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.

I, Spy?  Diplomatic Adventures during Soviet-American Détente    

kgb-bannerAmong the challenges of serving as a U.S. diplomat in the USSR during the Cold War years of 1945 to 1991 were the certain knowledge that one’s words and actions were being monitored and reported back to the host – and often hostile – government. Intelligence gathering was carried out by both sides to learn about the other’s intentions, technological advances and military capabilities.  Diplomats served under restrictions in terms of the people they could meet and the places they could go, and U.S. officers knew that wherever they went, agents from the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security) would surely follow.

James E. Taylor and his wife Louise Pfender Taylor were U.S. diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union from 1974-1976. They experienced the KGB’s watchful eyes during their tenure, realized their apartment was bugged and were mistaken as being spies themselves by a grievously disappointed Russian contact.   Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed James Taylor in December 1995 and Louise Taylor in January 2001. continue reading »


“Austria is Free!” Part II — Negotiating with the Soviets

Figl-Presents-TreatyFor several years since the end of World War II, the U.S., UK and France had done what they could to support war-torn Austria economically and promote fledgling democratic institutions. Efforts to negotiate a treaty which would grant Austria its full independence and allow the withdrawal of the Four Powers were continuously blocked by the USSR, which was actively plundering the small country. Things changed dramatically in March 1953, with Stalin’s death and Moscow’s desire for detente with the West.

However, negotiations of this magnitude, especially with an adversary like the USSR, are fraught with tension even under the best of circumstances. The U.S. side had to sit it out and make sure it did not give in to Soviet tactics. continue reading »


“Austria is Free!” Post-War Vienna Escapes the Soviet Bloc

kriegsende ViennaMay 15th, 1955, was a momentous occasion for a war-battered Europe, and for the national history of Austria as the Foreign Ministers representing the Occupying Powers  gathered to sign the Austrian Independence Treaty. Leopold Figl, the former Chancellor and then the Foreign Minister, famously appeared on the balcony of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace (now home to a dazzling Klimt collection), waved the signed paper and uttered the words Österreich ist frei! (“Austria is free!”),

This treaty reinstated Austria’s sovereignty for the first time since the March 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany, which had annexed Austria and made it the province of Ostmark.  It called for the withdrawal of the four occupying state’s forces, outlawed any future Anschluss with Germany, and banned Nazism. The newly independent country formally declared its neutrality in October of that year. continue reading »


The Saur Revolution: Prelude to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

dossier-start-bg12The government of Afghan President Mohammed Daoud Khan came to a violent end in what was called the Saur Revolution when insurgent troops led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan [PDPA] stormed his Kabul palace on April 27, 1978. Daoud had taken power five years before by overthrowing and exiling his cousin, King Zahir Shah. Though he promised a democratic government, Daoud’s administration was characterized by a harsh land reform program and growing suppression, particularly aimed at factions of the PDPA.

The evening of April 27, Radio Afghanistan broadcast that the Khalq (people) were overthrowing the Daoud regime. The use of the word Khalq, associated with communists in Afghanistan, made clear that the PDPA was leading the coup and controlled the media. Aerial attacks on the palace intensified about midnight. The next morning, the people of Kabul learned that Daoud and most of his family were dead and rebels were in control of the city. continue reading »


How a Former Secretary of State Won an Ancient Temple for Cambodia

0208-cambodia-thailand-temple_jpgLike many nations, Thailand and Cambodia share the colonial legacy of an ambiguous border which has led to violent conflict. Ownership of the ancient Preah Vihear Temple complex has been the subject of rancorous debate within Cambodia and Thailand since the late 19th century. In 1954, Thai troops occupied and claimed the historic site.  The two nations brought the dispute to the International Court of Justice, and Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk hired Dean Acheson, former Secretary of State, to represent Cambodia.

