Ambassador Deschamps meets with then Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the mid-1960s.
oel Deschamps, a former Australian Ambassador to Cambodia from 1962-68, died at
age 97 on May 12, 2005, in Melbourne, Australia.
Ambassador Deschamps joined the Australian Department of External Affairs, as it
was known then, in 1937 and observed some of the key events of the 20th century at
close range. He was Australian Charge d'Affaires in Stalin's USSR (1946-47), head
of the Australian Military Mission in Berlin (1949-52), Australian head of mission
in Cairo during the Suez Canal crisis (1956), Ambassador to Cambodia during the Vietnam
War (1962-69) and Ambassador to Chile during the Allende years (1969-74). He was
also posted in Canada, New Caledonia, France, Ireland and South Africa. He retired
from the Australian diplomatic service in 1974.
Noel was a very humble, self-effacing man of tremendous wisdom with a great mind.
He excelled at making friends for Australia wherever he was posted and was not afraid
to speak his mind to headquarters back in Canberra. Intellectually brilliant, he
spoke French, Spanish, German and Russian fluently, apart from his native English.
Cambodia had a special place in his heart. In 1990 he wrote that when he arrived
in Cambodia in July 1962, he "discovered, right next door to war-torn Vietnam,
an idyllic country with no organized crime, no juvenile delinquency and no mendicancy,
one of the cleanest and most appealing capital cities and some of the most attractive
country towns in Asia, and a contented peasantry, tending their own fields. It was
a country one could easily acquire a great affection for."
Ambassador Deschamps befriended the then Cambodian Head of State, Samdech Norodom
Sihanouk, and they maintained a close, lifelong friendship, meeting regularly both
while the King was in exile and later on, after he was reappointed King in Cambodia.
"When I arrived in Cambodia, the country was completing its ninth year of independence
from France under the leadership of Norodom Sihanouk. He had maintained peace and
stability and encouraged moderate but solid prosperity and economic progress in Cambodia
with very limited resources, and had established a remarkable personal ascendancy
by strictly democratic and constitutional means. He insisted that the very survival
of his reborn nation in the international jungle of the mid-20th century world demanded
two things: internal unity and external neutrality. He believed that any breach of
either national unity or external neutrality would pose a mortal threat to his country.
His strength of personality was such that he was able to impose both these concepts
on his people. His leadership was fully accepted by the rural population of Cambodia,
which provided him with an effective counterweight to questioners and dissidents
with contrary ideas among the politicians, intelligentsia and businessmen of Phnom
Penh and the large provincial towns."
Noel's toughest assignment was given to him while Ambassador to Cambodia: represent
the United States of America's interests in Cambodia after the break of diplomatic
relations between the two countries.
On May 3, 1965, Cambodia broke diplomatic relations with the United States, following
an attack, on April 28, 1965, by US planes on the villages of Phum Chantatep and
Moream Tiek in Kampong Cham province where a young boy was killed and several other
villagers were seriously wounded.
Two days later, the US asked Australia to represent its interests in the Cambodian
capital, a request that Ambassador Deschamps was not happy about because he did not
feel like being the protector of American interests in Cambodia. He feared that Cambodians
would undoubtedly identify Australia with the United States if border problems continued
to occur, as they did. However, he was a disciplined senior officer, and Canberra
had decided to go along with the request of the US. He had no choice but to follow
his government's instructions and thus he became the de facto American envoy in Phnom
Penh for almost four years.
As such he was involved in the arrangements of Jacqueline Kennedy's visit to Cambodia
in 1967, Ambassador Bowles' visit in January 1968, the release of American prisoners
of war and he even managed to obtain the release of a young American who had been
found by Cambodian officials trying to smuggle Angkor antiquities out of the country.
The young fellow, son of a USAID official based in Bangkok, was taking the antiquities
to New York. Noel suggested that the family of the young man purchase a tractor and
present it to the Cambodian authorities in exchange for their son's release. This
was accepted by the Cambodian government and the young man was promptly released.
While Ambassador Noel Deschamps was quite successful in his dual role as Australian/US
Ambassador to Cambodia, back in Canberra and Washington the powers that be felt that
he was "too pro-Sihanouk" and "too pinky" for their tastes, so
they decided that his talents were better used as far away from Sihanouk and Cambodia
as possible, when in fact Noel's close relationship with His Majesty was an asset
that many other envoys wished they could have enjoyed. This attitude of American
officials prompted the respected journalist Robert Shaplen to write in the New Yorker
in September 1966 that Deschamps "did a better job for the United States than
it could have done for itself." A year later to the day, after Noel Deschamps
left Cambodia, the secret American bombing of Cambodia began.
Thus, he was posted to Chile, a peaceful country where Australia had just opened
its first embassy and appointed Deschamps ambassador. I met him soon after his arrival,
and we became good friends while he encouraged my early interest in Cambodian history.
He began reporting from Chile as he had done from Cambodia, with gusto and no fear
on the failure of Chilean socialism, and soon the left champagne (i.e. socialists
that drink champagne) that had taken over the department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra,
following the change of government there, complained that Noel was "too conservative".
After the military coup of General Pinochet he was recalled back to Canberra and
then returned for a few months to Chile and retired from the diplomatic service.
As he prepared to leave Santiago, many farewell parties were held in his honor, but
the most spectacular party was the farewell given by the drivers of all the ambassadors
accredited to Chile. It was the first time ever that a foreign envoy had been thanked
in such way by the drivers of the heads of diplomatic missions. His humility, wisdom
and simplicity had earned him many friends in all strata of Chilean society.
Ambassador Deschamps was highly recognized by foreign governments, receiving the
most senior decorations of Cambodia, Chile and France. Regrettably, Australia never
recognized his services, and he was never honored by his government.