Yankee Go Home
The Ugly American is alive and well and working for peace.
Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By LAUREN WEINER
Eating with the Enemy
How I Waged Peace with North Korea from My BBQ Shack in Hackensack
by Robert Egan
A Young American Framed
by Eric Volz
What better way is there to see into our national character than to follow some callow Americans as they go among foreigners? Armed with our Yankee pragmatism and idealism, our earnestness, pluck, and love of the underdog, we manage to get ourselves in some interesting scrapes out there.
Robert “Bobby” Egan burned with a desire to change the world precisely because he supported the underdog: namely, himself. This “kid from the wrong side of town” set about defanging the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea so he could teach those elite experts in Washington what a North Jersey burger chef and high school dropout can accomplish when he tries. Thus, do we add him to the long line of American businessmen—Averell Harriman, say, or Armand Hammer—who have adorned themselves in the mantle of statesmen? Of course, when you do diplomacy all by yourself while holding down a full-time job as a restaurateur you don’t try to compete with the State Department’s outreach to front-rank countries. What Egan specialized in was chatting up representatives of isolated regimes—Vietnam, North Korea, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—or, as he calls them, “a bunch of rejects, just like me.” Not being on friendly terms with the United States, he says, means unpopularity in the diplomatic corps, “so when I come along with dinner plans and tickets to the game, it’s tempting.”
Why would one want to be “tempting” to tyrants? It’s a long story, and one that defies some of our expectations. Peace activists tend to be flag-burning types, but not Egan. That is one reason why—aside from general peculiarity—it takes a while to wrap one’s mind around the circumstances and motivations that led him to the exploits he claims in Eating with the Enemy, his memoir written with Kurt Pitzer. One piece of the puzzle is that the author was shut out of exciting ventures early in life. The mobsters in his neighborhood in North Jersey wouldn’t let him in the Mafia (he’s only half Italian) and then his youth kept him from getting drafted and sent to fight Communists in Vietnam. He attached himself to the POW/MIA movement as a way to compensate for missing out on the war and wangled a connection with H. Ross Perot and his coterie of ex-military men. Trying to rescue missing American servicemen in Indochina, a pursuit at once patriotic and counterintuitive, suited him.
It also gave him a taste for dabbling in international affairs. The United Nations headquarters was a convenient drive from his part of New Jersey, and he helped one Vietnamese official he met there to defect. The Vietnamese contacts petered out in the early 1990s—public interest in stranded GIs waned with the warming of U.S. relations with Vietnam—but those contacts had passed along his name to the North Koreans, who called him up in 1993. So he reactivated his private foreign service. Before long he was making trips to the Hermit Kingdom to promote trade with the United States. Sure, North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship; that doesn’t mean you can’t josh with people to break the ice, as when Egan said to a wraithlike member of the starving populace: “You look like you need a good meal.” The man responded: “You look like you ate my meal.”
The motives driving this citizen diplomacy are expressed several different ways over the course of Eating With the Enemy. The psychological, the patriotic, and the financial get mixed together. Just when it occurs to us to doubt the author on whether there are any stranded POWs, living or dead, from the Korean War that he could rescue, he shifts to discussing other goals. These range from heading off nuclear war between the United States and North Korea, to promoting trade between the two countries, to making sure Bobby Egan is first in line to build a barbecue joint in Pyongyang when relations open up.