Since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen was been a hot spot for unrest in the Middle East. The 1960s saw instability and hostile relations between the socialist South Yemen and the authoritarian Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), also known as North Yemen. The YAR was in the midst of a bloody civil war that would rage for the majority of the decade and would draw Saudi Arabia and Nasser’s Egypt into one of the region’s intractable conflicts. Even today, Yemen continues to be ravaged by internal conflicts with regional partners using the nation as a battlefield to promote their interests in and influence over the Middle East.
The United States recognized the YAR when they deposed King and Imam Muhammad al-Badr who had only risen to the throne the week prior following his father’s death. However, as the fighting continued to tear across the country and the Egyptian military, who at that time were the guarantors of the YAR’s fight against the royalist factions, took increasingly provocative acts against Americans in Yemen, the U.S. Secretary of State made the decision to close its embassy in Sana’a in 1967. The city was captured by republican rebels later that year.
David and Marjorie Ransom were newlywed Foreign Service Officers who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Taiz, Yemen from 1966 until its closure in 1967. David Ransom also served in Tehran, Beirut, Jeddah, the Department of State, Abu Dhabi, the Department of Defense, Damascus, finishing off his thirty two-year career as the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain. Marjorie Ransom served in Amman, Mumbai, Tehran, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Damascus, and Cairo over a period of thirty eight years. Together, they provide a view of what life was like as a married couple in the U.S. Foreign Service and life in Taiz and Sana’a while a civil war raged in the countryside. To read more about Yemen, coups, or the Foreign Service, or to read the oral histories of David Ransom or Marjorie Ransom, please follow these links.
“It was glorious: Two incomes; one special, wonderful life”
David Ransom, General Officer, U.S. Embassy Taiz, 1966-1967
RANSOM: When I was in graduate school, I went one summer to study Arabic at Princeton under the National Defense Education Act and there was a lovely student, Marjorie Marilley. She was in the class ahead of me, having gone into Columbia a year before me. She was working on a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, also in Middle Eastern studies. So, we found there was a lot to talk about. (David Ransom is at left, about 1966.)
It was summertime. Flowers were blooming. It was a lovely, lovely time. We subsequently married. She joined the Foreign Service as well and served in USIA (the United States Information Agency, now the Public Diplomacy branch of the State Department.)
While I was going through basic school in the Marine Corps, she was in an introductory class for the USIA Foreign Service in Washington. I used to drive up in the evenings after work to see Marjorie. She went off to become the first woman to serve in the Middle East as a Foreign Service officer…
At that time, there was a written regulation in the Foreign Service Manual that required women officers to resign when they married. Men who married were not required to resign. It was considered “unseemly” for a Foreign Service female officer to be married. “Unseemly” was the term. They thought what men did at home at night in bed with their wives wasn’t considered unseemly.
We weren’t social revolutionaries in any sense of the word. She had two tours in the Foreign Service and was assigned to India. I had finished up my tour in Okinawa. There is a story here, too.
Marines in that day and age were never given orders as to where they went for their next post, but they were always supposed to volunteer for that service. So, when you got your orders, you wrote out a request to go to where they had decided to send you. So, each tour was therefore defined as “voluntary” in the Marine Corps.
At the division headquarters in Okinawa, there were just hundreds of papers coming across the desk of the personnel officer – e.g. whoever requested assignment to the Continental United States, to such and such a base, via the Pacific. I sent a request for assignment to such and such a base in the Continental United States via the Atlantic. Nobody noticed and it was approved.
So, I pocketed that and went hitchhiking on military airplanes to get to where Marjorie was at that time— in India. She made her way up from Bombay to Delhi when I finally got in on an airplane. Some Navy plane was flying there for some reason from Thailand. I went to the pilot and said, “Can you let me sit in the back?” He said, “Sure, Lieutenant. Hop in.” So, there we were in New Delhi.
We became engaged there. She finished out her tour of duty, having seamstresses stitch up her wedding dress in the heat of Bombay while she really wondered whether this was the right thing to do.
She resigned from the Foreign Service because she had to. She quit because that’s what women did in those days. I thought that was perfectly reasonable.
