Rooted in the Good Earth: From “China Brats” to Foreign Service
A confluence of two rising movements in the early 1800s, Western outreach to China and reinvigorated Christian evangelism, led to a surge in missionaries going to China from the U.S., the UK and Europe. The Protestant and Catholic missionaries were initially restricted to living in an area now known as Guangzhou and Macau. They were later allowed to settle in five coastal cities, and then permitted to work throughout the country. The number of missionaries in China grew from 50 in 1860 to 2,500 in 1900. Missionary activity reached its highest point in the 1920s; by 1953, the communist government of China expelled them.
Living and working in China was a challenge because of health problems, linguistic barriers, spartan living conditions, and a low success rate in converting Chinese citizens to Christianity. Among the most famous children of missionary families in China was Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, whose Southern Presbyterian missionary parents took her to China as a baby. She recalled in her memoir that she lived in “several worlds,” one a “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and the other the “big, loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world,” and there was no communication between them. Writing about the life of Chinese peasants in her Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” she also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. continue reading
Brass Tacks and Kashmir: India-Pakistan Military Crises in the 1980s
A crisis between India and Pakistan erupted between November 1986 and March 1987 after India launched the largest-ever military exercise in the subcontinent, called Operation Brass Tacks. The exercise took place in the desert area of Rajasthan, a few hundred miles from the Pakistani border, and included nine infantry, three mechanized, three armored and one air assault divisions.
Pakistani analysts interpreted Brass Tacks as a threatening exhibition of conventional force and responded with maneuvers of its own near India’s state of Punjab. International concerns spiked when Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan was quoted as saying in March 1987 that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb. U.S. diplomats sought to diffuse tensions between the two countries to prevent a nuclear war. Before the end of the decade, India and Pakistan would again nearly come to war over military exercises, prompting the intervention of Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates. continue reading
Diplomacy in Cold Blood: Fatal Encounters Around the World
An American citizen abroad accused of murder: this is a particular nightmare for consular officers. These cases can become public scandals and political quandaries, and it is the job of American Citizen Services to ensure that Americans accused of major crimes beyond U.S. borders receive appropriate treatment in accordance with international law. If an arrested American citizen requests that authorities contact the U.S. Embassy or consulate, they must do so. The consular officer will visit the detained person in jail and contact family, friends or employers with the prisoner’s consent. The consular officer will also try to make sure the citizen is getting appropriate medical care. What they can’t do is get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas, provide legal advice, serve as official interpreters or pay legal, medical, or other fees. Many Foreign Service personnel have had to deal with murder abroad – by fellow Americans, local despots and other killers – during the course of their careers.
Bodies on the Doorstep: Jamaica in the 1970s
The island country of Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea experienced strong economic growth following its independence in 1962. This economic growth was fueled in part by private investments in bauxite, an aluminum ore, as well as tourism, and the manufacturing industry. The Labor Party that had controlled the government was ousted in 1970 when the growth stopped. A democratic-socialist party, known as the People’s National Party (PNP), came into power in 1972 with a socialist plan that would rewire Jamaica’s education and health programs. By 1980, Jamaica’s gross national product had declined to some 25 percent below the 1972 level. Increasing debt at home and abroad drove the government to seek aid from the International Money Fund and the United States.
Michael Norman Manley, a Democratic Socialist, served as the fourth Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972 to 1980 and from 1989 to 1992. To the chagrin of many in the United States, Manley encouraged and sustained relations with the leader of an island just north of Jamaica: Fidel Castro of Cuba. continue reading
The Thai-tanic: Responding to the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997
Asian countries took a financial hit in 1997, resulting in a crisis that reverberated throughout the world. It began on July 2, when the central Bank of Thailand allowed the baht to float against the U.S. dollar for the first time in 14 years. The baht plunged between 15-20 percent in overseas currencies. The collapse of the baht resulted in a huge loss of foreign exchange reserves and plunged the country into financial panic. The “Thai-tanic” rippled throughout the rest of Asia, the Americas and Europe.
Although there had been signs of an impending slump, few policy makers expected the magnitude of the devastation that would follow. Crony banking, reliance on foreign savings, heavy borrowing and risky lending practices fueled the economic spike that preceded the fall of the baht. The devaluation presented political challenges for U.S. diplomats in Thailand, who had to respond to pleas for aid from an important long-time ally. continue reading
Basketball: the Fifth Basket of the Helsinki Final Act
The Helsinki Final Act, an agreement signed by 35 nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on August 1, 1975, addressed a spectrum of global problems and had a lasting impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Helsinki Final Act dealt with a variety of issues divided into four “baskets.” The first basket dealt with political and military issues, the second economic issues, trade and scientific cooperation. The third basket emphasized human rights, and the fourth formalized procedures for implementing the agreements.
