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Independence days: How the American government came to PNG

Mary-olmstedMARY OLMSTED

In the decades following World War II, as colonies across the globe gained independence, the United States worked to establish embassies and consulates in these new nations, some in the remotest areas of the world. Papua New Guinea, which gained autonomy from Australia on 16 September 1975, was one such case. Mary Olmsted was assigned as the first US consul general to PNG in early 1975 and was later became the first US ambassador upon independence.

I HAD been in Washington for a long time and I was looking for an onward assignment and was getting nowhere with it when, one day, there crossed my desk a big fat memorandum asking for permission to open a new post in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

As I thumbed through the memo I thought to myself, “I wonder what poor devil we will send to the jungles of New Guinea?” But somehow it stuck in my mind.

I didn’t know anything about New Guinea — hardly anybody did. I looked it up out of curiosity in my encyclopaedia which gave me just very little information, and I stopped by the library and looked up a little bit more about it, and somehow it just stuck in my mind. I began to think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to open up a new post?”

So I thought it over very, very carefully, the pros and the cons. I didn’t have an assignment, nothing was on the horizon, I’d been turned down for two or three, and, why not, and see what would happen.

So I wrote a memorandum to the Director General and sent copies of it to the Director of Personnel, the head of assignments, and everybody else I could think of, and said I would like to be considered to open the post, which would open as a Consulate General in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Well, dead silence ensued. And several days later the Director-General came into my office with my memo in hand, and he said, “You really mean this?”

And I said, “Yes, I do.”

And he said, “If you mean it, I can get that assignment for you.” But he said, “I want to be sure you mean it.”

I said, “Yes, I mean it.”

So indeed he delivered. There was some protest from the desk level in the geographic bureau, but I weathered that storm. The desk thought it was nonsense to send a woman to Papua New Guinea.

That point was made very clear, and in writing, and when I got that memo I had to laugh a little bit. I said they won’t dare cancel this assignment now that there is written evidence that cancellation would be on the basis of discrimination.

I learned considerably later, toward the end of my tour there, that the government of PNG, the people who were running the country, were very puzzled when the United States sent a woman there as their first representative, and they didn’t know how to take it until the US named Anne Armstrong as ambassador to the United Kingdom.

They read about that in Time Magazine, and they thought, “Well, the United States sent a woman to London, and they sent one to Port Moresby.” And they felt that kind of put them in the same league as the United Kingdom, and they felt very pleased about it.

Then they began to say, “We, too, should have women who are able to take high positions in our government. We should train them and bring them along and give them appointments.”

And I think my appointment there had something to do with improving the status of women in Papua New Guinea, and their ambassador here [in 2004 was] a woman.

The Department sent in an advance team consisting of the young man who was to become our administrative officer and another young man who was sent out from the Department. They looked around to try to locate both housing and office space for us. Then my secretary went out [to New Guinea] a few days before I did.

When I arrived we moved into some rather shabby quarters over a lunch counter and a bookstore. There was no furniture in our quarters. We had ordered office furniture from Australia, but obviously it wouldn’t get there for a couple of months. So we borrowed three battered desks and five chairs from the people we were renting the space from. These were straight chairs, not swivel chairs.

As I say, these offices were a bit grubby. They were carpeted with large squares of blue and bluish-green cheap carpeting, and curtains were orange and white. The offices were broken down into little rabbit warrens. There were just these little rabbit warrens.The floors creaked when we walked across them.

We took out one of the walls to make a slightly larger office for me. We did little shopping locally. Things were expensive, and there wasn’t very much variety.

One day when we had three visitors and all our staff of three were there, one person had to stand because we only had five chairs. So I told the administrative officer, “For goodness sakes, go out and buy a few chairs locally and we can use them,” and we did.

We also bought a large heavy table to put out Telex on, got the Telex installed, and that linked us up first with Australia and then later with Washington. We felt a little bit more in touch with things.

Then one day our shipment from [Embassy] Tokyo arrived. When a new post is opened, they always ask one of the large embassies in the area to make up a shipment of things that a new post will need and send them down.

Well, obviously Tokyo cleaned out its attic when it made its shipment for us. This great big lift van arrived and was opened up, and the things were put in boxes in the reception room.

We opened them one by one, and the stationery, envelopes, and consular forms, and seals and rubber stamps and all kinds of things that we needed, and there were paper clips. We couldn’t get any paper clips locally. Running an office without paper clips is a bit of a challenge.

They also sent our flags. They sent one flag that was nineteen feet long, and we had to open it up through the doors of three offices to see what size it was. I’m sure it was the largest flag in all of PNG. We found exactly one use for it all the time that I was there: we strung it up on the Bicentennial Fourth of July.

So little by little, we did get established. Our shipment of office furniture arrived from Australia after a few months, and we had swivel chairs and real desks and desk lamps and all sorts of things that made us feel that we were coming up in the world.

It wasn’t until the end of the year that we really felt that we were fully operational. By that time, other personnel had arrived. The American staff consisted of a political officer, an economic-commercial officer who initially did consular work, an administrative officer, and two secretaries, one of whom also served as the code clerk/communications clerk.

And we started hiring locals, and we decided that we would hire Papua New Guineans, not Australians. We got the word out on the grapevine that we were looking for people, and we had to train them.

I had a very young American staff, they were very good in training the local people. They really made an all-out effort. My secretary was teaching touch typing to the local staff; others were encouraging them to take correspondence courses from Washington and helping them with that. There was a very good feeling among the local staff and my junior officers.

A lot of new legislation was being passed, things that were of interest in Washington such as the basic laws on mineral rights, and mining, and things like that. And I had a very competent political officer who could study a vast mass of material, and write a very sharp paper: Mark Easton. He did a lot of basic reporting on labour laws, and other things that would be of interest to an American corporation going to PNG.

And also there was a very intense political situation, politics at the country level. New political parties were being established, they were breaking apart, and still newer ones were being formed, and people were defecting from this party to that party and so on.

Mark called me up from the parliament one day. He said, “I think they’re going to take the decisive vote on independence. Come on down.”

So I went down, got in the visitor’s gallery, and sat there and watched as the chief minister [Michael Somare], as he was then called, made a very impassioned plea for them to vote for independence as of a certain date. The vote was taken, and was in favour of independence, and I was one of the first to congratulate him.

[Somare] told me this story later. The night before the crucial vote was taken he had a dream where he was back in his native village, and he was in his canoe and was paddling.

He said it was moving very rapidly over the water, and he was just going along at a great rate and he felt very calm, and very confident, and when he woke up he thought, “This is the way my drive for independence is going to go.”

So when he got to his office he called up the leader of the opposition and said, “I’m going to press for a vote on independence today in parliament.” And the leader of the opposition said, “I’ll fight you all the way on this.”

I was in the visitor’s box which happened to be right next to where the leader of the opposition sat, and usually one of his Australian advisers would sit in the visitor’s box and pass him notes. But the Australian adviser was off someplace having a beer or something and the leader of the opposition didn’t have any guidance, so the vote went through. And it all turned out just the way the canoe ride predicted.

On the day of independence, we had a little ceremony elevating the consulate general to the status of embassy, and we unveiled our plaque which read “Embassy of the United States” in place of the one that said “Consulate General of the United States.” I became the chargé d’affaires.

Then I think sometime in late October I got the cable saying that President [Gerald] Ford wanted to appoint me as ambassador, and was this agreeable with me. I sent back a very quick cable saying, “Yes, I’d be delighted!”

My name was eventually sent up to the Senate, and I was confirmed in absentia. We had a little ceremony in my office, at which I was sworn in by my consular officer. I just had my office staff and I invited a couple of people from the Foreign Office [and] we broke out the champagne.

There was a great ceremony sponsored by the government to celebrate independence. It was treated rather casually by Washington, which was not terribly eager to get up a great big delegation.

The Australian adviser in the Department of Foreign Affairs said to me privately that he hoped the United States would not send a large or a high-level delegation. He said, “It’s going to be very difficult for us to provide the kind of security you would expect.” And I think that was true.

Washington sent the Governor of Iowa, who was then Chairman of the Governors Association, and the mayor of Ft Lauderdale, who [eventually became] a Member of Congress, and their wives came up on a special plane from Australia which brought a large number of the independence visitors and delegates.

The Australian flag is loweredWhen they arrived at the airport in Port Moresby, the tarmac was filled with many groups of tribal people dancing in tribal ceremonial costumes, dancing and singing. It was just a kaleidoscope of colour. It was a sight you can’t imagine.

And as they were coming down the ramp of the plane, our delegation saw all this. It just blew their minds. I could hardly get the American delegation in their official car they were so busy taking pictures.

And then there was the ceremony which the Prince of Wales attended; he was the representative of the Throne. They had a few important people sitting on a little bench at this ecumenical service, which was in the Catholic cathedral, and of this group one of them came in tribal costume with his bow and arrow. And among the congregation there were a few people in tribal costumes.

I might tell you there had been quite an argument in the diplomatic corps among the men as to what the proper dress was going to be for these occasions, and the British were holding out for the most formal regalia possible, black tie, if not white tie, and cutaways, and all that.

The Australians weren’t about to go into that sort of thing, and moreover they didn’t want the British trying to tell them what the proper dress was in their own backyard. Things got a little tense in some of the diplomatic corps meetings.

I sat there and enjoyed it thoroughly. Listening to men wrangling over what clothes they were going to wear can be quite funny.

I saw that our objectives were to demonstrate a friendly interest in a newly independent country, and that meant a lot of PR work, and a lot of what I did was essentially PR. What our interests were initially, very little. Potentially we might have an interest in their very considerable natural resources. And we might eventually have some very heavy investment there.

We were also interested in seeing that difficulties with the Indonesians should not develop. A border war would be a very nasty thing. Indonesia could go in and wipe out the Papua New Guinean government, there’s not much question about that, I think.

They would have a great deal of trouble in conquering the countryside, but they could march in if they so desired. I didn’t think that was a likely prospect, but who knows what turn of events will take place and when, and this was something that Washington wanted to keep an eye on.

Mary Olmsted was interviewed by Ann Miller Morin in 1985 and Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1992


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Richard Jones

Quite a few of we Aussie 'poor devils' traipsed up to PNG, just as Mary did.

Many of us well before the mid-seventies, too. Decades before, in truth.

Very interesting reading, even if the story emanates from interviews carried out quite some time back. Especially the reflection that Indonesian troops could easily march in and 'wipe out' the existing PNG government.

Mind you, I believe the PNGeans would have proved excellent guerrilla fighters harassing the Indonesians as their supply line --- and indeed their front line troops --- straggled along in very inhospitable country.

There are a couple of contributors on this blogsite who know a lot about the PNG-Indonesia relationship situation from the seventies and eighties. Retired now, they were active 'spooks' back in the day.

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