She went back to Norfolk. We married. We started a family. Several years later, after three children, Marjorie received a letter from USIA saying, “We may have discriminated against you under the 1965 Civil Rights Act as interpreted by various court cases.” The letter didn’t say anything else.
So, Marjorie said, “Well, what do we do?” To be honest, I didn’t know what we would do if she went back to work. I couldn’t think of any redress. This was all unknown at the time.
So, I eventually decided on something that I thought was terribly clever. Again, this is an example of the stupid things that you do that work out well in the long run. I drafted a letter for her which said, “Yes, indeed, I was discriminated against and that is provable. As a remedy, I would like to be reinstated in the Foreign Service, full-time, at a rank that assumes all the promotions that I would have received had I been serving.” I thought that was the end of it.
In fact, Marjorie, after seven years, was reinstated with all the promotions that I had made and which had been so hard to get on my own in the State Department during that period. That started … our life together as a tandem couple. Our life would be marked by this experience.
Marjorie brought in the soft side of diplomacy. You know what USIS (United States Information Service, as USIA was known overseas) does. They are journalists, educators, artists, writers, people who have nothing to do with power in the present generation but think they see and control the future. And they’re right.
My friends and acquaintances were the “heavies”: the businessmen, the generals, the diplomats, the people who have all the power in the world in their generation but are mortally afraid of the tomorrow. So Marjorie’s and my lives fit together not just with our different clientele, but as part of a working partnership in the Foreign Service working in the Middle East.
It was glorious: Two incomes; one special, wonderful life.
“His great adventure in Yemen came to nothing…”
I left in [Yemen] 1967, when the Secretary of State pulled out the entire embassy after two AID mission members had been imprisoned and some 24 other members of the AID mission had been declared persona non grata. I have always regretted that on a list of 24 troublemakers at that time, my name was not included. It would have been a world of honor to have been tagged persona non grata by a government that so dishonored its own country, as the al-Salal regime did at that time.
I left. I left all of our things behind, hoping they would be sent later. Marjorie and I had just been married. I was a very, very junior officer in the embassy — the most junior. I had been working in rotational assignments in the embassy, first in administration and then in consular affairs.
I had a naive faith that nothing would happen to our effects and that they would be packed up and shipped. In fact, despite having packed up, nothing was shipped. We left our first post with only the earthly goods we could carry on our evacuation flight. So Marjorie I faced a difficult second tour financially, having to replace all that was lost in Yemen.
[In 1966,] Yemen had only opened up to the outside world a few years before. Our embassy was situated in the town of Taiz not so far from the much more developed British port city of Aden. But the actual government was in the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, about two and a half hours north by road.
There was a new American road which had been built even though there was not a single car or truck in the country. So, Yemen was primitive in the extreme in its development. It is mountainous country divided by tribes and regions.
There was a continuous internal struggle, often with lethal weapons. The republican government, which had overthrown the old imam, maintained itself with help from the Egyptian army. The rebels, the loyalists, were supported by Saudi Arabia.
So we found ourselves in many ways in a difficult position, but we had very good relations with the Saudis. We also tried to maintain good relations with the Egyptians and the Republic of Yemen. It didn’t work terribly well. A straddle of this kind was impossible to maintain not just in Yemen but in the Middle East in general.
Nasser (seen right) and our government were in competition and eventually Nasser decided to get support from the Soviets rather than try to engage the Americans, whom he saw as overly friendly to Israel. Nasser was also after the Saudis and other conservative governments. He thought he was the wave of the future, representing increasing military elements, progressive Arab nationalism, and socialism.
His target was not so much Yemen as Saudi Arabia and the port city of Aden. When it became clear the British were going to withdraw from Aden, he wanted to be the successor government there. That created all kinds of strains in our relationship with the Egyptian government. Not only were the Egyptians going after our good friends, the Saudis; they were going after our good friends, the British.
We had an AID mission in Yemen, and we were trying to make the best of a difficult situation. The Egyptians decided that the American embassy in Yemen was getting in their way. Furthermore they were unhappy with the American government after we turned down the sale of surplus wheat to Egypt. So they moved against the American embassy.
Based on some trumped up charges, they put a couple of AID members in jail. They “PNG’d” (persona non grata) some others. They got what they wanted, which was the decision by the Secretary of State to withdraw American personnel.
