Shirley Temple Black: A Natural Diplomat



No matter how strongly I’ve railed in these pages about unqualified political appointments as U.S. chiefs of mission, I want to add a footnote now to cover the unique case of Shirley Temple Black. What an ornament she was for U.S. diplomacy!

My first acquaintance with her was at the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, when she served as a public delegate with the rank of ambassador. I remember one full staff meeting when Ambassador Charles Yost, taking pride in his team of expert advisers, called for a kind of show-and-tell on the Chinese question for the benefit of the public delegates.

The question came up annually whether to admit the People’s Republic of China to the U.N. to replace the exiled Chinese Nationalist government on Taiwan. Wedded to keeping the Chinese seat on the Security Council out of communist hands, the U.S. tactic was to have the issue declared an “important question” by a simple majority vote, which would then mean that the PRC could only be admitted by a two-thirds majority vote.

Shirley Temple Black listened raptly as the designated contact officers ticked off reports. An African country was succumbing to Chinese offers of long-term trade deals and might defect on the “important question” vote. A European neutral had a socialist government sympathetic to China’s aspirations, and might vote for admission, but wouldn’t go so far as to offend the U.S. with a “no” on the “important question” vote, etc.

Summing up, Amb. Yost said it looked like we might get through another year (it turned out to be nearly the last one) of manipulating the General Assembly to avoid seating Beijing. He turned to the public delegates for comment.

Amb. Black showed no hesitation. “That was absolutely fascinating,” she said. “Now I understand how we are keeping Communist China out of the U.N. Would someone please explain to me why?”

The group looked to Amb. Yost, and you could see the ripple cross his face. Even at the U.N., he was more accustomed to carrying out orders from Washington than defending the strategy behind them. The delegates listened politely as Yost did his best to put U.S. policy in the global context.

Despite her refreshing candor in delegation meetings, Amb. Black found the U.N. sessions more awesome than one might have expected. During a plenary, Amb. Yost and his deputy had to leave the chamber for consultations, and a page came to tell us that the U.S. was due to speak in 10 minutes. Mrs. Black was the only accredited U.S. representative present to deliver the prepared text.

“I can’t possibly do that,” she said, seizing my hand. How ironic, I thought, to be holding the hand of America’s best-known actress as she fidgeted with stage fright. Happily, one of the principals reappeared, and she didn’t have to make the fearsome trip to the podium.

Mrs. Black’s U.N. experience was only the beginning of a 20-year span of public service. She soon learned her way around government as chief of protocol in the Nixon administration, and impressed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with her intelligence and discipline.

Before long she was training chiefs of mission and their wives in the ambassadorial seminar. Her assignment as President Gerald Ford’s ambassador in Ghana followed and, later, she was chosen by President George H.W. Bush as ambassador to pre-partition Czechoslovakia.

When my predecessor as AFSA president, Perry Shankle, made an inspection visit to Prague, he was impressed with her enthusiasm for on-the-scene reporting. She had taken a short-term apartment rental on Wenceslas Square, where she could witness the “Velvet Revolution” as it unfolded.

After hearing Perry’s report, I decided it was high time to invite Mrs. Black to join the professional association representing U.S. diplomats. I wrote to her, and was delighted when she replied: “Your letter has won me over.”

It seems that Shirley Temple Black felt at home in the Foreign Service. Not only does her website claim that she was the “first-ever honorary Foreign Service officer,” but she was quoted in one obituary (Pittsburgh Gazette, Feb. 11) as having reminisced: “If I had had my druthers, I’d have joined the Foreign Service when I was 20.”

In his 35 years in the Foreign Service, Ted Wilkinson alternated between assignments in Europe and Latin America and missions to represent the United States in international organizations. President of the American Foreign Service Association from 1989 to 1991, he served as chairman of the Foreign Service Journal Editorial Board from 2005 to 2011.