The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Book Review: The Mighty and the Meek

I’ve been reading quite a bit of biography recently, partly to understand the lives of important people, partly to provide some guidance for my own. The memoirs of US diplomat Vernon Walters are rather appropriate in that respect. His parentage was English and American, he was raised in France for many years including in Paris (picking up French), in Nice (picking up Italian among the kids at school), and Biarritz (learning Spanish). Later he also became fluent in Portuguese and German. Thus became possible Walters's career as an interpreter and diplomat for the United States. The book is, in fact, is a recollection of all the famous people (The Mighty) and notable not-so-famous people (The Meek) Walters met and the diplomatic missions he undertook. It reads like a Who’s Who of political leaders speaking a Western European language. You have virtually every US president, as well as French presidents, Brazilian presidents, Popes, General Montgomery, General Marshall, Franco, Castro and others still.

Walters’s first ‘diplomatic’ mission was as an officer in the US army during WW2, in the US invaded Vichy-French North Africa, he successfully convinced a Vichy-French colonel to surrender. He recounts other encounters with much detail giving insight into the personalities themselves and what it means to be a high-level diplomat. He recounts tensions with US Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker (turf wars). He unironically talks about “the (obviously undifferentiated) Communists” much as ex-CIA Chief James Woolsey talks about “World War 4”. He quotes a thoughtful Harry S. Truman on the fate of US presidents: “The only future you have is in the memory of the people,” something which might be said of all political leaders. In all this, he has a kind word for almost everyone from Ronald Reagan to Charles de Gaulle (‘quintessential’ American and Frenchman respectively), and Maggy Thatcher (“a very handsome woman”) to Francois Mitterrand (for bringing down the French Communist Party). Occasionally this leads to platitudes and iffy praise, such as when talking about Francisco Franco or the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara in rather kind terms. He seems to only really condemn Communists.

For me, personally, the chapter on Mobutu Sese Seko was a real treat. Walters was sent on several missions to Mobutu to ask him to reform, release US citizens or not be so harsh on dissidents. How surreal that the infamous Zairean dictator, known as “Satan”, “the vampire”, and “l’Egorgeur” among other things, apparently once burst into tears when Walters urged him to reform a little too hard. He also describes how he was taken to Mobutu’s hometown of Gbadolite on a C-130 airplane… which terrified him because of the notion of “Zairean maintenance” of the plane and the fact that Mobutu himself would be piloting it. After a comfortable flight and successfully landing the President of Zaire apparently swiveled round his pilot’s chair and stood up exclaiming “Alors vous avez vu ca?’ (Well did you see that?) One senses more somewhat childish pleasure when Mobutu beamed with pride after Walters told him, having landed on the presidential yacht in a helicopter, that he had “Africa’s first aircraft carrier”.

The chapters on ‘The Meek’ and his missions also have a few juicy anecdotes and tidbits. He describes meeting a missionary in rural Brazil who was attempting to learn the Cracati language of the 20,000 Indians who spoke it, so he could translate the Bible into their language. When Walters asked how long this would take, the man replied “Perhaps my whole life.” Among his diplomatic missions, he describes his attempt to persuade European leaders to cooperate with Reagan’s bombing of Qaddafi in 1986 as well as innumerable attempts to get people out of jail

The Mighty and the Meek is a pleasant book to read, although I’m not sure I would enjoy a repeat of the curious non-chronological format. Still, it is a good record of the high points of an astonishing career, one which will be of interest to anyone interested in high politics and the illustrious figures he mentions.


Blogger Mathias said...

I'v added it to my to-read list.
Thanks mate !


5:53 AM  
Blogger Julia Haston said...

Hi Craig, Can I borrow your book sometime? It sounds interesting.


8:59 PM  

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