Phillips Talbot, witness to history in India and Pakistan, dies at 95

Phillips Talbot once served as assistant secretary of state.
Phillips Talbot once served as assistant secretary of state. (Associated Press)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 11:44 PM

Phillips Talbot, 95, who as a young reporter provided firsthand accounts of India's independence from England and the founding of Pakistan and decades later used his expertise on South Asia as an assistant secretary of state, died of congestive heart failure Oct. 1 at his home in Manhattan.

Dr. Talbot took a roundabout path to diplomatic service that included work in journalism and at an academic foundation. He finished his career at the Asia Society, a nonprofit educational group in New York founded by John D. Rockefeller III. Dr. Talbot served as its president from 1970 to 1981.

He was a respected scholar and trusted adviser on South Asian and Near Eastern relations, and served in the mid-1960s as personal envoy for President Lyndon B. Johnson during private meetings with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

While he was primarily known for his work in Asian affairs, Dr. Talbot completed his stint with the State Department as U.S. ambassador to Greece in the late 1960s. It was a tumultuous period, marked by a military coup that he said took him by surprise. He helped normalize U.S. relations with the country's junta.

Dr. Talbot became interested in foreign affairs in the late 1930s and mid-1940s while traveling through South Asia on a journalism fellowship. He won audiences with politicians and spiritual leaders who played a crucial role in the development of India and Pakistan. He contributed stories to the Chicago Daily News, which eventually hired him as a foreign correspondent.

He walked alongside Mohandas K. Gandhi through the fields of the Noakhali district in the winter of 1947, not long after hundreds of Hindus were killed by Muslim mobs.

"The Gandhi march is an astonishing sight," Dr. Talbot later wrote, also noting that the septuagenarian walked barefoot and that the air was so cold Gandhi could see his own breath. "With a staff in one hand and the other on his granddaughter's shoulder, the old man briskly takes the lead as the sun breaks over the horizon."

He interviewed Gandhi weeks before the white-robed pacifist was assassinated. The reporter also formed relationships with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who became the first president of Pakistan, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India.

Dr. Talbot spoke Urdu and Hindustani and became intimately familiar with Indian culture by studying at what is now Aligarh Muslim University in India and also at a Vedic ashram. He practiced yoga more than half a century before it became an exercise craze in the West.

Dr. Talbot's 1958 book "India and America: A Study of Their Relations," co-written with Indian scholar S.L. Poplai, got favorable reviews.

In his New York Times review, A.H. Rosenthal, the paper's correspondent in India at the time, wrote that Dr. Talbot had a "wide and deep knowledge of Indian affairs and a patience that keeps him flopping into either of two ditches that await Americans in India - sourness and infatuation."

Rosenthal added that Dr. Talbot's work made for a "thoughtful book, thorough and painstaking.

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