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.

Re-establishing Ties with Cuba, 1977

cuba-us-migration-crop“Cuba ought to be free and independent, and the government should be turned over to the Cuban people.” That in many ways summarizes decades of U.S. policy towards its island neighbor. However, the quote is not by John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush, but rather by President William McKinley — which demonstrates rather clearly that the intense feelings each has towards the other are rooted in a history that long pre-dates Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Attempts to improve relations and ultimately lift the U.S. trade embargo have stalled for various reasons over the years, until President Barack Obama’s historic announcement on December 17, 2014, that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba. In many ways, the U.S. has been here before: back in 1977, the Carter administration decided to establish ties with Cuba, with the goal of ultimately lifting the embargo and establishing embassies. While there was initial progress, relations were again put on the back burner over Cuban troops in Africa and increasing involvement in Central America. continue reading »

“Like Star Wars and Fiddler on the Roof” — Life with the Sinai Field Mission

The relative peace between Israel and Egypt, particularly on the Sinai, has been one of the few bright spots in the Middle East in the last 40 years. In 1975, Israel made a key compromise to withdraw from the strategic Giddi Pass and Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for monitoring by third parties. The United States established the Sinai Field Mission to monitor access to the passes and carried out reconnaissance flights. Political leaders in both countries eventually praised the system. The increased cooperation helped lay the groundwork for the 1979 Camp David Accords, signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which provided for a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.

The initial peacekeeping force was provided by the Sinai Field Mission, while efforts were made to create a UN force. SFM operations officially ceased in April 1982 when the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) came into existence. Russel Sveda was one of the first Americans to serve in the SFM, from December 1977 through February 1979 and tells some fascinating stories about what it was like to work on a desert frontier he describes as “Star Wars” with the cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” — and that was just the Israeli camp. continue reading »

The Bizarre North Korean Axe Murders

Start-cutting2The United States and North Korea have not had the best relations, to put it mildly. Even in a place like Cuba, which Washington does not recognize diplomatically, the U.S. has an Interests Section which can get a better idea of the situation in country and which can serve as a channel, however imperfect, with Havana. Not so in Pyongyang. Over the decades, there has been a raft of provocative incidents which fortunately did not lead to all-out war between the two sides. The most notable of these is the 1968 USS Pueblo incident in which North Korea, having failed to assassinate the South Korean president, decided to follow up by seizing an American surveillance vessel in international waters; the crew was held for nearly a year. Most recently, Sony Pictures, which was behind the December 2014 movie The Interview, was hacked; North Korea, thought to be by many to be the perpetrator, denied involvement while it applauded the act.

One of the most bizarre, and potentially inflammatory, incidents, was the axe murder of two United States Army officers by North Korean soldiers on August 18, 1976, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The U.S. Army officers had been part of a work party cutting down a poplar tree in the JSA that was blocking the view of United Nations observers. continue reading »

The Bhopal Chemical Disaster

bhopal babyOn December 3, 1984, a gas leak began at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide located in Bhopal, India.  Due to the leak of more than thirty tons of chemicals and the highly toxic gas, methyl isocyanate, over half a million people were exposed to the toxic substances immediately that night as densely populated slums and shanty towns surrounded the plant.  The immediate death toll from the initial release of the toxic gas was confirmed by the State Government to be 3,787 people.  Individuals exposed to the gas suffered from cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, burns in their throats and eyes, as well as nausea.  Within two weeks, more than 8,000 individuals had died.  Over the years, it is estimated that 15,000 deaths, and over half a million injuries and disabilities were directly caused by the Bhopal disaster.     continue reading »

In Vino Veritas

Josip Broz, better known by his nom de guerre Tito, was a tough warrior who had been a member of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet secret police years before he was able to break Yugoslavia away from Stalin’s grip. Although by the 1960s, relations with the United States had improved, Averell Harriman was tasked with the unenviable duty of discussing Vietnam with him. The conversation started off on a bad foot and seemed to get even worse when Tito suddenly left the room, apparently in a huff.  continue reading »

Not-So Full Disclosure

U-2_Spy_Plane_With_Fictitious_NASA_Markings_-_GPN-2000-000112So you have been entrusted with a very important mission — in this case, trying to convince several countries in the 1950’s to allow take-off and landing of a new, super-secret aircraft, the U2, which would allow the U.S. to conduct surveillance over the USSR at such a high altitude that Soviet MiG-17s would be unable to shoot them down. One problem, however — a few key countries, like Pakistan, would not normally allow U.S. spy planes on their territories. What to do, what to do? Such was the dilemma of Anthony Marshall, who worked at the CIA at the very beginning of the U2 program. (At right, a U2 with fictitious NASA markings at Edwards Air Force Base, 1960.) continue reading »

Moscow in the 1950s

moscow 1950sThe General Services Officer or GSO is responsible for carrying out such functions as contracting, clearing goods through customs, maintenance, and warehouse supervision. It is an important job (ask any FSO who has been to a post with a bad GSO) and often one of the more under-appreciated ones. However, in interesting places they can have some of the more interesting stories. Like Joseph Neubert, who served at Embassy Moscow from 1953-56, first as a GSO then as a Political officer. Here he talks about scrubbing rugs, irate clientele, a July 4 reception conversation with WWII military hero Marshall Georgiy Zhukov, and the next-to-impossible process of getting a driver’s license.  continue reading »

Slobodan Milosevic and the Road to Dayton

milosevicSlobodan Milosevic was in many ways a paradoxical figure. Long criticized for being a corrupt opportunist, he could also be engaging and charming. Often described as being a paranoid psychopath, he could quickly swing from the role of staunch Serbian nationalist to conciliatory peacemaker. As Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990’s, leading to violent conflict, the United States began to view the protean Milosevic as the key to reaching a peace agreement in the region.

Rudolf Perina served as Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade from 1993-96 and describes working with Milosevic, who usually worked without a staff and avoided putting anything down on paper. He also details Assistant Secretary (and later lead negotiator) Richard Holbrooke’s early involvement in the Balkans, the tragedy in the making that was Kosovo, and the beginning of talks which would become the basis for the Dayton Peace Accords. He sadly notes the the passing of his colleague, Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Frasure, who died with two others in a car crash on the road to Belgrade. continue reading »

Negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords

signing in parisDuring the 1990s, the world witnessed the worst conflict since the end of World War II.  The violence, bloodshed and ethnic cleansing within the Former Yugoslavia was unthinkable. The conflict began after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence on February 29, 1992. As a result, a group of Bosnian Serbs rebelled and created their own republic, the Republika Srpska. With the support of Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, the Bosnian Serbs gained territory throughout three years of killing and ethnic cleansing. Fighting ensued for several years between Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs and Muslims.  After the events and widespread media coverage of the shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace, the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys, and the capture of UN peacekeepers as hostages, the goal of a successful peace agreement became imperative. continue reading »

Vietnam, A Look Back

1964 Domino_Theory-HerblockThe Vietnam War remains one of the most contentious foreign policy issues in American history. U.S. military involvement was initially justified in view of the domino theory, the widely held belief that a failure to prevent the spread of Communism in Vietnam would ultimately to Communist victories in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Incidents such as the My Lai Massacre and the Tet Offensive convinced Americans that the War was turning into an unwinnable – and immoral – stalemate and that the toll in American lives was too high a burden. The U.S. eventually withdrew in 1973, after which South Vietnam fell to the Communist North. Over 40 years later, the debate over whether U.S. intervention in Vietnam was warranted in many ways echoes the ongoing discussions over U.S. missions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. continue reading »

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