Ann Blackman’s Off to Save the World is a chronicle of the life of Julia Taft. The book showcases how rare it was for women to be involved in high level politics in the 70s and 80s, and how Taft skillfully maneuvered herself in circles that were not open to many women in US Government or international affairs at the time. Taft was clearly a charming, witty, strong and determined woman who endeared herself to most everyone she met.
As the book preface notes “Julia Vadala Taft became one of the country’s top humanitarian relief experts, a friend and ally of the world’s most impoverished people. Starting in 1975, when she directed the Indochina refugee task force, Julia essentially invented the way the United States government responds to natural and man-made disasters around the world, demanding basic rights for those whose lives are turned upside down by civil war, famine, religious persecution, earthquakes, floods and insect infestations.”
I was struck while reading, however, that most of the relief efforts that Taft was involved in sounded an awful lot like operational failures, though they were hailed as diplomacy successes. This gave me much to consider both in terms of political motivations for relief and development efforts, and for observing how far relief work has come since then in terms of understanding the need to be prepared, to take direction from local governments and local populations, to set up proper logistical arrangements, and to maintain neutrality during humanitarian crises. Today, guidelines like the Sphere Handbook and the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct help orient aid workers and give them support and guidance during humanitarian relief operations.
My favorite anecdote in the book was that following the December 7, 1988 Armenian earthquake “Bush [Senior] told Julia that his son and grandson would like to go to Armenia to hand out Christmas presents. [Taft] stifled a laugh: “I thought to myself ‘for God’s sake, this is not a good idea.’ But all I said was, ‘When would you go?'” “The 24th of December,” Bush replied. Taft informed them that Armenians celebrated Christmas on January 6th, and “between now and then, they have a few other things to do besides worry about your security and accepting gifts.” Unfortunately, even though Taft spoke with Colin Powell about the ridiculous idea, they were unable to get them off of the idea of handing out Christmas presents, and “Bush’s son, Jeb, and grandson, George P. Bush, left for Armenia….”
The book reads a bit like a history text book, which was its downfall for me. I would have much preferred a more personal style that engaged me more emotionally. In any case, it is great to see a strong female character like Taft highlighted, and she was clearly much loved by her colleagues, peers and family.
Ann Blackman is the author of many biographies including Seasons of Her Life, Wild Rose, and co-author of The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen. She previously worked at TIME magazine and The Associated Press, and has appeared on various national TV and radio shows such as A&E Biography, The Diane Rehm Show, Hardball with Chris Matthews, CNN, Fox Morning News, CSPAN, to name a few. She currently lives in Washington, DC, and on the coast of Maine.