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Bunker, Ellsworth

BUNKER, Ellsworth

(b. 11 May 1894 in Yonkers, New York; d. 27 September 1984 in Brattleboro, Vermont), powerful business executive and U.S. ambassador to several countries during the 1950s to 1970s, including to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

Bunker's father, George Raymond Bunker, was one of the founders of the National Sugar Refining Company, a massive, wealthy firm; his mother, Jean Polhemus Cobb, was a housewife. Bunker grew up at the family home in Yonkers, along with his younger brother and sister and an older half brother. He attended private schools, eventually graduating from the Mackenzie School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 1912. He then attended Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut, majoring in history and economics and graduating with a B.A. in 1916. At Yale he participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps, although he never saw active duty.

After graduating from Yale, Bunker took a job with the National Sugar Refining Company unloading shipments at a dock. He slowly worked his way through the sugar business, taking assignments of ever-greater responsibility to gain firsthand knowledge of the many aspects of the business. He even learned Spanish and Portuguese because some of the company's most important suppliers were in Argentina and Brazil. Bunker's experience in South America, as well as his knowledge of Latin American languages, proved to be of great importance in his later diplomatic career. On 24 April 1920 he married Harriet Allen Butler; they had three children.

In the mid-1920s Bunker became the manager of Warner Sugar Refining Company, a subsidiary of National Sugar. He joined the National Sugar board of directors in 1927 and soon showed he had a sharp but flexible mind and excellent business instincts. He became secretary in 1931 and eventually became a company vice president and treasurer in 1934. During the 1940s Bunker's responsibilities widened as he took positions on the boards of directors of other sugar companies in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba. In 1940 he became the president of National Sugar, serving in that capacity until 1948, when he became the company's chief executive officer, serving in that capacity to 1951.

In the early 1950s the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson advised President Harry Truman to appoint Bunker as the ambassador to Argentina. Acheson had met Bunker at Yale, and knew he had a knack for solving difficult problems and had dealt with many officials in Argentina—skills that were needed to untangle a web of distrust between the United States and Argentina's Perónist regime. After taking up the ambassadorship in 1951, Bunker mollified the government of Juan Domingo Perón and smoothed relations between the two countries.

In 1952 Bunker was sent as the U.S. ambassador to Italy, which was still suffering from the effects of World War II and years of fascist rule. The Italian government was unstable, and Bunker worked to help the country remain democratic. A lifelong member of the Democratic Party, he left his post in 1953 when Dwight Eisenhower became president and replaced Bunker with Clare Boothe Luce. Bunker was still on National Sugar's board of directors and served as the president of the American Red Cross from 1954 to 1956.

In 1956 Eisenhower asked Bunker to serve as a representative to the United Nations General Assembly; he liked Bunker's performance and appointed him to be U.S. ambassador to India and Nepal. Bunker served as ambassador to Nepal until 1959 and to India until the start of President John F. Kennedy's administration in 1961. Bunker was well liked in India, where his tact, gentle presentation of his views, and honesty were appreciated. After leaving India he became a diplomatic troubleshooter for the United States. As such, in 1962 he mediated a dispute between the Netherlands and Indonesia over the Dutch dependency Irian Barat (also known as West Irian), preventing a war by arranging a United Nations–sponsored plebiscite in Irian Barat and persuading the Netherlands to surrender the dependency to Indonesia when the vote went against the Netherlands. For his efforts, Bunker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In that year, Yemen was in the midst of a civil war, and the United Arab Republic's president Gamal Abdel Nasser had sent troops to fight for the communists, while Saudi Arabia's prime minister Prince Faisal had sent troops to support the royalists. Acting as a representative of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Bunker persuaded Nasser and Faisal to withdraw their troops and call a truce. The agreement did not last long, collapsing only days after Bunker had finished his work. He was appointed as the U.S. representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) in January 1964, was elected to the chairmanship of the OAS in November 1964, and spent much of his time defusing potential wars.

Bunker's work was complicated by the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, which President Lyndon B. Johnson had ordered in April 1965 to prevent a violent communist takeover of the country. Even though Johnson's actions angered some members of the OAS, Bunker managed to persuade the OAS nations to form a coalition that sent troops to the Dominican Republic to keep the peace and help conduct an unsullied election. In 1967 he was awarded his second Presidential Medal of Freedom for this work. Another of his tasks while serving in the OAS was to put a peaceful end to the rioting against Americans in Panama. Bunker successfully worked out an agreement acceptable to both sides, although he eventually returned to Panama in the 1970s to resolve disagreements over ownership of the Panama Canal.

