19 October 2005

U.S. Embassy Beijing, 5-8 June 1989

President [George H.W.] Bush called me Monday morning, June 5th [1989]. Earlier that day in Washington, in his first official comment on the crackdown, the president had announced a ban on new weapons sales and suspension of military contacts. In our phone conversation, I told President Bush that things were pretty calm on the ground but that my main concern was the safety of American citizens in Peking, particularly American students living at Peking universities that were the locus of the student movements.

At the U.S. Embassy, we were already getting heat from the American press, which had gathered en masse in front of the embassy at 7 that morning, clamoring to know how the embassy was going to safeguard the lives of Americans in Peking. Fortunately for the U.S. government, McKinney Russell, a career officer at the old United States Information Agency, was an experienced hand. Russell knew that any story, once the fighting subsides, becomes a local story. He had called me at about 6:30 a.m. that morning, and we got our cue cards together. Yes, we assured the journalists, we had scouted out evacuation routes and organized buses to get students out of harm's way and take them to hotels or to the embassy. We fended off the hungry journalists, but we knew they would be coming back for more.

At this point, I should have put into place a general evacuation order as some other embassies had done, in particular the Japanese and French Embassies. I would have saved myself a lot of headache, but we went about it piecemeal. We started evacuating students on Monday, and on Tuesday embassy personnel started calling all Americans to urge them to leave Peking. But we waited until Wednesday, June 7, to inform American residents of a voluntary evacuation procedure for all Americans. Initially, I relied on the Consular Section, which has the responsibility for the welfare of American citizens, to do the calling and planning. Later, at [military attaché Jack] Leide's suggestion, I switched the evacuation planning to the military attaché's office because, as military men, they were better organized to handle this sort of crisis operation.

[Assistant military attaché] Larry Wortzel's frustration over delays was the catalyst for the change. On June 8, after scouting evacuation routes and informing American citizens of collection points, Wortzel returned to the embassy prepared to lead a convoy of embassy vehicles at 11 a.m. But he discovered that little progress had been made in assembling the convoy. Diplomats and others were haggling over insignificant details, like who would drive which car. Wortzel stormed out of the room, cursing a blue streak. He bumped right into me. Ten minutes later, I found Wortzel in his office. I dumped the batch of motor pool keys on his desk. "You are in charge," I said. "Get this convoy out of here in 30 minutes."

The delays brought all sorts of opprobrium down our--largely, my--head. Disgruntled Americans gave the media the story they wanted: The American government wasn't performing well in a crisis. Stories appeared in the stateside press about the embassy's "failure" to assist U.S. citizens trying to get out of China. Magnifying the "failure" was news footage from Peking that showed a city under lockdown with the possibility of more clashes. There was talk of civil war between branches of the Chinese military, which had different views of the crackdown. The reports were wrong. At the embassy, we knew from accurate reporting by Wortzel that rumors of a split in the PLA were overstated. It turns out that a Canadian military attaché, who had never been trained in ground combat, asserted to the press that civil war between ground troops was imminent. The attaché had looked at tanks facing outward on a highway overpass with guns pointed in three directions and come to his erroneous conclusion. This fueled the rumor mill racing around Peking and over the airways.

Nevertheless, despite our best efforts, I was behind the curve. Hysteria set in on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Our Citizen Services Center started getting about 2,000 calls a day from Americans concerned about family members in China, and politicians in Washington excoriated the Bush administration for failing to act to protect Americans. I had people badmouthing me in Peking and all over the U.S.
SOURCE: China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, by James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 324-326

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