Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

ADST BenSeveral times a month, ADST highlights compelling moments in U.S. diplomatic history, using our substantial collection of oral histories.

Note: These oral histories contain the personal recollections and opinions of the individual(s) interviewed. The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government or the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Iraqi Kurds, Operation Provide Comfort, and the Birth of Iraq’s Opposition

girl in Provide ComfortIn the aftermath of Iraq’s crushing defeat during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991, protesters and rebels in the northern and southern parts of Iraq took advantage of what they saw as weakness in Saddam Hussein’s regime and attempted to overthrow his government. Anticipating American military support, their rebellion failed in the face of Iraqi army helicopters and tanks as the United States was too slow to react and provide assistance to the rebels. As Saddam Hussein’s forces retaliated against the rebels, hundreds of thousands of people in the north and south fled. In the south, the Shia refugees found haven across the border in Saudi Arabia and were able to take shelter in refugee camps.

However, in the north, Kurdish refugees were not as fortunate, as the Turkish government refused to allow them to enter Turkey in fear of adding to the already restless Turkish Kurdish population. With the Iraqi army behind them and a closed Turkish border in front, Kurdish refugees became trapped on a series of mountains near the Turkish border as they tried to take refuge from Iraqi helicopters and bombing runs. continue reading »


Winning the Peace – USAID and the Demobilization of the Nicaraguan Contras

contra4In the 1980s, one of the focal points of U.S. foreign policy was the rise of leftist militants throughout the globe, particularly in Central America. Under the Reagan Doctrine, the U.S. in 1982 began actively supporting anti-Communist insurgents — the Contras — in Nicaragua in their fight against the Sandinistas. By 1985, public support for the Contras had waned after reports surfaced that the Contras had trafficked in cocaine and used “death squads.”

After Congress prohibited aid to the Contras, the Reagan Administration, under Lt. Col. Oliver North, began funding them illegally, in what would be known as the Iran-Contra Affair. After the Contras and Sandinistas agreed to a cease-fire in March 1988, Congress passed a law that put non-lethal Contra aid under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). continue reading »


Iraq’s Rocky Road to Recovery Post-Saddam

iraq-coalition-provisional-authority-occupation-oil-looting-health-careIn the wake of the U.S.-led Coalition Forces invasion of Iraq in March, 2003 and dissolution of the Ba’ath Party, a transitional administration was created, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The CPA held executive, legislative and legal authority for a little over a year, beginning April 21, 2003, while a more permanent Iraqi government was being established. The goal was to undo the damage of Saddam Hussein’s regime and get the country back on its feet as an active member of the world community. As the top civilian administrator of CPA, Paul “Jerry” Bremer ruled by decree, notably banning the Ba’ath party in all forms and dismantling the Iraqi Army.

On July 13, 2003, Bremer approved creation of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council, chose its members and empowered the CPA to develop and implement a new Iraqi constitution. These transitions were far from smooth. Iraqis opposed having foreigners control their government and different components of society struggled for power in the new regime.   continue reading »


Trust In Me

trust-in-me-jungle-bookLiving abroad often comes with an array of challenges and frightening encounters. In the 1930s before joining the Foreign Service, Ken Landon served as a missionary in Thailand with his family, where his run-in with a king cobra would prove to be one of his most vivid experiences during his time in Asia. The king cobra is not only extremely venomous, but it is also much larger than other cobra species and a bold predator. Inhabiting many parts of Southeast Asia, king cobras, although posing an obvious threat to humans, are often depicted as protectors in Buddhism, making these snakes culturally significant figures in Thailand.

Soon after moving to Nakhon Si Thammarat province on the Malay Peninsula, Landon was walking home from church one Sunday when he came face to face with a king cobra as it encircled his newborn daughter near their home. continue reading »


Combining Forces to Counter Terrorism

U.S. inter-agency coordination on countering terrorism was limited, for bureaucratic and technical reasons, prior to the mid-1980s. While terrorist assaults against U.S. military personnel became more frequent after the Vietnam War, it was the 9/11 attack against civilians on American soil in 2001 that focused national attention on violent extremists.

