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Government Gazette

Recollections of Ambassador James W. Spain

News reached us over the weekend past that Jim Spain’s time on earth had run out. Heaven knows this world of ours cannot afford to do without human beings of his calibre and yet there is only so much that an individual can do for humanity before he, too, must unto the dust descend.

Ambassador Spain was one of the most decent, gentle, caring and perceptive human beings I have known to-date.

He was unfailingly generous and kind to his fellow-companions on this bitter-sweet journey on earth that we travel on for a while. It was indeed a privilege to have worked with him briefly and shared a long and fruitful friendship with him thereafter.

I first came to know him during my days in The Colombo Plan Bureau in the 1980s. He had arrived in Colombo sometime in 1985 to head the U.S. Mission here. Until then, Sri Lanka was the only South Asian country he had not lived in before.

He was to make up for this in the years ahead, when in 1989, consequent to his retirement from the U.S. foreign service, he made Sri Lanka his home.

This decision of Ambassador Spain was all the more remarkable because the last several years of the 80s was a period when most Sri Lankans were seeking to run away from their land of birth.

Jim Spain not only stayed behind but also did a great deal discreetly to assist this beleaguered country of ours to save itself from self-destruction.

His chauffeur during his ambassadorial days, Mr. Miranda, himself a kindly and refined man, continued to serve his gentle master until his death a few years ago, evidence of the kind of loyalty and personal devotion that the ambassador inspired in his colleagues.

Jim Spain’s retirement apartment at Galle Face Court was elegant and spacious wherein he continued to be the gracious host he had been before.

It is a tribute to his sincerity that he was a much sought after public speaker and dinner guest long after he had ceased to carry diplomatic clout. He was a diplomat who was several significant notches above and beyond the hail-fellow-well-met type.

I got to know him intimately during a time of great personal sadness. Donald Toussaint, ambassador in Colombo before Jim Spain, a former colleague and close friend of my family became Director of The Colombo Plan in 1985 where I was then serving as the Special Assistant to the Director.

Don was U.S. Ambassador in Sri Lanka from 1979 to 1982 having succeeded the venerable Howard Wriggins the finest American student of Sri Lanka.

Prof. Wriggins it was who diagnosed quite early in the day the dilemmas that post-independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka was most likely to endure in later years if the early signs of extreme resurgent Sinhala nationalism were not bridled. Like Jim Spain Don Toussaint was a lover of this complex island nation.

Within less than four years of his leaving our shores on completion of his diplomatic assignment here, he was back ‘home’ despite the rather meagre responsibilities that were now placed on his broad and capable shoulders by that entity meant to promote economic and social development in the Asia Pacific — The Colombo Plan— which by now had run out of steam having had its heyday in the 50s and 60s.

That Ambassador Toussaint accepted the posting was more a compliment to Sri Lanka which his wife Charmian and he loved with a passion than to any illusions he had of turning around the moribund Asia Pacific development organization. Less than a year after his return, Don Toussaint died untimely of a heart attack.

It was during this essentially difficult time when I organised on behalf of The Colombo Plan a service of thanksgiving for the life and work of Ambassador Toussaint that I came to know Jim Spain, the warm-hearted human being.

Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity. He gave me all the support he could muster for the event while consoling me and helping me to come to terms with my great loss.

It was several years later that I came to know that only a couple of years prior to his coming to Colombo that Ambassador Spain himself had suffered a monumental personal loss.

Consequent to a memorable family re-union after some years during Thanksgiving 1983 at a resort in West Virginia, Jim Spain, his wife Edith and daughter Sikandra bade farewell to their sons and brothers Patrick, William and Stephen and began to wend their way through country roads back to Washington.

Near Leesburg, Virginia, their light fibre-glass car was hit by a huge old station wagon going at 85 miles per hour, driven by a local football player who was not wearing the glasses his license prescribed. He was not even scratched, but the Spains had to be evacuated to the Washington Hospital Trauma Centre by helicopter.

By next morning, Sikandra was dead, Edith was clinging to life in an intensive-care unit and Jim was immobilized with a variety of fractures and bruises. A few weeks later, Edith died.

