Phillips Talbot, U.S. Journalist Who Followed Mahatma Gandhi, Dies at 95
Oct 6, 2010
By T. Rees Shapiro Oct. 6 (Washington Post) -- 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. One of the leading experts on India and Pakistan, Dr. Talbot was appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to serve as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. Howard B. Schaffer, a former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and a Georgetown University international relations professor, said in an interview that Dr. Talbot brought valuable academic and practical knowledge of South Asia to the State Department. "His was a voice of carefulness and reason," Schaffer said. "Unlike so many people who dealt with India and Pakistan at that time, Phil Talbot recognized that the U.S. had to be evenhanded. It was important for him to try to calm down the excitable ambassadors [in the region] who tended to take the views of the countries where they were stationed." In 1965, Dr. Talbot became the U.S. ambassador to Greece, a coveted billet within the State Department ranks at the time because of the country's lavish, marble-clad embassy and Mediterranean climate. He hosted champagne suppers for the king and queen and once had a Fourth of July party for 600 guests. Toward the end of his assignment, a military coup overthrew the Greek government on the morning of April 21, 1967. Dr. Talbot was asleep in his bed while tanks rumbled through the streets of Athens and was completely surprised when Armed Forces radio announced at 6:10 a.m. that the military had taken control of the country. Dr. Talbot was adamant that the United States was impartial throughout the transition. "You may be assured that there has been no American involvement in or, in fact, prior knowledge of the climactic events that those residing in this country have lived through in the past couple of years," Dr. Talbot told the New York Times in 1969 shortly before he returned home. Phillips Talbot was born June 7, 1915, in Pittsburgh and grew up in Wisconsin and Illinois. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1936 with journalism and political science degrees. He received a journalism fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs in 1938 and was sent to the University of London's prestigious School of Oriental Studies before traveling to South Asia. During World War II, he served in naval intelligence in the China-Burma-India theater. He received a doctorate in international relations from the University of Chicago in 1954. From 1951 to 1961, Dr. Talbot spent much of his time in South Asia as the executive director of the American Universities Field Staff, a group that sent scholars abroad to study and give lectures on foreign countries at U.S. universities. As part of his fellowship in the late 1930s, Dr. Talbot wrote a series of letters to the institute's director, Walter Rogers, reporting on his experiences in South Asia, which he compiled into a 2007 book, "An American Witness to India's Partition." For many years, Dr. Talbot was a consultant with the Kashmir Study Group, a think tank focused on fostering peace between India and Pakistan and mediation of control of the turbulent Kashmir region. In 2002, Dr. Talbot was given the Padma Shri Award by the government of India for his long-term efforts to stabilize relations with the United States. He married the former Mildred Aleen Fisher in 1943. She died in 2004. A son, Bruce Talbot, died in 2003. Survivors include two daughters, Susan Jacox of Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Rev. Nancy Talbot of New York; and a grandson. Throughout his time in South Asia, Dr. Talbot strove to immerse himself in the countries he visited. He often traveled on public transportation to get a ground-level view of the cultures. Knowing the risks, he demonstrated a decidedly non-Western lack of alarm when the unexpected happened While on an overnight train in India from Bombay to Poona, Dr. Talbot woke to find that his upper-class compartment companion - an otherwise friendly-seeming Indian - had absconded with all of the American's belongings, according to a profile in the New York Times. Dr. Talbot shrugged off the episode, even though all he had left was the underwear he wore to bed.