I arrived in early 1966. By August of 1966, the Egyptians stooped to the most egregious form of intervention in Yemeni affairs. They put virtually the entire government of Yemen – all the ministers, the prime minister, many of the deputy ministers – on two airplanes and flew them to Cairo nominally for a conference there with Egyptian counterparts. But once they had landed, they put them all in jail.
They weren’t mistreated terribly, except for the misery that comes in being falsely imprisoned. But that gave the Egyptians the unchallenged opportunity to run the country as well as they could. It was a very unhappy and difficult time.
The denouement came in 1967; then the Egyptians challenged the Israelis directly. Nasser badly overestimated his power. He closed the Straits of Tiran… He lost the war and had to withdraw from Yemen as a consequence. His great adventure in Yemen came to nothing despite the loss of a very large number of Egyptian soldiers.
[When I was in Yemen} there wasn’t much fighting, but there was a large army of occupation – 50- 60,000 men with airplanes, tanks, garrisons, the usual sort of intelligence and whatnot. There were some clashes in the east of the country where the local — and very independent — tribes would pick a fight with the Egyptians. The Egyptians generally stayed in the cities and tried to maintain themselves there with as little fighting as possible.
Relations with the Egyptians were difficult in those days. They were hard to love because of the imperial role that they were playing and because they saw themselves increasingly pitted against us everywhere in the Middle East with Soviet support. So, it was a diplomatic task of some difficulty. The Yemenis particularly felt that we were the aggrieved party. In fact, that turned out to be true.
The Saudis had come the conclusion that the Egyptians were really after the Saudi kingdom even more than they were after Yemen. Yemen was just a great stepping stone in that direction. The Saudis thought the Egyptians wanted to set up republics in Saudi Arabia as well as in Yemen.
So, they undertook to subsidize the tribes of Yemen who opposed both the Egyptians and the concept of a republic. The Saudis created, in effect, a buffer between themselves and the Egyptians and sought to strengthen popular standing by a low-level of warfare.
When the Egyptians were forced to leave after the 1967 war, finally pulling out in November, the Saudis funded one last spasmodic effort by the tribes to take the city of Sana’a. But the city held out on its own against all odds and expectations. The republicans inside the walls of the city just didn’t give in to the tribes.
That was more or less the end of the societal calm in Yemen, even though the Saudis maintained their support for the royalists and the tribesmen. It was the long, slow process of shifting to a new relationship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Yemen. It has never been easy, natural, and popular, but it’s pretty much a set formula now…
“The academic lessons I learned in graduate school were tested in the crucible of Yemeni politics”
Well, there wasn’t much of a Yemeni government after that purge in August of 1966. We tried to find it and have a dialogue with some of its members, but in fact, we were dealing with a very shadowy group. There was a president, Abdullah Saleh (seen right.) He offered several spontaneous reassurances. But in fact, the Egyptians were calling the shots.
The discussion in the Middle East Bureau at the time revolved around the question of polarization and where our bets should be placed given what people saw of the future of the area. These are two different questions. Polarization meant that we didn’t want to see a Middle East divided between conservatives and radicals and we didn’t want one group to be backed by us and the other to be backed by the Soviet Union.
There was a fear among a lot of the Arabists at the time that we would end up as the friend of Israel and of conservative Arabs and neither one had much of a chance of surviving the tide of events in the Middle East. Both the Israelis and conservative states like the Saudis as well as our friends, the British, wanted very much for us to take sides forcefully. We ended up being pushed in that direction whether we wanted to or not…
It was an education for me, a young man without a lot of experience in the Middle East. The academic lessons I learned in graduate school were tested in the crucible of Yemeni politics. I must say that everything I saw in that first assignment to Yemen served me terribly well in the rest of my career in the Middle East. My views didn’t really change very much after that experience and the issues didn’t either – not until the Berlin Wall came down.
I also made very good friends in the embassy. We had an extraordinarily close relationship among the staff. There wasn’t very much to do in Sana’a or Taiz except to see your colleagues in the evening. We were young and gabby. Everybody in the embassy was a friend…
There was a road that had been paved and there was a road that was being built across the wasteland. It was hard to do travel on it. I made that trek twice.
Then there was the back and forth between Taiz and Sana’a; there it was possible to travel on the road that we had built. If you got off the road, there were no roads. There were tracks to follow if you were desperate.
