Warren Christopher was Secretary of State from 1993-1997.

Warren Christopher was Secretary of State from 1993-1997. Evan Vucci/AP file photo

The Overseas Diplomatic Life is Not All Sips of Tea

"The students, I don’t know how many there were, several thousand, surrounded the cars and began to pelt them with eggs and rocks and to jump up on top of the cars and stamp on the roofs." When Warren Christopher had to deliver bad news in Taiwan.

Yesterday I did a brief compare-and-contrast on the U.S. decision to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China, under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s, and Wednesday's announcement by President Obama that the U.S. will begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba.

The normalizations were similar in both being sensible, realistic, and in America's interest—or so I contend. One difference, I said, was the level of rancor the two decisions generated.

In the Cuban case, we've seen some protests in Little Havana and heard Senator Marco Rubio's undoubtedly heartfelt (if in my view wholly misguided)avowal that "I don’t care if polls say the 99 percent of the people support normalizing relations with Cuba," he is still against it. But all signs are that this long-overdue change will soon be an accepted part of reality every place except some parts of southern Florida.

But 35 years ago in the Chinese case, the admirable but in this case unfortunate Warren Christopher, in his role as deputy secretary of state, was dispatched on a mission for which there is no current counterpart. He had to fly to Taipei and there inform the leaders of the Republic of China on Taiwan that the U.S. was switching its recognition to their bitterest adversaries, in Beijing, and would no longer deal with the ROC as an official country.

I'd paid attention to that episode because I was a junior staffer in the Carter White House at the time— and because Warren Christopher, later Bill Clinton's secretary of state and a lifelong example of steady, understated public service, was a contemporary of my parents and by chance a friend of theirs from Southern California. From all accounts I'd heard then and later, the Taiwan trip was an episode that called for sangfroid on Christopher's part, as crowds surrounded his car.

A reader who had been in Taiwan back then said, let's keep it in perspective. He said he agreed with me on the welcome change toward Cuba. But:

The line about "...nothing compared with the riots in Taiwan after the U.S. announcement..." did catch my eye, however.

I was living in Taipei at the time and that feels overstated. There were some demonstrations, and yes, a smallish group roughed up Christopher's motorcade (without hurting anyone), and in a separate incident an unlucky Colombian diplomat was dragged out of his car and beaten up. But nothing you would call widespread rioting.

Considering the suddenness and significance of the U.S. de-recognition, I thought the popular reaction was pretty restrained. Typically so—the Taiwanese can get unruly, but they're violence-averse (except for gatherings of politicians, apparently, but these were pre-democracy days). [JF note: fist fights have broken out surprisingly often in the modern, democracy-era Legislative Yuan of Taiwan.]

None of which has much to do with the Cubans, who would probably appreciate a little less recognition from the U.S. government.

Because I'd heard of the Christopher trip as such a dramatic moment, I went prowling around for further accounts of it. It turns out the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, based in Arlington, Virginia outside Washington DC, has a riveting account by Neal Donnelly, who was public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy in Taipei at just the time it was downgraded to a non-Embassy. You can read the whole thing here. Here are two samples.

When the then-ambassador in Taipei got word of the impending change:

That night, Ambassador Leonard Unger went to the American Chamber of Commerce Christmas party. ... A cable came in late at night saying that Carter was going to announce the normalization of China and the de-recognition of Taiwan. [An embassy staffer] immediately got a hold of Unger at the Christmas party at I think about 11:00 pm and then Unger started the wheels in motion to contact Chiang Ching-kuo who was the President of the country [and son of Chiang Kai-shek].

Now you don’t just go to the President of the country’s house and ring the bell and talk to him, so it took a while to go through the several people that they had to and then they got Chiang Ching-kuo at, I think, slightly after two o’clock in the morning. Unger told him that we were de-recognizing Taiwan.

I’m told that he was in shock, shocked into inaction, and really didn’t do anything until the following morning. At six o’clock in the morning I was called by the duty officer and told to get down to the office. I got there, I guess about 8:00, and the country team was in the bubble [secure meeting room]. ...

We got there and Unger, still in his tuxedo and red bow tie [from the previous night's party], told us what Carter was going to do and we should call our families and tell them to listen to the radio, the armed forces radio station in Taiwan which would broadcast the message. And to tell our families to keep the kids home from school and things like that. So we did.

Then the announcement came and, of course, people were very upset.

After Warren Christopher arrived, he addressed the people of Taiwan. A senior Taiwanese diplomat, Chen Fu, introduced him at a press conference:

Chen's introduction was not “Ladies and gentlemen of the press, this is the Deputy Secretary of State. He has a short statement and then he’ll take your questions.” It was nothing like that at all. It was a condemnation of the act of normalization, and the Taiwan government negotiating position on normalization, from which they would not retreat. ...

It went on for about five minutes, after which, Warren Christopher read this very bland statement ... [in which he said he was] “look[ing] forward to meetings which will reflect the goodwill and understanding that has existed between us.”

Obviously there wasn’t any goodwill or understanding. (laughs) …

We went out then and got in the motorcade and started out. By the time that we got outside the gates, the students, I don’t know how many there were, several thousand, surrounded the cars and began to pelt them with eggs and rocks and to jump up on top of the cars and stamp on the roofs. …

A student came with a flag pole and shoved it through the window and broke the window. I was covered with glass and cut a little bit. Ambassador Unger was driving with one of the admirals, I think. He was mildly cut and his glasses were knocked off. He had the Seventh Fleet commander with him, I think. ...

Our car was badly damaged. They kept us for a long, long time in that motorcade; wouldn’t let us go through. Just pounded the cars and breaking the windows. No one was hurt badly and I’m told by a young friend of mine who was a military officer — a young Chinese friend — that the soldiers were told to don civilian clothes and make sure that none of the students got too wild. He said he himself wrestled down a student who was going after the Ambassador’s car with a hammer. So they were prepared.

To round this out, two other reader notes. First on the longer-term politics of Cuban policy, from a reader in California:

By beginning the process to normalize relations with Cuba, Obama may have actually helped the GOP in one small way with the Hispanic community.

Many Mexican-Americans that I've talked to over the years resent the way Cuban-Americans have always been given a special status as refugees. So while Cuban-Americans are definitely part of the larger American Hispanic community, many Mexican-Americans feel Cuban-Americans are treated better.  Normalizing relations with Cuba removes the refuge aspect.

Of course, if Cuban-Americans no longer provide any particular influence, the GOP could start ignoring them as well. Maybe Marco Rubio becomes just another GOP Senator.

And on comparing U.S. policy toward the one-party Communist government in China with policy toward the one in Cuba:

The spring after 9/11, I spent several weeks traveling around the back roads of the U.K. by myself, and almost invariably in chatting with people I met along the way, after they realized I was an American and we'd agreed on George Bush (bad) and Bill Clinton (good), the next question would be something along the lines of (imagine a rural northern Scottish road crew member leaning on his shovel), "Can ye tell me then, wot's it with you people and Cuba?"

A standing joke when I was living in Beijing is that there was exactly one steadfast, true-believer Marxist among the billion-plus residents of China. That was the Cuban Ambassador in Beijing. We'll see how long that goes on.