Many retired federal officials help make Falls Church interesting, but count Dick McCall among those who chaff at the country’s direction under the Trump administration.
To witness Trump cutting foreign aid, blocking asylum seekers, cozying up to authoritarians and seeking “deconstruction of the administrative state” is enough to prod a diplomat to disgorge words like “despicable” and “heartbreaking.”
McCall, 78, left the government nearly two decades ago after a high-impact career on Senate committee staff and at the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he helped steer the U.S. role in pivotal changes in places such as El Salvador and the Philippines. In reflections with the News-Press this month, McCall instructed that signing a diplomatic agreement “is the easiest part; it’s maintaining it long-term that presents the biggest challenge.”
The Trump “America First” approach of selective disengagement from long-term overseas nation-building “will exacerbate the problems even more, and goes against our historic leadership in the world as being a sanctuary for those fleeing violence and oppression,” he said. The former overseas development colleagues with whom McCall keeps in touch “feel the same way.”
A former journalist who grew up in the small Great Plains town of Rushville, South Dakota, McCall moved to Falls Church in 1975. He broke into international development work in the 1970s, working for Sen. Gale McGee, D-Wyo., and former Vice President-Returned-as-a-Senator Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn. That led to a job at age 34 in the last year of the Carter administration as assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs, monitoring the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
McCall’s relevance took off during the 1980s when he staffed for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (serving Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Paul Sarbanes, D-Mass.,) and at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, under Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Paul Tsongas, D-Mass.). In the ‘90s he worked for USAID under Clinton administration appointee Brian Atwood.
The current approach at USAID, McCall says is to “cut aid with no strategy whatsoever. That’s one of the big problems. We try to remake countries in our own image, with our Constitution, without first going through a grass-roots process of working out a consensus around government, the rules and regulations that define the institution, that are supported by the people in the recipient country.”
Among the overseas dramas in which McCall played a part was the surprise and sudden election in the Philippines in February 1986. After decades of solid U.S. support for Ferdinand Marcos (the motive was preserving vital American bases established there in World War II), the increasingly resented and out-of-touch Marcos had imposed martial law. This challenged the Reagan administration and Congress to encourage a transition or withhold long-standing aid.
McCall was one of three U.S. officials tasked with monitoring the election to assure its validity. “It involved considerable travel,” he said, and there were five different organizations processing returns in each precinct. “When we asked for vote tallies, we were told they were locked up.” Only the volunteer National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) had representatives in all precincts, McCall remembered, and certification took three days. Marcos at first claimed victory. McCall and colleagues historian Allen Weinstein and Republican Senate aide Chip Andreae met with Marcos, who claimed he had evidence of fraud by his opponents. But the world was stunned when returns emerged showing that Corazon Aquino and her “People Power Revolution” had won with nearly 70 percent of the vote. “So President Reagan basically backed off” on support for Marcos, McCall said.
Beginning in the early ‘80s, McCall was dispatched by Sen. Kerry to civil-war-torn El Salvador, which for more than a decade suffered violence, human rights abuses and a right-wing government led by such strongman characters such as Roberto “Blowtorch Bob” D’Aubuisson,” as McCall recalled him. In helping conduct the United Nations-sponsored talks, “I had established good relations” with labor organizer Leonel Gomez, who was pursuing land reform as well as military reformer Gen. Adolfo Blandon.
The latter had “purged the military of killers and started the process of engagement for a prisoner exchange, a negotiated cease-fire and a national child vaccine,” McCall said.
After 13 years of conflict, the country by 1991-92 had “reached the point where the business community said, ‘this is no good, we need to find a way out,’” the diplomat said. McCall participated in detailed talks alongside the U.S. military attaché Col. Mark Hamilton and Ambassador Bill Walker.
He was introduced to “the oligarchs, to understand where they came from, how their business interests were being damaged by the violence.” There were multiple parties, including ARENA and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the communists. At the historic New Year’s Eve final meeting in New York, “It was a matter of bringing all pieces of the puzzle together” to achieve an unconditional ceasefire,” demobilizing the Salvadoran military and getting the best possible deal, McCall said.
A June 1992 letter from Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Sarbanes praised McCall’s work and called him an “imaginative facilitator for the peace process.” He was also thanked in a 1991 Christmas greeting by the Salvadoran ambassador in Washington.
Both the Philippines and El Salvador today are wracked by violence and are currently ruled by right-wing strongmen.
Does McCall find this frustrating? Yes, but in El Salvador, party control has fluctuated over the years with elections, he noted. “Once again the biggest problem is that we kind of lose interest after our perceived threat goes away with a peace agreement. We never assisted the people in El Salvador with moving to a more diversified economy. And the drug cartels take advantage.”
McCall, who raised two sons with his wife Barbara, an Interior Department employee, spent his sixties as a consultant before fully retiring.
He appreciates the sophistication of Falls Church, from which he and his family maintain friendships with other foreign affairs officials who worked for CIA and the National Security Council.
Perhaps his favorite career accomplishment of all is the work he did in his hometown of Rushville, Nebraska. (population 869), which is near the Pine Ridge Indian reservation.
As a young man McCall was moved by the 1970 book by Dee Brown “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” about genocide of Native Americans.
So when he learned that the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes wanted to set up an independent school system, he began what became a series of visits and lobbying in Washington to assure federal funding from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“The whole mission of the United States was to abolish their history, cultural heritage and identity,” McCall lamented. Half a century later, he proudly notes, those schools are still going.