Saturday, December 12, 2015

Day Sixty Two. Influence: William J. Porter

"Bob, to succeed in the Foreign Service, you need to learn to operate a movie projector."

William J. Porter, U. S. ambassador to South Korea—a career diplomat and one of the most powerful Americans in Asia—screened a film at the pool in front of his residence for an audience of three—himself, a junior officer (me, age 28) and my 22-year-old graduate-student girl friend, Young Soon. Bill's own wife was out of town.

Never mind that a Foreign Service officer was not supposed to date a foreigner, let alone love or marry one—not in those days. Porter had taken an interest in us and invited us in particular to scrutinize the bride. Not for more than a decade had an American diplomat married a Korean. Months of hurdles lay ahead but because Porter cared we would eventually marry November 2, 1968.

Using a film to entertain harkened to those days in the Levant where Bill had begun as a code clerk in 1937. We'd all served in distant, lonely places where you had to make your amusements.

Other concerns
Not that Bill didn't have other stuff to think about.

I'd been in the Air Force in Korea (1957-60), had written for magazines (1960-65) and served one Foreign Service tour in Madagascar (1965-67), before arriving at our Seoul embassy in 1967.

In the terrible year that followed, the United States almost found itself caught up in a second, massive Asian land war on the scale of the one then occurring in Vietnam.

On January 21, 1968, small arms fire poured over my apartment as thirty-one North Korean commandos launched the Blue House raid in an attempt to kill President Park Chung-Hee. On  January 23, 1968, North Korean naval forces seized the U.S. intelligence ship the USS Pueblo (AGER 2) and held the crew for a year. On April 15, 1969, Kim Il Song's birthday, North Korean MiG-17 fighters—the same ones I'd monitored the previous decade—shot down an EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft and killed thirty-one Americans. There were constant fire fights in the much-mislabeled Demilitarized Zone. For the first time since 1953, American soldiers in Korea were being awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge. Our air build-up following the Pueblo brought hundreds of warplanes in Korea.

All this and more. We changed our immigration law on July 1, 1968, altering forever the demographic of our own country. I was in charge of all immigration visas in Seoul, a duty that occupies seventeen consular officers today.

Porter later worked alongside Henry Kissinger on the Paris peace talks. In the 1970s, I worked with him in our efforts to reduce the U S. military presence by pulling an infantry division off the line (success), ending the U.S. troop presence along the DMZ (success) and cutting our troop strength (failure).

A mentor
It says in the Wikipedia entry about me that William J. Porter (1914-1988) was my mentor. Not exactly. He was more a kind, authority figure who found a little time — stolen from serious duty — to encourage romance in the consular section at a time of conflict and turmoil.

Thanks to a law covering expeditious naturalization, Young Soon became a U.S. citizen in August 1969. This enabled me to hold clearances when I worked as the State Department's North Korean watcher, 1970-72 and 1976-79. For years, I was the only person who read all of Kim Il Sung's speeches, releases and position papers. U.S. intelligence has always been good at counting artillery tubes, main battle tanks and MiGs, but poor at reading North Korea's leaders.

I read them every day.

It has been my privilege to walk among great men. Bill Porter was one.

It is no coincidence that our first son, born in 1971, is Robert Porter Dorr.


  1. It sure is great to see you back writing again, Bob.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

  3. William J. Porter was my grandfather. I was remembering him today, the 29th anniversary of his death, and found your blog. It made me smile to see that you named your son (born one year after me) Robert Porter Dorr. Thank you for that. I wish you and your family health and happiness today and everyday. Christina (Clark) Boxma