Travels With LBJ: “Son, if you do it again, I will poison your soup”

Random Memories of my Father

Travels With LBJ: “Son, if you do this again, I am going to poison your soup.”

By Nate Thayer

January 24, 2017

My father, Harry Thayer, died this past Saturday January 21, after a full, well-lived, and important life.

In the few days and long hours since he left on his final one-way trip to a destination unclear, many still fresh memories percolate in the thoughts of those who loved and respected him.

I have received numerous gracious messages from some who have heard of Harry Thayer’s death.

“I am a little younger, but we are part of the same generation that lived through the unhappy separation of China and the United States, learned everything we could about China and did what we could to make a smooth re-connection. America was blessed by having had a wonderful generation of outstanding China specialists at the State Dept who served our country with honor during that period. Your dad was one of them, who acquired a deep understanding of Asian affairs, used knowledge to help our country keep good relations,” wrote one former colleague. “I felt sorry for your dad in 1971-2 when the action on normalization was at the White House when your dad had to perform his services at State while the White House was secretive about the events. I was pleased your dad had good years working with George Bush. I remember having a wonderful breakfast, one-on-one in Singapore with your dad, on the outside porch of the ambassador’s residence while he was ambassador there. Gracious, informative. You have good reason to be proud of your dad. A salute to him.”

An official 1981 photograph of my Dad, then Ambassador to the Republic of Singapore Harry E.T. Thayer

“You don’t know me but I feel that I know you through your father. Harry often talked about you, admiringly, naturally. Your blog about his death is moving. It brought tears to my 95-year old eyes,” wrote another colleague from the U.S. Foreign Service. “Harry had so many endearing admirable qualities, it’s hard to name them all. But if I had to use one word to describe his character and personality, it would be gentleman. He was a gentleman’s gentleman, possessed of that certain air of graciousness, self-confidence, and consideration that characterize such a being. He was always eager to listen and to probe with incisive questions. He was patient to a fault. And he was a wonderful companion…like you I miss him.”


Harry Thayer (Back row, third from right) in a photograph of the “Whiffenpoofs” choir at Yale University 1950


Photograph of Harry Thayer from the Yale University singing choir, “The Whiffenpoofs” circa 1950

For Christmas, 2013 my father gave me a gift of a bound booklet he put together detailing some of his experiences as a diplomat, a foreign service officer for the United States Department of State, where he was a China specialist during a 30 year career from the 1950’s through the 1990’s, a period that spanned many important, major changes in U.S-China relations.

Much of this history is preserved in available public records at the Library of Congress where nearly 2000 diplomats have recorded detailed interviews of their roles in the behind the scenes machine and ambiance, color and details, of the sausage-making process of how history is actually made. These archives are a treasure trove of riveting information, the work of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project.

For those interested in the often fraught process of U.S. China relations, they cover such important issues as the McCarthy era Red-baiting, intimidation and purges of U.S. government China specialists accused of being communist sympathizers for supporting engaging China through diplomacy; China policy under presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and their successors; the behind the scenes activities and antics of major movers and shakers from Henry Kissinger to Richard Holbrooke; the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing; the shift to derecognize Taiwan; China becoming a recognized member of the United Nations; and numerous both small and momentous parts of history as played out in real-time by real people such as my father–those U.S. government grunts executing policy on a day-to-day basis.

The following is a humorous, if historically decidedly very minor, anecdote that provides a sense of the ambiance of the stories collected by the Oral History Project.

My father recounted the story during Christmas lunch in 2013. This is the version of that story as he told it to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project. Below are quotes taken directly from the written transcripts of the interview:

After, as a young Foreign Service Officer serving in his first overseas posting in Hong Kong as a consular officer at the U.S embassy in the late 1950’s, he was reluctantly called back to serve in an administrative job at the State Department East Asia Bureau in Washington, which he fought against as he, at the time, sought to begin intensive Chinese language study, but ultimately lost out and returned to Washington to start the unwanted assignment.

Q: How did that play out?

Harry Thayer: Well, it played out like so many things. I got interested in it, and I learned a lot about how the Foreign Service is run. They put me in the East Asia Bureau while Walter Robertson was still there, which gave me a kind of taste of things. And it was quite instructive. I learned a lot about the Foreign Service and working in the bureaucracy. And I learned a lot about management and these sorts of things, learned a lot about Congress, writing justifications for funds to the Hill. That was all quite instructive. I also met a lot of the personalities involved in China and Asia affairs. I, also, in May 1961, suddenly got yanked off to go on a trip as a coat-holder for LBJ (Lyndon Johnson) when he was vice president, went around the world as an aide to this LBJ first around the world trip

Q: This was a rather famous one, wasn’t it?