While I was eager to get out and see as much of the countryside as possible and even walk in some places to perform my consular duties, it took a long time to get to a house where I had to do an investigation. Yemen wasn’t a country where you could get about easily. You had to carry everything with you. It was a very, very mountainous and broken country. It was beautiful and lovely but not a place with a lot for tourists.
One of the things that startled me about Yemen was the discovery that a very large number of Yemenis had gone to the United States. They had begun their journeys by getting on British ships in the port of Aden working as stewards and deck-hands. Then they ended up jumping ship in some American port. Where one went, others would follow. (Ransom is seen above in Yemen in 1966.)
Yemenis are a great nation of immigrants. When Vietnam fell, over 2,000 Yemenis came back to Yemen. They had made it that far and were working there in menial jobs.
The American Yemeni group tended to work in Detroit at the Ford Motor Company and in various steel mill towns along the Ohio River. There was also a big group in Brooklyn, New York. There was a small group that had begun in California.
They were isolated communities and were prototypical immigrant groups who sent a lot of money home. When they returned home, they married Yemeni women and set themselves up lived well on the fairly good estate they had made in the United States.
They were never very well integrated into American society, but some became American citizens. We had all kinds of consular issues to deal with because of that.
[Documenting migrants] wasn’t [easy] and we struggled mightily against visa fraud. I suppose we may have had some successes, but the Yemenis were very clever. By and large, when they set their minds on going to the United States, they managed to do so.
“I also took rented trucks and went down to Aden… dodging terrorist incidents as I went”
In that embassy we had a very, very large immigrant visa business and a very, very small non-immigrant visa work-load–a few businessmen and government people who went from Yemen to the States, but a lot of family members who wanted to visit.
I went to Yemen thinking I was going to do rotational assignments in all four parts of the embassy. I didn’t have enough time there to get through the Political or Economic Section. I spent most of my tour in the Administrative Section doing GSO work.
The Administrative Section was located in Taiz (seen right.) Harlan Clark, the Chargé, resisted the move of the embassy from Taiz, where he was very comfortably ensconced, to Sana’a, where living would be difficult. When he left, the embassy began to push forward to make this move.
I was sent up by Matt Gerlach to Sana’a to rent houses and office spaces, repair them, and put them in condition ready for American occupancy. That meant taking a building without a single pipe and wire, without screens, without anything but mud floors, with the most rudimentary walls and security protection, and completely rehabilitating it.
I must have had 18 houses and a big office building to work on and I did it, not knowing that this really was the work of an entire administrative section. I simply got landlords to do things.
We hired a big bunch of workers and I went out and just did my part as a lieutenant should do in the Marine Corps or the State Department, which is get the job done. So, I was in the souk a lot. I also took rented trucks and went down to Aden and bought up fabric for curtains, screens, pipes, basins, toilets, wiring, switches, everything else, dodging terrorist incidents as I went.
It was sort of a foolish set of activities. The embassy never did decide whether to be horrified or amazed by what I was doing. But it had to move. They were finding that in Sana’a, homes and office space was being made available which was suited to American requirements and so they let me go.
I had lots and lots of friends in the souk and I loved going down there. I must tell you that I started out completely inexperienced with bargaining for things and making things work under difficult circumstances. I learned a series of lessons that has served me very well in my subsequent career.
It’s the opposite of Wal-Mart where you walk in and everything is laid out and the price is already determined. If you pay at the counter, you walk away with the stuff.
Yemen was totally different. Setting the price, paying the money, getting delivery, checking the goods, making them work — all of that was something that I found new, frustrating, fun, and instructive.
We had a consulate in Aden (seen right,) so when I went down there I saw people in the consulate. The British, of course, were good friends of ours. They were much beleaguered there and a little unhappy that we were going to be friends of people who were not their friends —the Egyptians and the Yemeni Republicans.
But the British never did anything to make our life difficult; at the borders, taking things in and out, etc. They simply allowed all this to happen smoothly.
[We were moving the embassy because] Sana’a was the capital. The government was there. We had long been in Taiz because the old imam never wanted foreigners to live in his holy capital of Sana’a. The embassy sort of set up there and houses were fixed up.
