Perkins, Edward 1928–
Edward Perkins 1928–
Career diplomat Edward Perkins knows firsthand the nebulous world of governmental foreign service, where tact can mean the difference between an international incident and a groundbreaking agreement. Acting as “our man” to the U.S. government in Liberia and South Africa, and, later, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Perkins learned well the often maddening rules of the diplomatic game. Critics have called him an overly quiet ambassador, an emissary too willing to spout the policies, however backward, of the U.S. administration employing him. And yet, he has, on occasion, strayed from official U.S. policy, only to find his remarks “clarified” by his bosses, who claimed the ambassador had spoken incorrectly or had been misunderstood. But Perkins understands that rebukes and catcalls are unavoidable on the diplomatic roller coaster ride that has brought him to the rarefied heights of foreign service.
The man who would one day be a pivotal force in changing American policy toward the brutally racist apartheid regime of South Africa was born into the segregated South of the United States on June 8, 1928, in Sterlington, Louisiana. Perkins attended a black-only, two-room school and later served in the segregated branch of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps in Tokyo and Korea. The army provided Perkins his early jobs, including a stint as the chief of personnel and administration of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in Okinawa, Japan.
Compared to others bitten by the foreign service bug, Perkins came to the diplomatic establishment late. He was nearly 40 years old before he found the time and resources to receive a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Maryland. He worked in the foreign service’s Near Eastern and South Asian bureaus, and at the U.S. State Department in Washington, where, among other positions, he was director of the Office of West African Affairs.
Perkins’s diplomatic dream was realized in 1985, when President Ronald Regan appointed him ambassador to Liberia, where Perkins had served in a mid-level capacity a few years earlier. While he would only stay in the west African country for approximately one year, his experience there would deliver lasting lessons on the political forces—both internal and external—at work throughout Africa.
Perkins inherited an assignment in a country whose peace had been shattered by the rise of a dictator. Samuel K. Doe seized power in a 1980 coup, when Liberians were growing increasingly
Born Edward Joseph Perkins, June 8, 1928, in Sterlington, LA; son of Edward Joseph Perkins, Sr. and Tiny Estella Noble Holmes; married Lucy Chen-mei Liu, September 9, 1962; children: Katherine Karla Shih-Tzu, Sarah Elizabeth Shih-Yin. Education: University of Maryland, B.A., 1968; University of Southern California, M.P.A., 1972, Ph.D., 1978.
Served with Army and Air Force Exchange Service in Taiwan and Japan, 1958-66; Agency for International Development (AID), U.S. Department of State, Far East Bureau official, 1967-70; assistant director for management, U.S. Mission to Thailand, 1970-72; Office of the Director General of the Foreign Service, U.S. Department of State, staff assistant, 1972, personnel officer, 1972-74; administrative officer, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, 1974-75; management analysis officer, U.S. Department of State, 1975-78; counselor for political affairs, Accra, Ghana, 1978-81; deputy chief of mission, Monrovia, Liberia, 1981-83; director of the Office of West African Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 1983-85; U.S. ambassador to Liberia, 1985-86; U.S. ambassador to South Africa, 1986-89; director general of the Foreign Service, U.S. Department of State, 1989-92; U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, 1992; named ambassador-designate to Australia by the Clinton administration, 1993. Military service: U.S. Army, 1954-58; served in Tokyo and Korea.
Awards: Eastern Region Award, Kappa Alpha Psi, for achievement in foreign affairs, 1985; Presidential Honor from George Bush, 1989; plaque from the Judicial Council of the National Bar Association for “integrity and courage” during diplomatic service in South Africa, 1990; numerous honorary degrees.
Addresses: Office—U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC 20520.
disenchanted with the government of William R. Tolbert, Jr. But Doe, who in the aftermath of the coup had bayoneted Tolbert in front of television cameras, was less concerned with the stagnating economy that was frustrating Liberians than with safeguarding his own power.
By 1984 Doe had begun censoring newspapers and restricting the activities of opposition political parties and student groups. As U.S. ambassador, Perkins was charged with promoting economic reform and democratization in Liberia and, at the same time, protecting America’s huge strategic and technical assets in the African country. While other industrialized nations were publicly disavowing the Doe government’s vicious hold on power, the Reagan administration, echoing its policy in South Africa, was more openly conciliatory—an approach that cast America as Doe’s chief apologist.
When Perkins and his staff arrived in the Liberian capital city, Monrovia, their principle task was to convince Doe not to seek the presidency in the October 1985 general elections. The leverage Perkins used was financial; if Doe were elected, the United States and other countries, despite their interests in Liberia, would cut off aid and technical and military assistance. But Perkins’s diplomatic finesses were no match for the egomaniacal Doe, who threw his had in the political ring and claimed victory in an election that, despite his statements to the contrary, was largely regarded as rigged.
After the election, opposition forces attempted a coup, but Doe, enjoying a firm grip on the military, prevailed and instigated a period in which his government readily employed the tools of violence and intimidation to silence those who sought political change. The United States, as Perkins promised Doe, cut off the much needed aid to Liberia, and the African nation—which 140 years earlier had been born from the noble idea of establishing an African settlement for freed American slaves—entered a dark time of bitter fighting and economic collapse.
In 1986 Reagan appointed Perkins ambassador to South Africa, a position that had been offered to and rejected by two black foreign service veterans, including Terence Todman, who became ambassador to Argentina. whereas in Liberia Perkins had faced the evil of one man, in South Africa he confronted the demon of an entire racist political system, apartheid, which denied the country’s black majority the most basic human rights. At the time of his appointment as the first black ambassador to South Africa, worldwide condemnation of the stark unfairness of apartheid was at a fever pitch, and the Reagan administration was coming under increasing fire for its policy of “constructive engagement,” which favored friendliness over antagonism as a tool for pushing reforms in Pretoria, the South African capital.
