Fulbright Alumni Archives

Jeremy Hearder: Diplomat, Author, and Fulbright Scholar

Despite the stereotypical image of ambassadors living an elegant and easy lifestyle, the majority of ambassadors whom the author has met have been typically modest and unpretentious to the extent that the old grandiose image is no longer true – if it ever was.

One example is Jeremy Hearder, Fulbright Traveling Scholar (and Rotary Foundation Fellow) during 1959-60. Afterwards in the course of 38 years’ service up to 1996 as an Australian diplomat, he was assigned to missions abroad in Laos, Tanzania, Thailand, Kenya, Belgium and New Zealand. He was also Head of Mission (ie Ambassador) in Zimbabwe, and then in Fiji, and Consul-General in Chicago.

Understated and unassuming, Hearder’s mild demeanour and enigmatic smile belie a razor-sharp analytical mind, honed by decades of service to Australian foreign relations.

We asked Jeremy to reflect on his time as a Fulbright Scholar, a diplomat, and an author.

What first prompted you to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship?

“I studied American history in my final year at Melbourne University, became fascinated with it, and applied when the opportunity came, hoping to learn more.

“A fundamental benefit for me at age 22, after graduating, was to learn at first hand about the United States, which at that time few Australians had the opportunity to do.

“This later proved invaluable, given Australia’s close bilateral relationship, and the numerous Americans whom I came across, while serving abroad as a diplomat.

“That year in America also brought home to me the value of getting to know a people in their own surroundings, being better able to understand their outlook, and their great qualities. And it was a further benefit to be able to view the US from the campus of one of the greatest universities, Stanford.”

What was your experience of Stanford University?

“There was so much opportunity of all sorts. For example a dazzling list of visiting speakers included both Vice President Nixon and then Senator J. F. Kennedy, later the endorsed candidates for the presidential elections in 1960.

“The library resources for historical study were fantastic. I was encouraged to do my thesis on the aviator Charles Lindbergh and his role among isolationists attempting to keep the USA out of the Second World War.

“This subject was instructive on several levels, not least on the attitude at the time of so many Americans towards Europe, wanting to avoid involvement in problems of the Old World.

What were some standout experiences from your time in the U.S.?

“I was lucky to have the experience of living on campus, simply because at the start of the year one fraternity house still lacked a resident adviser, a post which I was happy to fill. This enabled me to get to know well about 60 young American men from all parts of the US.

“Right from my first arrival I was treated with great kindness by many people, notably some Stanford alumni.

“I also received some extraordinary hospitality. One special example occurred when I embarked on 6 weeks of travel around the States, before returning home. I started at a foreign students’ conference at Williamsburg, Virginia, which was sponsored by one of America’s wealthiest families, the Rockefellers, with Winthrop Rockefeller in attendance.

“At one point in the proceedings I responded to a comment about the level of interest shown by American students in their politics. I cannot remember what I said, but soon afterwards I was tapped on the shoulder by the personal assistant of Mrs Jeanette Rockefeller, who invited me to lunch with her.

“She was very nice, and at the end of the lunch she wrote down for me the telephone number and address of their home near Little Rock, Arkansas, and invited me to visit if I was in the area.

“A few weeks later I called the number, and who should answer the phone but Winthrop Rockefeller himself. He gallantly claimed to remember who I was, and when I told him that his wife had invited me to visit, and that I would be arriving by train the following day, he said he would send one of his pilots to meet me and fly me up to his ranch.

“His house was beautiful, with a 180 degree view of Arkansas. It was a special time, approaching the Republican National Convention. Winthrop Rockefeller was waiting to hear whether his brother Nelson planned to run against Nixon for the Republican candidacy. After a few days there, I told my host that I should move on to Oklahoma. He replied that it would probably be simplest if he flew me there.

“I took off next day in a Beechcraft, with two pilots, but we had to land soon after takeoff as the radio was not working. The pilots called back to Little Rock, and another plane with two more pilots was sent out. This one was a ten-seater, with four engines.

“The first two pilots came along for the ride, and my friend at Cherokee, Oklahoma, was very impressed by my mode of arrival.”

What does it mean to be an Ambassador?

“The main functions for an Australian diplomatic mission in another country are to represent Australia, to protect our interests and our nationals there, to conduct negotiations, to report on the local scene to Canberra, and to promote friendly relations.

“In brief the role of an ambassador is to encourage and help the Mission staff in doing all this, and to be personally involved in all the more important aspects, especially those at high level.

“An ambassador takes ultimate responsibility for the mission, its work and its welfare.

“Over the years the importance for ambassadors of public speaking has vastly increased and I found that the speaking opportunities that I had in my year in the USA were invaluable preparation. Similarly important is getting the feel of a country, and I think I did begin to get some feel for the USA.

“Of the nine postings that we had, Zimbabwe stands out for a number of reasons. Being there in the first four years of independence was a time when, for a new country, things went well, and it was only years after we had left that sadly, things went so bad.

“Somehow the Hearder family frequently had very short notice of a move, and so it was with Zimbabwe. I had three quick weeks briefing in Canberra, then left, leaving Kay to pack, sell the car, and leave our two older children in boarding schools.

“There was a special newness: the foreign diplomats were new of course, but so were so many locals who came back after years spent overseas, often with higher degrees from the best universities abroad. We shared the process of settling in, for example we lent our vacuum cleaner to the Minister of Finance!

“Australia had a special standing with the new Government because of the role Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had played in helping the country achieve a cease-fire, elections and independence.

“Our aid programme was small compared with many others, but it made an impact, for example by having over 200 Australian secondary school teachers working in schools throughout the country.”

You wrote the highly regarded biography of Sir James Plimsoll (Jim Plim Ambassador Extraordinary), which took 17 years. What motivated you to write his story?

“One reason was that I do not think there is a sufficient understanding of what ambassadors actually do, and that Plimsoll’s story might help.

“Jim Plim did extraordinary things in his career – as an ambassador he not only managed to establish trust and respect of important local people, but such people would actually approach him for advice.

“His standing in Washington DC was established as far back as his time in Korea in 1950-52, a tense time during the Cold War, for the influence that he was able to exert with the despotic President Syngman Rhee of South Korea.

“One night, at a time when things were going badly in the Korean War, Plimsoll was informed that Rhee was fleeing the country. Still in his pyjamas Plimsoll pursued the President to the airport, and persuaded him to remain.

“Plimsoll had some unusual talents, including a photographic memory. He could speak on complex subjects without notes and he gained the confidence and respect of the most senior Australian ministers, notably Sir Robert Menzies.

“In 1962 just before a debate about Rhodesia in the UN General Assembly, Plimsoll as Ambassador there felt he needed guidance from Canberra about what to say.

“Menzies was visiting New York, and several times Plimsoll tried to get his advice, but Menzies declined. Finally as the Prime Minister was boarding the plane to return home, Plimsoll repeated his request for guidance about Rhodesia. Menzies slapped him on the back and said, ‘My boy, I’m glad it’s you making the speech and not me.’

“That was the level of confidence he had in Plimsoll’s judgment.”

In your opinion, what does Australia need in the next generation of diplomats?

“Over the years there have been vast improvements in communications and technology. But the work remains just as fascinating as ever, and the essentials of being a diplomat have changed little.

“The next generation of diplomats will need to bring to bear much the same qualities and talents as predecessors like Plimsoll. Working effectively with people will remain central, while being calm under pressure, adaptable, and maintaining a good work-life balance will be just as important as they have always been.

“There is a much greater expectation that diplomats learn the local language of a country: this is much easier to do if there is time for language training before arrival.”