U.S.–Taiwan relations were in a weird place in the summer of ’82. Three years earlier, we’d tossed 20 million or so Taiwanese overboard so that our relationship with the People’s Republic of China, home to a billion potential Big Mac eaters, could move forward.
The breakup had been inevitable ever since Nixon allowed an American pingpong team to go to China in 1972. No U.S. delegation had been to the mainland since it went commie in the late ’40s. The 1979 official severing of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which included closing the American Embassy in Taipei, had further peeved the island’s leaders and inhabitants.
“They knew it was coming, but they didn’t like it,” recalls James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to China who in 1982 served as director of the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT), which has served as the de facto U.S. Embassy since the jilt. “They felt they were being treated as distant cousins. There was a real sense of insecurity about [their relationship with the United States.]”
The future of what had been a very friendly alliance between the United States and Taiwan was also causing worries in our diplomatic and business communities. After all, Taiwanese could potentially eat Big Macs, too. We were already operating at a massive trade deficit with Taiwan. If they stopped loving us, they might stop buying our stuff entirely.
Drastic times called for drastic measures. So the diplomats enlisted America’s secret weapon.
Redskinettes, to be specific.
“It was an incredible honor to be part of that,” says Terri Lamb, a former Redskins cheerleader captain and one of the six Redskinettes charged with spreading U.S. good will throughout Taiwan with pom poms and go-go boots. “We were asked to represent our country on a diplomatic mission. We really did view this as an ambassador trip.”
Why cheerleaders? Well, on the karma scale, the innovation may not balance out being the birthplace of both the atom bomb and Joanie Loves Chachi, but America really did invent the cheerleader. According to a brief history contained in The Official Cheerleaders Handbook, the concept of organized yelling at sporting events originated among dudes at Princeton University football games in the 1880s. The first group cheer: “Tiger! Tiger!/Sis! Sis! Sis!/Boom! Boom! Boom!/Aaah!/Princeton! Princeton! Princeton!”
And cheerleaders were extremely hot all over the U.S. a century later. The D.C. crew, however, wasn’t responsible for that boom. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were.
The Cowboys cheerleaders hadn’t been around as long as the Redskinettes, who debuted in 1962 and are now hailed as the NFL’s longest-running outfit. But the Dallas gals wore skimpier outfits, and, because the Pokes were a much better football team than the Skins in the pre–Joe Gibbs era, their cheerleaders were far more frequently exposed to the masses (on Monday Night Football, during Super Bowl appearances, and in a pair of guest spots alongside Gopher and Julie on ABC’s The Love Boat).
Concurrent with the downturn in the U.S.–Taiwan dealings was a chilling in the relationship between the Redskinettes and the Cowboys cheerleaders. So Lamb et al. were thrilled when the Redskinettes, because of State Department ties, got the first diplomatic gig. Tryouts were held among the 42 members, and the top half-dozen were asked to be volunteers for America.
The mission, dubbed “American Living” by the AIT, hit cities throughout Taiwan for nearly three weeks in August and September 1982. Lamb and her colleagues put America’s best face—and 12 of its best legs—forward in round-the-clock appearances at shopping malls and on television and radio stations. They wore both the official Redskinette uniform—a suede-and-bead faux-Indian costume designed by Sugar Ray Leonard’s camp—and a patriotic number with Uncle Sam hats and red, white, and blue sequins. They performed routines in which the batons they’d twirl at RFK Stadium were replaced with American flags.
Whatever beefs the Taiwanese government and hoi polloi had with America at the time were put aside as soon as the Redskinettes touched down in Taipei.
“We were treated like rock stars by everybody,” says Debbie Ray, another of the Redskinette missionaries.
“Wherever we went, there were huge crowds and fireworks,” adds Lamb. “Our picture was on buses, trains. Everywhere in the entire country, it seemed.”
And wherever they appeared, AIT representatives made sure scads of American consumer goods—from household appliances, kitchenware, and bedding (yes, kids, there was a time when America actually produced things) to perishables such as hamburgers, hot dogs, and beer—were on display.
“We knew we were trying to accomplish something: represent America and promote American goods,” says Ray. “I don’t remember seeing any evidence of American culture, or anything American at all. No food, no signs, no products. It wasn’t at all like the Third World; it was just a totally, completely different world. But we took our role really responsibly.”
The Redskinettes also felt a responsibility to their craft.
“No other cheerleading squad had ever been asked to do this,” says Lamb, who founded the Washington Redskins Cheerleader Alumni Association and organized the reunion of five decades’ worth of Skins cheerleaders that was held at FedEx Field on Oct. 23. “There was no such thing as cheerleading in Asia. Not just in Taiwan—anywhere in Asia. So we were the first. They’d obviously heard about cheerleading, but they’d never seen anything like us before.” (To get technical: Those darn Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders had made an earlier Asian excursion, a USO trip to pep up American troops in South Korea in 1979. But the Dallas crew didn’t make any public appearances at non-U.S. facilities.)
When told that teams in the Chinese Basketball Association now have cheerleading squads on the sidelines, Lamb swells.
“That goes back to us! I mean it,” she says.
Lilley, who is now a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, says there’s no formula he could use to gauge the impact of the cheerleaders’ visit to Taiwan. But he recalls being very pleased with the mission.
“I can’t give you the figures. They probably made a dent in the trade deficit,” he says. “But from a PR standpoint, this went very well. The trip was fun, and they did an excellent job. The cheerleaders were a great representation of the U.S.”
Lilley, however, says he’s never heard of anybody in the diplomatic community trying to duplicate the Redskinettes trip, in Taiwan or anywhere. And he’s not sure American pom poms would go over as well in Asia today as they did back in 1982. He wouldn’t advise Condi Rice, for example, to send the Redskins’ current sidelines crew to North Korea to shore up our relations with that country.
“I don’t think they’re quite ready for it there,” he says.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.