Part III: Indochinese Refugees – Holbrooke’s Motives and Impact – A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

What motivated Holbrooke to provide strong support for the plight of the Indochinese refugees? Later, he would go on his own, first to Tibet and to Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is clear that he had a very soft spot for those who were forcefully displaced, were persecuted or were denied the right to self-determination. Packer opined: “I don’t think being a child of refugees explains his passion on this subject. The past was buried by his parents and their son didn’t want to dig it up. No, it wasn’t the Jews – it was Vietnam. That was where he had seen a mother nursing her child next to her husband’s corpse.” (p. 204)

Second, did the world only start paying attention to the Cambodian genocide and the plight of the refugees who fled only after Holbrooke’s photo-op with Rosalynn Carter with Cambodian refugees in late November of 1979? Had UNHCR been silent and impotent as both the Indochinese and the Cambodian refugee crises developed? Were NGOs mostly passive and incompetent? Finally, did Jimmy Carter sign the 1980 Refugee Act in large part because of the influence of Richard Holbrooke? I will save the last question for a separate blog. If any of the above claims turn out to be a stretch or even a misrepresentation, why did Packer make such claims and what is the impact on one’s assessment of the quality of the biography?

Packer claims that Holbrooke was not motivated by his identity as a Jew. “No, it wasn’t the Jews.” Definitive. Assertive. Not a whisper of doubt. Packer claimed that Holbrooke was influenced by the actual suffering of the Vietnamese people during the war and his sense of America’s considerable responsibility for that suffering. Further, he was a man of action and when he saw a cause, he was disposed not to feel pity but to act with force and determination. At least, in my opinion, if he believed he could make a difference.

I want to argue that Holbrooke’s Jewishness did matter both with respect to his style, his shamelessness, compassion and his passions. I cannot prove that Packer is wrong, but I offer evidence that Holbrooke’s Jewishness was a major influence, unconscious at first but increasingly part of his consciousness in the last two decades of his life. Why was he so driven to go into the province of Ba Xuyen in the Mekong Delta where he saw for himself that the policy of strengthening the hamlets was not working because the Viet Cong came out at night and destroyed what had been created each day? His passion for the downtrodden and for refugees preceded his Vietnamese assignment.

Further, I have both my own experience as a once assimilated secular Jew who first became involved in 1957 in helping house Hungarian refugees arriving in Toronto and then in 1979 in playing a role in the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees in Canada. Then, I would have said that it was my universalist humanitarian outlook that motivated me. Later, when I undertook empirical research on what motivated sponsors of refugees, it was clear that a prior connection with refugees, especially when reinforced by a strong Christian sensibility in the case of non-Jews and a strong liberal sensibility as Jews, served as a critical catalyst. Reform Jews, who were usually much more distant from the Holocaust, sponsored Indochinese refugees far out of proportion to their numbers. The mixture of identification and a religious injunction, even when secularized, was a powerful if unconscious source for those commitments. It is not at all clear why Packer is so dismissive of unconscious propulsion.

In the last twenty years of his life, especially after he was named Ambassador to Germany, Holbrooke proudly spoke of his pride in his Jewish heritage. He even hung a portrait of his grandfather in a WWI German uniform on the wall of his ambassador’s residence and would always point out to visitors that his grandfather was Jewish. But in the first fifty years of his life, he was silent on the subject, though, unlike Madeleine Albright, he was fully aware of his family’s Jewish roots.

The turning point perhaps came when Holbrooke turned fifty and his friends and colleagues, at Holbrooke’s own urging, threw a large party for him in Packer’s telling. The speeches were a roast. The stories told hit very close to the bone. He felt humiliated. Perhaps never as much as when his oldest and best friend, Les Gelb, in the final speech of the evening, acted out both sides of an interview with Richard.

Reporter: Are you Jewish?

Holbrooke: No.

Reporter: Are you sure?

Holbrooke: Yes, I am sure.

Reporter: We have information.

Holbrooke: Actually, I had a Jewish great-grandfather.

Reporter: We heard it was a more direct line.

Holbrooke: Well, maybe I am half-Jewish.

Reporter: (to the audience) And that sounds half true.

His friends and colleagues roared with laughter as Holbrooke smiled weakly and squirmed in his seat.

Packer suggests a second key stage in Holbrooke’s coming out of the closet and embracing his Jewishness that went beyond shameful acknowledgement. Holbrooke was offered the position of U.S. Ambassador to Germany. (p. 271)  

“One thing you have to realize if you go to Germany is the people will ask you if you’re Jewish or not,” [Peter] Tarnoff said. “So are you Jewish?”

“Why is it important?”

Tarnoff explained why being Jewish was important in Germany.

“Yes I am.”

Jewishness now had become a badge he wore on his sleeve or a flag on his lapel. It was simply a label that allowed him then to express pride in his Jewishness, possibly instigated now that it was to his advantage. Holbrooke had to learn how deep his Jewishness was in his soul. That came when he doggedly set out to win the heart of Kati Marton after her marriage to Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, had disintegrated. I had only known of her as the author of a 1994 volume on Count Folke Bernadotte, the Israeli-Arab mediator in 1948. Until I read Marton’s book A Death in Jerusalem: The Assassination by Jewish Extremists of the First Arab/Israeli Mediator, I had not associated her with Holbrooke, which is more an indication of how out of the loop I remain when it comes to celebrity couples.

