Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Donald McConville
The Carter administration had brought into the State Department a number of relatively young people who had been sort of outsiders in the Democratic party foreign affairs community who had backed Carter, and when he won the nomination and then subsequently was elected President, many of these people were rewarded by significant positions in the State Department. One of them was Richard Holbrooke, who was 35 years old, as an Assistant Secretary for East Asia. Now, Holbrooke had actually been a junior Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam before he left the Foreign Service, but now he reappeared as the Assistant Secretary. One of the things Holbrooke believed in was the importance of the economic side of things. Holbrooke attached a lot of importance to the economic dimension of our foreign relations in East Asia, and as far as his approach to this, he had backed the idea of significantly strengthening the Regional Economic Office in the East Asia Bureau. They had picked a guy named Erland Higginbotham as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs, and then this Regional Economic Office was expanded from four officers to seven officers, and I was one of the people that joined at that time. The model was supposed to be sort of the Regional Economic Office in the European Bureau, which had considerable stature within the Department. Now, there, of course, you had the European Economic Community so there had been a body for the regional office to work with. There wasn't such an entity in East Asia, but, in any event, you still had economic officers on the bilateral desk, but more of the economic policy was centralized in the regional economic, although there was a little tension on this, but we had pretty strong backing from Holbrook. In the role that I played there, there were two dimensions. I was responsible for the trade issues, and of course there I now brought my background from Korea, and textiles among other things were very important all throughout that region. The other dimension was ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which had been in existence since the mid-'60s but had been until about 1975 sort of a moribund body. But the Southeast Asian nations, in about 1975, had amongst themselves had decided to make the ASEAN organization a much more significant organization, primarily putting emphasis on their economic relations, and they were going to develop tariff preferences amongst themselves and various other economic schemes not to go so far as the European Community had but to begin to move in that direction, building some sort of a unified economic entity in Southeast Asia. Well, from the U.S. perspective this was interesting because it was a way that we could relate now to post-Vietnam Southeast Asia. There was both a political and an economic dimension, but the economic dimension was the most important at the time because the ASEAN nations themselves wanted to portray this largely as an economic organization rather than a political union of some sort. Even though the presidents would meet annually and so forth, the emphasis was still on their economic ties to each other. So the second part, the other part, of my role in the Regional Economic Office was this economic relationship with ASEAN, which was concentrated particularly in two major meetings, the first of which was the first U.S.-ASEAN meeting. It was a ministerial-level meeting, and that first one was held in the Philippines. Our office, and myself in particular, had a very major role in preparing the U.S. for this, but it was something that Holbrooke was going to represent the U.S. in. We didn't get ministerial level. They had some ministers involved; we didn't going to ASEAN. But they were generally very well disposed towards getting this kind of recognition from the United States. It was beginning a process in which ASEAN was beginning to meet with foreign countries collectively, and they wanted to expand this and were particularly pleased to get this sort of role with the United States. Then the following year we had the first U.S.-ASEAN economic ministerial in the United States, and for that we were able to get five U.S. cabinet officers involved, and the ASEAN people all brought a significant number of ministers from their side. That went off exceedingly well. Again, I was one of the key staff people involved in organizing all of this, and it was, again, a very educational experience in getting involved and seeing it firsthand. As I say, there were five U.S. cabinet officers; in addition to the Secretary of State, it was Commerce, Treasury, maybe Labor, and Defense, I think, was involved - no, where was James Schlesinger at that time? Energy, I believe it was; he wouldn't have been Defense at that time; it was Energy. It was hailed by both sides as being a very, very successful meeting, more for its atmosphere and its sort of significance than any really dramatic accomplishments, although we did then under this sort of impetus, develop a modest, very modest, regional AID program with ASEAN where they came up with some ASEAN projects that were funded by AID. This was another role that I also played in that Regional Economic Office. I did a great deal of liaison with AID for the AID programs throughout East Asia, particularly where they involved more than one country. It was, again, a good experience, and I grew a lot in it. I did my two-year assignment, and then I was on a four-year assignment to Washington, so I was to be reassigned again for the second two years.