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.

The Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny – “A Master Manipulator and Destabilizer”

older, not as stern felixIn appearance, he was not much to look at. Herman J. Cohen, who was Assistant Secretary of State of African Affairs from 1989-93, called Ivory Coast’s strongman Félix Houphouet-Boigny a “roly-poly little guy.” But appearances can be deceptive. Houphouët-Boigny ruled Ivory Coast (aka Côte d’Ivoire) for 33 years until his death in 1994 and was one of the most influential leaders – for good and for ill – in West Africa during his tenure. Cohen discusses key events in the region, including the Angolan Civil War (November 1975 – April 2002); the (temporarily effective) peacekeeping efforts moderated by Mobutu between Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and pro-West insurgency leader Jonas Savimbi; and the Ivory Coast’s involvement in the first Liberian Civil War (1989-1996), which Houphouët-Boigny had instigated.

Cohen’s close dealings with a number of leaders in West and Central Africa inspired him to write The Mind of the African Strongman: Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen, and Father Figures, published in mid-2015 as a part of ADST’s Diplomats and Diplomacy Book Series. continue reading »


“There were no full bodies” – The Crash of Pan Am Flight 812 in Bali

pan_am_memorial_indonesiaOn April 22, 1974, Pan American Flight 812, a plane known as the Clipper Climax, crashed into the mountainous terrain of Denpasar, Bali, claiming the lives of all 96 passengers and 11 crew members on board, including 26 Americans and 29 Japanese. En route from Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia, with a stop in Denpasar, the aircraft crashed into the rough terrain as a result of a prematurely executed right-hand turn by the pilots of the plane. Following the crash, the U.S. Embassy and military worked alongside Balinese forces to recover what was left of the aircraft and the passengers’ remains. Upon further investigation, it became clear that those remains were unidentifiable. (At right, the memorial to Pan Am flight 812 in Bali.)  continue reading »


We’re Not in Washington Anymore — Culture Shock in Liberia

Liberia postcardAdjusting to a new job position or a new town has its challenges, but moving to another country —on another continent — is a whole other adventure. George Jaeger experienced this adjustment shock when he was assigned his first foreign tour as Third Secretary for Commercial Affairs in Monrovia, Liberia from 1958 to 1960. Jaeger recounts his first few weeks in Liberia and the surprises, such as being offered a wife of a local chieftain, disasters, such as the sinking of a new boat during christening, and lessons he experienced during that time. He eventually left Liberia with a heavy heart, as he had come to love the country a great deal. He was interviewed by Robert Daniel in 2000. continue reading »


The Carnation Revolution – A Peaceful Coup in Portugal

carnation-revolution-soliders“There was real jubilation in the streets the first few weeks. It’s still known as the Revolution of the Carnations, and is famous for its civility. I have a wonderful picture of my son, who was six years old, standing in between two young Portuguese soldiers. They’re holding rifles, each with a carnation in the barrel and they’re smiling. Steve is there holding a sign saying “Viva Portugal”. From the outside [of the country] it appeared different from what we saw inside. I don’t think Washington really recognized what was happening in the beginning.” – Robert S. Pastorino, Commercial Attaché,  1974-77

On April 25, 1974, Portugal experienced a coup like no other. In an era characterized by the clash of ideologies and power players, the nearly bloodless revolution became known as the Carnation Revolution. What began as a military revolution led by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MAF) quickly became a mass movement of civil unrest. continue reading »


The Iran-Contra Scandal

Herblock-Iran-ContraOne of the biggest foreign policy scandals of the last half-century was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan Administration, prodded by CIA Director William Casey and NSC Advisor Oliver North, secretly arranged for an arms-for-hostage deal with one of its bitterest enemies in the Middle East. Put simply, Israel would sell weapons from the U.S. to Iran, which had been designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1984 and the subject of an arms embargo, in exchange for the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah, Iran’s ally, in Lebanon.

