February 12, 1936 –
February 11, 2021
In a spacious backyard in the tiny town of Sumner, Mississippi, stands a Japanese teahouse — a final monument to the passion for Asian culture that sustained Desaix Anderson ’58, a Mississippi-born U.S. diplomat who helped guide the postwar reconciliation between America and Vietnam.
Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural call to patriotic service, Anderson embarked on a 1964 posting to Vietnam filled with idealistic commitment to the war. The mismanagement and cruelty he witnessed changed his mind, but during a 35-year Foreign Service career, “he never lost faith in America,” says Frank Jannuzi, president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, on whose board Anderson served until his death. “Desaix felt that American intentions were more likely to be noble than corrupt.”
Decades later, as a State Department official in Washington, Anderson conducted the delicate negotiations required to persuade Congress to re-establish normal relations with America’s one-time adversary. When the new Hanoi embassy opened in 1995, he spent two years as its chargé d’affaires.
Anderson’s career took him to embassies in Japan, Nepal, Taiwan, and Thailand; after his 1997 retirement from the Foreign Service, he directed the ultimately unsuccessful multinational effort to steer North Korea toward peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
But America’s conflict and reconciliation with Vietnam — the subject of his two books, one published posthumously — never ceased to engage him. In 2007, he organized Princeton’s first Global Seminar, a six-week summer course that brought undergraduates to Hanoi to study the war’s legacy.
The curriculum incorporated conversations with former Vietnamese officials and with U.S. veterans of the war — an inclusiveness that “spoke to a certain generosity of spirit that he had to people on all sides of the conflict, including people with whom he quite vehemently disagreed,” says David Leheny, a former Princeton professor of East Asian Studies who co-taught with Anderson in 2009.
Indeed, Anderson had a boundless enthusiasm for the world’s cultures and people. “To be with Desaix in Vietnam was to expect an invitation at midnight to wander down a Vietnamese alleyway to an outdoor grilled-meat-and-beer stand and be with the people,” Jannuzi says. “He wasn’t one of these ambassador types who needed to be at the Oriental Hotel. He preferred the street market.”
“He so loved making the human connection,” agrees Ted Osius, a one-time colleague who later became the sixth U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. “That’s what made him such a great diplomat, because it really is about building trust, and you do that human being by human being.”
A self-taught painter whose work embodies a minimalist Asian aesthetic, Anderson joined his brother, Buford Anderson ’62, in establishing an art gallery in their Delta hometown of Sumner, hoping to revitalize the economically depressed community of 300 people. The 2011 opening drew enough guests to double the town’s population.
The teahouse that now stands behind Anderson’s childhood home was a similar labor of love. His siblings teased him about his late-life passion for the project — “we referred to it as his folly,” says his sister Florri DeCell — but the final product, completed only after his death, vindicated his vision.
“It’s just an amazing place,” DeCell says. “It’s really, really beautiful, and we’ve all forgiven him for insisting.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey.