A Worthy Adversary: Ambassador Terence A. Todman of the inter-American Bureau, 1926-2014

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By Nicholas Birns, Senior Research Fellow at COHA, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, as well as an associate professor of The New School.

Veteran U.S. diplomat amb4Terence Todman passed away on August 13 at the age of 88, three years older than my own inestimable father, Larry Birns, who recently celebrated his 85th birthday. For most of their lives, they did not seem to be known to nurse aspirations to seek housing in each other’s pantheon.  Todman served as an ambassador to several African nations, as well as Argentina and Costa Rica. Todman was held in high esteem within conservative circle of the State Department, but was somewhat of a contentious figure at the time among a number of more liberal Latin Americanists.

Todman held the distinction of being named “Career Ambassador” by State in 1990.  In his most prominent Washington appointment, from 1977 to 1978, he had served as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. It was in this latter capacity that Todman played a larger-than-life role in the crucial early years of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), which was founded in 1975, with a mission to monitor the aftermath of the overthrow of the constitutional government of Salvador Allende in Chile, several years, with a mission to monitor U.S.–Latin American relations and to work for U.S. democratic procedures revered at home, so they could be better pursue abroad. My father has led COHA throughout its history. His opposition to Todman’s nomination unquestionably aided COHA in its development, by serving as a prime ideological foe of the conservative propensities of the State Department; COHA came to be seen as a veritable nuisance for its unremitting opposition to the U.S. being content with weak democratic standards throughout Latin America.

In early 1977, soon after the Carter Administration had assumed office, world outrage was high over the Pinochet coup staged in Chile by General Pinochet and was raged throughout the handful of surviving democratic hemispheric states still to be found in the region. At the time, both Central America as well as South America were being dominated by military dictatorships of various complexions, from the comparatively mild military-driven regimes in Brazil and Peru to the truly horrifying Videla junta, of “dirty war” infamy, in Argentina. The new Democratic Carter administration was anticipated to denounce these regimes, given President Carter’s own personal integrity and has adamant contention on behalf of his ethics and values that were, alas, not always wisely or clearly articulated. At times, Carter did not seem to be able to comprehend his own policy even though the new administration was expected to press strongly on human rights and against caudillismo, and to some extent, it did. That is why COHA was disappointed when the White House announced that its preferred candidate Esteban E. Torres, the international director of the United Auto Workers was not its final choice, although Todman was.

The question was how could a relatively newly formed hard-core liberal group like COHA have the gumption to oppose a well-placed African-American nominated by the administration, presumably as a ploy to derail a liberal activist like the former.  As for Torres, who was not only a Latino, but he also had his own constituency, modest as it was. As for Todman, he was known to be a relative conservative with little interest in opposing the cold war leitmotif that was beginning to control U.S. hemispheric policy at the time. In fact, COHA was backed by an impressive array of some of the most progressive labor unions, but they had not been heavily mobilized by groups like COHA, and this was labor’s main elements that Birns was able to successfully mobilized. Some of these, such as the UAW under Leonard Woodcock, supposedly were early supporters of Torres, when in fact this was not the case. Although they had the distinct ear of the Carter administration on Latin issues, the region was hardly at the top of the list of issues on labor’s foreign policy agenda.

When Terence Todman was successfully nominated to head the Inter-American Bureau of the State Department, rather than Torres, COHA helped lead the rank of labor and non-labor Latin Americanists who opposed the appointment, although only COHA had the temerity to place its viewpoint on the record. As noted by Lars Schoultz in his monograph Human Rights and United States Policy in Latin America, published in 2014, by Princeton University Press, COHA concentrated on “improving the quality of diplomatic personnel assigned to manage the United States relationship with Latin America, particularly by attempting to influence presidential appointments” (p. 7).  That strategy inevitably involved COHA in the approaching skirmish with larger establishment constituencies.

Terence A. Todman was an African American (originally from the Virgin Islands), educated in Puerto Rico, and a World War II veteran. He had a perfectly conventional vita in terms of its objective merits, but he was no boat rocker, nor democratic reformer, an assumption that the Carter administration no doubt took into account when it decided to play it safe by appointing a well-regarded black man to a position that previously had always been the preserve for WASP eminences. Such a move at the time would make a highly desirable and distinct signal to a Latin American audience that already was squirming from being the target of class hierarchies as well as riddled by dictatorships that they yearned to overthrow.  Torres, a shy man, had the potential to make a compelling case for a dramatically progressive and pro-labor vision, while Todman was a perfectly conventional career Foreign Service officer who would capably but entirely predictably carry out official policy, but would show little inclination to stir the pot in any pronounced direction in some of his previous diplomatic appointments.In making the appointment, the Carter administration had a chance to make a strong declarative statement by appointing Torres, but preferred to be more path-dependent and play it cautious. This proclivity not only disappointed activist, like those to be found at COHA, but it foreshadowed the Carter administration’s own future formulations of policy initiatives in an entirely predictable manner. The manner that two key elements of the Democratic political base—unions and Latinos—were presumptively dismissed, while no appreciable compensating constituency was significantly generated to back progressive policy making by this move. Torres went on to be elected to eight terms as a US congressman from a Los Angeles-area district after serving in the post of U.S. ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, a position that was far removed from the battleground over key Latin American issues, but appropriate for the compensation for the shabby treatment he was accorded. Todman, in turn, had an abbreviated tenure at the State Department’s Inter-American Affairs bureau, which lasted roughly over a year. By July of 1978 he had been posted to Madrid as Ambassador to Spain, a nation that was just completing its own democratic transition from a dictatorship. Viron Vaky, also a career foreign service officer who, although steeped in orthodoxy, did occasionally flash faint-hearted, liberal credentials, replaced Todman. Thus the new administration had itself decided that Todman was not compellingly suited for a job that itself had not been particularly framed in a forth right direction.

