Kentucky’s Long History of International Diplomacy

Today in Washington, Louisville businessman Matthew Barzun will be sworn in as the United States ambassador to the Court of St. James’—in other words, the United Kingdom. As such, he joins a long line of Kentuckians who have gone off to represent their government in foreign capitals.

Actually, this is Mr. Barzun’s second ambassadorship. In the first Obama term, he served as our minister to Sweden. He seems to be the first Louisvillian ever to hold posts to two countries.

During the administration of former President George W. Bush, several Kentuckians held ambassadorships.

Bluegrass horse breeder William S. Farish III served as ambassador to Britain from 2001-2004, a stormy period for international relations because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which the United Kingdom’s partnership was crucial. Mr. Farish also distinguished himself by making friends with Queen Elizabeth II, herself a passionate horsewoman, and as a result she made the first visit by a sitting British monarch to the Kentucky Derby in 2007. On that occasion, she was Mr. Farish’s houseguest.

In that same period, Louisville distillery executive W.L. Lyons Brown Jr. served as ambassador to Austria. During his tenure, from 2001-2005, Mr. Brown also helped present American foreign policy in a difficult time.

Louisvillian Catherine Todd Bailey was named ambassador to Latvia in 2004 and continued to serve until the end of the Bush administration.

Another notable Louisvillian, Wilson W. Wyatt Sr., was named by President John F. Kennedy as special ambassador to Indonesia to negotiate with President Sukarno, who had threatened to nationalize foreign oil companies there. Through Wyatt’s diplomatic skill, Sukarno relented and did not take over the foreign-owned interests of Indonesia’s oil industry, as had occurred in 1938 in Mexico. Later, in the late 1970s, Wyatt was among the distinguished former diplomats tapped by President Jimmy Carter to help make the case for the Panama Canal Treaty, which turned control over the waterway to Panama.

Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Somerset became America’s first ambassador to East Germany after World War II, serving from 1974 to 1976. His appointment, by President Gerald R. Ford, was followed in 1981 by an appointment as alternate delegate to the United Nations by President Ronald Reagan.

Robert Worth Bingham, the owner of The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times and a former judge and mayor of Louisville, was appointed to London in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Judge Bingham had been one of the biggest fund-raisers for FDR. He remained in his post until 1937, when he resigned because of ill health. He died later that year as a result of Hodgkin’s disease.

In the 19th Century, abolitionist Cassius M. Clay served two terms as envoy to Russia, from 1861 to 1862 and again from 1863 to 1869. Clay was in St. Petersburg when Tsar Alexander emancipated the serfs in 1861. The following year, Clay was summoned back to Washington, where President Lincoln asked him to accept a commission as major general in the Union Army. However, the Kentuckian declined to do so until Lincoln signed an emancipation proclamation. The President sent Clay back to their shared native state to ascertain the public mood for such a proclamation, which in fact was signed on Jan. 1, 1863—but Kentucky and other border states were not included in the proclamation. Clay returned to Russia for six more years, during which he was influential in the discussions to purchase Alaska.

Charles S. Todd was born in Danville and served as American ambassador to Russia from 1840 to 1846. He was a career military officer and aide to both General William Henry Harrison and Gov. Isaac Shelby of Kentucky.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal  He discussed this article today on “Here and Now” with Jonathan Bastian; you can listen to the conversation below. 

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