Saturday, December 19, 2015

Day Sixty Nine. Influence: Donald L. Ranard

No one taught me to write for magazines. Beginning in 1955, I taught myself.

No one taught me to write books. Beginning in 1984, I taught myself.

Donald L. Ranard taught  me to write for government.

In 1970, I'd been in the Air Force in Korea (1957-60), had written for magazines (1960-65) and had completed tours of duty as a Foreign Service officer, or junior American diplomat, in Madagascar (1965-67) and Korea (1967-1969). I married Young Soon in 1968. We lived through a perilous era of tensions in Korea.

Now, as I'd requested, I was scheduled for a year in Vietnam. But at the last minute, that changed. I was wanted on the Korean Desk, otherwise called the Office of Korean Affairs (EA/K, in jargon), at the State Department in Washington. I became the junior-most of four desk officers working for Don to help shape U.S. Korea policy.

Too few

I've had few mentors. I've had only one good boss. So senior that it took weeks to get us to shake down to first-name basis, Don was that boss, a strong influence on my life and in every way a mentor and teacher.

In my time with him (1970-72), we shaped new policy and altered our military posture in Korea. But it will be remembered as a time of a witches' brew of tragedy, shaped by a corrupt regime in Seoul and carried out in Washington.

AsNorth Korea watcher,  I worried about hostility not from those in in the north—contrary to myth, quite predictable and sane—but from our allies in the south.

It was an era when Koreans were bribing Congressmen in Washington. Don will be remembered for exposing the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency's role in bribing Congressmen and Nixon officials, partly through businessman Park Tong-Sun, whom I met on occasion. Don tried to get the Justice Department to investigate and ran into resistance at a high level. At least one Nixon official was later found to have accepted $10,000 from Park. While this was going on, and beneath the nose of its staunch ally—the United States—the KCIA kidnapped opposition political figure Kim Tae-Chung from Japan. Don's intervention with this noxious period of the Seoul government of Park Chung Hee may have saved Kim's life.

There is no time clock for a senior official in the State Department. Though Don handled his long hours with apparent aplomb, I thought I observed an impact on his health.

It was the time when we were implementing force reductions in an attempt in the vain hope of helping South Korea to defend itself. Then, as now, a million men confronted each other across six kilometers of ground, Seoul now within artillery reach of the north.

Korea history

Don had been among American diplomats withdrawn from Seoul when the Korean War began June 25, 1950 along with our assistant-secretary boss, Marshall Green, a punster who liked to observe that, "These are the times that try Seoul's men." Don turned to me to follow North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung using both intelligence assets and open-source documents. I read Kim's speeches. It was a breakthrough. As I've observed elsewhere, our bloated intelligence community is good at counting main battle tanks and MiGs but poor at gauging the behavior of political leadership. We continue to fail at that task today.

My first assignment at my desk at 21st and Virginia Avenues was to compose the State Department statement marking the 20th anniversary of the Korean War. Someone else struggled with this and couldn't find the words. The task took me less than an hour. Don, who knew of my magazine writing in the men's adventure field, said something to the effect that, "I'm glad someone around here can write"—although no one was a better writer (or drafter, as we called it) than he, while I had a lot to learn.

Iworked for months on an analysis of Kim Il-Sung. Don't look for a copy at my next book signing event. It will never be declassified.

Following Don's rule never to use "impact" as a verb — he would hate what they've done to the English language today — I wrote about the issue of who would follow Kim. We know how that worked out but don't look for that document, either.

At State, you always revise the other fellow's draft. We struggled once  to decide whether a one-word cable to Ambassador William J. Porter should read "Agree" or "Concur."

Working with Don, I was promoted to the middle ranks. Young Soon and I bought a house in Alexandria, which we still own. Our son Robert Porter Dorr was born April 21, 1971.

Onward with State

My subsequent Foreign Service duties were at Japanese language school in Washington and in Fukuoka, Japan (1973-1974), where our son Jerry was born at Sasebo on February 21, 1974. We were posted in Liberia (1974-75) and I returned to Washington first to work on matters surrounding the fall of Saigon and thereafter to spend four years in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR (1975-1979), again following North Korea's Kim Il Sung.

I was consul in Stockholm, Sweden (1979-82) and in London England (1982-87). I returned to fill a miserable job following Contras in Nicaragua (1987) in INR. There, a fellow airman from three decades ago, Richard E. Ristaino also worked, having changed agencies after years as a CIA officer.

I had an exchange tour with the Defense Intelligence Agency (1988), worked briefly on refugee issues, and retired from the State Department at senior level on my 50th birthday, September 11, 1989.

Today is day sixty nine since symptoms and day sixteen since surgery as I face a fatal, primary brain tumor. I hope to enjoy a little more time to write about influences on my writing, professional and family life. I've already spent more years on this planet than Don. I will never forget the many times he influenced my thinking, improved my writing, and made me a better man,

Photos sent here are dated August 5, 1970. I cannot say how much I owe to Donald L. Ranard (January 13, 1917-July 22, 1990).


  1. Thank you, Robert. For your service, contribution to canon, both military and civilian, and for sharing something of your writer's path. I know that brain cancer is most devastating because of its effects on the mind. And that you will receive a thousand pieces of unsolicited advice from well-meaning people. Yet. I live in St. Pete, Florida and had occasion to be at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa yesterday long enough to read that neurosurgeons there are now treating inoperable brain tumors with laser surgery, a procedure that requires a one-day hospital stay and a single stitch in the head. My son died of treatment complications from brain tumor treatments he received twenty years ago. Light years in the medical world. Best of luck to you, however you continue. - Anne Visser Ney, USCGR, Retired CWO-4

  2. You have had an amazing life! Thank you for sharing.

  3. I'm "writing" my own book. I'm printing these pages out for my sons, Usher's grandsons, to read someday. I hope it will as thick as War and Peace.

  4. Your brilliance will never grow dull! xo

  5. Nice to see my dad's pun "These are the times that try Seoul's men." I lived with the Ranard family for a year, in Seoul and in the US. I miss Donald
    Ranard too.