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Cold War journalist, diplomat and historian, key figure in the Panama Canal treaty negotiations
William J. Jorden, 1923-2009
by Eric Jackson
He was one of John F. Kennedy's "best and brightest," a Pulitizer-winning foreign policy writer recruited into the US State Department in 1961. He served Democratic and Republican presidents at a time when there was something left of the bipartisan consensus that "politics ends at the water's edge," in an era when decolonization was the main trend sweeping through the Third World, in that period just before the Republicans began to embrace the ideas that serious diplomacy and international law lie somewhere on a spectrum between wimpish idealism and treason. He was one of Johnson's top State Department people on the scene during the Vietnam war, served on Nixon's National Security Council, and was Carter's holdover ambassador to Panama during the talks that led to the end of the old Canal Zone. He was the ghost writer of Lyndon B. Johnson's memoirs and the author of one of a small group of books that's indispensable for English-language readers who would truly understand Panama.
Now William J. Jorden is a subject for history. He died on February 20, of lung cancer at a nursing home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was 85 years old. Jorden was survived by his wife, Mildred Xiarhos Jorden; three adult children from a prior marriage, W. Temple Jorden, Eleanor Haller-Jorden and M. Telva Jorden; and six grandchildren.
Having studied Japanese at the University of Michigan and Yale and served in the US Army in World War II, Jorden returned to his studies after the war and got his degree from Yale and then a master's in journalism from Columbia. Starting out as a reporter with the Vineyard Gazette in Edgartown, Massachusetts, Jorden moved up to the old New York Herald Tribune and in 1952 joined the staff of the New York Times.
In 1958 he was the head of the Times Moscow bureau that collectively won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. He was in Russia for the late 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, and thus the accompanying rise of the intercontinental ballistic missile threat that changed the dynamic of the Cold War. Although John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign allegation of a "missile gap" by which the United States trailed the Soviet Union turned out in hindsight to be an exaggeration that should be attributed to Kennedy alone, the New York Times Moscow bureau's reports on the early Soviet lead in the "space race" lent credibility to that claim.
Kennedy hired Jorden away from the world of journalism, in which he had moved on to Washington to become chief Times diplomatic correspondent, and appointed him to the State Department Policy Planning Council and then as special assistant to Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs W. Averell Harriman.
Jorden, who had worked as a journalist in Japan and Korea in the waning days of the Korean War, became Harriman's Southeast Asia specialist as the United States became ever more deeply entangled in the Vietnam War. As such he became one of the policy architects who populated David Halberstam's award winning history, "The Best and the Brightest."
In Vietnam Jorden became something of a prototype for that stream of Democratic liberalism which held that the basic concept of "defending South Vietnam from communism" was neither unwise nor immoral per se, but that many of the assumptions made and policies adopted in pursuit of that goal were erroneous. He advised Kennedy against linking his Vietnam policy too closely with any individual or administration --- in this case Ngo Dinh Diem, but later taking a similar position with respect to Nguyen Van Thieu. In the discussions leading up to Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in 1965, he was skeptical about Defense Department claims that a quick military victory was possible. Jorden saw the pre-Tet Offensive Vietnam War as essentially a civil war in a peasant society rather than a matter of one country being invaded by another, and thus urged a different set of military and political tactics from those that were adopted.
Promoted to the National Security Council, Jorden became a member of the first US delegation to the prolonged Paris peace talks. He left that post for a time to help by that time former President Johnson write his book of memoirs, "The Vantage Point."
In 1972 Henry Kissinger asked Jorden to rejoin the National Security Council as its Latin America specialist, which he did. Some day diplomatic archives will be made public and historians will be able to assess Jorden's role in the September 11, 1973 right-wing coup and ensuing reign of death squad terror in Chile. Kissinger's ability to travel in the world is limited not only by his age, but because he is a wanted man over allegations of crimes against humanity with respect to those events. As one of the Nixon administration's top Latin America specialists at the time Jorden surely was involved.
