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.

Smashed Cars and Tall Blondes

Vector_Russian_Flag_KGBFor many diplomats, the time spent under constant surveillance while in Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War could lead to serious frustration and close brushes with angered KGB agents. David Evans’ story of being stonewalled by the Soviet police and then targeted by a potential honeytrap is one such example of the absurdity of living in a country where the police and State Security all worked to frustrate American diplomats. continue reading »

Wives Gone Wild

September 26, 1960 - I dreamed I was WANTED Maidenform braEvery Foreign Service Officer can have a difficult job of navigating cultural differences, memorizing customs and sticking to protocol while at their post. The long list of do’s and don’ts apply equally to a Foreign Service spouse, and while they usually do a commendable job, there have been a few cases when they have made noticeable (and comical) slip-ups. Whether it’s committing a fashion faux pas or exuding a provocative character when interacting with the locals, FSO spouses are under a lot of scrutiny.

In fact, the wives of Foreign Service officers used to receive their own efficiency report, along with their husbands, which kept track of their merits, achievements and blunders. Their efficiency reports were closely monitored and correlated directly to whether their husbands could get promoted, which created even more stress. Herewith are a few examples that probably did not help their husbands’ reputations.  continue reading »

The Berlin Blockade and Airlift of 1948

C-54landingattemplehofBeginning in April 1948, the USSR blocked Western Allies’ access to Berlin as a means of protesting the introduction of the Deutschmark in West Berlin. Following WWII, Berlin had been divided amongst the Allied nations, with France, Great Britain, and the United States taking claim of the West, and the Soviets controlling the East. However, the erstwhile Allies now disputed the future of the city:  specifically, whether a capitalist democracy or a Communist society should be instituted. The introduction of the Deutschmark served as a symbol for these differing core beliefs, and the Soviets threatened to restrict access to Berlin until the Western Allies revoked the currency.

In response, the Western Allies began an airlift on June 26, 1948, flying in supplies with military aircraft to support the entire population of two and a half million Berliners.  continue reading »

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe

mugabeRobert Mugabe is one of the more controversial figures in Africa. He rose to prominence in the 1960s as the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) during the conflict against the conservative white-minority government during the Rhodesian Bush War (also known as the Zimbabwe War of Liberation) and was a political prisoner in Rhodesia for more than 10 years between 1964 and 1974. He joined forces with Joshua Nkomo in the “Patriotic Front” at the end of the war to sign the Lancaster House Peace Treaty with the British government.

The Treaty mandated a ceasefire and elections, putting an end to the conflict responsible for more than 12,000 deaths. Mugabe won the British-supervised elections over Nkomo and became Prime Minister on April 18, 1980, when Zimbabwe became independent. He then became President of Zimbabwe in 1987 when the position of prime minister was abolished, making him the only head of state the country has ever known in its 34 years of sovereignty. continue reading »

The Road to Madrid — James Baker and the Middle East Peace Talks

bakerThe Madrid Peace Conference, held from October 30 to November 1, 1991, marked the first time that Israeli leaders negotiated face to face with delegations from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and, most importantly, with the Palestinians. The George H.W. Bush Administration believed there was a window of opportunity to use the political capital generated by the U.S. victory in the Gulf War to revitalize the Arab-Israeli peace process. The idea was to convene a multi-party international conference, co-chaired by a more cooperative USSR which would collapse by year’s end, that would then break into separate bilateral and multilateral negotiating tracks. Secretary of State James Baker was the driving force behind the effort, making eight diplomatic visits to the region to get support for the conference. continue reading »

“Do you know who I am?” – Diplomatic Immunity Gone Wrong

The-Simpsons-diplomatic immunity For the uninitiated, one of the apparent perks of being a diplomat is diplomatic immunity — You’ll never have to pay a parking ticket again and you can get yourself out of all sorts of hairy situations in foreign countries by flashing your dip passport like some Get Out of Jail Free card. That’s the impression, in any case. The reality is quite different, especially for Western diplomats who generally want to be seen as responsible guests and good neighbors and certainly do not want to become an irritant in bilateral relations.

But of course, there are major exceptions. There have been several examples, often widely publicized, of diplomats racking up thousands of dollars in parking tickets (we’re looking at you, Russia), driving carelessly, or committing crimes and claiming diplomatic immunity to get out of it. Not surprisingly, these stories have contributed to strong negative feelings towards the concept of diplomatic immunity with the general public.  continue reading »

Kissinger and Lord in China:  A How-To Guide for Secret Negotiations

lord kissinger planeAt the height of the Cold War, with the death toll mounting in Vietnam and the split between the USSR and China becoming more and more evident, it became clear to the Nixon Administration that ending the war in Vietnam and opening relations with China could be a two-front victory. However, because of the sensitive nature of negotiating with the United States’ ideological enemies, negotiations had to remain secret. This was particularly difficult with China, given that Washington had no established contact with Beijing.

Like something out of James Bond, Henry Kissinger (who served as National Security Advisor from 1969-1975 and Secretary of State from 1973-1977) and his Special Assistant, Winston Lord, used secret flights and body doubles to pull off the talks with both the Chinese and North Vietnamese. The talks on China were by far the more successful, as they led to President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, which reopened ties with the Communist country for the first time since 1949.  continue reading »

A First-Class Spy Flap

11 Jul 1985, Alexandria, Virginia, USA --- Original caption: Alexandria, Va.: Sharon Scranage, a CIA employee at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana, is escorted from a federal magistrate office 7/11 after she and her boyfriends, Michael Agbotui Soussoundis, were charged with espionage. according to the FBI, Scranage gave U.S. secrets to Soussoundis, a Ghanaian national. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBISRelations between the United States and Ghana were strained in the early 1980s. Its leader, the enigmatic former Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, had seized power in a coup in 1979 and installed the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC), a military-led government. Just when bilateral relations began to improve, it was discovered that a clerk for the CIA posted in Ghana named Sharon Scranage had been spying for Ghanaian intelligence and had released the names of CIA agents and informants to the Ghanaians. (Photo: Bettman-Corbis) continue reading »

Somalia — From Great Hope to Failed State

somalia-flagWhile today the mention of Somalia may conjure up images of a destitute nation run by warlords, such was not always the case. When it gained independence and the territories of British Somaliland and Italian Somalia were unified to create what we know today as Somalia, there was great optimism about the country’s political future. The country’s flag, a white five-pointed star on a light blue background, symbolized the five areas considered to be “Somali”, due to a shared language, culture, and religion in the newly formed nation as well as French Somaliland, northeastern Kenya, and western Ethiopia. At the time of independence, Somalia’s cultural unity pointed towards an easier path to democracy than that faced by other newly-independent African nations that struggled to incorporate the competing claims of varying ethnic groups. continue reading »

“This Woman Was Nuts!”

Nepal is a small mountainous country in South Asia, bordered by India and the Tibetan autonomous region of China, which has had friendly relations with the U.S. ever since they were established in 1945. However, at one time these relations were nearly threatened by the actions of “an absolute shrew” of an ambassador. Marquita Maytag was a political appointee who held the position for only a short period of time, May 1976 – April 1977, but she quickly garnered a bad reputation. David Fischer, at that time a Political Officer in the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, recalls some of her more outrageous antics in an interview with Robert Pasturino on May 20, 1998. continue reading »

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