President Trump’s historically slow pace in nominating candidates for top diplomatic posts and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s gutting of the State Department suggests an indifference to, if not hostility toward, the work of Foreign Service officers. The Trump administration seems to grossly undervalue the crucial role of ambassadors and their staff, which begs the question: Do they understand it? Having a strong embassy led by a capable ambassador reaps benefits for the U.S. as well as the host country. On the flip side, the consequences of a vacant ambassador post are unpredictable and sometimes grave.
An illuminating example of both can be found during another tumultuous time in American politics—1964, shortly after Lyndon Johnson became president following President Kennedy’s assassination. Before he died, President Kennedy had nominated the next ambassador to Panama. The appointment languished during the transition to a Johnson administration, and the position remained vacant for eight months.
Meanwhile, in Panama, conflict was cooking. Since 1903, in accordance with a treaty allowing the United States to build a canal across Panama, the American military had occupied the five-mile area on either side of the canal called the Canal Zone. The Panamanians felt short-changed on canal shipping tolls and U.S. military base rental payments. They resented a foreign power dividing their country in perpetuity. In the 1950’s, small groups of high school students started making daring forays into the Zone to hoist Panamanian flags next to the Stars and Stripes.
On January 9, 1964, nearly 200 Panamanian students—the largest group by far—marched into the Canal Zone carrying their flag. In the violence that ensued over the next three days, more than twenty Panamanians and four U.S. soldiers were killed. The U.S. Information Service library went up in flames and American factories were vandalized. Panama severed diplomatic ties with the U.S. and American citizens in the country sought refuge in the Canal Zone.
The absence of an ambassador in Panama for the eight months leading up to the deadly riots was no coincidence. Such a void allowed grievances to go unheard and resentments to fester. No high-ranking official outside of the military was on the ground providing analysis and recommendations. Panama suddenly jumped to the top of President Johnson’s priorities. He surprised the State Department by nominating Jack Vaughn, only 43 and a relative unknown in Washington, as ambassador to Panama.
Johnson picked Vaughn to handle this high-stakes assignment because of a conversation they’d had one afternoon in 1961 while driving through the Senegalese countryside. Johnson was on his first overseas trip as vice president and Vaughn was running the foreign aid programs in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. As one of the few American government officials fluent in French, Vaughn became Johnson’s tour guide and translator.
The two talked about Panama, where Vaughn had spent four years as an economic development officer. He had gotten to know many Panamanians and made an effort to understand their aspirations and frustrations. He told Johnson in Senegal that the U.S. was behaving like a colonial occupier in the Canal Zone and the endgame would surely be violent.
When Vaughn arrived in Panama City in April, 1964 the hostility was palpable, the graffiti on the embassy walls still fresh. He opened his residence and invited everyone he could think of who bore a grudge, from Communist professors to hostile members of the media. He screened a documentary about John F. Kennedy, an iconic figure in Latin America, that later ran on national television. He regularly frequented the race track, visited cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers, socialized with candidates for public office, and spoke Spanish like a local.
On one weekend getaway with government officials and cattlemen, Vaughn’s single-engine plane crashed and he wound up in the small coastal town of Bocas del Toro. A tornado touched down in Bocas that night and in three minutes decimated the town. Vaughn radioed to the US Southern Command for assistance and then helped coordinate as two loaded C-47’s arrived with medical staff and supplies.
Johnson liked Vaughn’s style of diplomacy, which eschewed cocktail parties and embraced the small-town mayors, school teachers and native Indian communities. Though Vaughn had ingratiated himself to many Panamanians with his respectful approach and his low-key boycott of all official functions in the Canal Zone, he knew that a simmering national indignation over the terms of the Panama Canal treaty remained. In June, a homemade bomb exploded outside the Peace Corps office. On July 4, protesters splashed red paint across the walls of the U.S. embassy.
The United States’ interest in Canal treaty negotiations was tepid at best. With diplomatic relations re-established, the Johnson administration proposed making a few amendments to the existing treaty. Vaughn knew this suggestion was a non-starter. Special Ambassador Robert Anderson, who had been appointed to oversee treaty negotiations, also understood that the canal was an emotional, patriotic issue for the Panamanians. The people needed—and deserved—a new treaty.
Convinced by his ambassadors, Johnson announced that the U.S. would negotiate a new canal treaty with Panama. His statement came less than a month before the first anniversary of the January riots, known as Martyr’s Day in Panama. Although it would be twelve years until President Carter signed the new treaty, Johnson’s promise prevented violence in the years immediately after the riots. Having an ambassador in Panama gave Johnson the vehicle he needed to extend good will and reopen communications. Vaughn provided him with sound advice to stave off more deadly rioting.
Our government workers abroad, from diplomats to USAID program officers and Peace Corps volunteers, receive little attention or recognition. They stand up for American values and for friendship across national, cultural and religious divides. Many of them serve in difficult conditions, live with the constant threat of danger, and face fierce anti-American sentiment. They fall in the line of duty. When American representatives overseas triumph, we hear nothing at all: the sound of peace.
Vaughn’s is the kind of passionate, smart leadership we benefit from when ambassador posts are filled. The Panamanian violence of 1964 is the type of disaster we risk when no senior diplomat officially represents our position and our interests abroad. Without a U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Venezuela, and Yemen, among many others, and key positions at State vacant, we are left to wonder what might be brewing in those corners of the world, and if anyone will intervene before violence is the only option.
Jack Vaughn was ambassador to Panama and Colombia, assistant secretary of state for Latin America and the second director of the Peace Corps. He died in 2012.
Jane Constantineau is co-author of Kill the Gringo: The Life of Jack Hood Vaughn.