One of Richard Nixon's last official acts in 1974 was to appoint Jorden as US ambassador to Panama. Despite the ordinary three-year rotation in State Department diplomatic postings here, Jorden was held over by the Ford and Carter administrations and served about four years in Panama. These were the years when US-Panamanian negotiations toward a new agreement to replace the 1903 Hay - Bunau-Varilla Treaty were renewed in earnest. The talks had commenced soon after the January 1964 events known to Panamanians as The Day of The Martyrs and in US government annals as The Flag Riots but had gone through fits and starts as administrations changed in Washington and Panama. The result of the negotiating process was the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties. One of these concerned the transfer of the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone to Panamanian ownership over a 22-year period and ran its course to a December 31, 1999 termination. The other was an open-ended agreement about the canal's neutrality, the right of US naval vessels to move to the head of the line for canal transits, and joint defense of the waterway that included certain ill-defined American rights of military intervention.
After his service in Panama, there was a sea change in Washington best exemplified by the election of Ronald Reagan, a stern critic of the Panama Canal Treaties, as president of the United States in 1980. Within the Republican Party the hard-nosed "realpolitik" foreign policy ideas best exemplified by Henry Kissinger's thinking were progressively eclipsed by the highly ideological "neo-conservative" attitudes promoted by the likes of Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams. While there was no mass purge of State Department career employees and thus certain out-of-fashion ideas lived on in American diplomatic missions around the world, when the Republicans were in office there was no longer any room in key leadership positions for the bipartisan foreign policy concepts under which Jorden had operated for all of his diplomatic career.
Jorden was approaching retirement age as this sea change was brewing, and he took the opportunity to leave the world of diplomacy and resume his writing. He wrote on a number of foreign policy subjects, but one book in particular stands out as his masterpiece.
Published in 1984, "Panama Odyssey" is Jorden's account, much of it first-hand, of the negotiations and political maneuvering that led to the Panama Canal Treaties. It's a long book, which has been criticized by some for containing too many anecdotes and vignettes from his times in Panama. However, the critics who said that are or were generally unfamiliar with Panama and generally inattentive to the paucity of scholarly writings about Panama that are available in the English language. The diplomat's-eye glimpses of Panama and some of its leading characters of the time are actually one of the strengths of Jorden's book, one of the things that places it among a few indispensable volumes for those who would understand Panama under the dictatorship.
(The other indispensable volumes, each with its strengths and flaws? In this reporter's estimation they are Dinges's "Our Man in Panama," Koster and Sánchez Borbon's "In the Time of the Tyrants," and Greene's "Getting to Know the General." For those who also read Spanish there are a number of important works from various points of view, including for starters the Moscoso administration's Truth Commission report, Loteria magazine's two-volume "Torrijos: figura - tiempo - faena" anthology and former Christian Democrat politician / current hotelier and environmentalist Raul Arias's "Así Fue el Fraude." Read all of the books mentioned in this paragraph plus "Panama Odyssey" and your education in Panama will be far from complete, but you will pretty much understand the roots of today's PRD and know most of its playbook.)
Let us recognize, however, that the things that Jorden decided to exclude from "Panama Odyssey," as well as the things that he decided to include, say much about the man and his times. During the treaty negotiations and the effort to win ratification by the United States, it was the State Department and US Embassy line that the more than 100 disappearances or murders of various adversaries of the military dictatorship never happened. We now know that the US Southern Command headquarters in Quarry Heights had specific detailed knowledge of all of this as it was going on, and although the State Department record is mostly unavailable to the public we know from bits and pieces that the American Embassy here surely knew the nature of General Omar Torrijos's regime. Most of the plainclothes kidnappings, abuses at clandestine torture facilities and extrajudicial executions were over by the time that Jorden came to Panama, but to the extent that you really don't get the impression that he was dealing with murderous thugs in his mission here it's a matter of Cold War diplomatic hypocrisy seeping over into his work as journalist and historian.
A number of the US political figures associated with the passage of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties have kept up their ties with Panama, and some of them more or less add up to an influential pro-PRD faction within the Democratic Party. However, if Jorden kept up ties with Panama after his service here, he did so very privately. It seems to have been part of his philosophy that diplomats should deal with whatever crook, tyrant or nice guy whom they must, making all of the proper diplomatic gestures, but should never become too attached.
To the PRD cheering section within the Democratic Party, "Panama Odyssey" may be an appropriately "fair and balanced" look at a critical juncture of US-Panamanian relations. But now the Cold War is a memory from a past century and we have a Democratic president who knew not Torrijos. Let the works of William J. Jorden take their honored place in the record, but let us have a record that's substantially more extensive and diverse than this one man's monumental contribution.
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2009 by Eric Jackson