Pearl Harbor history is reminder of importance of our foreign service

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It was hard not to be touched by the commemoration of Pearl Harbor that President Trump recently hosted at the White House, especially when one of the 90-plus-year-old veterans sang a stirring verse of “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

Watching I remembered another development in 1941, one directly related to Pearl Harbor and with deep relevance for the current debate about the mission and importance of the State Department and the professional foreign service.

{mosads}At 6 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1941, a communicator at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo dispatched a classified, encrypted message to the State Department in Washington, D.C., alerting policymakers that “the Japanese military forces planned, in the event of trouble with the United States, to attempt a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor using all of their military facilities.”

That’s right. More than 10 months before the Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into World War II, a State Department foreign service officer, in what was arguably the single most important intelligence report ever submitted in our country’s history, had provided the exact target on which Japan would actually launch its devastating attack.

This information had not been obtained by any super-sophisticated technical intercept nor by a spy, but rather by an American embassy officer from a “diplomatic” source, another foreign official who had close connections inside the Japanese government.

Once received at the State Department, that cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo was widely shared with appropriate offices across the government, including in the War Department, intelligence community and relevant military commands.

Yet, as U.S.-Japanese relations deteriorated during the following months and the day of the surprise attack grew close, with intelligence “chatter” in intercepts suggesting possible hostilities, this information was not considered by the president, the secretary of State, the secretary of War, nor any senior military commanders.

So when the Japanese planes shattered that sunny Honolulu morning, it came as a total shock to virtually everyone in the U.S. government. Thousands died who perhaps might have been saved had the information in that foreign service officer’s report been heeded and U.S. naval ships dispersed.

As officials and historians have debated how the United States suffered what was arguably the most ignominious event in our country’s distinguished military history, the only organization that can say that it fulfilled the mission of providing the critical information that might have prevented or mitigated this disaster was the American diplomatic corps, our professional foreign service.

I have enormous pride in having served for 32 years as a member of the U.S. foreign service, which traces its origins to the work of the Committees of Correspondence that traveled to Europe even before the Declaration of Independence, and which has been intimately involved in reporting on and shaping key events in our country’s history.

The critical accomplishments by career professional foreign service officers include providing key interactions with Boris Yeltsin at the most critical and decisive moments that helped ensure the complete collapse of the Soviet Union and influencing East German political leaders to make the key decisions that led to the Berlin Wall being torn down and Germany unified.

They coordinated the operation that resulted in the capture of North Korean terrorist operatives, created intelligence sharing mechanisms that allowed the capture of very senior Al Qaeda terrorist leaders. They have been shot at, wounded, blown up and killed when deployed with U.S. military forces in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and when assigned at embassies and consulates in multiple terrorist ridden places, such as Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi.

Few civilian organizations have endured the number of officers and staff killed and wounded in the line of duty as the State Department foreign service. The names of those who have died, from Barbary Pirates in the 18th century to Middle East terrorists today, are inscribed in black marble tablets in the ceremonial entrance of the State Department.

The sacrifices of the foreign service was particularly notable in Vietnam, where I served for almost six years and was wounded in a rocket attack during the war. One of the more egregious oversights in Ken Burns’s recent documentary was not highlighting the extraordinary role that civilian State and USAID foreign service officers, many with exceptional language skills, played when deployed in the war zone as part of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam.

The risks and casualties endured by the career foreign service has increased in numbers and intensity in recent decades as embassies and consulates are targets of terrorist attack. My family and I narrowly missed being harmed or killed when my ambassadorial residence in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was hit by a rocket and ringed in automatic weapons fire. My wife and I covered our three children with our bodies while I gave directions to the American community via radio.

If America is going to continue to play its role as a global leader, obtain information about those planning to attack our homeland and protect our citizens who are living all around the world, it needs a fully staffed professional foreign service and a fully funded State Department. The size of the cuts being discussed will inevitably result in  systematically degrading our diplomatic collection and protective systems by closing consulates and eliminating political reporting positions in embassies all over the globe.

As a result, we will not have the assessments of emerging radical fundamentalism or other threats that language-trained officers might provide about the new Al Qaeda or ISIS and allow us to prevent whatever would be the next 21st century equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

Kenneth Quinn is president of the World Food Prize Foundation. He served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and spent more than 30 years as a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.

Tags Diplomacy Donald Trump foreign service International State Department

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