Colin Powell began his tour as secretary of state with a stirring statement of respect for the professionalism and expertise of the Foreign Service, and a pledge to make full use of it during his time in office. In this spirit, I'd like to invite the secretary to join in an effort I've been working on for some time to honor another American diplomat, one who died 13 years ago without ever receiving his due from this country for the considerable services he rendered to humanity.
His name was Hiram "Harry" Bingham IV. The son of a U.S. senator from Connecticut (and former governor), he became an extraordinary unsung hero of the American diplomatic corps. Bingham jeopardized both his career and his life in the early years of World War II to help rescue between 2,500 and 5,000 Jews and anti-Nazi activists while he was stationed in Marseilles, France. For this work in the years 1939-41, he was reassigned (his wife was denied permission to join him) and held back professionally through the rest of his career.
Although Bingham in later years didn't talk much about his lifesaving work, he played a pivotal role in the rescue of many scholars and notable artists. Among them were a friend he greatly admired, painter Marc Chagall, and the anti-Nazi writer Franz Werfel, author of "The Song of Bernadette." As Robert Kim Bingham, one of his 11 children, noted, he put humanity before his career.
Hiram Bingham disregarded the orders of his superiors as he secretly issued visas and gave aid to thousands fleeing from the Nazis through southern France. Under the shadow of France's Vichy regime, he harbored many of the most wanted refugees at his diplomatic residence.
The summer of 1940 was a time when protecting Jews had become not only a dangerous act in France but, incredibly, a violation of U.S. State Department policies. Nonetheless, Bingham assisted U.S. journalist-turned-rescuer Varian Fry in implementing daring escapes. (Fry wrote that Bingham was his "partner in the 'crime' of saving human lives.")
Luminaries who were trapped in France and who in large measure owe their lives to Bingham include Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Otto Meyerhof; historical novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, known for his damning literary attack on Hitler; and historian Golo Mann, son of novelist Thomas Mann.
A decade after Bingham's death, his three sons had the honor of planting a tree for their father at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. He was among diplomats honored by Israel for breaking rules and laws to save lives during World War II.
Early in 1999, realizing the importance of an American symbol to memorialize his father, Kim Bingham wrote to the U.S. Postal Service's Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee to propose the issuance of a commemorative stamp as a tribute. His quest for approval of a commemorative stamp is an uphill journey. Each year the CSAC receives proposals for some 2,000 different subjects. From these, the committee recommends a limited number to the postmaster general.
But the proposal for a Bingham stamp has gained the support of more than a third of the members of the U.S. Senate, and for good reason. Not only would it provide a belated honor to one who deserves it; such a stamp would serve as a reminder to the men and women of the Foreign Service that members of the diplomatic corps ought never lose sight of basic American principles -- freedom, justice and human rights -- in the conduct of the nation's foreign policy.
Ilene Munetz Pachman is a freelance writer.