A Witness to History
As a foreign service officer in Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Somalia, Robert MacCallum '65 has spent the last three decades as part of some of this century's greatest triumphs and tragedies.
by Erik Dafforn '91
In May of 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to President Washington, who was considering retirement after his first term. In addition to listing multiple domestic reasons for Washington to continue leading the nation into a second term, Jefferson added that "weighty motives for your continuance are to be found in our foreign affairs."
After 200 years, many things have changed. Yet ensuring that our foreign service is stocked with the right people-the obscure weave of burlap tenacity and silky refinement-is just as important today.
Robert MacCallum '65 has spent the last three decades chin-deep in foreign affairs. At a minimum, he has been a firsthand witness to some of this century's greatest triumphs and tragedies. In many cases, he has been part of them.
Currently working out of Washington, D.C., MacCallum is the Senior Advisor in the State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He'll soon be off to another assignment, however; if the foreign service has taught us anything, it's that Robert MacCallum never stays in one place very long.
MacCallum's foreign service career began shortly after he graduated from Wabash, when he received his first assignment abroad. The United States maintains some form of diplomatic relations with all but 10 of the world's 190 countries, so with eight years of Spanish and Dick Traina's Latin-American seminar behind him, MacCallum firmly believed that he was ideally suited to accept a post in Latin or South America.
He was promptly assigned to Japan.
From Japan, he volunteered for reassignment to Vietnam in 1968 because he wanted to see firsthand exactly what was happening there. As part of the "pacification program," he was the only civilian on a 10-man advisory team. He managed civilian programs dealing with refugees, economic development, agricultural assistance, and anything else outside of the military arena.
Soon he was transferred to one of the regional headquarters, where one of his duties was to administer a unique survey program. He and his staff went out among the Vietnamese people to determine whether information garnered from military information sources was accurate.
"I think I got a good impression of what was really going on in Vietnam there. It's an assignment that I'm very happy I had."
In 1996, he returned to Vietnam for the first time since 1975, and he no longer views Vietnam in terms of the war. "Institutionally, we're putting that behind us now and trying to work with the Vietnamese on common objectives." Normalization of relations, he adds, "is inevitable and in the interest of both countries. It's the right thing to do."
Balancing Family and the Foreign Service
During the '70s and early '80s, his résumé continued to read like a cartographer's "to do" list-Laos, Washington, Japan (Tokyo this time), the Philippines, New York-wherever he was needed. Relocations that were good for his career, however, were sometimes hard on his family. At one point, he recalls, his elder daughter, then in the first grade, came to him and said, "Daddy, I don't ever want to move again." At that point, MacCallum and his wife, Alice, made a conscious effort to give the girls more stability. Their older daughter, Margaret, is now a senior at the University of Virginia; they've made sure that their younger daughter, Beth, will finish up at her current high school in Virginia, where she's a sophomore.
What could lure a person into such a demanding life? Often, it's the opportunity to see world events happen instead of merely reading or hearing about them. "Living overseas as an official representative of the United States can be an extraordinary experience. Being present-and in some cases being a participant- in international relations has been an exhilarating thing. That's the enormous attraction of it. I'm so happy that I've been there and that I know about these things firsthand."
But even when in a career you find very rewarding, "every now and then there are extremely difficult moments," he admits. In 1992, MacCallum left the familiarity of East Asia in his briny wake as he headed for Africa's easternmost mainland country, Somalia.A "Politically Capsized Country"
As part of a United Nations task force sent to re-evaluate how the U.N. office functioned in that country, MacCallum spent just two weeks in Somalia, but it stands out in his memory as one of the strangest places he's ever been.
"Even though I'd been in Vietnam during the war and I'd been through terrorist scenarios in a couple of posts, I've never had anything quite as bizarre as Somalia," he recalls. The difficult task of the United Nations was to fit this politically capsized country into some sort of normal administrative framework.
As a diplomat trained in protocol and procedure, it didn't take long to recognize how different Somalia was from his usual beat. "You get off the plane and no officials are standing around; there's no Immigration; there's no Customs-because there's no government."
That symbolic discomfort soon turned literal. "You've got teenagers wandering around consuming narcotics and carrying automatic weapons. The only security is the people and the guns that you have in your vehicle."
The media often present an incomplete picture of a nation or situation. Reading through headlines, one might infer that war-ravaged countries contain no friendly or safe zones whatsoever. According to MacCallum, this is not usually the case.
"When I was in Vietnam, when I was in the Philippines, I knew there were certain things you shouldn't do," MacCallum recalls. "There were certain things that would be stupid and dangerous. But I didn't feel personally threatened on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. Somalia was the only place on Earth I've ever been that really was as bad as it looked on CNN."
Since then, he hasn't stopped or even slowed. His recent posts have included Hong Kong, where he and his staff had much planning to do regarding Great Britain's relinquishing of control to mainland China. Most recently, he spent several months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Taming "the two-headed obligation"
In addition to new locations, recent changes in the State Department brought MacCallum a new boss-Madeleine Albright. About Madame Secretary, he has nothing but praise.
"Secretary Albright has been absolutely marvelous for the Department. She has the gift for stating foreign policy goals and achievements in terms that make them relevant to the American people, MacCallum explains. "She has dramatically improved the State Department and the role of foreign affairs with the Congress and in the American public eye." In MacCallum's eyes, she helps tame the two-headed obligation of his organization. "It isn't enough to do good foreign policy. Since we're a democracy, we need to inform the American people what we're doing, why we're doing it, why we think it's right; she has a real gift for doing that."
With the soul of an electron, MacCallum seems unlikely to have stayed put in Crawfordsville for four solid years. He credits several of his professors with keeping him interested. George Lipsky first whetted his appetite for international relations; Wendell Caulkins, his appetite for Asia; Phil Wilder, his appetite for rigorous analysis; and Tom Cole, his appetite for a cold beer. With a deep laugh, he explains: "I spent a lot of time with him at Carl's."