Kati Marton had been raised as a Roman Catholic. While researching for her book on Raoul Wallenberg, she discovered that her own parents were Hungarian Jews when she learned that her own grandparents had been killed at Auschwitz. She was the daughter of two famous journalists, UPI reporter Ilona Marton and award-winning Associate Press reporter Endre Marton. (Cf. Kati Marton (2009) Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.) They had hidden from Kati their Jewishness and her father even initially denied it when Kati confronted him.

Holbrooke had run into Kati a number of times in her role as a journalist and writer. What Kati did not know was that Holbrooke had been stalking her for years. They “happened” to be in Paris at the same Christmas of 1993 and arranged to meet and then to take a three-day jaunt to Chartres. The meeting became a tryst and Holbrooke single mindedly, with as much determination as he had brought to anything in his life, wooed and won her heart. It would be the same type of persistence and passion that he brought to the negotiations that led to the Dayton Accords.

Holbrooke was a good listener. He was devoted to Kati Marton’s happiness. And, unlike Jennings, he supported her success rather than feeling threatened by it. As Marton wrote, “Richard was a one-of-a-kind personality. He was also a very good husband, and a very loving one.” (Cf. Kati Marton (2012) Paris: A Love Story.) As Packer said in an interview on his biography of Holbrooke, “It’s through his relations with women that I think we really get to the heart of Holbrooke.” And it was through his relationship to Kati Marton that I suggest that Holbrooke finally got in touch with his own heart and the depth of his Jewishness.

He had always been an idealist as well as a realist wrapped in a patina of unrestrained ambition. As Packer described him, “a different person might have become secretary of state; someone more diplomatic, more suave and smooth, knowing how to operate, and being restrained and self-aware. But I’m not sure that person would have ended the war in Bosnia because it took a kind of shamelessness and relentlessness and willingness to fail in order to end a war that had defeated the attempts of everyone else who tried.”

My only dispute with this description is Packer’s contention that Holbrooke was not self-aware. Certainly, though he admired the aristocratic bearing and impeccable dress of diplomats like Warren Christopher, he very well knew that he ate and stained his ties, that he could never be the dapper dresser that Kati Marton’s father was. But he was very aware of how he had to temper his bleeding heart with an iron will and an acute intelligence if he were able to translate his passions into actions that made a difference. And those traits came together into a braid best when he married Kati Marton and became inwardly Jewish.

Given his best friends – Gelb, Rosenblatt and their shared convictions – I suggest that Holbrooke’s Jewishness was not an accidental and incidental part of his make-up, but integral to his passion and compassion as well as his commitments.

What about Holbrooke as a publicity seeker? He could not compete with Donald Trump. Further, he sought publicity to advance good causes even more than himself. Did his concern with publicity and use of Rosalynn Carter in a photo-op bring the Cambodian refugee issue to the attention of the world for the first time? If so, why were the Cambodian refugees included in the June and July mandates to resettle Indochinese well before Holbrooke’s visit with Rosalynn Carter to the Cambodian refugee camps in November?

Recall that Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December of 1978. The new, pro-Vietnamese government proclaimed the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in January 1979. That is when the largest exodus of the half million refugees who fled Cambodia that year began. During that year, older members of the small Cambodian-Canadian community established the CCAO (Cambodian-Canadian Association of Ontario) partnered with private sponsors to bring Cambodian refugees to Canada. The Canadian government in both June and July included Cambodian refugees in its targeted population for resettlement in Canada. (For a more detailed account of the role of Canada in the intake of Indochinese refugees, cf. Running on Empty by Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert Shalka with a foreword by Ronald Atkey who was the Minister of Immigration when Canada determined that 50,000 Indochinese refugees would be admitted.)

This points to a central fault in the book. As I and my Norwegian colleague discovered when we were preparing our report on the international community’s responsibility for its general passivity in responding to the emerging and actual genocide in Rwanda, Washington was unlike any other capital. The way Americans dealt with Rwanda was almost totally the product of the internecine struggles within the American capital. By contrast, policy in Canada was a product of the interplay between what was happening abroad and domestic politics, with, in the case of the Indochinese refugees, the overwhelming influence of the overseas situation. In America, the situation was the reverse. The overwhelming influence on policy always seemed to be the competition of ideas and power in America. What other countries did, what other countries thought, what other countries believed, fell far down the scale of influential factors.

George Packer suffers from the same failing. His is almost entirely a Washington-centric account. What was happening in Geneva or in the field with UNHCR, what was happening in Amsterdam when he offered his very vivid account of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, were very peripheral if even on the horizon of his perspective. He is prone to make declarations about the world – such as that the world’s views of Cambodian refugees came into focus only after Rosalynn and Richard visited the camps – but this was simply untrue. There is no indication that he undertook research in any other capital, even to get German or Pakistani or Afghan views of Holbrooke.

What about the role of American NGOs? He knows that Rosenblatt went on to head Refugees International. That should have informed him that the agency would have been effective and driven by both commitment and knowledge. This was true of many of the NGOs, but certainly not all. But a negative generalization about the vast majority reflects more the views of Washington political insiders and critical journalists than the judgement of dispassionate investigators.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman


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