Our Views: The perils of diplomacy

The recent killings of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in that troubled country are a reminder that diplomatic service can be a dangerous thing. Not much has changed, apparently, since Elihu Washburne risked everything as the U.S. minister to France shortly after he arrived at his post in 1869.

All of this comes to mind because Washburne’s diaries and letters from that troubled time have just been published in a new book.

President Ulysses S. Grant had appointed Washburne secretary of state, but the chronically ill Washburne took to his bed with various ailments and resigned from that post after only 12 days. Once his health improved, Washburne was given the France assignment, one gathers, as light duty — a kind of rest cure.

But shortly after his arrival in Paris, France and Prussia — the precursor to the modern German state — went to war, which prompted the siege of Paris. While most diplomats left Paris, Washburne bravely chose to stay behind to help protect his fellow Americans who were trapped in the city. During the siege, Washburne endured desperate food shortages, cannon bombardments, bouts of ill health and a lengthy separation from his family.

Mike Hill, a researcher working for history author David McCullough, came across Washburne’s long-forgotten diary while conducting research for McCullough’s recent book, “The Greater Journey,” which chronicles the lives of Americans in Paris. McCullough suggested that Hill publish Washburne’s Paris diary and letters as a separate book. The result, “Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France During the Siege of Paris and Commune of Paris,” was published this month.

“The medals and high commendations he so deserved were never bestowed on Elihu Washburne because he wanted it that way,” McCullough writes in a foreword to the book. That kind of modesty seems rare in today’s political culture, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the willingness of American diplomats to take tough assignments abroad.