It’s no common trajectory to go from being U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Burundi to serving as Country Director for the Peace Corps in Niger. But then, James R. Bullington would tell you himself his journey’s been one of unpredictable stops in unlikely places.
A self-described redneck, his itinerant upbringing included a failed family business in Tennessee, a short stint in L.A., and a hardscrabble boyhood on his grandparents’ farm, where “life was hard and luxuries few.” Yet from the segregated south of the 40’s and 50’s rose the future husband of a sophisticated Vietnamese interpreter. And from a junior expeditionary diplomat under siege in Hue came the elder statesman negotiating peace in coastal West Africa. In short, Bullington’s journey began in the nation’s grittier roots but reached great heights in the world of American diplomacy.
Bullington’s Foreign Service memoir, Global Adventures on Less-Traveled Roads, details these circumstances with a journalist’s sharp prose and a reporting officer’s attention to fact. It’s an inspiring book rich in clear-eyed hindsight, the immediacy of official cables, and relevant graphics, maps, and photos. Most important, the narrative analyzes the U.S. role in world events as it describes one man’s arc of service in an unsung branch of national duty.
Early indications that Bullington would rise beyond his beginnings can be traced to his years at Auburn, where his moral compass and steadfast values put him at odds with local norms.
As editor of the school paper in 1961, Bullington penned an editorial denouncing the attacks on the Freedom Riders, “The political leaders who let them happen and the whole systemic culture of segregation in which they were rooted.” After the letter was published on the front page of The Plainsman, “Everywhere I went I was cursed, confronted, and threatened with violence by angry students. A group of them collected copies of the paper and built a large bonfire to burn them along with an effigy of me.” Still fuming over the publication 18 years later, the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides accosted Bullington at an Army War College reception: “So you’re the son-of-a-bitch that wrote that editorial!”
Yet another sign the author was destined to defend American cultural values and democratic principles arose that same year. Tapped to join the top student leadership organization, Bullington soon learned how the group rigged student elections, “So as to assure that only the ‘best’ people were elected.” Though new to the group, Bullington insisted on and brought about a transparent new vote-counting system.
Together the incidents demonstrate Bullington’s moral fortitude, the necessary mettle to thrive amid the hardship and confrontation common to duty in the Foreign Service.
Bullington’s first overseas work, from 1965 to 1970 in Vietnam, paralleled the massive buildup of U.S. military advisors and troops there (Chapter 3, available at American Diplomacy, provides 60 pages of text, photos, and maps detailing this period of the broader Cold War). The account is informative, succinct, and in places plain chilling: “The approximately 20 American civilians in the city were isolated in their houses, and most were gradually killed or captured in the next few days.” In Saigon Bullington rubbed shoulders with a young John Negroponte, “A fellow junior officer who… became one of the most distinguished Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) of our generation.” He received a cable bestowing praise personally from Secretary of State Dean Rusk: “It is always gratifying to me to learn that our young FSOs have the courage to grasp the initiative and respond to situations with intelligence and alacrity. Congratulations to you and your colleagues for your performance in Hue.” Bullington’s career was off to an exciting and promising start.
The powerful account demonstrates what diplomats do (“My principal job was to travel throughout the five northernmost provinces of South Vietnam to prepare reports on the political, economic, and security situation for the Embassy’s political section”), and of the hardships and danger they face. But that’s only half of it. In Vietnam, Bullington also met his future wife, Tuy-Cam, and began melding the personal—bringing a foreign wife home to people who think he works for “the Forest Service;” raising two daughters across multiple continents—with the professional. “The marriage had a positive, not negative, impact on my career, enabling me to achieve a degree of success that would not have been possible without Tuy-Cam and her support as my lifelong partner.”
Family, an affinity for music, and a predilection for the ham radio and talent for diplomacy shaped Bullington’s narrative as he recounts postings to Burma (1975-’78), the Army War College (’78-’79), Chad (’79-’80), Benin (’80-’82 as Charge d’ affaires) and finally as Ambassador to Burundi (age 43, from 1983-1986).
Here Bullington’s trajectory veers from its meteoric rise. While in Burundi his cook, an Adventist, was arrested for what Bullington believed to be “Probably a Government response to the recent demarches I had been instructed to make on behalf of Adventists imprisoned without charge, and that it was likely intended as retaliation for what the Government considered to be our ‘meddling’.”
Eager to see his cook freed, Ambassador Bullington argued forcefully with the Department for permission to advocate for Marcien’s release. The Department refused; Bullington pushed back, describing the situation, essentially, as “If we can’t obtain freedom for everyone we will seek it for no one.” The Department relented and the cook was freed. On return to DC, however, Bullington found that his vigorous rebuttals, offensive to senior officials, had cost him. He would be given a gracious final tour as Dean of the Senior Seminar, but afterwards be ‘put out to pasture’, as he says in his oral history, and forced to retire at the ripe old age of 48.
A lifetime of constant reinvention served him well. He secured a position in international affairs for the city of Dallas, in East Coast Academia at Old Dominion University, and for six years as Peace Corps Country Director in Niger—”hard core Peace Corps”— and was recalled to duty negotiating peace in Senegal.
In summary, the trim black passport issued to American diplomats has a hefty corollary in James Bullington’s big black memoir. The passport confers access and status on the bearer in a foreign land. The memoir demonstrates why such access and status are vital to promoting U.S. values and interests. More important, the narrative reveals such access and status to be privileges earned rather than rights granted. Bullington’s journey reflects the ingenuity and hard work worthy of Benjamin Franklin himself, the father of American diplomacy.