Perkins’s first challenge was dealing with the resentment that greeted his arrival. “As a black representing a conservative Republican Administration in white-ruled South Africa, Perkins received a generally negative reception when he landed in Pretoria,” William R. Doerner wrote in Time. “His appointment was regarded by many whites as a symbolic snub and by blacks as insulting tokenism.” Black South African newspapers condemned Perkins for accepting what they called a transparently racist appointment, and a spokesman for the United Democratic Front, the largest antigovernment group, said that Perkins would be unwelcome in South Africa and that he should have turned down the job.
But Perkins, aware of the symbolic power of small actions, succeeded in turning around public perception among blacks to a far greater degree than his predecessor, Herman Nickel, had done. Ducking the press and avoiding publicity, he traveled to black townships and squatter villages and met with black opposition groups, winning over those who had earlier dismissed him as a token black apologist for a Reagan policy perceived as soft on the fight against apartheid. In the building housing the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, Perkins used the elevator reserved for whites. He ordered all embassy functions to be multiracial, and he urged his staff to visit the black areas so that they could better understand the devastating effects of the country’s politics on people of color. “There’s no way any visitor to South Africa can travel in the country and not realize the disparity—the agonizing differences,” he was quoted in Jet as telling his workers.
The low-profile ambassador, who was reportedly told by the White House to shun the limelight, came out from under cover in April of 1987. In the wake of a South African government decree banning any public call to release people detained without charge—an estimated 30,000 people, including perhaps 10,000 children—he attended a black church service called to pray for the prisoners’s release. Perkins joined the other churchgoers in rising to sing “Nkosi Sikelele Afrika,” the country’s black nationalist anthem, and, minutes later, the embassy issued a statement blasting South Africa’s new sweep of repression in terms far stronger and impassioned than any that thus far had come out of the Reagan administration. “Ambassador Perkins, largely invisible since his arrival last November, has now become forcefully visible,” the New York Times editorialized. “His symbolic gesture offers a new and welcome example for the Reagan Administration. There may be hope yet that Pretoria will have to stop looking to Washington for comfort.”
Perkins made another big splash—again, bigger than that made by any other Reagan official—when he published an article in Leadership, an influential current affairs journal, arguing that a black majority government is the only palatable political arrangement for South Africa. Up until that point, Reagan officials had skirted around articulating such a belief, fearful of the political fallout that would be generated by such direct and unequivocal language. Perkins further distanced himself from the administration when he claimed that economic sanctions, which the Congress had passed over Reagan’s veto in 1986, had—without question—been a success. The State Department quickly “clarified” Perkins’s remarks, saying the ambassador had been referring to the success of the sanctions in conveying the public abhorrence for apartheid; their economic impact, the department claimed, had not yet been determined.
After leaving his South African post, Perkins served as director general of the State Department, where he supervised thousands of foreign service officers and department employees. Then, in 1992, he was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by President George Bush. Perkins replaced Thomas Pickering, who was reportedly forced out because Secretary of State James Baker believed Pickering had displayed a showy, grandstanding relationship with the press during the Persian Gulf War.
While Perkins was perceived as a soft-spoken ambassador, in South Africa he had demonstrated—to the delight of liberals opposed to Reagan policies—his boldness in running against the political grain. Still, an editorial printed in the New York Times that Perkins had “Yet to demonstrate the risk-taking initiative needed for the U.N. job.”
Perkins’s tenure at the U.N. was short—the new president, Bill Clinton, replaced him with Madeleine Albright—but he wasted little time in once again taking a position at odds with the administration that had appointed him. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July of 1992, Perkins said that the Bush administration would seek a new U.N. resolution sanctioning the enforcement of an existing resolution that called on Iraq, in the wake of the Gulf War, to respect the human and civil rights of the Shiites in the south of the Middle Eastern country and the Kurds in the north. But a senior Bush official quickly applied spin control to this statement, saying that Perkins had been mistaken and that there was a consensus within the administration that no further resolution was needed for the establishment, for example, of a no-fly zone to protect Iraqi minorities.
From his dealings with the United Nations, Perkins joined others in concluding that the world body will play a more prominent role in international affairs now that the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union is over and there are no longer polarized superpowers to keep smaller political hot spots from boiling over. Rather than being intimidated by or resentful of the U.N.’s growing potency, the United States, according to Perkins, should recognize that its national interests, in terms of human rights and economic reforms, coincide with world interests. Perkins concluded in an interview with Emerge, “It’s my view that as the U.N. becomes a much more accepted instrument of conflict resolution, not just in war but in economic and social justice, the United States will find itself more in tune with the U.N.’s program.”
In the summer of 1993, Perkins was named ambassador-designate to Australia by U.S. president Bill Clinton. As of August of that year, the ambassador was still awaiting confirmation to that post.
Boston Globe, August 1, 1992, p. 14.
Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 1987, p. 14; November 2, 1992, p. 14.
Emerge, March 1993, p. 11.
Jet, April 18, 1988, p. 33; May 22, 1989, p. 37; October 12, 1992, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1992, p. A8; April 27, 1992, p. E1.
New York Times, April 15, 1987, p. A26; December 9, 1987, p. A15; February 15, 1992, p. 22.
Time, February 23, 1987, p. 58; December 21, 1987, p. 50.
USA Today, July 30, 1992, p. A4; October 12, 1992, p. A13.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the U.S. State Department.
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