Acheson built his case on the basis of colonial-era treaties to regain what the Cambodians regarded as part of their cultural heritage. After a year of deliberations, on June 15, 1962, the court ruled in Cambodia’s favor and the Thai government was forced to withdraw its troops from the temple. Acheson became a national hero in Cambodia and was awarded the Grand Cross of the Cambodian Order. continue reading »


Towering Infernos – The Kuwait Oil Fires

oil fire 1 KuwaitA 2010 Time Magazine article rated it as the third worst environmental catastrophe in history, right behind Chernobyl and Bhopal. As Operation Desert Storm drew to a close, with Kuwait liberated and the Iraqi Army all but destroyed, Saddam Hussein would not concede defeat. Like a cornered rat, he inflicted one more blow on Kuwait’s ecology and its oil production infrastructure, something he hoped would take years to recover from. So he ordered his men to blow up Kuwait’s oil wells. Some 700 were set on fire, unleashing a 20th Century Black Death.

Trying to extinguish the fires was a near impossibility at first. It was too dangerous to send in firefighting crews during the war and later it was discovered that land mines had been placed in the areas around the wells, meaning they had to be removed before the fires could be put out. continue reading »


A U.S.-Chinese Mid-Air Collision and “The Letter of Two Sorries”

EP-3's_crew_returnA collision in the air, a destroyed Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. ‘spy’ plane forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airbase — mix together to create a maelstrom of chaos and outrage. Add in the fact that the U.S. had accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade just two years earlier and you have the makings of a real diplomatic challenge.

On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet some 70 miles off the Chinese island of Hainan. The Chinese jet had actually harassed the EP-3 just days earlier, getting so close that the Chinese pilot held up a piece of paper with his e-mail address, which was visible to the American crew. The collision caused both planes to lose altitude quickly — the Chinese fighter was unable to recover and was killed. Against all odds, the EP-3 somehow rolled out of its nearly inverted dive and managed to limp towards the closest air base without its nose. This airbase, however, was on Hainan, the same site that had sent the downed fighter. continue reading »


Monkeys and Olives for Dinner: The Glamorous Life of a U.S. Ambassador

Funny-pictures-of-baby-monkeys-5-300x300Arriving at a new post and setting up your household and office can be quite a challenge, even for a Chief of Mission. For a first-time ambassador at a newly-opened African post, acquiring the fundamentals for survival while preserving diplomatic protocol might seem more like Mission Impossible. Melissa Foelsch Wells recalls her time as Ambassador in Guinea-Bissau (1976–77). She had just come from a tour in Rio de Janiero and had great expectations for her first experience at heading up an embassy and accepting the duties and perquisites of the office.

In the small post-colonial country, she encountered frequent black-outs, a food shortage, cramped quarters and – once her family arrived – a room full of monkeys, yet she survived it all to have a successful tour of duty and a distinguished diplomatic career. continue reading »


Tiananmen: Another Bump in China’s Road to WTO Accession

starbucksDeng Xiaoping’s 1978 Open Door policy unleashed China’s economy beyond its borders through political reforms and regional trade agreements. This led to rapid growth and China’s emergence as a major player in the global economic system. China began the process of negotiating membership in GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, in July 1986, gaining observer status. However, it took fifteen years and changes in its tariff, foreign investment and industrial policies for China to be admitted to GATT’s successor organization, the World Trade Organization (WTO), on December 11, 2001.

The role of the U.S. in China’s bid for accession was complicated by competing priorities: economic security and support for freedom of global commerce vs. defense of human rights. China was among the fasting-growing markets for U.S. goods and services; conversely, imports from China to the U.S. almost doubled from 1996 to 2001. continue reading »


Simpler Times at the State Department

State,_War,_&_Navy_Building_-_Washington,_D.C.The State Department has had a long and often illustrious history, as it was the first department created by Congress back in July 1789. Much like the capital itself, the State Department’s headquarters have moved several times. From 1866 to 1875 it occupied the Washington City Orphan Asylum on 14th and S Streets before moving to the State, War, and Navy Building, now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB in government speak) next door to the White House, where it was located from 1875 to 1947. After the war, it moved to its present location in the appropriately named Foggy Bottom neighborhood on C Street in Northwest Washington. continue reading »



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