Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Donald McConville
McCONVILLE: Jack Vaughn, Jack Hood Vaughn. He'd been an AID worker actually, an AID employee, a mid-level AID employee, and then I think on a tour of Africa or something. Then Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers, who was with him, had been very impressed by this young fellow they had met in Africa, and when Moyers headed the Peace Corps, he made Jack Vaughn an assistant director for Latin America or something or other, and that led to his appointment as ambassador when Johnson got to be President and so forth. But in any event, that was a totally different period then, because by this time, when we restored diplomatic relations, virtually the entire staff of the embassy had turned over because of this whole process except for a few of us who had been there running the consulate. So we had an almost entirely new group of people in the embassy, a different period entirely. After relations were restored, I was assigned then to complete my rotation in the economic section. As it happened, just as I got in the economic section, the economic officer - it was the economic counselor, economic officer and commercial officer - the economic officer left. So I was given that job, full-time economic officer job. As it just happened, the man who was the economic counselor had a little different background than most Foreign Service Officers. He'd grown up in Nicaragua. His parents were Americans who had grown up in Nicaragua, actually in a coffee plantation there or something like that. He had started working with the American embassy in Nicaragua as a local hire American, and eventually was brought into the Foreign Service. In fact, a number of people, almost all the counselors at that time, everyone between sort of the middle-grade Foreign Service Officers and the DCM were people who had been Wristonized, as they called it at the time, people who had been staff people who had been converted to Foreign Service Officers under the Wriston Program. In any event, one peculiarity about this guy, because he had this coffee plantation - his whole family still owned it in Nicaragua - every year at a certain time he would take three or four weeks leave and go up and oversee the harvests or something up there in Nicaragua of the coffee. I had hardly started in the economic section when he was off on his three or four weeks, and one of our big tasks at the time was to do the economic trends. There used to be the six-month economic reports put out by the Department of Commerce but provided by the economic section of the U.S. embassy. This was, of course, a particularly critical time because they had had this break in diplomatic relations, riots, and so forth, so there was a great deal of interest by those who were interested in the economy of Panama and what sort of effect all of this had on the economy of Panama. They had no economic training of any consequence at all. Now, you could in Panama, because of the fact that it was a very small place, you could go around and speak to a lot of people, interview a lot of people, and get a lot of information. So I started calling people up and going around seeing people, and found doors opened very easily, talked to a lot of people in the business community and various other places, and I wrote an assessment of the Panamanian economy and the impact. Essentially my conclusion was that, while the economy had flattened out, there hadn't been any serious downturn, and they'd probably ride this out fairly well as long as confidence would come back before too long. This economic counselor came back from his three or four weeks in Nicaragua. The thing was due in a few days. He looked at it, made two or three word changes, and that was it, off it went. Some weeks later there was a headline in the Panamanian newspapers, “US Says Panamanian Economy Okay” or something like this, and it's quoting from this Department of Commerce publication, and here this was all my work, this guy who had had no real economic training. Every word of it was mine. In fact, it proved to be pretty accurate as time wore on. It was a pretty good assessment. As I say, I did like writing and I wrote pretty well, so that part of it came to me pretty easily. I could write the reports well, and I did really enjoy that experience of going out and interviewing a great number of people. It was like a lot of journalistic work in many ways. But my experience in the economic section in Panama persuaded me that I really enjoyed the economic side of economic relations more than the political, just the fact that it's a little more concrete and it just attracted me. In fact, the inspectors came and we had an inspection. At that time they used to write individual reports on each one of you, and I told the inspectors I had pretty much decided I wanted to emphasize economic work. There were some other episodes in Panama. It seemed like every time I was on duty - it was a joke in the embassy - something major would occur. As I say, my first tour as a duty officer had been the week the riots broke out. There was a subsequent time there was an election in Panama, and a fellow named Marco Robles had succeeded as president. He was from the established party. But there had been a fellow who had been sort of a rogue in Panamanian politics for a long period of time named Arias. He'd actually been president briefly during the Second World War and showed sympathies with the fascists, the Nazis and so forth, and quickly there had been a coup that overturned him. He'd only lasted a few weeks or something like. He'd been banned from running for a number of years but had just recently been allowed to run again, and here he was campaigning again and he did very well. He kept insisting that in fact the election had been stolen from him. Our own evidence was that that wasn't true, but he had persuaded a number of people of that. So there were a number of his activists who were starting to throw some bombs around and stir up trouble of different kinds. This particular weekend, again, when I was duty officer - it also happened to be right at the same time as the episode in the Dominican Republic where the U.S. intervened and we had the Marines and the 82nd Airborne in the Dominican Republic - there was a major effort made by the United States to get the OAS to approve our intervention in the Dominican Republic. Averell Harriman was sent out by President Johnson to visit these Latin American countries. He visited 14 countries in six days or something like that. I had just gotten home for supper and suddenly the phone rings and it's somebody saying that there had been some communication from a plane coming up from Colombia or something or other, a military craft of some kind, Averell Harriman was on it, and he'd already been in communication with the charg�. By that time, Ambassador Vaughn had gone off to be suddenly pulled out to be Assistant Secretary for East Asia, and Rufus Smith again was the charg� at that point. Harriman had suddenly decided at the last moment that he wanted to stop in Panama. He was supposed to come there on a military aircraft to Albrook Air Force Base, I guess it was, but he decided he wanted to call on the president of Panama and also seek to persuade him to support it. This is again what struck me: Rufus Smith managed to arrange inside of a few hours for an appointment with the president of Panama for Harriman, who was landing out at the airport and was going to be there for relatively few hours but was going to switch in Panama to commercial aircraft and leave sometime in the early morning hours going back to Washington. In any event, I was being asked to come back down to the embassy because they wanted me to be on hand while this was taking place. There was one group going to meet him at the airport and another group doing something else, and I was supposed to be the person in between and be at the embassy and be able to communicate with both groups. While this was happening, the new ambassador was arriving - well, I think the new ambassador's arrival was a little bit separate. In any event, Harriman did come, and Rufus Smith did manage to arrange a call on the president and set up that appointment within a few hours of getting the instruction. There was that call made, and then I remember being at the embassy. Smith came back and said that Harriman was leaving on a commercial flight about four o'clock in the morning and that he had insisted that Smith not come out the airport to see him off, but Smith felt somebody from the embassy ought to be there, and since I was the duty officer, I was it. So I went home with an hour's sleep or something and was then back out to the airport to see Harriman off. The plane was delayed for about a half hour and we ended up spending a half hour or so there at the airport, a half hour or 45 minutes. It was just Harriman, myself, and one of his aides. I'd brought some cables for him from the embassy that had come in at the time, and he was reading these cables with this aide. It was probably a half hour or 45 minutes, but sitting there with Averell Harriman, and he was ruminating about his visit down in Latin American and about the fact of what was happening in the Dominican Republic. I don't remember how old he looked at the time, but he was already probably 78 or something like. The guy had hit 14 countries in six days or something like that. I still remember that half hour, 45 minutes or so, to sit there and listen to Harriman rumble on. It was quite an experience.