In 1966 Bunker left his position on National Sugar's board of directors, probably because of the demands made on him as a troubleshooting negotiator for the United States. On 6 October 1966 President Johnson made Bunker an ambassador-at-large; on 25 April 1967 Bunker became U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. Letters written by Bunker to Johnson, made public by the New York Times, reveal that Bunker told the president from the start of his service in Vietnam that the war was a quagmire. He considered the South Vietnamese government to be corrupt and knew that people in the countryside favored the Viet-cong. Even so, he tried to find ways to secure the safety of the South Vietnamese people and to win their support against North Vietnam and the Vietcong.

By 1967 Bunker believed he was making headway. To reduce the corruption in the South Vietnamese government, he persuaded Premier Nguyen Cao Ky not to run for president in the 1967 elections and to accept the lesser post of vice president. Further, he persuaded Nguyen Van Thieu to run for the presidency. When Thieu won the election, disappointed rivals suggested his victory had been rigged by the United States, although many U.S. politicians believed the election was fraudulent. On 3 January 1967 Bunker married Carol Clendening Laise (his first wife had died in 1964); Laise was U.S. ambassador to Nepal and eventually became the general director of the U.S. Foreign Service.

Even though Bunker and Thieu worked closely together, Bunker was unable to persuade Thieu to join the peace talks that had started in November 1968 between the United States and North Vietnam. Eventually, in spite of Thieu's intransigence, the United States and North Vietnam reached an agreement to end aggression and make peace. It did not seem to matter to those involved that the North Vietnamese government had no intention of honoring the peace accords. Once the agreement was signed in January 1973, Bunker resigned as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam on 30 March 1973, believing that his work was done.

In September 1973 President Richard Nixon reappointed Bunker as a U.S. ambassador-at-large. In that capacity, Bunker negotiated with Israel and its neighbors to try to prevent another war in the Middle East; he was not successful. Bunker also was asked to settle the dispute over the Panama Canal between the United States and the Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos Herrera. To put the Panamanians at ease, he agreed to hold negotiations on Panamanian soil. For more than three years, Bunker and the Panamanian negotiators wrestled with the intricacies of the old 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty that gave the United States total control over the Panama Canal forever.

The U.S. government was worried that, without its troops there to protect the canal, the strategically important shipping zone would be vulnerable to enemy attack. The Panamanians wanted more of the money the canal earned, using the argument of sovereignty over the canal to stir up nationalistic sentiment among the Panamanian population. Eventually, after years of persuasion by Bunker, the Panamanian government agreed to a U.S. military presence to help protect the canal and to a gradual turnover of canal operations to Panamanians by the beginning of 2000. The United States agreed to pay Panama more of the canal's income and to gradually relinquish control. The countries signed the agreement on 10 August 1977.

Bunker retired from the foreign service in 1978 and maintained residences in both Washington, D.C., and Putney, Vermont. He was the founding chairman of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Bunker died at age ninety in Brattleboro Memorial Hospital of a viral infection and is buried in Dummerston, Vermont. He left a legacy of great achievements and profound failures. In business, he was a tough negotiator, helping his company prosper, and he was a sensible, sharp advisor to other corporations. He was more famous for his efforts to negotiate agreements between nations that were potentially going to war against each other, and he gained his greatest notoriety from his term as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those who worked with Bunker noted that he was a hard but fair negotiator, who did not allow personality differences to distract him from the objectives of his negotiations. During his time in Vietnam, Bunker became known as "the Refrigerator" because of his imperturbable demeanor, even in crises.

"Bunker, Ellsworth" in Current Biography Yearbook (1978) offers a good overview of Bunker's work as an ambassador. The Bunker Papers: Reports to the President from Vietnam, 1967–1973, Douglas Pike, ed. (1990), reveals some of Bunker's influence on how the war in Vietnam was conducted, as well as his frankness in presenting his views to President Johnson. Obituaries are in the New York Times (28 Sept. 1984), and the National Review (2 Nov. 1984). The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library oral history collection in Austin, Texas, includes enlightening interviews with Bunker, which also are available on the library's website at <>.

Kirk H. Beetz

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