Platt, Nicholas - Oral History Interview
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What originally brought Amb. Platt to SAIS was Paul Nitze. His son was Platt’s classmate in college. Platt went to Paul Nitze for advice on how to get into the Foreign Service and was told to go straight into the Foreign Service if he could get in….as the Foreign Service would train him directly. He said to come back and talk with him if he did not get in. So, Platt took the Foreign Service exam in the spring of his senior year at Harvard and did not pass….so he went to see Paul Nitze, who arranged a meeting for Platt at SAIS. That is how Platt got acquainted with SAIS and he did attend. He and his wife (he had recently married) moved to Georgetown and Platt came to SAIS everyday for two years. Occasionally, Platt would go out to Paul Nitze’s farm on the weekend – their families had become very close. While at Harvard, Platt did a summer in London as a volunteer, which brought him overseas, representing the U.S. point-of-view in a completely different culture (the Jewish cockney culture in the east end of London). He came back his junior year, thinking that the Foreign Service was going to be for him….he took German that year and thought he would be a Europeanist. He took the first Foreign Service exam and passed the ‘writtens’ – the ‘orals’ were a bit more of a challenge….and they wanted to find reasons for him to come back. One year later, he had enrolled at SAIS, worked at brokerage house to get practical experience in economics, was married and had a child and then passed the ‘orals’ portion of the exam. His chance to get into the Foreign Service then coincided with the very end of his SAIS career….in April of 1959, he received his call from the Foreign Service. In June of 1959, he left for boot camp at the Foreign Service (at Arlington Towers). While at SAIS, he has many memories. Platt recalls SAIS being much smaller in those days. There were 75 students and the limitation was dictated by the capacity of the two old houses next to each other on Florida Avenue….it was old and rickety and friendly. Because the library space was limited, the focus at the school was really on how one could do live research with government officials and Foreign Policy practitioners….and one was graded on interviews had with significant people who understood the Foreign Policy process (and this got SAIS students running around town meeting with such people). Platt was one of Roger Hillsman’s (Head of Intelligence and Research and later East Asian Affairs) research assistance. He recalls other extraordinarily striking professors. One was Paul Linebarger who taught “Psychological Warfares” and took his students out to have Chinese meals. Another was Professor Tucker who did all of the lectures on Europe. Platt recalls Tucker’s climactic last lecture on the end of WWII, on a spring afternoon….and as he came to the end of the class and series, the ceiling fell down….one of the students had to be carted off….it was as striking moment. He also recalls Hans Morgenthau who came in to give lectures. Later, Platt recalls himself also coming back to SAIS and teaching a course on “Internal Chinese Politics.” Platt also remembers that Paul Nitze was a force and that Washington, D.C. itself was a wonderful and educational place to be at the time. At the A-100 course, Platt learned of his first assignment in the Foreign Service…..Ontario, Canada. For him at the time, this was disappointing as it was contrary to his plans to be kind of a cold warrior in Europe. The idea of going to Windsor Ontario, due south of Detroit to issue visas was a subject of hilarity to his colleagues. In retrospect, Platt feels that it was a beneficial assignment as it taught him an important truth about working in the government: “people in the personnel department of the government, do not care about what you already know….and the only way to add a rudder to your career is to convince them to train you in something that’s really interesting and really expensive.” Later in 1959, Platt ran into a person he knew at Harvard who had been in the Foreign Service for several years and who had been studying Chinese. This interested Platt who wondered, at the time, what real opportunities were available in that part of the world. He started looking into it and before leaving for Windsor Ontario, went to the State Department stating his interest in that part of the world. After his two years in Ontario, the training group allowed Platt to start taking Chinese. Both he and his wife were anxious to do this. He took the Chinese language training for a year in Washington and then a year in Taiwan (and his wife took some classes at her expense) and when he came out of the training in 1963, they went to Hong Kong as a China analyst for domestic affairs. He was excited to learn about this strange country with whom the U.S. had no relationship. As luck had it, the Cultural Revolution broke out at the end of 1965, at which point Platt was now the senior working-level China analyst in the China mainland section. What was a quiet scholarly job, turned into the main central focus of the whole mainland section. So, Platt started to get very involved in this job and part of the world…and at that time, the focus was all on Sino-Soviet tensions (which became quite severe). In 1969, Richard Nixon was now assuming the Presidency and was pre-disposed to opening China, which led eventually to his historic trip to China. Platt then asked for a higher level position in the State Department and they gave him a position in the Secretary of State’s office. The lucky thing was…when it came time for Nixon to travel to China, the Secretary of State (Rogers) had to go with him, and so they brought Platt along with them (because he spoke Chinese and knew all the issues). This was a big job for Platt. Platt had to leave China early because he ran into a young woman on a bicycle and she died. At the time, Platt thought this would be the end of what was a promising career in China. David Bruce, the Senior Diplomat and head of the