Opinion

Tom Dillard: Arkansans have often carried U.S. colors abroad with success

A few weeks ago I wrote about 19th century diplomats from Arkansas. It was not a pretty picture, especially the appointment of Solon Borland as America's first minister to Nicaragua in 1853. His huge ego and combative personality resulted in a diplomatic tiff and the use of the U.S. Navy to bombard and destroy a Nicaraguan city, the first instance of "gunboat diplomacy" in American history.

Our modern diplomats might not be as colorful as their predecessors, but they were far more effective in representing our country abroad.

A goodly number of Arkansans have served in the U.S. State Department's diplomatic corps -- too many to be discussed here. My friend James J. Johnston -- after years of serving in embassies and consulates around the world including Mogadishu, Somalia, in the pre-terrorism days -- retired to Fayetteville and became an authority on Searcy County and Ozarks history.

Dumas native Alan Eastham retired to Little Rock after a distinguished diplomatic career, including serving as ambassador to the Republic of Congo. Another friend, Don Baker of Little Rock, joined the State Department after several years teaching at the Arkansas School for Math and Science in Hot Springs and is currently stationed in Washington, D.C.

One Arkansas diplomat who was held in high regard by his colleagues was the late James R. Cheek of Little Rock. He joined the State Department as a Foreign Service officer in 1961 and served in embassies on four continents. He was ambassador to Argentina in the mid-1990s.

Eastham, who was a friend of Cheek, recalled recently in an email that Cheek was known as "a 'character' in the Arkansas sense, [and] a legend among my generation of foreign service officers, and also an excellent diplomat." Cheek was scrupulous in his work, even when his service in Managua, Nicaragua, in 1971-74 brought him into conflict with his boss, the politically appointed ambassador Turner Shelton.

Shelton, who owed his appointment to his friendship with President Nixon's buddy Bebe Rebozo, blindly supported Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Cheek recalled in a post-retirement interview that Ambassador Shelton attempted to censor or stop embassy cables and reports which were in any way critical of Somoza.

"As we would find out about Somoza's corruption and suppression and disappearing people ... that was supposed to be all censored out." But Cheek recalled wryly: "Of course, it was our job to see that it somehow got through [to] Washington."

The Moose family of Morrilton in Conway County produced two important diplomats, cousins James Sayle Moose Jr. and Richard Moose. The extended Moose family seems to have been filled with over-achievers.

The family descended from David Mussgenung, a German immigrant who settled in Philadelphia in 1751. The family name was soon changed to Moose. David's grandson, John Lewis Moose, relocated to Arkansas in 1838, settling at Lewisburg before moving a few miles away and helping establish the town of Morrilton.

James Miles Moose, a Confederate veteran, purchased the old Markham Tavern in Lewisburg, moved it to Morrilton, and turned it into a fine home which is today on the National Register of Historic Places -- and still occupied as far as I know. His son William Lewis Moose was a prominent attorney who was serving as Arkansas attorney general when he died in 1915.

While none were diplomats, Moose women excelled too. Virginia Darden Moose had degrees from Hendrix College and Vanderbilt University. She worked in several posts before becoming chief deputy clerk at the U.S. Federal Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. In 1938, Virginia founded and became the first president of the Arkansas Association of Women Lawyers.

A more recent Moose descendent to gain prominence was Dr. Mary Elizabeth Massey, a University of North Carolina-educated historian whose books on women in Southern history and the Civil War were pioneering efforts to overcome the stereotypical assumption that Southern women were "clinging vines" or "pedestal sitters."

James Sayle Moose Jr., born in Morrilton in 1903, graduated from the University of Missouri at age 18. In 1928 he joined the Foreign Service. He excelled at languages, studying Arabic, Amharic, Turkish and French. Among his early assignments were Greece, Iraq and Iran. In 1943 he became the second U.S. representative posted to Saudi Arabia and the first to live in Jeddah, where he opened the legation.

Moose spent the rest of his career in the Mideast, serving as Charge D'Affair in Baghdad and later Damascus, Syria. In 1952 he became ambassador to Syria, but was kicked out of the country in 1957 following an unsuccessful coup attempt blamed on the CIA. He served the remainder of his tenure as the ambassador to the Sudan.

Richard Menifee Moose, born in Little Rock in February 1932, was an Africa specialist who worked diligently to end the war in what was then known as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and to bring a peaceful end to the minority white rule and apartheid system of segregation in South Africa.

In his post-retirement oral history, Moose recalled the difficulties facing the negotiators, the tense atmosphere, the distrust on both sides, and a bizarre interloper on an evil mission for Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Helms sent an employee to London where the Carter administration diplomats were midwifing a cease-fire and direct peace negotiations. The emissary spread the falsehood among the British representatives that Congress would not approve immediate free elections in Rhodesia.

After serving several more postings Moose was transferred to Washington, where he served in numerous top posts at the State Department. During the final two years of the Lyndon Johnson administration he served on the National Security Council.

Moose left the Department when Nixon came to power, going to work for U.S. Sen. Morris Udall and later, Sen. J.W. Fulbright. He returned to the State Department with the election of President Jimmy Carter, resigned again when Ronald Reagan took power, then after a stint at Lehman Brothers and American Express, returned to State under President Bill Clinton, serving as Under Secretary of State for Management. He resigned in 1996.

Mary Kay Carlson, a Little Rock native and graduate of Rhodes College, Georgetown University, and the National War College, was recently confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email him at [email protected].

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