North and Casey then doubled down, funneling the profits from the arms sales into yet another illegal venture, a secret plan to support the Contras, the militants in Nicaragua which opposed the communist Sandinistas. This was in direct contravention of the Boland Amendments, which Congress had passed from 1982-84, specifically prohibiting U.S. support of the Contras. continue reading »


Close Encounters of the Famous Kind

Kissinger and George HarrisonWhile the work at embassies can often put Foreign Service officers in harm’s way, on occasion they have the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous. That could range from helping the niece of a famous actor get a passport, arranging a meeting between a diplomatic rock star and George Harrison or, in a more serious case, grant a visa to a famous punk rocker despite serious opposition, only for that person to be arrested for murder while in the States. continue reading »


The Nazi Invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece

Acropolis naziAxis military efforts in the Balkans, compared with the rest of Europe, had not gone well. Italy had invaded Greece in October 1940 but was pushed back into Albania. Germany then put pressure on Yugoslavia to join the Axis, as Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria had done earlier. Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia relented and signed the pact on March 25, 1941. However, nationalist forces violently opposed the idea and carried out a coup. That led Hitler to view Yugoslavia as a hostile state; he decided to bomb Belgrade in retribution. On April 6, 1941, the Axis Powers (Hungary, Italy, led by Germany) invaded Yugoslavia, killing thousands of civilians and soldiers and capturing another quarter million; Yugoslav forces were unable to stop the bombardments or the advance of ground forces. The invasion ended with the unconditional surrender of the Royal Yugoslav Army on April 17.

continue reading »


Exit Somoza, Enter the Sandinistas

castro-ortega-1980As violence and protests against Nicaragua’s despotic government increased, the U.S. and the Organization of American States (OAS) tried to hasten Anastasio Somoza’s exit from power and broker a peaceful transition to a more democratic form of government. In June 1979 Secretary of State Cyrus Vance called for the replacement of Somoza with a broadly based transition government of national reconciliation, the negotiation of a cease-fire, humanitarian aid, and an OAS peacekeeping force.

In Managua, Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo pushed for an elaborate plan under which Somoza would resign and the Nicaraguan Congress would elect an interim successor. The successor would appoint a new head of the National Guard, call for a cease-fire, negotiate the gradual merger of the National Guard with Sandinista (FSLN) forces, and finally transfer power to a provisional government within 72 hours. Somoza departed for the United States on July 17. continue reading »


Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Founding Father

LeeKwanYew YoungLee Kuan Yew, who died in March 2015, is known for being the longest serving prime minster in the world and the creator of modern Singapore. His legacy is not without controversy, however. He was a smart yet fierce politician who was not afraid to completely destroy his rivals and those he believed might undermine his authority. In the early 1960s, his leftist policies led many to fear that Singapore was going to be the Cuba of Southeast Asia. He campaigned for Britain to relinquish its colonial rule, merging with Malaysia in 1963.

However, after Singapore was kicked out of the Federation of Malaya in 1965, where he had worked so hard to “project a unified, multicultural, socialistic approach,” Lee Kuan Yew was devastated. Leading a newly independent Singapore from 1965 on, he guided the country through tumultuous times in Southeast Asia and oversaw its transformation from a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost with no natural resources to a vibrant economy. continue reading »


Tachito Crumbles – The End of Nicaragua’s Somoza Dynasty

esteli-nicaraguaFrom 1936 to 1979, Nicaragua was under the grip of the Somoza family. Coming to power following the death of his older brother, Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle re-established the fierce reign of violence that had characterized much of his father’s reign. Intolerant of any and all opposition, Tachito ruled the country with an iron fist. Despite a federal law disallowing immediate re-election, the 1972 earthquake sent Nicaragua into a state of massive shock, calling for the introduction of martial law.

As the leader of La Guardia Nacional, Tachito was the head of the National Emergency Committee; Tachito was then re-elected once more to the Presidency in 1974. Soon after his re-election, opposition groups began to join together and raise their voices in protest of Somoza and his government. Led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), mass protests and violence plagued the streets of Nicaragua. continue reading »



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