Reviewed by Arthur H. Westing

The Fragments of a Diplomat’s life

Pot shards: fragments of a life lived in CIA, the White House, and the two Koreas.

By Donald P. Gregg

Donald Phinney Gregg has been a major figure in the sphere of US diplomacy, both covert and overt. Political scientists, historians, and aspiring diplomats are thus fortunate, indeed, that he has chosen to publish these "fragments" of his life. Gregg’s long and distinguished career detailed in this memoir can be summarized as follows: Born (New York), 1927; US Army (to Sergeant), 1945-1947; Williams College (BA in philosophy), 1947-1951; CIA (Saipan, Japan, Myanmar, Viet Nam, South Korea [Station Chief, 1973-1975], Vienna, VA, Washington, DC), 1951-1982; the White House (National Security Council), 1979-1982; still the White House (Vice President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor), 1982-1988; Georgetown University (Lecturer in Diplomacy), 1980-1989; Ambassador to South Korea, 1989-1993; Korea Society (President and Chairman), 1993-2009; Williams College (Lecturer in Intelligence), 2010--; Pacific Century Institute (Chairman), 2012--; numerous unofficial trips to Seoul and Pyongyang, 1997--.

Gregg describes the events in his life in generally chronological order, doing so in a disarmingly informal, frank, self-deprecating, and occasionally even humorous manner. He mentions his disgust over the internment of ethnically Japanese Americans during World War II, and his profound opposition to the use of torture (once to the point of risking his career over this). Indeed, Gregg’s innate anti-racism, fairness, decency, and courage shine through with great clarity. The story of meeting and courting his wife-to-be (by chance at the time a fellow CIA employee) is charmingly related. Moreover, the text is enhanced by 43 photographs as well as by four emotive poems of Gregg’s. As to the book’s title, he explains that "fragments of [my] memory have persisted through the vagaries of time, like shards of pottery broken long ago" (p. ix).

Gregg’s early CIA training (parachuting, learning Bulgarian, arctic survival, etc.) was followed by paramilitary training during a two-year stint on the US Trust Territory of Saipan. The personal aspects of his two lengthy assignments to Tokyo are nicely described, including his befriending through tennis playing of the then future Emperor and future wife. Indeed, tennis is an ever recurring theme throughout the book, clearly linked to his success as a diplomat (owing to both his skill and his ability to throw a game when appropriate). However, no indication is offered for what purpose he had been assigned to Japan and under what cover (although a Soviet KGB agent there did know him for what he was). And the same is true of his two-year assignment in Myanmar, his personal life there most engagingly described, but nary a word of why he was there or what he accomplished.

Gregg presents his second tour of duty and mission in wartime Viet Nam in 1970-1972 in far greater length and detail than for any of his other CIA postings. I found these to be especially interesting and informative -- and also in tune with my own sober observations of the war, inasmuch as those two years coincided with my own several extensive on-site investigations (during 1969-1973) of the major environmental disruption being caused by our massive chemical attacks, bombings, and land clearings.

I can understand Gregg’s great admiration for President John F. Kennedy, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung -- and very especially for George H.W. Bush. I share his low opinion of President George W. Bush and his incredibly inept and counter-productive policies vis-à-vis North Korea. However, I am at a complete loss over understanding his favorable treatment of William E. Colby, who should have been tried as a war criminal for his vigorously pursued Phoenix Program of summary assassinations during the Viet Nam Conflict of suspected Viet Cong sympathizers.

I was most pleased to see that despite Gregg’s manuscript having been "reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information" (p. iv), he was able to recount some grievous CIA sloppiness that led to the death of several agents and had other serious ramifications. I can assume that in its review the CIA did for good reason remove some of what Gregg might have published. However, as one of the book’s rare disappointments, Gregg notes his introduction to a hangover remedy in Viet Nam that had worked to perfection, but he did not disclose its recipe, presumably because it had been declared by the CIA to be classified information.

Gregg’s attempts during his tenure as our Ambassador to Seoul to foster better relations between the two Koreas ultimately had only mixed results, but he has actively continued those efforts since leaving Government service, doing so via the Korea Society, the Pacific Century Institute, and otherwise. President Barack Obama and his staff would be well advised to read at least the book’s closing chapters dealing with the two Koreas. My own hopes for North-South rapprochement are primarily in connection with my lengthy involvement in attempts with the two Koreas to preserve the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as a regionally essential nature reserve, originally on assignment from the United Nations Environment Programme and subsequently via a number of international nongovernmental organizations. It has been my good fortune to have had a number of interactions with Gregg owing to his gracious cooperation in this effort via the Korea Society.

NB: This title will be ordered for the Brooks Memorial Library. Place a hold by sending an email to

Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, xii+332 pp. 2014.

ISBN 978-0-9904471-1-5 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-9904471-0-8 (paperback).


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions