In the summer of 2011, two former diplomats wrote a pointed commentary for The Globe and Mail. Unlike most submissions from this quarter, theirs was about art.
They were protesting against the removal of a pair of “monumental” paintings from the great hall of the Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa, the seat of Canada’s foreign ministry.
“No two images tell the story of Canada better,” the authors lamented. In their place was a photograph of the Queen.
A generation earlier, the two men had arranged to hang the paintings there. Now they were asking the government to put them back. One was Allan Gotlieb, the former under-secretary of state for External Affairs and ambassador to Washington. The other was Thomas Delworth, who died in Ottawa on Oct. 29. He was 83.
He, like Gotlieb, had a brilliant career, immersed in the great issues of his time from perches around the world. His mind was fertile, eclectic and expansive, focusing foremost on diplomacy and statecraft while savouring the grace notes of life, particularly language (he spoke French, German and Swedish), literature (he listened to Homer in his car) and music (he loved opera.) It is why, even as an octogenarian, he was in the pages of The Globe, pressing for art in the public sphere.
Over 37 years, William Thomas Delworth was Canada’s ambassador to Indonesia, Hungary, Sweden and Germany, with assignments to Saigon, Hanoi and Geneva. In Ottawa, among many roles, he was an assistant deputy minister and special adviser in the department.
After leaving the government, he taught at Queen’s University, Carleton University and the University of Toronto, where he was a visiting professor and provost of Trinity College from 1996 to 2002. He was also a builder: he helped create the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in 1984, and was a founding co-chair of the Canadian committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific.
Delworth, again like Gotlieb, was a late member of that storied generation of diplomats who represented Canada at the height of its influence in the postwar world. In 1956, the year he joined the Department of External Affairs, Lester Pearson famously brokered an end to the Suez Crisis. Three years later, John F. Kennedy called Canada’s foreign service “probably unequalled by any other nation.”
If that was so, Delworth was one of the reasons. Like those older gentlemen generalists, he was deeply intellectual, highly cultured and elegant in speech and manner.
Born on Feb. 24, 1929, near Weston, Ont., he called himself “a blue-eyed farm boy.” He attended Weston Collegiate and Vocational School and studied at the University of Toronto, graduating with a BA in psychology in 1951 and an MA in modern history in 1956. His first diplomatic position was in the Far Eastern Division; his first posting was to Stockholm in 1959, as second secretary. He left there to represent Canada as the senior political adviser to the International Commission for Supervision and Control in Saigon and Hanoi.
Returning to Ottawa, for six years he monitored America’s wasting land war in Indochina. Later, he served in Geneva as head of the delegation to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, where he pushed for key human rights provisions in the Helsinki Final Act.
In 1970, he was named Ambassador to Indonesia. Five years later, he went to Budapest, in the heat of the Cold War, serving as ambassador from 1975 to 1978. Colin Robertson, who had then recently joined the foreign service, remembers Delworth’s incisive cables from Hungary, reliably distinctive among the deluge of overnight dispatches.
The writing, recalls Robertson, reflecting a skilled practitioner with a first-class mind and first-rate access.
“For a young officer, this was the craft at its best,” says Robertson. “This is what you aspired to. His pieces were that good.”
Robertson also remembers Delworth as tough and unsentimental: “He was a cold warrior. He and his ilk were not idealists. They were very much aware of power. They knew you had to have hard power to have soft power.”
Delworth held fast to that belief. Returning to Sweden, he served as ambassador from 1984 to 1987, and then as ambassador to Bonn from 1987 to 1992. There, he watched the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, offering advice to German leaders at that pivotal moment.
Peter Boehm, who had also met Delworth early in his diplomatic career, considered him an accomplished public servant.
“I was impressed by his steely intellect, his attention to detail and his ability to offer strategic advice. When he wrote strategic messages, everyone read them.”
Boehm, Canada’s Ambassador to Germany, notes that Delworth was particularly effective as head of Canada’s delegation to the CSCE Conference on Confidence and Security Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe, which ended in 1986.
“He was quietly involved, looking for openings and opportunities for Canada. He did some of this best work there.”
Other former colleagues remember Delworth with respect and reserve. “He didn’t suffer fools gladly,” says one, a sentiment shared by others. Delworth had a sense of self-regard and exacting standards that disdained sloppiness in writing, for example. “I really do despair, as an old man, about the fate of language,” Delworth told The Globe and Mail in 2007. “It has become very vulgarized.” Asked how many dictionaries he owned, he responded: “You mean just the ones in English?”
As a diplomat, he wielded a sharp pen, known to rebuke untutored subordinates on the correct use of the singular and plural. As an educator, he was appalled by the use of expletives among students at Trinity. “It’s simply inconsistent with the purpose of the college,” he lamented. He conceded that “my indignation” would do little to change that. When he banned the Episkopon, a secret society accused of racism and homophobia, the subsequent criticism did not diminish his affection for the college or his office. At the University of Toronto, he led a fundraising campaign, which established the Munk School of Global Studies, as well as creating scholarships for students in need.
Delworth recalled episodes in his feverish career in a poignant conversation one afternoon last April. His illness was sapping his energy and dimming his eyesight. Yet he was gracious as he welcomed a visitor in slippers and robe in the library of his home in Rockcliffe, Ottawa’s leafy diplomatic quarter. He had only months to live.
Saigon, he said, was his least favourite assignment, albeit the liveliest. He hadn’t wanted to leave Stockholm but he “got saddled with the job.” Landing in Vietnam the spring of 1963, he found it a hothouse.
“It was unreal,” he said, “like living in the comic strip of Terry and the Pirates.” The Buddhists were in revolt over the repressive regime of President Diem, an authoritarian Catholic whose devotion to the philosophy of personalism Delworth called “a funny French frippery.”
On June 10, 1963, in protest, a gasoline-soaked Buddhist monk set himself on fire in central Saigon. Delworth arrived minutes later to see steam rising from the pavement.
“I don’t think we realized what had really happened – that the Buddhists were so angry about their government that they would do this,” he said.
A grisly photograph of the burning monk appeared around the world. It shocked John F. Kennedy, who began to question U.S. support for the regime.
Vietnam was falling into chaos. “I learned early on that this was more than I bargained for,” Delworth said. He watched the unravelling of Diem, who was murdered in a coup backed by the United States that November.
“I was the first person in the palace after it fell to the rebels,” recalled Delworth. “I remember dodging bullets. It was mayhem.”
Personally, Delworth supported the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. He said the war was right but the approach wrong. “The U.S. muffed it badly,” he added. “But I don’t blame the Americans for trying to do what they did.”
Unlike Gotlieb, Delworth did not publish a diary; he showed no interest in self-advertisement. In what was probably the last interview of his life, he politely declined an offer to record the conversation for use in a memoir.
Thomas Delworth leaves his wife, Pamela, and son, Christopher. A memorial service is to be held this afternoon at the Church of St. Bartholomew in Ottawa.
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