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