Holly Jolly Diplomacy

This blog post was composed by graduate assistant Bailey Edling, a master’s student in the History Department.

Holiday cards are a tradition embraced by families and businesses worldwide. Greetings of “Joyous Kwanzaa,” “Happy Hanukkah,” and “Merry Christmas” on cards of gold, silver, green, red, and blue pepper mailboxes from December through January every year. The tradition of holiday cards in America dates back to the late 19th century when “Louis Prang, a Prussian immigrant with a print shop near Boston…” printed the simple image of a flower and the words ‘Merry Christmas.’[1]

More than a century later, holiday cards are a staple in many American homes and offices, including those of US leaders. Representative Bob Poage’s papers in the Poage Legislative Library house boxes of Poage’s correspondence, newspaper clippings, photos, and legislation he sponsored. It also houses his holiday cards. Retro images of the young George W. Bush, cards signed by the Nixons, the Fords, and the Carters are stuffed between cards from family and friends of the Poages. What takes the most space, however, are the dozens of holiday cards from foreign countries and embassies. Most Americans who mail out holiday cards each year know that they are not just a simple greeting; they show gratitude for a continued relationship. In Washington DC, this sentiment transforms into an official form of business. Poage’s collection gives insight into the unique field of diplomacy through holiday cards.

Poage meets with two gentlemen in a South Korean textile factory.

When sifting back through his personal holiday cards, one country stands out among all others: South Korea. In 1969, Poage traveled to South Korea. During his time there, he met with government officials and representatives of industries in which America was keen on investing.[2] The relationships he made and the people he encountered while in South Korea are captured in time in a small cardboard box in the Poage Legislative Library.

Christmas card from Tong Sun Park of ‘Koreagate’ infamy

Perhaps the most interesting card is the very last holiday card for 1970. It features a painting of four Korean women dressed in traditional clothing carrying fruit baskets. Inside is a simple note, “A merry Christmas and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year,” from Tong Sun Park, President of Miryong Sangsa Company.[3] Tong Sun Park, a lobbyist, was infamously involved in ‘Koreagate.’ In 1977, he was indicted for bribery, fraud, and racketeering, among many other crimes related to his lobbying activities.[4] Park’s crimes offer a glimpse into the complex relationship between post-war South Korea and Cold War America as the country attempted to rebuild and America worked to stymie the global spread of Communism.

In 1971, several dozen cards came in from Korea, and most came from people in political positions of power. Simple, elegant cards with personal notes from members of the South Korean National Assembly, their legislative branch, make clear the cordial relationship Poage shared with members of the South Korean government. Bold and official-looking cards from the executive offices of the Prime Minister, Intelligence Office, Ministries of Culture, and Foreign and State Affairs usually feature just a signature or well wishes. The most unique and ornate cards, however, come from trade organizations.

Folded, a common Christmas card from Korean labor associations

Poage received dozens of cards from Korean trade organizations throughout the 1970s, from organizations such as the Spinners and Weavers Association, the Korean Cotton Textiles Associations, The Wheat-Rice Industrial Association, Hosiery, Flour, Grain Silo, and many others. These cards are by far the most unique and eye-catching. A narrow rectangle of thick paper with floral designs and Korean characters opens like a fan, giving the image of an ornate partition one might see in an old film or vintage clothing store.[5]

Aside from their aesthetically pleasing design, these cards are significant. Poage formed connections with the agricultural organizations of South Korea. These relationships were vital to South Korea as it rebuilt itself after a war that damaged nearly 80% of its natural forests and devastated the land.[6] South Korea relied on American funding to help rebuild and American agriculture to help feed its growing population. Between 1953-1974, the US invested four billion dollars in South Korea, making up nearly 60% of all investments in the country.[7] The US was also South Korea’s primary trade partner. Alongside Japan, the US accounted for 75% of South Korea’s trade in the 1970s.[8] The country flourished in the 70s and experienced wealth and population growth. Always a big consumer of rice, South Korea became one of America’s largest importers of Japonica Rice.[9] Though South Korea produced its own rice, the country consumed so much of it that a frequent policy goal was to produce enough rice to be self-sufficient; in the years it did not meet this goal, American rice made up the difference.[10] South Korea also imported a large amount of American wheat; as the country focused on producing enough rice to be self-sufficient, they slowed their wheat yields, and once again, America filled the gap.[11] Poage, the House Committee on Agriculture Chairman and a farmer, had a vested interest in South Korea, a growing country and consumer of American agricultural goods.

Unfolded, the card features a calendar and photos of South Korea.

These cards may seem trivial, but like a strand of holiday lights, they illuminate elements of history shrouded by the darkness of time. In 1971, more than 30 cards came in from various Korean people and organizations. In just five years, this number dropped to six cards. This pattern follows investment trends in South Korea. Foreign investment peaked in 1972 as South Korea began to hold its own on the international market.[12] As American investment decreased, so too did the holiday cards.

As Korean cards became fewer, new countries began to appear in the cardboard box of holiday cards. The Republic of China slowly faded in the late 1970s as cards from the People’s Republic of China appeared. Notes from Mauritius, Australia, and Iran, several from Baylor professors, and of course, many pictures of loved ones with questionable 1970s haircuts. These cards illustrate trends in political power; they trace friendships and business dealings from a man who stayed in office for over four decades. They demonstrate that diplomacy does not have to be as grand as a state dinner; for some, it is as simple as the swish of a pen and glad Christmas tidings. 

[1] John Hanc, “The History of the Christmas Card,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 9, 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-christmas-card-180957487/.

[2] Photo of W.R. “Bob” Poage Visiting a Warehouse in Korea, 1969, Photograph, 1969, Digital Collection, W. R. Poage Legislative Library.

[3] Tong Sun Park, “W.R. Poage Christmas Card,” December 1970, Administration, Office Files, Christmas Cards, W. R. Poage Legislative Library.

[4] William Safire, “The Riceman Cometh,” The New York Times, March 2, 1978, sec. Archives, https://www.nytimes.com/1978/03/02/archives/the-riceman-cometh-essay.html.

[5] Daihan Nongsan Co., Ltd., “W.R. Poage Christmas Card,” December 1970, Administration, Office Files, Christmas Cards, W. R. Poage Legislative Library.

[6] Hilary Allison, “The Fall and Rise of South Korea’s Forests,” Quarterly Journal of Forestry 110, no. 1 (January 1, 2016).

[7] South Korea: A Country Study (Washington DC: US Government Publishing Office, 1990), Library of Congress, http://countrystudies.us/south-korea/56.htm.

[8] “South Korea,” Macrotrends, last modified 2022, https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/KOR/south-korea/trade-balance-deficit.

[9] Changing Food Consumption Patterns in The Republic of Korea, Economic Research Service (Washington DC: United States Department of Agriculture, December 1970).

[10] Sunchul Choi, John Dyck, and Nathan Childs, The Rice Market in South Korea, Economic Research Service (Washington DC: United States Department of Agriculture, September 2016).

[11] Changing Food Consumption Patterns in The Republic of Korea.

[12] “South Korea.”

1 thought on “Holly Jolly Diplomacy

  1. Bailey,
    Well researched and beautifully written. Thank you for this thoughtful look at diplomacy through holiday cards. I enjoyed learning more about this.

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