The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2006

A Rich Life Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace Edward J. Perkins with Connie Cronley, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, $39.95, hardcover, 560 pages. R EVIEWED BY H ERMAN J. C OHEN One of the most visible and inspira- tional icons of the Foreign Service during the 1980s, Ambassador Ed- ward J. Perkins, has published his memoirs 10 years after his retirement from government. Had Mr. Ambass- ador: Warrior for Peace only recalled his 24-year diplomatic career, it would be well worth reading. But as a bonus, it gives us a total picture of his life. And what a fantastic life it has been! Kudos to the University of Oklahoma Press for giving Perkins the room to tell his entire story, from boyhood to his current position as professor of international relations at U.O. The future ambassador was an underprivileged child raised on a cot- ton farm in rural Louisiana, in the midst of total segregation and racial discrimination. But with much love from his mother and grandmother to sustain him, and his own steely deter- mination, he was able to overcome all obstacles. These early years constitute a motivational story that should be made available to high school stu- dents, especially those in underprivi- leged circumstances who need to know that hard work and determina- tion can pay dividends. Separate periods of service in the Army and the Marine Corps gave Perkins opportunities to work in Korea and Japan. Persuaded that he was destined for a career in foreign affairs, he took advantage of every free minute to learn about the cultures sur- rounding him. After discharge, he remained in the Far East as a civilian with the Military Exchange Service; that organization assigned him to Taiwan, where he met and married his life partner, Lucy Cheng-mei Liu. Those of us who have worked with him know that she played a major role in his success as an anchor, muse and excellent representative of the United States in her own right. From Taiwan, Perkins signed on with USAID as a reserve officer in Bangkok. This was his stepping stone to full Foreign Service status, which he achieved in 1972 at the age of 44. During early assignments in West Africa, Perkins witnessed revolutions, coups and instability in Ghana and Liberia. It was a period during which much of Africa was trying to find itself. Perkins learned quickly how difficult it would be for the United States to bring solutions from the outside. By far the most exciting section in the book centers on Perkins’ experi- ence as the first African-American to serve as U.S. ambassador to the apartheid-era Republic of South Africa, from 1986 to 1989. President Reagan gave Perkins instructions to “shake things up” down there. And that is just what he did, using his posi- tion to go everywhere and see every- one. Through his very presence as a strong, articulate, unflappable black man, Perkins gave hope to South African people of color that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. As for the white power structure, he not only administered a dose of reality about the inevitable demise of the apartheid system, but offered reassurance that the transition could be peaceful and would benefit all South Africans. The controlled implosion of apartheid, leading to the advent of majority rule in 1994, came largely from within, but Perkins played a major role in the crit- ical push from without during his three years there. Perkins continued to move upward, serving as director general of the Foreign Service, then permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations, ambassador to Liberia and, finally, to Australia. In chapters devot- ed to these assignments, Perkins demonstrates his willingness to inno- vate, his ability to push the envelope and his courage in telling it like it is to all levels, above and below. I was par- ticularly struck by Perkins’ willingness B OOKS J U LY- A U G U S T 2 0 0 6 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 49 Reagan gave Perkins instructions to “shake things up” as the first black ambassador to South Africa. And that is just what he did.