liaison office, comforted him and said that when this happens, people tend to leave the country of their own accord. Platt was then put in a position to branch out and do new things. His next posting was in Japan and he and his family and were there for four great years (that is where they met the Armacosts). It was a compelling time for U.S. policy – the loss of the Vietnam War, pulling out of troops in Korea, etc. Platt came out of the Japanese experience a truly qualified Asia hand. Platt knew Richard Holbrook as a young Foreign Service officer, who came to Japan with Mondale in 1977 (first Carter trip overseas). Platt was with Holbrook in a hotel discussing the new Carter appointments, etc. when Holbrook said, just before going to visit the Prime Minister, “Oh my god, I’ve forgotten my pants.” Platt had a suit, roughly his size that he lent to them (and he wore it the whole time he was in Japan). This, indirectly, led to Platt’s next appointment of the Officer in Charge of Japanese Affairs (which was two levels above his pay grade). Next, Platt went to work for Brzezinski for a year and a half. Armacost is then sent back to the U.S. and Platt goes to work for Harold Brown for one year, taking him through the rest of the Carter Administration, four years in which much has happened (particularly with China). When Carter is not re-elected, Platt wondered what his fate would be. The person in charge of the new appointments was Richard Armitage who said that he wanted the job that Platt had wanted, but that he would help Platt find another job (due to his good reputation). Platt then found himself working for Elliot Abrams as his deputy assistant secretary in UN Affairs – this was in New York. Their focus was on Angola and Namibia. Elliot Abrams leaves his position and Platt becomes the acting Secretary, now working directly with Chester Crocker and they had a great time together (trying to muscle the South Africans into leaving Namibia and Angola). From this work, Platt was asked to fill his first Ambassador position as the U.S. Ambassador to Zambia and after two years, Charles Hill called him and asked Platt to be the Executive Secretary and to come to Washington to meet Charles Schultz. This worked out well for Platt who wanted to come back to the U.S. for a time to be with his sister who was dying of cancer. Platt took this position and it was an extremely rigorous schedule (where the only time he saw his wife – other than early in the morning and late at night – was during lunch on Wednesdays). Schultz worked closely with Platt and gave him access to every meeting he attended (which made it easy for Platt to deliver what Schultz needed from him). Together they went through the Iran Contra. When the two years ended, Platt worked to convince George Schultz that his next position should be as Ambassador to the Philippines. So, this was Platt’s next position. He was excited to be the Ambassador to the Philippines…which turned into a very roller coaster four years with coup attempts, volcanic eruptions, other horrible natural and man-made disasters, earthquakes,…there was a huge mission and huge American community and he learned to lead the hard way and make difficult decisions (in large part due to the complete opposite time difference). They negotiated a base agreement (later repudiated by the Filipinos) and worked closely with President Corazon Aquino. Platt’s wife, a psychiatric social worker, travelled around the country with him and helped him work the community at a time when they were under huge stress. Platt was coming to the end of his career and had one more Ambassador-ship left in him and they (Bush Sr. and Jim Baker) said that Platt should go to Pakistan as Ambassador (on the basis that Platt had a good track record for supporting lady heads of government in weak democracies). Platt made three points: 1) He would happily go – after all, it wasn’t often that one person got to serve in South East, North East and South Asia in one career; 2) Supporting lady heads of government in weak democracies is not a Foreign Service skill; and, 3) Benazir Bhutto and Cory Aquino are two totally different people. Platt moved to Islamabad in 1991as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan was coming to an end (and the U.S. had just withdrawn all assistance to Pakistan, saying that it was because they had developed nuclear weapons). After six months, the phone rang, and it was the Board of Trustees of the Asia Society who said that they wanted Platt to come back and be the President of the Asia Society (a job that only comes up every 10 or 12 years). Platt asked them to wait for seven more months and that he would then come back to take that job – and they agreed. Being President of the Asia Society was the perfect retirement job, though it was quite demanding and required much travel. Platt has since written a book called, “China Boys” which he has given to SAIS and which is a ‘how to’ narrative for those interested in the Foreign Service and how enthusiasm and passion and luck can lead to a decent career. Currently, Platt is a consultant. He has a few clients. He goes to China every six months to keep up with ongoing changes. This is his passion. One of his clients is the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is a client that means a lot to both China and the U.S. He also does lectures on China – then and now (often based on his book). He has given this lecture to about 30 different audiences. He is also thinking about writing a new book soon – he has quite a bit in his archives that still needs to be covered. All of this keeps him busy. In terms of advice for current students, he suggests that they first find out what they really like. Then find out whether they are good at it. Both of these are important and he feels that graduate school can be a great place to investigate these questions. As an aside, his wife is a licensed Social Worker and has done work all over the world. She received her graduate degree from Catholic University, during a five year period when they were both living in Washington, D.C.