Friday, June 08, 2007

White Elephant antics

I'm currently reading Kenton Clymer's book, Troubled Relations: The United States and Cambodia since 1870 and was intrigued by an off-beat story that typified the crazy world that the Cambodian monarchy seemed to inhabit on occasions. In 1951, relations between Cambodia and the United States were in their earliest stages and a US delegation had been installed in the Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh a year earlier under Don Catlett, the Chargé d'Affaires. Indicative of the good relations between the two countries and in appreciation of American aid, King Norodom Sihanouk decided to send the US President, Harry S Truman, a rare white elephant. After an article about the gift appeared in the Junior Scholastic magazine, school children wrote to the president imploring him to accept the gift, despite Truman's alleged preference for a tiger. Animal trainers and circuses offered to care for the animal. The Southeast Asia director of the Isthmian Steamship Company in Singapore, which was transporting the elephant, sent the president pictures of the animal, which the crew had named 'Harry,' and arrangements were made to house the elephant in the Washington zoo. But unfortunately 'Harry' died en route in Cape Town, South Africa, when the ship hit turbulent seas around the Cape of Good Hope. A very sad outcome for the elephant and perhaps an omen for the future relationship between the two countries.
I've also heard that US Vice-President Spiro Agnew later returned the compliment and gave a white elephant to Sihanouk, which was kept in the Royal Palace until it was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Can anyone confirm that story?

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