Emissary from Emanuel
William Rountree made his life as he traveled around the world seeking peaceful relations with the United States. This native of Swainsboro served for more than a quarter of a century as one of our country's diplomats and ambassadors to countries in the Middle East, Africa and South America in a time when the Earth was a ticking political, social and military time bomb. This is his story.
William M. Rountree was born in the capital of Emanuel County on March 28, 1917 - a son of Clerk of County Court William M. Rountree, Sr. and his bride, Clyde Brannan.
William's father died when he was still a toddler. The Rountrees remained in Swainsboro until 1923, when they moved to Atlanta, where William graduated from high school.
After graduation, Rountree moved north to Washington, D.C., where he landed a job with the United States Treasury Department - thanks to the assistance of Georgia Senator, Walter F. George.
In 1941, Rountree was appointed to a task force by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to formulate plans for the creation of an agency to administer the lend-lease program. To top off his education, Rountree graduated from Columbia University just before the beginning of World War II.
Rountree made his first major trip overseas in 1942 to Cairo, Egypt, where he worked with the British for the remainder of World War II. It was during the war years when Rountree began to travel to most of the counties in the Middle East.
"I came back to Washington as special assistant and economic advisor to the Director of the NEA Bureau," recalled the newly appointed diplomat, who began to receive impressive assignments in Greece and throughout the countries of the Mediterranean Sea as the United States assumed her role as the leader of the Free World.
"I had not viewed our role as being the world's policeman, nor do I think President Truman did. But I think the responsibilities that were thrust upon us at the end of World War II required that we do many things in many parts of the world that were new to our philosophy," said Rountree in an interview with Niel M. Johnson of the Harry S. Truman Library.
In 1948, Rountree was directed to return to Washington to serve as Deputy Director and later as Director of the Office of Greek, Turkish and Iranian Affairs. Later as Director of the Office of Near Eastern, South Asian and African Affairs, the Emanuel Countian worked with the British and other countries in stabilizing the region militarily, politically and economically. In particular, he helped to stabilize the Middle Eastern oil industry from political agitation emanating from within and from outside the region.
The ascent up the chain of command in the State Department came quite easy to Rountree, who served as Counselor and Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran from 1953 to '55 and then as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian and African Affairs from 1955-59. Rountree's region included Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Ceylon.
President Dwight Eisenhower appointed the Georgian as Ambassador to Pakistan in 1959. After three years, Ambassador Rountree was named by President John F. Kennedy as the new ambassador to the North African country of Sudan. After another three-year term, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Rountree as our country's ambassador to South Africa, where he served until 1970. Rountree's last three years of this 15-year tenure as an ambassador were spent closer to home in South America as United States Ambassador to Brazil.
As The Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Mr. Rountree was deeply involved in the 1956 Suez crisis and in the 1958 uncivil tumult in Lebanon. Just before Christmas in 1958, a roguish mob threw eggs, mud balls and rocks at him in effort to force him out of Iraq. Of all of situations which Ambassador Rountree had to deal with, the most difficult was the tense relationship with Iran.
"We always had influence with the Shah, but not a compelling influence. That is, the Shah always valued his relations with the United States, and enjoyed, during his life, remarkably good relations with every American administration," Rountree recalled.
"Many people overestimate the extent to which American influence can be effective in any given country. Our advice to the Shah over the years could have been better, but on the other hand, if the Shah had adhered to the advice which he received from us, Iran would have been in a much better position at the time of the his demise. In other words, I do not go along with the idea that his failure was the result of the lack of good advice from the United States," the Ambassador concluded.
While serving as Ambassador to South Africa in the late 1960s, Rountree had to deal with the bitterly divisive issue of Apartheid.
"The United States has strongly opposed Apartheid, and every administration has voiced that opposition in one form or another. Certainly, when I was there during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, part of my duty and responsibility was to make clear United States objection to Apartheid and the principle of that kind of discrimination. We joined with the international community generally in imposing certain restrictions in relationships, and in refusing to ship military or police equipment to South Africa. Our opposition was reflected in the United Nations, at the International Court, and elsewhere," Rountree asserted in the Truman Library interview.
Rountree had favorable opinion of the way in which the United States instantly recognized the State of Israel in one of the more momentous foreign relations matters of the 20th Century.
"President Truman made some of the most courageous and correct decisions of any President dealing with international relations. I have nothing but admiration for his decisions on Greece and Turkey, which we've discussed here, and also on NATO, the Marshall Plan, Point IV, and Korea," said Rountree in reflecting on his career in the 1950s.
After retiring in 1973, Ambassador Rountree, who became a close and trusted aide of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, retired to Florida. He died on November 3, 1995 in a Gainesville hospital.