Terence Todman’s nomination by the Carter administration insiders had represented a baptism of fire for COHA, as much as it did for Todman, due to the nature of the intensity of the organization’s engagement with US policies towards Latin America. Carter clearly had not run for office on a foreign policy plank that was sharply opposed to the perceived realism and amorality of the toxic Nixon-Kissinger years, particularly as it had become even more closely identified with the latter’s epoch which saw him recognized as the era’s hardcare ideological warrior. At this time, COHA’s director, Larry Birns, entered the battlefield by making myriad media appearances during this period, including some in non-ideologically but predictable challenged spaces. Fortuitously, Birns found himself in Southern California in the early part of January 1977, where he took the time to visit the editorial offices of the conservative San Diego Union Tribune-a key force for the hard-line conservative right. For its own reasons it extended Birns a lengthy audience to hear him out in opposition to the Todman appointment because he would not be “good” for Latin America. The crescendo of all this public clamor occurred when Birns testified, in March 1977, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he was pounced on by Senator Hubert Humphrey, acting for the more conservative wing of the Democrats, and discovered how already wired the confirmation of Todman was already fixed. Though Birns’ testimony won him mixed reviews at the hearing, with opposition coming mainly coming from Cold War Democrats and from orthodox center-right Latin Americanists. One of these was the syndicated columnist Mary McGrory writing in The Washington Post, who characterized the COHA’s director’s sin as being “far too self-confident to please,” while it excoriated Senator Hubert Humphery’s flailing of Birns for not having the clarity to question the wisdom of Todman’s nomination the members of the Committee—it did represent the emergence of COHA’s hallmark strategy: to operate through the media rather than the corridors of Congressional power or through backstairs lobbying. This strategy was enhanced by the elevation to COHA’s chairmanship of Charles A. Perlik Jr., President of the Newspaper Guild.  Representing thousands of reporters his tenacious support of COHA was a key factor in its rise and the growth of its influence.

With the longer perspective of several decades, the stark differences between COHA and Todman have faded. As Mala Htun of the University of New Mexico has pointed out in her essay “Lessons from Gender Quotas,” often even if female or minority appointees are not particularly subversive in their politics but their mere presence, far from being token, puts the idea of, say, a black person with a position of power, and public circulation, and thus inadvertently helping the cause of equality and minority power. Thus, however much a faithful follower of the State Department line, Terence Todman may have been, his very presence as an African American diplomat in high office, and in terms of the obstacles that a figure of his background inevitably faces, and the nature of the era, eventually helped bring about a more egalitarian and pluralistic world of the sort for which COHA passionately had striven to achieve throughout its own years of existence. In looking back on the period, COHA was not accusing Todman of either being complicit in the creation of a  spate of dysfunctional US government decisions, as was the case with his predecessor in the Ford administration, Harry W. Shlaudeman. By merely marking a sufficiently dramatic separation from those not known for often breaking from the particular policies of the past, but not to swallow the administration’s specious goal in an unadulterated stare. It might be said that here, with emphasis that it would be a simplification to not acknowledge that Todman was not a bold thinker, nor could it be said that he was simply a stooge for the administration. His unwillingness not to rock the boat did at times offered aid and comfort to deeply entrenched interests even though they must lead to other conclusions.  This symbolized much of Todman’s failure to make more than limited contributions to the democratization of U.S. Latin policies.

Similarly, COHA’s activist posture did not just have a political function for it to be taken into account.  In the 1970s, the same people passionately concerned with human rights standard in Latin America could be indifferent to soviet transgressing in Eastern Europe. Selected outrage had to operate in this manner: These who bewailed Soviet brutalities tended not to be so concerned about the atrocities committed by murderous right-wing militant dictatorships found in Chile and Argentina. In retrospect, this can be seen in the rhetoric of human rights values when ventilated in the Helsinki Accords. Todman’s dilemma was that if a US-based human rights organization criticized Videla or Pinochet they should be prime candidates for the consistency of US criticisms of Soviet harassment of its dissidents. As Samuel Moyn has argued in The Last Utopia (2012), the very concept of human rights was invented, in its contemporary form in the 1970s, and the appearance of nonpartisanship, of “human rights” was not just offering a fig leaf to cover up an ideological agenda, but could be considered a very important distinction in itself. Without either COHA’s position or Todman’s, the category of human rights would not in itself have achieved so much less legitimacy if they were the White House’s final choice.

A few years ago, Terence Todman and Larry Birns ran into each other at a diplomatic function, and, in an oft-handed but sociable manner Todman blithely said, “Ah Birns, you helped define my career by giving me such a going over.” In fact, the opposition of COHA to Terence Todman’s nomination in 1977 was an outstanding instance of debates over democratic policy in action. It was very important for the debate to occur openly, publicly and be engaged in with vigor and determination on both sides.  COHA salutes Terence Todman as a worthy opponent who served up an important as well as distinguished moment of diplomatic service and one could look back on his career with considerable satisfaction.

Dr. Nicholas Birns is a Senior Research Fellow at COHA, The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, as well as an associate professor of The New School. His books include the co-edited volumes Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics (Palgrave 2010) and The Contemporary Spanish American Novel (Bloomsbury, 2013)

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