Travels With Vice President LBJ: “Son, if you do this again, I am going to poison your soup.” Excerpts from Interviews with Former U.S. Diplomat Ambassador Harry E.T. Thayer by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project.
For Christmas, 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 U.S. state department, where he was a China specialist during a 30 year career from the 1950’s through the 1990’s that spanned many important periods and major changes in the U.S-China relationship.
Much of these memories are preserved as available public records at the Library of Congress where nearly 2000 diplomats have recorded detailed interviews of their roles in how the behind the scenes machine and ambiance and color and details of history is actually made. The archives are a collection of a treasure trove of riveting information, the work of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project.
I will post more excerpts which 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, to China policy under Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter etc, and the behind the scenes activities of major movers and shakers from Henry Kissinger to Richard Holbrooke; the normalization of relations with 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 it is played out in reality by 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, and this is the version from the transcript of the Oral History Project.
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.”