James M. Wilson Jr., 91

James Wilson, 91: set up State Dept. human rights program

James M. Wilson Jr. launched annual country reports on human rights in 1975.
James M. Wilson Jr. launched annual country reports on human rights in 1975. (State Department)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

James M. Wilson Jr., 91, a career diplomat who established the State Department's human rights program and became its first coordinator, died Nov. 15 at Ingleside at Rock Creek retirement community in Washington. He had heart disease.

In 1975, Mr. Wilson launched the annual country reports on human rights practices that have become authoritative references for government officials and scholars.

The reports had been ordered by Congress, which declared that military security aid would be cut or denied to any country engaged in gross violations of human rights. American diplomats and intelligence officials around the globe resisted the directive, and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried to keep the reports classified, Mr. Wilson said in an interview for a Foreign Service oral history project.

But Congress insisted, and when six of the country reports were leaked to the press, "we got some really rather violent reaction from the countries concerned," Mr. Wilson said. However, the precedent had been set, and the reports continue.

James Morrison Wilson Jr. was born July 8, 1918, to American missionaries in Mokansan, China. He grew up in Hangzhou and Shanghai. After the Japanese occupied Shanghai, his family boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad and made its way out of China in 1935, through the Soviet Union and Europe to the United States. Mr. Wilson enrolled in Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1939. He received a master's degree in 1940 from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

Mr. Wilson was a newspaper reporter in Louisville for a short time and joined the Kentucky National Guard. He was on a ship to the island of Corregidor in the Pacific when Pearl Harbor was bombed. His unit was activated, and Mr. Wilson was in the Army for the duration of World War II. He served in North Africa, Italy and France and became an aide to Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr. By the time of his discharge, Mr. Wilson was a lieutenant colonel and had received two awards of the Bronze Star Medal and two Purple Hearts.

He graduated from Harvard's law school in 1948 and joined the Pentagon, where he spent the next nine years negotiating agreements for U.S. bases abroad.

Mr. Wilson transferred to the State Department in 1957 and served in Washington, Paris and Madrid. In 1964, he became deputy chief of mission in Bangkok as the Vietnam War was beginning. He served in the same role in Manila, another base of operations for the Vietnam War, from 1966 to 1970.

When he returned to Washington, he was made deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific and was thrust immediately into the burgeoning controversy over the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of American involvement in Vietnam that a disaffected Rand Corp. analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, was trying to make public.

"That was an experience I don't want to go through again," Mr. Wilson said in his oral history interview. "I had three days of no sleep. We were running a deadline trying to put together a list of examples from the Pentagon Papers of the areas where our national security would be compromised by the Papers' publication. . . . We tried to go through all of these thousand pages or so and come up with material which we could give to the solicitor general, Erwin Griswold, in his argument before the Supreme Court."

"We couldn't find anything," he added.

After suffering a heart attack, Mr. Wilson was assigned to the White House to negotiate the end of the Micronesia trusteeship, which brought the Northern Mariana Islands into the United States as a commonwealth. In 1975, he was named deputy director of the presidential task force overseeing the resettlement of refugees and began his final government assignment as the State Department's leader in human rights.

After retiring in 1978, Mr. Wilson served on the boards of the International Rescue Committee and International Student House and was an adviser to the Montgomery County Commission on Human Rights. He volunteered to record books for the blind and monitored trails for the C&O Canal Association.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Joan Rathvon Wilson of Washington; five children, James Morrison Wilson of Gaithersburg, Julia Wilson of Stillwater, Minn., Peter Wilson of Exton, Pa., Martha Martinez del Rio of Laramie, Wyo., and John F. Wilson of Denver; a sister; and 17 grandchildren.

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