Princeton Lyman, a career diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and later to South Africa, where he helped engineer the transition from the country’s apartheid era of white supremacy to a multiracial, democratically elected government in the 1990s, died Aug. 24 at his home in Silver Spring, MD. He was 82.
Dr. Lyman joined the Foreign Service in 1961 and was assigned to the newly formed U.S. Agency for International Development. He lived in Korea in the 1960s, then turned his primary attention to Africa, serving as USAID’s program director in Ethiopia in the 1970s and as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 1986 to 1989.
He achieved his greatest diplomatic breakthroughs in South Africa, where he was ambassador from 1992 to 1995. He arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria two years after Nelson Mandela had been released from his 27-year imprisonment. The country’s political parties — divided by race — spoke past each other, leaving the country on the brink of civil war. Police brutality toward black protesters was commonplace.
“When I arrived, the negotiations were in total disarray,” Dr. Lyman said in a 1999 oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. “The threat of more violence was palpable. No one knew where the country was heading.”
Dr. Lyman, who grew up in a multiethnic neighborhood in San Francisco, approached the combustible situation with a sense of practicality and patience. He had the ear of both Mandela, who led the African National Congress party, and South Africa’s white president, F.W. de Klerk, who freed Mandela from prison and allowed opposition parties to function. “Princeton became an important mediator bringing parties together, hoping to arrive at a shared understanding of what the future might look like,” George Moose, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the time, said in an interview. “He was very much the confidant of both parties, and they trusted him.” Contingency plans were being made by U.S. officials for how to handle a full-scale revolution in South Africa and its possible reverberations at home and abroad.
In South Africa, Dr. Lyman had dozens of conversations with Mandela and de Klerk. He brought them together to negotiate in person and to agree to continue discussions despite outbreaks of violence. “I found that I could talk to Mandela very easily, exchanging ideas,” Dr. Lyman said in the oral history. He found Mandela “a man of great dignity and great courtesy. We used to have very candid discussions. One had to understand that while he was able to laugh at himself, you had to treat him with dignity.”
He also played a critical behind-the-scenes role a decade earlier, when he was deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, in organizing the airlift from Sudan to Israel of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who had fled their famine-ravished country only to face indifference and starvation in Sudan. In a 1999 oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Lyman said he was one of only two US diplomats who was fully apprised of the operation, involving secret Israeli flights from Sudan to Israel. He helped coordinate logistics between Israel and Sudan, which did not have diplomatic relations, and strove to keep at bay Ethiopian Jewry advocacy groups in the United States who were scrambling for information, as well as the media.
“We had to keep the press quiet,” he said in 1999. “The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal all had the story. Peter Jennings at ABC had the story. I had to go to every single one of them to beg them to sit on the story. I told them that if the operation were to go public, the Ethiopians would be in serious danger. I must say that every one of the media outlets suppressed the information they had; I don’t think that today that would be possible.” It was an Israeli official, Arieh Dulzin, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, who revealed the operation at a press conference, and it was Israeli media that made it public. “Unfortunately, the Israeli media was not so disciplined” as the US media, Lyman said.
Once the word was out in Israel, a Washington Jewish newspaper reported the story – ignoring Lyman’s pleas – and the US media felt free to publish. Sudan suspended the operation after 9,000 Jews had arrived, leaving 500 stranded. Vice President George H.W. Bush then got involved. Bush “went to Khartoum to see [Sudanese President Gaafar] Nimeiri and to tell him that we wanted the last few hundred Ethiopians taken out,” Lyman said. “Nimeiri agreed, but it too was to be a secret operation. So American C-130s were to fly from Europe to the Sudan, take them on board, fly them up through the Red Sea – avoiding Egyptian radar – and deliver them to Israel. That was done. It was a magnificent operation which I monitored from the Pentagon ‘war room’ listening to the radio broadcasts as the planes landed and took off.”
In a 2007 account of the rescue, “Blacks, Jews and Other Heroes,” Howard Lenhoff said other US officials eagerly seized credit for the operation. “Lyman remained silent,” Lenhoff reported. “Always the consummate professional, Princeton Lyman is an unsung hero of the Ethiopian Jews.” Lyman was born in 1935 to immigrant Jewish parents from Lithuania. Asked to explain his unusual first name, he explained in 1999 that he had brothers named Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. “I guess it was an extraordinary example of immigrant parents determined that their children would go to universities,” he said. “Of course, being very practical, we all ended up in the University of California – not the expensive schools we were named after.” He added: “My brother Elliott, who was the only son not named for a university, indeed did not go to college.”