The multilateral negotiations were stressful and demanding. In this case, one means of reaching decisions on the four baskets came in the form of basketball. But just as in the case of diplomacy, in basketball you can run across “ringers” – people whose abilities may not be readily apparent. Not everyone knew that Soumi – Finland – had its share of athletic diplomats who could make a lay up. Jonathan Greenwald, who served as the Legal Advisor to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin from 1973-1977, highlighted the role that basketball played in bringing together different delegations during the negotiating process of the Helsinki Final Act, in an interview with Raymond Ewing in March 1998. continue reading
Negotiating the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT)
Due to rising concern about radioactive fallout from increasingly big nuclear tests underwater, in space, in the atmosphere and underground, as well as concern over the burgeoning arms race between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, the US, UK, and USSR decided to negotiate a test-ban treaty. These concerns became more pronounced after the United States successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and a thermonuclear device with the power of eight megatons of TNT in November 1952, and 15 megatons later on, and when the U.S.S.R. detonated a 50-megaton nuclear warhead, deliverable by a bomber, in October 1961.
Diplomatic exchanges went through 1959 and 1960, and in-person negotiations continued until 1963, when five Warsaw Pact countries, five NATO countries, and eight non-aligned countries met in Geneva to hammer out the details of what would become the Limited (or Partial) Test Ban Treaty). Initially, the Soviet Union proposed a testing ban along with a disarmament agreement dealing with both conventional and nuclear weapon systems. It was only later during 1959 and into the early 1960s that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union agreed to detach a general agreement on nuclear disarmament from a ban on nuclear weapons testing.
The Soviet Union agreed only to a testing ban with no verification regime or protocols. The United States and United Kingdom insisted on intrusive, inspection-based control systems as a means to verify compliance. On the other hand, the U.S.S.R. held the position that surveillance and seismic detection equipment operated from outside the boundaries of any signatory was adequate to verify compliance. The Western Powers thought that any agreement not subject to a control system rigorous enough to verify compliance would set a bad precedent in nuclear arms control for future agreements. continue reading
Chipping Away at Czechoslovak Communism: The Helsinki Final Act and Charter 77
The Solidarity Movement. Perestroika and Glasnost. The fall of the Berlin Wall. All of these movements, policies, or events had a tremendous influence on the dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. While not attributed the same attention and certainly less well known, many diplomats operating behind the Iron Curtain recognized that the Helsinki Final Act, signed August 1, 1975, was a crucial step towards the fall of communism.
The final product of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe [CSCE] in 1975, the Helsinki Final Act produced a series of principles intended to guide relations between the thirty-five participating states. Of most crucial importance was the “Third Basket”, the portion of the agreement that dealt with human rights principles.
Much to the surprise of the Soviet Union, many throughout the Warsaw Pact countries took these human rights provisions very seriously and ultimately resulted in the formation of dissident groups. Operating in Czechoslovakia, the most formidable of these groups was known as Charter 77. Despite government crackdowns, Charter 77 wielded a considerable amount of influence over the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. continue reading
Teaching the Foreign Service to Speak Foreign Languages
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the primary training institution to prepare American diplomats to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests, teaching, among other things, the languages of the countries where Foreign Service Officers will serve. At the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia, FSI’s School of Language Studies provides 25 hours of classroom instruction per week in 24-week courses for languages such as French and Spanish, and 44 weeks for “hard” languages such as Russian and Thai. For Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, considered the most difficult to learn, FSI has Field Schools abroad that provide an additional 44 weeks of instruction.
The State Department’s language program got a boost after a 1954 study by scholar Henry Wriston pointed to problems of low morale and levels of recruitment into the Foreign Service. Wriston called for the integration of certain Civil Service employees into the Foreign Service and a requirement that Foreign Service Officers spend part of their careers in Washington. A process that took several years, “Wristonization” tripled the size of the Foreign Service and emphasized training. Part of the process included increasing language teaching. continue reading
Peloponnesian Pilgrimage: An Idyll with the King and Queen of Greece
It was the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Greece, John Peurifoy (seen right), who gave him the sobriquet “Pistol Packing Peurifoy” because of his confrontational, straight-shooting style as Chief of Mission in some of the world’s trouble spots in the early 1950s. New York Times foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis once wrote that he was not really a diplomat but a politician, a man of action who favored a blunt informality matched only by his preference for loud, checkered shirts.
In Greece, he worked to counter the return of communism and to strengthen the center-right Greek government that included the Greek royal family, with whom the Peurifoys had a close friendship. Peurifoy would later serve as ambassador to Guatemala and to Thailand, where he and his son died in an auto accident on August 16, 1955. continue reading