Former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) chairman Nat Bellocchi died on Monday at his home in Bethesda, Maryland, aged 88.
His family found him in his bed that morning after he apparently passed away peacefully in his sleep.
A frequent contributor to the Taipei Times’ opinion page, Bellocchi was head of the AIT from 1990 to 1995, a period of high tension and drama.
In May 1994, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was infuriated when the US government would not allow him to leave the airport for a meeting with local Taiwanese community representatives during a stopover in Honolulu, Hawaii. The next year, the US Congress pressured then-US president Bill Clinton’s administration to allow Lee to visit his alma mater, Cornell University, in New York. Bellocchi was the highest-ranking US official to welcome Lee when he arrived at Cornell.
Soon after, Beijing used the visit as an excuse to fire missiles into the Taiwan Strait in the summer of 1995 and again in March 1996, at the time of Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election.
After retiring, Bellocchi closely monitored Taiwan-US relations and regularly wrote opinion pieces for the Taipei Times and its sister newspaper, the Chinese-language Liberty Times, detailing his observations.
Nat Bellocchi was also a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group.
“He [Bellocchi] argued for more international support for Taiwan and wanted the island brought into international organizations such as the United Nations,” Formosan Association for Public Affairs senior policy adviser Gerrit van der Wees said.
“Bellocchi urged the US to help bring Taiwan out of its international diplomatic isolation by enhancing ties with the new and vibrant democracy,” Van der Wees added.
Bellocchi enlisted in the US military when the Korean War broke out in 1950, serving as a first lieutenant in the rifle platoon of the 23rd Infantry.
He joined the US diplomatic service after completing his education at Georgetown University in 1955.
Bellocchi worked with the US’ diplomatic courier service in eastern and southern Europe, surviving a plane crash when the DC-3 he was flying in encountered engine trouble and had to be ditched in the Mediterranean Sea.
“Fortunately, Bellocchi and his diplomatic pouches survived the crash,” Van der Wees said.
Bellocchi served in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Laos and Vietnam, with the latter posting coming during the height of the Vietnam War.
He met his wife, Lilian, in Taiwan and the couple had two children, Luke and Jacqualine.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Bellocchi served in Japan and India, and was later appointed US ambassador to Botswana.
He told friends that the AIT posting was “the most difficult and historic journey of my entire life.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs remembered Bellocchi for his contributions to bilateral relations over the past decades.
The Democratic Progressive Party also paid tribute to Bellocchi, with Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) saying: “Our hearts go out to Ambassador Bellocchi’s family in this time of sorrow.”
Additional reporting by CNA