Obituary

Dr. John H. Spencer (1907-2005)


"The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of the cities, nor the crops, but the kind of men the country turns out." R. W. Emerson
Dr. John H. Spencer died on August 25, 2005. He was well known for his meritorious conduct. He excelled in the vast Ethiopian history and its complex diplomatic articulations. Dr. Spencer left his famous book for us, Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of the Haile Selassie Years, to be used as an important reference material. It covers the war period in the 1930s between Ethiopia and Italy as well as the post-war era.

Dr. John H. Spencer earned his B.A. in 1929 at Grinnell College in Iowa and received an M.A. from Harvard College. He then went on to earn a State Doctorate in Law from the University of Paris and an L.L.B from Harvard Law School. Both his distinguished academic background that combined American with European traditions and his fluency in French greatly facilitated his academic and career pursuits. Where a good knowledge of the French language was a principal requirement, among others, to attain a desirable position in public service or private business, Dr. John Spencer comfortably matched it.

Those who make a fast move toward goals not necessarily in their grasp are not so few. Dr. John Spencer, on the other hand, accepted in principle and reality, offers that he sincerely believed justified his time and effort. He was asked at Paris, during the autumn of 1935, whether he would be prepared to accept the imminent risks and fierce challenges of the post of a legal adviser to the Government of Ethiopia that was at war against Fascist Italy. At the age of 28, a lawyer who read enough about aggression, he was not likely to decline it. On January 17, 1936, together with the courageous Lorenzo Taezaz of Ethiopia, he fearlessly awaited a cruel Italian air raid at Dessie, at the edge of the escarpment overlooking the lowlands and Dankel region.

On January 18, 1936, at the war front line, Dr. John Spencer was ushered into the presence of Emperor Haile Selassie. During that meeting, he expressed satisfaction at the rejection of the Hoare-Laval proposals, which would have established a Fascist protectorate over Ethiopia. He showed interest while conversing with the Emperor, in the Walwal arbitration and other critical issues that were of grave concern of Ethiopia. Dr. Spencer remained in Ethiopia through the fall of Addis Ababa in May 1936, and then left for Geneva to join the Ethiopian delegation that presented the full case to the League of Nations. On June 30, 1936, Dr. John Spencer was sitting only a few yards away when the Ethiopian Emperor made his historic speech before the League Assembly:

"I ask the 52 nations who have given the Ethiopian people a promise to help them in their resistance to the aggressor; what are they willing to do for Ethiopia? And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small states on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia; I ask, what measure do you intend to take?"

Like many great friends of Ethiopia, Dr. Spencer never forgot those who stood against peaceful Ethiopia and who, he believed, had shown extreme cruelty. He thought that the League of Nations severely betrayed Ethiopia's legitimate rights and causes. Some of Ethiopia's own sons and daughters too, he believed, failed to render eminent services to their beloved country. Dr. Spencer has acknowledged at many occasions that some of Ethiopia's recent leaders led Ethiopia backward rather than forward.

In mid-1937, Dr. John Spencer and Dr. Melaku Bayen traveled to the United States. In October 1937, Dr. Spencer discussed exhaustively the legal aspect of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict from 1934 to 1937, which appeared in the American Journal of International Law (Volume 31, 1937). Years later, in 1975, he contributed an article titled "Haile Selassie: Triumph and Tragedy" which was published in an American journal called Journal of World Affairs, Foreign Policy Research Institute, (Winter 1975). Failure to resolve the internal conflicts (in Ethiopia), he said in the article, will lead to anarchy; yet Ethiopia has survived periods of interregnum before. Further, its struggles against invasions and partitioning had, he believed, time and again brought the process of secession and disintegration to a halt. Continuing his views on the future of Ethiopia, Dr. Spencer concluded, "The conflicts today are being fought out on a far larger scale than before. Nevertheless, one trusts that the people of Ethiopia, under the lash of adversity, will again emerge vital and resolute as when, in 1935 under Haile Selassie, their unaided struggle against colonialism led the way to the eventual emergence of a free Africa."

Dr. Melaku established a headquarters at Harlem in New York City and organized conferences where, African-Americans in particular, took part and disseminated information on the illegal activities of Fascist Italy against Ethiopia. The two gentlemen, with their basic knowledge of Ethiopia, were the ideal individuals to make available accurate information within a country that had declined to recognize Italy's occupation of Ethiopia

Italy was defeated by East Africans and Britain in 1941 and Emperor Haile Selassie re-entered Addis Ababa on May 5th of that year. The United Kingdom, as a victorious ally, became the principal administrator of Ethiopia up to 1943. Dr. John Spencer, who served the United States Navy, the Department of State and the Department of Justice between 1936 and 1943, was then requested by the Emperor to serve the Ethiopian Government as a legal adviser. He accepted the offer and arrived in Ethiopia in the latter part of 1943.

The most challenging task in Ethiopia at that time was the breaking free from Britain, which had literally taken responsibility for the administration of Ethiopia since 1941. Negotiation of the agreement of December 19, 1944, was not an easy task but it was brought to a successful conclusion thanks to some elite Ethiopians and Dr. John Spencer, the active legal adviser. Other noteworthy negotiations in which he participated include: the Paris Peace Conference, where Ethiopia struggled against opponents to its territorial claims; the San Francisco Conference assembled to establish a United Nations, a prominent forum that deliberated for months and successfully created the new organization to succeed the old League of Nations; and later the negotiations that took place in Washington for the establishment of the Ethiopian Airlines. On the whole and without exception, Dr. John Spencer served in the capacity of senior legal adviser with vigor and vitality. This is to be greatly appreciated and upheld by both present and future Ethiopian generations.

Ethiopians have, indeed, lost a precious friend. Dr. John Spencer will surely be remembered by Ethiopians at home and abroad as a generous defender of their famous land. He defended strongly Ethiopia's unity and condemned swiftly the concept of secession. He upheld the support of nourishment and detested the presence of destitution. Dr. Spencer vigorously supported equality and abhorred discrimination.

Dr. John Spencer was married in 1949 to his Swedish wife, Margareta, who died in 2001. He is survived by his daughter, Dr. Karin Spencer of Hempstead, NY; his daughter-in-law Dr. Marisa Hoheb; two grandchildren: Maris Hoheb and Eric Schulhous; and two sisters: Mary Warrington and Imogen Schaetzel; and several nieces and nephews.


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