With the help of his sons and his strong spirituality, Jim Spain bore his irreparable loss with fortitude. The sympathy and empathy he extended to Don Toussaint’s wife and family and friends surely stemmed from his humanity doubtless deepened by his own sorrows.

Jim Spain born on July 22, 1926, was a diplomat, scholar and writer. He received his MA from the University of Chicago and PhD from the University of Columbia. An early posting to Pakistan (1951-3) kindled in him a fascination for the Pathans - those fiercely independent tribesmen of north-west Pakistan made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s stories and poems.

This enchantment proved to be an enduring one, leading to repeated visits to the Frontier and several notable books - The Way of the Pathans (1962); People of the Khyber (1962); The Pathan Borderland (1963); and American Diplomacy in Turkey (1984). Pathans of the Latter Day (1995) was a sequel to his 1962 publication on the Pathans.

In Those Days - A Diplomat Remembers (pictured above) is his candid, and often funny, autobiography.

In it he familiarizes us with his Irish Catholic childhood in the gangster-era Chicago, his military service as Douglas MacArthur’s photographer in occupied Japan and his foreign service career which brought him postings in Islamabad, Istanbul, and Ankara and four ambassadorships in Tanzania, Turkey, the United Nations (Deputy Permanent Representative) and in Sri Lanka.

Jim Spain’s experiences with such major world figures as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, President Suleyman Demirel of Turkey, Ayub Khan of Pakistan, Sir David Owen and Lord Peter Carrington of the United Kingdom, and U.S. presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter are woven into rich stories in In Those Days.

He tells us, among other things, that Douglas MacArthur was “brilliant and theatrical”; Harry Truman, “tough and indomitable”; Dwight Eisenhower, “shrewd and paternal”; John Kennedy,” rash and dynamic”; Dean Rusk,” glacial but kindly”; Richard Nixon, “tricky but competent”; Henry Kissinger, “brilliant, naive, and not altogether to be trusted”.

Jim Spain’s contribution in assisting CIA Director Allen Dulles to make Eisenhower get the pronunciation of Prime Minister Nehru’s first name right during the latter’s official visit to Washington is a typical foreign service moment - ‘heady stuff for a twenty-eight-year-old’ notes the author.

Jim Spain’s memo of 1963 to CIA Director McCone on his weekend in Rome with Pope John XXIII’s associates led to several journalists giving Jim the familiar tag of ‘CIA agent’. Spain’s cryptic words to describe the erroneous castigation is worth quoting:

Basically I approve of popular history. It is easier to read and remember than the scholarly kind. But, then, as with Flamini and Kwitny [two of the journalists who misread Spain], it is a mish-mash of unsubstantiated quarter-truths put forth without first hand knowledge of the people and events involved, it is better offered in a novel.

I find myself longing for old-fashioned academic accuracy. Anyone who is interested can find my memorandum, dated May 13, 1963, in the Kennedy Library.

Spain’s assessments of Lyndon Johnson (‘the quintessential joker in the American pack’), Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are unflattering, to put it mildly, while those of Jimmy Carter, Averill Harriman, Dean Rusk, Andy Young and Cy Vance are affectionately appreciative.

I could go on, but let me end these recollections with some of Jim Spain’s personal kindnesses to me.

Two of his one-time junior colleagues in the U.S. foreign service happened to be rather nasty to me at two different times. On both occasions, he listened sagely and gave me sound advice over gin and tonic and good food.

When I brought out the first volume of a Sri Lanka-based Journal of International Relations in 1987, it was Ambassador Spain who gave it a birthday party.

And again, it was he who inspired a book of essays on U.S.-Sri Lanka Cultural Encounters that I put together a few years ago, contributing an insightful essay himself and making a speech at the ceremony for its release.

His excellent chit chat over several bottles of wine with my Liberal Party colleagues at a dinner I hosted at my home in Mount Lavinia in 1988 during which he held us spellbound with his superb grasp of politics I remember vividly.

Jim Spain was a fine diplomat and even better human being. In a certain sense I am glad that he has gone as life, advancing years and illness had already heaped a great deal of sadness and indignities upon him however bravely he coped with them.

He was too good a man to have to suffer more. But I shall miss him enormously. Thank you for the memories, Jim.

 

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