) could not have sent us a more skillful and versatile Public Affairs director than Stan Alpern.

Our efforts and our judgments received consistent support from the Department's Bureau for African Affairs, ably headed by Assistant Secretary David Newsom. The Bureau accepted our country team's unorthodox but certainly not maverick rejection of a proposed Marine Guard presence. Although our volleyball and softball enthusiasts could have used some help, we saw no need for special protection of buildings or personnel. Nor did we think any significant purpose would be served by the assignment of a sleuth or two who would prowl for "intelligence information" of dubious utility.

Droughts are endemic in the African Sahel. The secheresse of that summer and the resulting famine were the most devastating of any in the recollection of our Voltan hosts. Drought relief became the centerpiece of our mission.

Our embassy's administrative staff organized truck transport to bring hundreds of tons of surplus U.S. sorghum to Ouagadougou from the Ghanaian port of Tema--a rough-road distance of 550 miles. As chair of an emergency committee organized by Voltan President Lamizana, I persuaded the pilots and crews of two wandering Belgian Air Force C-130s to airdrop this grain for starving villagers. The Washington Post ran a feature story by visiting reporter David Ottaway, including a photograph of a group of us trying to be helpful while sacks were being loaded into the aircraft on the Ouagadougou airstrip. We were relieved Ottaway did not mention Stella Artois, the Belgian beverage of choice to be routinely consumed in considerable quantity in the cockpits

I was subsequently decorated with a parchment awarded by Lamizana. I was designated Commandeur de l'Ordre National, an honor I accepted on behalf of everyone who had contributed to the effort--including Peace Corps and Voltan Red Cross volunteers working alongside teenage members of embassy families spending the summer in "Ouaga" with their parents and younger siblings.

The November Summons

Four months later an out-of-the-blue telephone message from the State Department instructed me to meet with Henry Kissinger in New York as soon as possible. The venue would be his hotel suite in The Pierre. Although not told what to expect, I had a hunch our Ouagadougou days were over. We would miss them.

After pleasantries, Kissinger asked, "How old are you?" I told him I was his age. He then suggested I might be interested in "doing something more useful than whatever you've been doing out there--in--where did you say?--just where is that?" I assumed he knew. I could not help but wonder whether Ottaway's article had something to do with his wanting to see me.

Kissinger explained he was unimpressed by the talent he would inherit as he took on the responsibilities of Secretary of State for President Nixon--while retaining the role of the President's National Security Advisor. He rattled off a dozen positions for which he said he urgently needed top-caliber career Foreign Service Officers.

I told him I considered my previous experience inadequate for all but one of these jobs, but it would be an assignment I would not relish--that of Executive Secretary of the Department. I said I had already served two years as a staff member in that office followed by appointments as Executive Secretary of the Agency for International Development (AID) and as Staff Director of the National Security Council's Interdepartmental Group for Inter-American Affairs. Kissinger countered, "Then how about a geographic bureau--Latin America or Africa?"

I pointed out that despite a year of graduate studies in Argentina, I didn't come anywhere near knowing enough about the Latin American turf. My only Foreign Service posting in the region had been a quick two years as a first-tour vice-consul in Managua in the mid-fifties.

As for Africa, my experience was limited to what I had absorbed over the course of eight years in four small former French or British colonies in west Africa: Senegal, The Gambia, Niger and Upper Volta. I said the areas of significant political concern for him and the Africa Bureau would be elsewhere. They would importantly include the Horn of Africa, the Portuguese territories, Rhodesia, and above all South Africa and Namibia. I suggested whomever he chose as Assistant Secretary for Africa should be already familiar with these arenas. I warned him I was not.

He said, "OK--go to Washington and talk with [Deputy National Security Advisor] Scowcroft--then go back to your post--my office will be in touch."

The Changing of the Guard 1974

A mildewed 1974 desk calendar indicates that January 22 was my first day on the job as de facto Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. David Newsom, busy that morning preparing for his new assignment as ambassador to Indonesia, turned over to me his aging Volkswagen, his desk, and his Africa Bureau responsibilities with this caution: "Don, you'll have to figure him out for yourself, but just remember: Kissinger will take custody of any bright ideas you and the Bureau may come up with." Then came a prescient alert: there was general Africa Bureau consensus, he warned, that favored a "more straightforward policy" of opposition to apartheid and support for decolonization. He said I would have to work on this "with the Seventh Floor"--implying it might be a hard sell.

As for the bright ideas, it soon became evident that Kissinger didn't want custody. He ignored or rejected initiatives the Bureau considered important. Figuring out how to deal with his lack of interest would become our first major challenge.

Getting Acquainted--Crunch Times on the Seventh Floor

My debut in the big time took place barely a week later. It was my first Kissinger staff meeting. These sessions were held more or less monthly, often shoe-horned at the last minute into a schedule dictated by the Secretary's globetrotting priorities. They lasted roughly an hour. Participants numbered from 12 to 20. Kissinger played court jester, devil's advocate, stage manager, prosecuting attorney, chief justice, chief guru--whatever best suited the moment as he saw it. There was considerable laughter from the claque.

I had learned from Willard De Pree, African affairs specialist in the Department's Office of Policy Planning, that the subject for discussion would be the U.S. need for renewed access to airport facilities at Lajes in the Azores. These had proved critical in assuring our airlift to Israel during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. De Pree told me that the Portuguese had now unveiled a spectacular quid pro quo: they would guarantee us Lajes if we would provide missiles they could use against insurgents in their African colonies. The Portuguese demanded the transaction be made public.

Our acceptance would violate Washington's long-standing policy forbidding Lisbon to use any U.S.-supplied weapons in Africa.

The issue struck home with me. In February 1965, while serving as political officer in Dakar but additionally responsible for monitoring U.S. relations with The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, I had flown to Bissau to meet with Portuguese General Arnaldo Schultz, the Governor and Commander-in-Chief. During our landing on the single-strip barbed-wire-surrounded airfield, I spotted half a dozen fighter planes parked along the runway's edge. I recognized them as North American F-86s of Korean War vintage. I was good at identifying aircraft, having spent 1944-45 in U.S. Army Air Corps control towers in the Pacific theater.

Unnoticed by my Portuguese Air Force pilot, I managed to snap pictures. I sent the negatives to the Africa Bureau upon my return to Dakar. Seven years later, in January 1972, the Department publicly declared there was "no authenticated case" of Portugal's use of U.S. fighter planes in Africa. I cabled from Ouagadougou to remind the Bureau that Department files...

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