The Chargé’s house in particular was fixed up very well. He didn’t want to leave. So, when the policy decision was made to move, it was hard to shift him.
We were kicked out before [the Six Day war]. Actually, I always say we were kicked out, but in fact, it was the U.S. government’s decision to withdraw the American mission, following provocative acts on the part of the Egyptian government which barred us from protecting our people and carrying out our mission. Secretary Dean Rusk pulled us out.
But that happened in May. It was not until a month later that the war broke out. Then there were forced departures in many Middle Eastern countries. We were withdrawn before the war.
Yes. We departed first on an Ethiopian airliner, a C-47 that had flown over from Asmara, landing on a rainy day in Sana’a. It took us out after a lot of hindrance from local officials. We were sad to go. We thought that we were being pushed out. We were.
We didn’t like ceding the field to the other side. Marjorie and I were assigned to Tehran– our stalwart friends in the Middle East.
“She saw the corpse being taken away after the execution, so one can understand her reluctance to move to the city at that time”
Marjorie Ransom, USIS English Instructor, 1966-1967, U.S. Embassy Taiz
RANSOM: The minute [David] got word of his assignment – he entered in December of ’65 – we had been married a few months and he was assigned to Yemen. Days after he got news of his assignment, I got a call from USIA asking me to work for them in Yemen.
I couldn’t work as an officer, but they hired me at the highest level they could, which was executive assistant. I could work 32 hours a week. That was great. I don’t know what I would have done in Yemen if I hadn’t worked. I would have gone crazy. So, I ran an English language program in Sana’a… from sometime in April 1966 to May 1, 1967.
We were first in Taiz for six months. We were there at a time when we had a Chargé d’Affaires. Our diplomatic relations were at that level.
The Chargé had been instructed to move the Embassy from Taiz to Sanaa and his wife did not want to move, so he refused to move. Everyone in the Embassy wanted to move. Our orders read “Sana’a” when we arrived. So, there was no house for us in Taiz. But the Chargé wouldn’t let us move to Sana’a. It was ridiculous.
We were caught in the middle of this tension in the Embassy and it took us some time to figure it out. No one was very forthcoming. Sana’a was quite a primitive place. The Egyptians dominated the country at that time. The basic amenities were very few. It was a very difficult place to be.
We had a large USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) mission in Yemen at that time and they were based in Taiz. Taiz was closer to Aden and we were able to get some supplies through Aden, so that made Taiz a little easier to live in.
So, Sana’a was tough. We didn’t move until the Chargé left. He left in August and we moved the next day.
[The Chargé d’Affaires was] Harlan Clark. Mrs. Clark did not want to move. I must say, I was in Sana’a with her one day. I was up there doing USIS business. The USIS office was in Sana’a.
We heard a terrible noise. First of all, I was at USIS and a loudspeaker truck came around announcing that a public execution was going to take place. It was a political execution.
The Chargé’s wife was up there. She saw the corpse being taken away after the execution, so one can understand her reluctance to move to the city at that time. It was a very difficult place to live. David and I, however, were eager to move, as Sana’a was the seat of government and the center of action.
You had a so-called republican government under Salal, but he was really an instrument of the Egyptians. The Egyptians had a large military presence and were preoccupied with training fighters to fight the British in Sana’a.
It was August of ‘66 when the Yemen cabinet met and decided to express their distress over what the Egyptian military was doing in Yemen, especially the bad treatment they were giving people in the countryside. They flew off to Cairo to complain to President Nasser. They were sure that he couldn’t be aware of what his military was doing in Yemen, but he locked them all up and kept them in prison until the 1967 war was over…
[The Egyptians] kept the cabinet locked up in Cairo. There wasn’t much the people could do. But there was a civil war going on in Yemen at the time. The royalists were fighting it still and the Saudis supported them. The Egyptians had their spy network and we were watched all the time. Our travel was restricted.
[The Egyptians] were hard to deal with. They really wanted to be friendly. It’s their nature. It was hard for them. But no, they made life quite difficult for us.
In the end, two AID employees in Taiz were accused of blowing up an Egyptian ammunition dump. The Egyptians controlled the radio in Yemen and broadcast this story to the people. They were encouraging mob action against our people.
