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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,220

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This is the grave of Ellsworth Bunker.

Born in 1894 in Yonkers, New York, Bunker grew up in the super elite. The family went back in New York forever and his father was a co-founder of National Sugar Refining Company. So this was big money. And that meant all the schools and all the other elite stuff. He went to Yale, graduated in 1916, went into the law, all that stuff.

Daddy took care of Bunker early on, hiring him into the legal team at National Sugar. Bunker rose in that company and eventually became president. The nation is a meritocracy after all. So if it wasn’t for a late career shift, Bunker would be not really remembered, just another rich capitalist who did all the bad things rich capitalists do but who didn’t really stand out in any way.

And then Bunker decided to become a Cold Warrior. He left National Sugar in 1951 when Harry Truman named him to be ambassador to Argentina. This in itself wasn’t that notable. Lots of rich supporters are given sweet positions to be ambassadors here and there. Argentina wasn’t quite the Court of St. James or Paris, but it was still a good position to a country that was deemed increasingly important to American interests in the Cold War. It was far enough away that the U.S. had mostly left it alone during its early twentieth century colonialist exploits, but now it was way too big and had too powerful an economy to be left to the communists, if there were any down there and there were. Moreover, this was a somewhat sensitive assignment, as Juan Peron was no fan of the United States and his populist movement had significant anti-American vibes, as did so many of those movements in the 1950s. But Peron and Bunker got along pretty well.

In any case, Bunker rose very fast in the Cold War diplomacy world. He only was in Buenos Aires for a few months when Truman bumped him to be ambassador to Italy, which really was a top rank post. When Eisenhower took the presidency, Bunker of course was out and he became president of the American Red Cross in 1953. But in 1956, he again became useful to Cold War foreign policy. Eisenhower named him ambassador to India and Nepal. These were sensitive places. India was one of the most important non-aligned nations, Nepal bordered China, and of course China had become a communist nation in 1949. The fate of India could not be more important to American policymakers and Bunker became the centerpiece of that. A fanatical anti-communist, Bunker was critical to moving Indian more into the American orbit. India wasn’t that concerned with the Soviets, but it most certainly was concerned about its gigantic Chinese neighbor. So the U.S. and India moved closer in these years.

This made Bunker one of America’s biggest experts on Asia at the very same time, the U.S. was upping its assistance to the corrupt government of South Vietnam. America’s determination to support an unpopular and inept government in the face of a civil war was one of the worst thought out foreign policy moves in the nation’s long and disturbing history. He returned to the U.S. in 1961 when Kennedy took office and helped work out the New York Agreement between the Dutch and Papua New Guinea to set the border.

Bunker was hardly done with diplomacy. He became ambassador to the Organization of American States in 1964 and stayed there until 1966. While there, he was the American point person after the unjust invasion of the Dominican Republic to overthrow the democratically elected Juan Bosch and ended up in the loathsome Joaquin Balaguer becoming the new dictator. Then….LBJ named Bunker ambassador to South Vietnam. It’s hard to call Bunker’s performance here as anything but disastrous. He was a constant promoter of the war. There was nothing he wouldn’t approve of. That included illegal bombings of Laos and Cambodia. As Nixon kept him on (Vietnam was nothing if not a bipartisan war), that included Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Bunker was the front man on dealing with the South Vietnamese government and while no one probably could have saved this hopelessly corrupt and self-serving set of elite military officers who had no connection with their own people, Bunker certainly didn’t do better than anyone else could have done. Napalm? Gold! Torture? Sure! Extrajudicial executions? Why not! Even after the Vietnam disaster, his reputation was untouched and he was the point person on the Torrijos-Carter Treaties that returned the Panama Canal.

To be clear on how beloved Bunker was by the foreign policy establishment, he was the first person to ever receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice, given to him by both Kennedy and Johnson. Colin Powell has since become the second person. To be fair to him, as much I think his legacy was pretty bad, the reason he was beloved by presidents from Truman to Nixon is that he was utterly unflappable in a crisis, even of the most severe order. So there’s value in that for a diplomat. But at the same time, he was constantly pushing the idea that things were actually going to be OK in Vietnam, that Van Thieu was a capable leader, that just a few more troops and……Yeah. There was nothing thhat was going to happen in Vietnam that Bunker wasn’t going to support. He was a classic Cold War hawk, the kind of guy who was capable in his way except for considering that maybe the U.S. wasn’t in the right all the time and maybe it’s decisions were disastrous. That he could not conceive and that was the downfall of many policy makers, however well meaning some of them were. He wasn’t completely stupid or anything. He notably said after the U.S. pullback in 1973 that the only real difference was “the color of the bodies.” Which, I mean, true enough, but why did 58,000 Americans die in this civil war again?

In the end, this was a Great Power Man. He stated, after his Vietnam time:

”During my entire stay there, I had to remember that what we did involved our reputation as a great power internationally. We had to persuade the Vietnamese to do for themselves. The object of our diplomacy there, as elsewhere, was the quite proper one of not winning arguments but achieving goals.”

And we failed miserably in that.

After all this, he retired to his lovely Vermont farm, perfect for thinking about the disaster he helped create in Vietnam. There he died, in 1984. He was 90 years old.

Ellsworth Bunker is buried in Dummerston Center Cemetery, Dummerston Center, Vermont.

There is a surprising lack of napalm around Bunker’s grave.

If you would like this series to visit other architects of the Vietnam War you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Maxwell Taylor is in Arlington, as is Clark Clifford. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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