Amb. Thomas McNamara is pretty bad at retiring. McNamara, who goes by Ted, has tried it three times. But it has never taken. Once, he was pressed back into government service by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. This time, it is to help build the one museum that this museum-heavy country doesn’t have—one dedicated to diplomacy.
“Diplomacy has been dissed and the military has been asked to do things that they should not be asked to do,” complained McNamara, who served eight presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush after joining the foreign service out of Notre Dame in 1965. He served in Paris, the Congo, Moscow, and Washington in addition to three years as ambassador to Colombia. During that service, he found himself No. 1 on a hit list maintained by drug lord Pablo Escobar and dodging mortars in Beirut, as well as playing a key role in devising counterterrorism strategy after 9/11.
He also watched friends and colleagues killed while serving overseas. That, he told National Journal, helps drive him now at age 78 to work to make the United States Diplomacy Center a reality as the first museum dedicated to diplomacy. According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, there were 35,144 museums in the United States as of 2014. McNamara likes to call attention to the number of those museums devoted to wars, battles, and the military. Trying to count them, he stopped at 400. A National Journal tally found at least 518, with at least one in every state and four states—California, Florida, New York, and Texas—each having more than 30.
“We need one museum to explain that diplomacy has been as important and, in much of our history, more important than our military,” he said. “Someday, I hope to have people look at diplomats and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ the way they do to the American military.” For emphasis, he noted that in recent decades, far more foreign-service officers have died on duty than generals or admirals have been killed in combat.
Since Vietnam, two generals have been killed—one died in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and one was killed by an Afghan soldier in 2014. In that same period, five ambassadors have died violently at the hands of attackers, most recently Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in 2012. The American Foreign Service Association counts another 129 foreign-service officers of lower rank killed in the line of duty since Vietnam.
McNamara believes the public knows little of this sacrifice because the State Department is so small—14th of 15 Cabinet departments in budget outlays and 11th in personnel—and because there is no domestic interest group with a stake in diplomats. “The State Department has always been kind of the runt of the litter in terms of the budget and congressional attention,” he said, adding, “The Department is so small and we work overseas. We are the offensive linemen of the national security team. We only get our names called out when there is a mistake.”
He sees this as a particularly challenging time for those who champion diplomacy, citing the cuts proposed by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Things are difficult right now,” he said. “They are as difficult as they’ve been in the 50 years I’ve been involved in diplomacy.” Morale among the foreign service, he said, is “about as low as I’ve ever seen. ... It is worst in the last three years.”
He is encouraged, though, by the support new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given the drive to open the new museum. The face of the center has already been built in front of the original 21st Street NW entrance to the State Department and was dedicated in early 2017. Temporary exhibits have opened to limited viewing in that marble-floored pavilion. Also installed is what may be a centerpiece of the completed center—a section of the Berlin Wall featuring signatures from many of the world leaders who played a role in its toppling.
The first of what will be four halls currently holds an exhibit on the role of jazz in diplomacy, featuring pictures of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Byrd, Randy Weston, and Benny Goodman around the globe. Another exhibit shows some of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s trademark broaches—much to the delight of some students visiting on Wednesday. “Oh my God, it’s Madeleine Albright,” exclaimed one girl from the National Student Leadership Conference.
Douglas Mossman, senior project director for the center, said students will be a focus, particularly in the unfinished Hall 3 in which students will participate in diplomatic simulations to try to resolve issues through negotiations. He said more than 7,000 pieces have already been collected for the museum—“everything,” he said, “from famous pens used to sign treaties, to horse saddles, to a diamond ring.”
All that is expensive, of course. And that’s where McNamara confronts a challenge nearly as daunting as any in his diplomatic career—trying to raise enough money so the center’s full 40,000 square feet can open in 2021. The Boeing Company made the single largest donation of $5 million, and James Baker’s $1 million was the most generous gift of any former secretary of State. But McNamara is trying to raise another $36 million. To that end, he is presiding Thursday over a reception to launch what is called the center’s “legacy ministers initiative” to persuade more foreign-service alumni below the rank of ambassador to contribute. “The amount that we have collected up to now is roughly $50 million,” he said, “and we’ve got another 30 months between now and when we open the museum.” Only then can he retire for the fourth time.