So, the State Department decided that they could not protect us, because they had gotten no cooperation from the Egyptians or from the Yemenis and so they made the decision to withdraw us all. We all left by May 1, 1964.
I was running the USIS office. It was mainly English teaching, recruiting teachers, running the classes, keeping track of the students, administering exams, and passing out publications. Our activities were fairly restricted. There wasn’t a lot we could do…
“Living in Sana’a was like living in ‘Arabian Nights’”
We flew down to Aden a couple of times to do shopping for the embassy. The British were very much on the defensive. We watched our movements. We didn’t like to go into the Crater, which was an area where security was very difficult.
We were there one day and someone was shot a half hour or an hour later. In North Yemen there was fighting between the royalists and the republicans – we would hear explosions and we would see fighting in the mountainsides at night, but we weren’t directly affected ourselves…
I ended up running [the USIA in Yemen] for four months in between PAOs. But they had replaced the PAO, so I was usually the second person – I was an extra person. They didn’t keep me as the only representative there.
I think it partly was to keep my hand in, but they definitely needed the help there. Thirty-two hours a week was just about right. I wouldn’t have been fully occupied when the PAO was there…
I’m sure [American] interests at that point were similar to what they are now, which is the strategic position of Yemen at the southern end of the Red Sea. It’s the chokepoint for the traffic from the Suez Canal going down into the Indian Ocean. There are a sizeable number of Yemeni-Americans, so we needed a consular presence. Stability in that part of the world was very important to us because of Saudi Arabia and Oman, the oil rich countries.
We [interacted with Yemeni-Americans often], especially in the… less in the north, more in the southern part of the country called Hogariyya and in Ibb. You’d be walking through the town looking at this quaint town with mud brick buildings and some Yemeni would come walking by you, wearing a Yemeni skirt and a big jambiya. Then, he’d turn to you and he’d say in a Brooklyn accent, “Hi, how are you?”
This guy could have lived in the U.S. for 30 years. Sometimes they would come to the States and didn’t have the money to go back and visit. They would just stay here and work and save their money to eventually go back there and settle down.
[When the USAID personnel were imprisoned], we went from house to house and did inventories. Some people were away when all this was taking place and we had to go and try to help pack up their valuables and pull together what we could. The PAO was away and we had to close up the USIS office and decide what we would take.
We took any information that we felt could be used against any of our Yemeni contacts. It was a very tense time. We had five days’ notice, five days to prepare for departure. We couldn’t be sure what was going to happen from minute to minute. The first people we evacuated were those in Taiz, so we had a little longer time in Sana’a, where we had less trouble with the government.
I think the Egyptian government did not want us watching their activities in Yemen. They didn’t like us there reporting. They had done some things earlier that made it apparent that they wanted to embarrass us and find an excuse to expel us.
At the very beginning of this period, we lived on the fourth and fifth floors of a Yemeni skyscraper. A loud knock came down below at the door on the first floor: someone delivering an urgent message in the night. It was a diplomatic note declaring 23 of our people persona non grata (PNG). This was the beginning of the end of our tour.
We sat there on the fifth floor and tried to decipher all these names. There were four of us, all students of Arabic, and when we got down to the last name, we could not figure it out. It was the name of an AID employee. Her name was Gwendolyn Whigley…
As junior officers, we were very excited. We said, “We’ve got to take this to our Chargé d’Affaires,” so we went marching around through the dark, winding, twisted streets of Sana’a to the Chargé’s house and knocked on his door late at night. He came to the door, wondering what all the excitement was about. We shared with him the note and he said, “Well, we can take care of this in the morning.” (David and Marjorie Ransom are seen at left in later years.)
So, we were summarily dismissed and sent back. In the morning, he went to the Foreign Ministry to discuss the note and somehow communicated with our government in Washington. I think the decision was made right after that to withdraw us, but it was really in the works already before this happened.
We liked Yemen. Living in Sana’a was like living in “Arabian Nights.” It was an absolutely fascinating place to live. There was great esprit among the people in the Embassy. Some of the people we served with are still among our closest friends. Because it was a difficult place, we worked very closely together.
The last planeload left on May 1st, 1967. We chartered an Ethiopian Airlines DC-3 to fly us out. They flew us over to Asmara in Ethiopia, where we had a military base.