R.I.P. Julia Taft (1942-2008)
We continue to lose wonderful people. Julia had a remarkable career, as is well detailed in today's obituary in The Washington Post, the text of which appears below (and published on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq). Julia was easily the best boss I worked for during my Foreign Service career. I was her deputy, and the senior State Department representative, at the Interagency Task Force for the Indochina Refugees for around eight months in 1975-76. She was the agency's Director. She was smart, innovative, fair, reliable, and direct in her dealings with everyone on the Washington staff and at our four refugee camps in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and California. She was a natural and formidable leader of a quite difficult project, as is partially recalled in her Post op ed piece published in June 2007, which also demonstrates her compassionate side and devotion to principle (text given below).
President Ford ordered us to get every refugee resettled by Christmas of 1975 or else we would have failed in our mission. We succeeded, and the speedy termination allowed us to turn back to the Treasury some $40 million of our appropriation, perhaps a unique outcome in the history of Washington spending.
Julia never lost her sense of humor, even while tackling the worst of our problems. I
'll recall one anecdote. Some 1,600 Vietnamese refugees, mostly military personnel who had fought on our side but had been caught up in the panicked evacuation, leaving their families behind, were insistent that they did not wish to be resettled in the U.S. but demanded to be permitted to return to Vietnam. They demonstrated, rioted, even tried to burn their barracks on the island of Guam, asking to be given an abandoned Vietnamese ship then in the Guam harbor to transport themselves home. Julia prepared to fly to Guam to deal with this crisis. At the last minute the White House learned of her plan and nixed the idea, ordering that someone with a much lower political profile undertake that controversial chore.
She had no choice, so told me to fly to Guam in her place. There was no time to get me a new air ticket, and with a great big smile she handed me her ticket and told me to figure out how I would explain to the airlines why I was using a ticket made out to one "Julia Taft." She added: "At least you'll be in first class, which as a Deputy Director you would not rate!" I made it to Guam and back successfully; today I would no doubt be arrested along the way as an impostor, or perhaps as a terrorist.
In the aftermath, I credit Julia's persuasive powers for the fact that these Vietnamese "repatriates" (as they called themselves) did get their ship and did return to Vietnam. After Henry Kissinger declined to authorize the unusual repatriation, Julia took it up with President Ford and obtained his OK.
Here is the obit:
Julia Taft; Crisis Manager Helped Resettle Refugees
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; B07
Julia Vadala Taft, 65, a former assistant secretary of state who was recognized as a top crisis manager through her work with refugee protection and disaster relief efforts around the world, died March 15 at her home in Washington. She had colon cancer.
Mrs. Taft coordinated major refugee resettlements in the United States and abroad beginning in the mid-1970s and worked on humanitarian relief in countries ravaged by war and such natural calamities as floods, famine and earthquakes. She dealt with dislocations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Armenia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia and Sudan.
A tall woman with a commanding presence and down-to-earth persona, Mrs. Taft was known for her ability to organize large-scale resettlement efforts. She understood how to set up camps and deal with tragedy, said Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, who also worked with Mrs. Taft in the Clinton administration. "It was her ability to bring order to chaos -- plus her willingness to get on a plane, helicopter, jeep or riverboat to go almost anywhere that enabled her to make a difference," Bacon wrote in a blog on his agency's Web site. "Whether in the White House, a refugee camp, or a meeting with government and [nongovernmental organization] officials, she knew how to get people moving."
In 1975, Mrs. Taft was chosen by President Gerald R. Ford to coordinate the evacuation and resettlement of 131,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos who risked persecution at the end of the Vietnam War.
"We rescued these people in the face of fierce political opposition," she said in an op-ed article last year in The Washington Post. In the article, she questioned President Bush's lack of "urgency for the 4.2 million Iraqis displaced and in danger" because of the Iraq war.
From 1975 to 2004, Mrs. Taft designed and developed refugee programs for the State Department, Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for International Development and United Nations.
Along the way, she faced danger but managed to regale friends with stories of her adventures. In 1987, she left for the Armenian earthquake zone so fast that the only personal gear she could find was her daughter's pink Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag, her son said.
On a relief mission in Sarajevo in 1992, she climbed into a bathtub with a helmet and bulletproof vest when her hotel came under fire.
Her work as head of U.S. disaster relief for victims of the Armenian earthquake earned her the Soviet Union's Supreme Soviet Award for Personal Courage and a Distinguished Service Award from the Agency for International Development in 1989.