The position of Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism was officially established in the early 1970s but not given funding priority until the Reagan administration. During the tenure of Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism Paul “Jerry” Bremer, inter-agency cooperation and information sharing were ratcheted up to create a more efficient system for detecting potential terrorist activity. continue reading »


The King and I and The Missionary’s Wife

The-King-and-I-1956-movie-posterThe Foreign Service has attracted some very talented people over the years and many of those are the spouses of Foreign Service Officers. Julia Child is one notable example. Another is Phyllis Oakley, who was forced to resign from the Foreign Service when she got married, rejoined in the 1970s, and rose to become Assistant Secretary. A lesser known example is Margaret Landon, whose book on a heretofore obscure Siamese king would — against all odds — become a smash movie and a beloved musical.

Her spouse, Ken, joined the State Department in 1943, after they served as missionaries in Thailand. He became a political officer in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, where he specialized in Southeast Asia. Their experiences in Siam, now Thailand, inspired Margaret to write a book based on the autobiography of Anna Leonowens, who served as governess to the many progeny of King Mongkut in the 1860s. After several years of research, Margaret’s book, Anna and the King of Siam, was published. continue reading »


Stop the MADness — Arms Control and Disarmament

The end of World War II ushered in an era of intense arms competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. Both sides produced nuclear armaments and other weapons of mass destruction at increasing rates as the bipolar world order evolved, finally achieving a state known as “mutually assured destruction” or MAD. President Eisenhower initiated efforts to control the proliferation of arsenals, which ultimately led to the Arms Control and Disarmament Act, enacted September 26, 1961.

This legislation, passed by 87th Congress and signed by President John F. Kennedy, established the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).  ACDA was designed to conduct, coordinate, and support research of the formulation for the arms control and disarmament policy, manage and prepare U.S. participation in international negotiations for arms control and disarmament and coordinate information to the public on arms control policy. continue reading »


De-Baathification and Dismantling the Iraqi Army

Paul Bremer with army peopleThe 2003 American invasion of Iraq, which came not long after the invasion of Afghanistan, proved to be highly controversial, not only for the rationale behind the invasion (Saddam Hussein and his putative support of 9/11 and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction) but for how the war itself and the governing of the country were conducted. On May 11, 2003, President George W. Bush appointed L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer as the Presidential Envoy to Iraq and then the top civilian administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Shortly thereafter, two of the CPA’s most notable decrees entered into force, on May 16, 2003 and May 23, respectively:  CPA Order Number 1 , which banned the Ba’ath party in all forms, a process otherwise known as de-Baathification; and CPA Order Number 2, which dismantled the Iraqi army. continue reading »


Billion-dollar “Plan Colombia” to End Decades of Civil War

A guerrilla organization known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo, FARC–EP and FARC) has been at war with the Colombian government since 1964, marking it as the hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict. The FARC has claimed to be a Marxist-Leninist army representing the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy, opposing imperialism and the privatization of natural resources. The FARC funded its campaign through the drug trade, kidnapping, illegal mining, and extortion.

Experts believe that the FARC continues to be active in 25 of Colombia’s 32 provinces, with around 8,000 fighters, down from 16,000 in 2001. The conflict between the rebels and the government has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced almost five million people over 50 years. In 2016, the UN Security Council approved a political mission to monitor implementation of a peace deal between the Colombian government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), following a joint request by the parties.

Both sides sought negotiations to create an environment where violence is no longer the means of securing social change. The two sides began formal peace talks in Cuba in 2012 and have reached an agreement on four key topics in preparation for signing a final peace document. continue reading »


Pain at the Pumps: The 1973 Oil Embargo and Its Effect on U.S. Foreign Policy

Oil Embargo 1Just a few years ago,  economists – and most car owners – were lamenting the high price of oil of around $4.50 a gallon. Oil-producing countries like Russia and Venezuela were awash in oil revenue and there was talk that we had reached the era of peak oil, the point when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it is expected to enter terminal decline. Then came increased fuel efficiency and fracking and the price of oil has plummeted. It now seems odd to imagine a time when the supply of gas was so restricted it had to be rationed, leading to massive lines at gas stations across the country. Yet this was the situation the United States found itself in the fall of 1973, when an oil crisis was in full swing.  The ensuing crisis also led Washington to rethink its largely Eurocentric foreign policy. continue reading »



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