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.

Remembering Pope John Paul II

Pope doveJohn Paul II was one of the most charismatic popes in recent history, a rock star who attracted millions during his frequent trips abroad and who was considered a beacon of hope for people in his native Poland. Born Karol Joseph Wojtyła on May 18, 1920 in Wadowice in southern Poland, he was elected pope in 1978, the first non-Italian pope in 500 years. He was fluent in eight languages and his pontificate, which lasted more than 26 years, was the third longest in history. He greatly expanded diplomatic relations with other states, from 85 countries in 1978 to 174 countries in 2005, including the U.S. The man who oversaw a record number of canonizations will himself now be canonized on April 27, 2014. continue reading »

The Spy Who Loved (to Follow) Me

kgbRevanchist policies from the Kremlin, crackdowns on protesters – lately with Russia it seems like everything old is new again. So perhaps it’s time to look back at the very embodiment of Cold War tensions – the infamous KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or Committee of State Security). Rarely violent but often threatening, the constant presence of KGB agents became a fact of life for those serving in the U.S.S.R., especially Moscow. From smashed car windows to seductive blondes, the Soviets used many tactics to intimidate and monitor the Americans placed in their charge. And yet many Foreign Service officers found they were able to coexist with their KGB counterparts, and often formed wary relationships of grudging respect. continue reading »

Easter with Newt Gringrich

newt_gingrich_jef_111215_wgEaster is a time of joy, a belief in miracles, and reconciliation. But some people draw the line at people from another political party, as Joe Borich, who served as Consul General in Shanghai from 1994 to 1997, recounts. This excerpt is taken from “Shanghai Stories,” commemorating 30 years of the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. continue reading »

Death of an FSO, As Remembered by His Widow

Dennis KeoghDennis Keogh had been Political Counselor in South Africa from 1980-83 and made 25 trips to Namibia. In the spring of 1984, he agreed to serve for a month as head of the new U.S. Liaison Office (USLO) in Windhoek. In that troubled region, which South Africa had administered since World War I without a UN mandate, fighting had claimed the lives of 10,000 people, mostly civilians, over a 17-year period.  U.S. negotiators, led by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Chet Crocker, had mediated the Lusaka Accord aimed at a settlement in which all parties would achieve their objectives. This included the withdrawal of thousands of Cuban troops from Angola as well as thousands of South African Defense Forces (SADF) from Angola and South West Africa (SWA)/Namibia; this would pave the way to eventual elections in Namibia and a peaceful transition of power in South Africa.

In March, Dennis Keogh took his 26th trip to Namibia to set up the Office and meet with the Joint Monitoring Commission that was overseeing SADF troop withdrawals from Southern Angola. However, while doing the groundwork for a transition from armed conflict to a “peace without losers,” he was killed in a bomb explosion on April 15, 1984. continue reading »

Making the World a Safer Place — Nuclear Arsenals and the Fall of the USSR

Soviet Nukes, Nuclear Weapon Free ZoneImagine what Europe would be like today if Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenka were able to threaten his neighbors with nuclear weapons. Or how much tenser the situation in Ukraine would be if Kyiv had access to the bomb — Would Putin grab just Crimea or would he be tempted to take all of Ukraine to maintain regional security and make sure its nuclear arsenal did not “fall into the wrong hands”? With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nuclear weapons which once belonged to one country were now the property of many. Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan all held some of the former Soviet Union’s arsenal. With the growing concern of “loose nukes,” terrorism, and regional instability, it was clear to many that suddenly having three more nuclear states in the world was not a tenable situation. continue reading »

Poland, 1920

Ambassador J. Pierrepont MoffatHe served in an era caught between the days of monarchs and lords that was swept up in a quickly advancing tide of modernity, a way of life that would soon be lost to time. Ambassador Jay Pierrepont Moffat began his career with the Foreign Service in 1919, as the nations of the world recovered from the events of the First World War. In September of that year he was posted to the United States Legation in Warsaw, after Poland had regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic. Moffat’s time in Poland provides a glimpse into a world that would soon vanish. The young diplomat would witness the conflict between the new Polish State and Soviet Russia, and after the war, his journal provides an interesting perspective to a diplomat’s life and work in the early 20th century. Moffat captures the celebratory spirit that pervaded much of Poland after the Soviets withdrew, and devotes much time in his reflections to his travels throughout the country. Moffat’s strong affection for the land, people, and pleasures of Poland is clear to see. These excerpts are drawn from his extensive journals and are the oldest memoirs in the ADST collection. continue reading »

The Rwandan Genocide — The View from Ground Zero

Rwanda, genocide 1Two decades of ethnic tension and a civil war in 1990 laid the groundwork for one of the most savage episodes of wanton slaughter witnessed in the past half century. The day after the airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the president of Burundi was shot down, the Rwandan military responded to the deaths of the two Hutu presidents by starting a murderous campaign to eradicate all the Tutsis they could reach. Thus the Rwandan Genocide began on April 7, 1994, as hundreds of thousands of innocent people were  massacred in only a few short months. Robert Gribbin, Ambassador to the Central African Republic at the time and Ambassador to Rwanda in 1996, and Joyce Leader, Deputy Chief of Mission in Kigali from 1991 to 1994, recount the background of ethnic hatred that led to the explosion of violence, their experiences as the genocide broke out, and the massive evacuation they had to oversee to get foreigners out of the country.  continue reading »

April Fool’s Day in the Foreign Service

april foolThe State Department is not exactly known for its jocularity but once in a while, it can have its fair share of pranks. When April Fool’s Day rolls around, local officials may pull pranks on Foreign Service Officers, who in turn have occasionally  played jokes on their fellow officers and superiors (which does not always go over so well). The Foreign Service’s “post preference sheets,” indicating where FSOs would like to be posted in their next assignment, also used to be due on April 1st and came to be referred to as the April Fools Sheet (prompting some wry remarks by FSOs on it representing the likelihood of getting your preferences). continue reading »

The War in Bosnia and the Moral Dilemma of Refugees

Bosnian War, Elderly Woman RefugeeThe Bosnian War, which began April 5, 1992, was the result of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Pressure began to build in Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 1992 after the government passed a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, which further exacerbated ethnic tensions in the already tense territory. Bosnian Serbs, who wished to be united in a Greater Serbia, boycotted the referendum and launched an attack on the capital city of Sarajevo after Bosnia declared its independence. The Croats and the Bosniaks possessed their own forces and the three competed in a bloody battle for dominance over the territory. One of the conflict’s tragic features was ethnic cleansing, which was carried out primarily by the Bosnian Serbs, though all sides were guilty of it to some degree. continue reading »

Al Haig and the Reagan Assassination Attempt — “I’m in charge here”

reagan Al_Haig_speaks_to_press_1981When President Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, chaos ensued behind the scenes at the White House. With no real protocol in place for such a situation, everyone involved had to improvise and hope that everything would turn out right. In an attempt to keep everyone calm, Al Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State, committed a PR faux pas — and showed a glaring lapse in basic knowledge of the Constitution — by telling the press that he was in charge while the President was in surgery. Unaware of just how serious the President’s condition really was, key officials began to do their best damage control and keep not only the reporters calm but the country and the world at large. continue reading »


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