From 1994 to 1997, she was president of InterAction, the U.S. council for voluntary international action, which involves more than 150 U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations that work on international relief and development. In 2006, she returned to InterAction as interim president to help it through a difficult transition.
Last year, she received its Outstanding Leadership Award.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed her assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, a post she held for four years. In 1999, she was named to the additional post of special coordinator for Tibetan issues to promote dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.
From 2001 to 2004, Mrs. Taft served as assistant administrator and director in the U.N. bureau for crisis prevention and recovery. In 2002, she headed the U.N. task force for recovery efforts in Afghanistan.
She was born July 27, 1942, in New York, the daughter of Army surgeon Antony Vadala. She graduated from the University of Colorado and received a master's degree in political science in 1968.
Her marriage to Fred Malone ended in divorce.
In addition to her husband, William H. Taft IV, former deputy defense secretary and State Department legal adviser, survivors include three children from her second marriage, Maria Consetta Taft of Woodside, Calif., Julia Harris Taft of San Francisco and William Howard Taft V of New York.
Here is the op ed:
Fleeing Our Responsibility; The U.S. Owes Succor to Iraqi Refugees
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Author: Julia Taft
Date: Jun 24, 2007
Start Page: B.7
Text Word Count: 680
Last month an Iraqi couple working for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad were kidnapped and executed. Their deaths were not acknowledged by the State Department, and the media made little mention of the murders. They are among the most recent of thousands of cases in which Iraqis affiliated with the United States have been forced into hiding, tortured or, often, killed.
I found myself thinking of this husband and wife last week, as World Refugee Day passed, and struggling with a terrible contradiction. The United States is the world's most generous contributor to refugee relief, and we have always taken the lead on resettling refugees. Yet our country has done the bare minimum to help these Iraqis facing death and exile. Instead of clearing the way for their resettlement, we have blocked their path to safety with bureaucratic barriers and political hurdles.
President Bush should look to another Republican president, Gerald Ford, as an example of executive leadership in addressing refugee crises. In 1975 President Ford asked me to direct an interagency task force charged with resettling Indochinese refugees in the United States. Between May 1 and Dec. 20, 1975, we evacuated and resettled more than 131,000 Vietnamese who were at risk of persecution.
We rescued these people in the face of fierce political opposition. Initially, for example, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced that he wanted no refugees in his state. We overcame his reluctance and all other obstacles because the president had committed to doing everything possible to save the lives of the Vietnamese who had stood beside us. Ford persuaded Republicans and Democrats in Congress to appropriate emergency funds, and he visited refugees awaiting resettlement at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. American families, churches and synagogues responded to the president's leadership with offers to sponsor refugees in need. At staging grounds in the South Pacific, our immigration officers worked 14-hour days.
Why is there no similar sense of urgency for the 4.2 million Iraqis displaced and in danger? President Bush himself has yet to speak of the crisis. Although members of his administration claim to have made Iraqi refugees a top priority, admission numbers tell a different story. Only one Iraqi refugee made it through our process to safety in the United States in May, and only one made it the month before. The United States has committed to reviewing 7,000 cases and admitting 3,000 refugees by the end of this fiscal year, in September. That is as many as our team processed in a single day back in 1975.
What has happened to our leadership on this issue?
The administration and Congress cannot waste any more time. Their lack of political will has cost too many people their lives. A bill introduced last week by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, would begin this process by swiftly providing increased resettlement options and visas for those at risk because of their association with the United States. The president also should direct that 20,000 unallocated refugee visas from this year be used for Iraqis. Finally, we must increase aid to countries in the Middle East that combined are hosting 2 million Iraqis; this would help ensure that the refugees can stay and that the host countries remain willing to keep their doors open.
Administration officials say that the best solution to the Iraqi refugee crisis is a stable homeland to which refugees can return. No one wants that solution more than the refugees themselves, but conditions in Iraq are not heading in that direction. The humanitarian crisis must not become a pawn in political pronouncements about the state of our efforts in Iraq. This was true with respect to our rescue of Vietnamese refugees, and it is true now. No matter your view of the war, welcoming the persecuted and standing by our friends is the right thing to do.
The writer was director of the Interagency Task Force for Indochinese Refugee Resettlement in the Ford administration and was assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration from 1997 to 2001.
Robert V. Keeley