Monday, June 6, 2022

Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents (Paul Brummell)

Gifts between cities, states, heads of state, or nations are often done with a number of intended messages. Whether the gifts are tokens of appreciation (such as "thank you" train that the French gave Americans after they donated food and goods in the aftermath of World War II), or more symbolic displays of political influence (such as stadiums or other infrastructure), gift-giving from one political entity to another has been a longstanding tradition in the world. Paul Brummell captures fifty of these interesting gift exchanges in his book Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents.

In general chronological order, Brummell traces how gifts have been ruses (such as the Trojan Horse), used to help strengthen political alliances (of which there are many examples), or more unique gifts to show scientific and artistic prowess (such as a planetarium). In numerous chapters, the author tries to trace where some of the gifts have gone over the centuries or how they may have been destroyed. He highlights wildlife in several examples, as well as a human "gift" that was saved from human sacrifice in the 19th Century.

Diplomatic Gifts features a diverse collection of stories, many of which are quite funny. One of the funniest is the story of Sir Oliver Franks, British ambassador to the U.S. Back in 1948, he was told that a local radio station had asked what he would like for Christmas and he gave his response. A few days later, that radio station announced the requests made by various countries. The Soviet ambassador wished for freedom for all people enslaved by imperialism. The French ambassador desired world peace. The British ambassador's request? A box of crystallized fruit.