AP Photo / Barry Thumma
OFF TO SAVE THE WORLD: How Julia Taft Made A Difference (Maine Authors Publishing, November 1, 2011) is the story of one of the United States’ top humanitarian relief experts who, over three decades, became a legend in her field.
Starting in 1975 when she was 32 years old, Julia Taft directed the task force that managed the resettlement of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Over the years, she 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.
Taft, who married into a famous American political family, dedicated her life to those far less fortunate than herself. Even while working in a hide-bound bureaucracy, she became a role model for everyone who hopes to help make the world a better place. At a time when undeveloped countries are overwhelmed by severe refugee problems and people in the developed world are struggling with the consequences of immigration, Taft’s story deserves to be told.
Based on interviews in the year before she died, as well as on conversations with her friends and colleagues, author/journalist Ann Blackman describes some of Taft’s most important humanitarian missions: her direction of the American relief effort during the Armenian earthquake, Operation Lifeline Sudan, the Siege of Sarajevo, the crisis in Kosovo and her trip to Afghanistan in 2001, when she worked for the United Nations.
Taft also discussed her fascinating and enduring friendship with the Dalai Lama, whom she met in 1999 when she was the State Department’s coordinator for Tibetan issues and made an unprecedented trip to Dharamsala, high in the hills of northern India, where the Tibetan spiritual leader had established a government in exile. When she was battling cancer, Taft had a personal conversation with His Holiness, and he offered her advice: meditate.
Woven together, the book paints a mosaic of a witty, determined, hard-charging and idealistic woman who not only ran some of the most dramatic relief efforts of her generation but also influenced the debate at home and abroad as the international spotlight moved from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the collapse of the Soviet Union to ethnic conflicts in Africa and the former Yugoslavia. Taft’s personal story also reflects the history of three decades of political unrest and social upheaval in the 20th century, at home and abroad.
There are funny stories and poignant ones, heroic moments and terrifying ones. At Julia Taft’s request, this book is dedicated not only to her children, but also to her friends in the field, who continue the unsung work that captured her heart.