THAYER: The famous one, May of ’61. We went out to tell Diem in Vietnam that we would support him forever, but we went to Guam and Midway and manila and Taipei, Hong Kong, Saigon, Bangkok, New Delhi, Karachi, Athens, Wheelus Air Force base (Libya), Bermuda, and Washington. And it was the Goddamnedest trip I’ve ever made, learned a lot, and I was a physical wreck at the end of it. But it was an eye opener and a lot of fun.

Q: I realize that you were pretty far down the pecking line, but did you see anything of LBJ in action?

THAYER: I saw a good deal of LBJ in action. I was on his plane, in the first place. Even between Washington and Travis Air Force base I saw him in action. We put down at Travis.

Q: That’s in California

THAYER: Right. Travis Air base in California. We were on our way to Honolulu, the first substantive stop, where LBJ was to open the East-West center. And I don’t want to make this too long, but it is kind of illustrative. Bill Crocket, a senior State administrator, was on the trip. Bill Crocket was a guy in whom LBJ had confidence, so Crocket ended up travelling with Johnson wherever he went. And Crocket was my super boss in our group. Along on this trip on the substantive side was “China” Ed Martin, along with Dick Ericson, who was then a special assistant to the EA (East Asia) front office.

Anyhow, Crocket was my basic boss, and I was told on the airplane, as we began to fly across the United States with Crocket, that “You, Harry, have got to go up front (of the 707) and answer this message sent on the plane’s radio to Honolulu about the motorcade in Honolulu. There are a lot of problems with this motorcade, we want you to go up and send this message. I was just a messenger boy. In any event, with the message in hand, I had to walk up front. Incidentally, there were two 707’s on this trip. One was for the press and one was for the official group.

LBJ was spread across the center aisle (the only aisle) up in the front of the plane where there were tables in a VIP configuration. But his long legs were stretched across the aisle as he was talking to one of the young secretaries. I had to say “Excuse me, Mr. vice president” to get up to the communications place. So I went by and I said excuse me Mr. vice president. I went up and I sent the message or called the message to Honolulu about the Goddamn motorcade. Then I came back and said “Excuse me, Mr. vice president.” And he had to pull in his long legs and gave me a dirty look. About ten minutes later, Crocket said “Harry, I want you to go up there and send this other message.”

I said, “You know the Vice president is giving me some very dirty looks there.”

He said, “Send the message.”

So I walked up there, and I said, “Excuse me Mr. Vice President.” He had to pull his legs back in and stop the conversation with this young luscious that he was talking to and gave me a very dirty nasty look. And I went up there and sent the message and came back, and there were his legs spread out in front. To my horror, I had to say again, “Excuse me Mr. Vice President.”

And the Vice president looked me right in the eye. He said, “Son, if you do this once again, I am going to put poison in your soup.”

And as I remember, I said something like, “In that case, Mr. Vice president, I’ll have to get a taster.” I really remember I said it, but I am really not sure. Anyhow, that was my first exposure to LBJ.

I will say there are a lot of other tales I could tell about LBJ, but one thing on this trip, LBJ was really terribly hard to deal with. Everybody found him hard to deal with. Lady Bird was the balance. And she was often nudging the Vice President to be a little bit more polite, to take into account, to praise and so forth, the Foreign Service people that were with him.”

As I reflected on my father’s remarkable and humble and varied life today, I received more messages from his friends and colleagues:

“Thank you very much for the beautiful tribute to your dad. Quite a number of people have commented on the beautiful and profound farewell you wrote about your father. You touched a lot of us very deeply. Harry was someone whom I admired deeply as a professional and a thoroughly decent human being and whom I valued as a colleague and friend,” wrote another friend of many years. “Harry was a terrific guy. I will miss him very much.”

“Your father was the most remarkable man, father, and, in the true, old-fashioned sense, patriot. I hope he and Frank are together in Elysian fields, happy and young again, playing with their Taichung softball team,” wrote a friend and child of a close colleague.

Her mother wrote: “When Frank died, a wiser, older, friend wrote and reassured me. She said, Frank was like one of those dear old boats that had sailed in stormy waters, been battered by rough winds, but survived and enjoyed, but had become weathered and weary. She had a philosophy that in this final release, he was again fresh and revived, and now once again sailing on calm, beautiful waters beneath sunny skies — with a fair wind in his sails. I loved that imagery, that thought, and as the sailing life had informed and shaped Frank, I thought it was an apt image. I now see in my imagination — Frank waiting for Harry on that distant shore, and together are once again young and energetic and so happy to greet one another.

Harry was fortunate to have you as a son, and I recall how he spoke so lovingly of you. He was proud, and amused, and funny as he told Frank of your adventurous spirit, your affection, daring, and stories. He and Frank talked about you — and your trips, meetings, and writing success. Sometimes they shook their heads, but then there would be the laughter, and grudging admiration. They both loved you.”

And many loved United States Ambassador, father, friend, and very good American Harry Thayer.

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