A Tool of Diplomacy (And Oh So Cuddly)
Saturday, December 31, 2005
Before there could be a Tai Shan, there was Day Mount, crouching among the bamboo, bringing giant pandas into a waiting Western world.
Mount was the State Department's first panda officer. Chosen to escort Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling from Beijing to Washington in 1972, he was first in a line of diplomats who over three decades have helped ensure the panda program's success.
Unsung and less photogenic, they are America's boots in the bamboo, choreographing meetings between Chinese ministries and Western zoos, vetting panda loans, trucking up mountainsides with U.S. money for panda conservation.
"The pandas were the first in 35 years of effort to reach out [and] make cooperation with China part of the global good," said David Atkinson, a State Department global affairs officer whose portfolio has included pandas. "What started as a symbol became a very real scientific thing."
China's decision to share its pandas with the world has spurred a long-term scientific partnership to boost the bears' numbers and enhanced the diplomatic relationship between powerful, mutually suspicious nations.
"If all our bilateral programs were as successful as the panda program, our relations with China would be outstanding," said George Ward, officer on the State Department's China desk and its stateside panda contact.
Three decades ago, President Richard M. Nixon's historic trip to China was about breaking up the Sino-Soviet axis, not stocking the zoo. But the arrival of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling proved an equal work of statecraft.
The pandas were to come in a trade for Milton and Matilda, baby musk oxen coveted by the Chinese. The bears were scheduled to travel to Washington at a triumphant Nixon's side.
But days before the trip, Milton came down with a cold and couldn't fly. Protocol required that there be no pandas without oxen. "The president was terribly upset," said Mount, now 65 and retired. "He didn't want anyone to get credit for bringing the pandas to the U.S., so none of the high-ranking people could go."
So Mount, a junior diplomat who had schlepped luggage to the airport for Nixon's trip, was dubbed "gift officer." He told his wife he was flying to China but could not reveal his mission. He practiced eating with chopsticks and, on the way over, fed the sniffling Milton from a baby bottle.
Returning in a cargo plane loaded with Hsing-Hsing, Ling-Ling and bamboo, he tangled with Air Force personnel in Honolulu who confiscated the pandas' favorite food for pest control reasons, replacing it with Hawaiian-grown fare. He fretted that the bears wouldn't eat, would get overheated or would arrive jet-lagged.
"If something happened to them on the way, it could have reflected on the relationship," Mount said. "This was the public event that was going to seal that friendship."