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Remembering James Lilley

By Will Inboden Ambassador James Lilley died on November 12. With his passing, America also lost one of its most accomplished Asia-hands. It is perhaps a fitting tribute to his legacy that his death occurred the same day that President Obama departed for an Asia shaped so much for the better by the devoted lifetime ...

By Will Inboden

Ambassador James Lilley died on November 12. With his passing, America also lost one of its most accomplished Asia-hands. It is perhaps a fitting tribute to his legacy that his death occurred the same day that President Obama departed for an Asia shaped so much for the better by the devoted lifetime of service of Ambassador Lilley and his fellow statesmen. 

When Lilley joined the CIA in 1951 upon his graduation from Yale, Asia was convulsed with conflict and poverty, and communism seemed to be everywhere ascendant. China had just two years earlier fallen to Mao Zedong, foreshadowing years of isolation and totalitarian brutality. American troops were mired in a bloody stalemate on the Korean peninsula, trying to prevent Chinese forces from completing communist North Korea's invasion of the South. Taiwan was a beleaguered, impoverished island outpost for Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists. Japan was a traumatized, war-torn nation in the nativity phase of its reconstruction. Southeast Asia was convulsed by anticolonialist nationalisms that often blended with communist insurgencies. 

By Will Inboden

Ambassador James Lilley died on November 12. With his passing, America also lost one of its most accomplished Asia-hands. It is perhaps a fitting tribute to his legacy that his death occurred the same day that President Obama departed for an Asia shaped so much for the better by the devoted lifetime of service of Ambassador Lilley and his fellow statesmen. 

When Lilley joined the CIA in 1951 upon his graduation from Yale, Asia was convulsed with conflict and poverty, and communism seemed to be everywhere ascendant. China had just two years earlier fallen to Mao Zedong, foreshadowing years of isolation and totalitarian brutality. American troops were mired in a bloody stalemate on the Korean peninsula, trying to prevent Chinese forces from completing communist North Korea’s invasion of the South. Taiwan was a beleaguered, impoverished island outpost for Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists. Japan was a traumatized, war-torn nation in the nativity phase of its reconstruction. Southeast Asia was convulsed by anticolonialist nationalisms that often blended with communist insurgencies. 

Over the next four decades, Jim Lilley’s career embodied Asia’s remarkable transformation and America’s evolving posture in the region. Born and raised in China, throughout his life he combined a deep and abiding affection for Asia with a patriot’s love for America.  It seemed he was in the middle of almost every significant conflict or foreign policy development. He ran clandestine operations in China and the "secret war" in Laos, became the first CIA station chief in Beijing after the Nixon-Kissinger opening, helped solidify the US defense commitment to Taiwan, and played a key role as U.S. Ambassador in encouraging South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987. He served as Ambassador to China during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and for over a year afterwards sheltered Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi in the US Embassy compound. Ambassador Lilley demonstrated throughout his career that American interests and values need not be in conflict, that a wise Asia policy combines pragmatic cooperation with the regimes in power and principled commitments to universal values of human liberty and dignity. By the end of his government service, Asia was incomparably more prosperous, stable, and free.

As a junior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute some years ago, I had the privilege of knowing Ambassador Lilley during the twilight of his career and the early stages of my own. He was invariably engaging, animated, opinionated, and always ready to dispense bits of wisdom gleaned over a lifetime with the captivating style of an accomplished raconteur. His memoir China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, written with his son Jeff, is an elegant model of erudition and insight, a profoundly moving family chronicle, and an indispensable resource for understanding the relationship between the United States and Asia in the 20th century.        

In short, his was a life lived in the spirit of his beloved alma mater: for God, for country, and for Yale. May he rest in peace.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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