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.

Resolving the Czechoslovak Gold Dispute

gold_vault_federal_reserve_largeAs the Third Reich annexed the Sudetenland and Poland and the German war machine pushed through the Eastern Front towards the Soviet Union, millions were left dead, cities were reduced to rubble, and Europe was left destitute and desperate to rebuild. In addition to the immense loss of human life, the Nazis also stole countless pieces of art, jewelry, furniture, and other valuables from individuals and state institutions. In an attempt to protect their treasuries from German seizure, some Eastern European countries entrusted the United States and the United Kingdom to temporarily protect their gold reserves.

In the years following the war, many of these regimes witnessed the return of their national treasures and gold. However, recognizing that political stability in post-war Czechoslovakia was exceptionally fragile, the American and British governments held onto approximately eighteen tons of Czechoslovak gold for safekeeping. Due to a standoff with the Czechoslovak government over American property claims, the U.S. maintained guardianship over the gold until, on November 6, 1981, the U.S. agreed to return the gold to Czechoslovakia. continue reading »


Admitting the Shah to the U.S.:  Every Form of Refuge has its Price

iran1979Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, departed Iran on January 16, 1979, fleeing political unrest led by the Ayatollah Khomeini and seeking medical treatment for lymphoma. Pahlavi first flew to Aswan, Egypt, where Anwar Sadat welcomed him, and would spend the next ten months moving among Morocco, Mexico, the Bahamas and Panama while requesting permission to enter the United States for surgery. The Carter Administration hesitated, recognizing potential consequences for U.S. interests in Iran if Pahlavi were welcomed into the country.

At the same time, many in the United States, notably former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chase Bank Chairman David Rockefeller, agitated for the Shah’s entry, arguing it was reprehensible not to let him in for medical treatment. Pahlavi was admitted to the U.S. on October 29 and underwent treatment at the Cornell Medical Center. During his stay, anti-American sentiment grew in Iran, concluding in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. The Shah returned to Egypt under Sadat’s protection, spending his last year undergoing medical treatment and composing his memoirs. He died July 27, 1980, and was given a state funeral. continue reading »


Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea — The CIA Mission to Raise a Soviet Sub

Project_Azorian_ClawIn March 1968, a K-129 Soviet nuclear submarine cruising in the Pacific Ocean mysteriously disappeared from Russian radar. Following an unsuccessful search by the USSR, the United States, using sonic triangulation, secretly located the sunken submarine 1500 miles northwest of Hawaii. An operation was proposed to deploy a ship to recover the wreck of the K-129, its nuclear warhead and cryptographic material.

The Forty Committee, consisting of representatives from the White House, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and U.S. intelligence agencies, met to consider the feasibility of recovering the submarine. The Forty Committee had been created in 1970 to provide greater oversight over U.S. covert missions. The State Department was represented by Ronald Spiers and Edward L. Peck, respectively the Director and Deputy Director of INR. The Forty Committee tasked the CIA with developing a salvage operation for the sunken submarine. This was easier said than done. continue reading »


China’s Fight for Tiny Islands — The Taiwan Straits Crises, 1954-58

Taiwan posterRecent disagreements over Beijing’s claim to the South China Seas (in which a tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a non-binding decision in July 2016 in favor of the Philippines) in many ways is reminiscent of the potentially far more serious clashes over the Taiwan Straits, the first of which occurred shortly after the Korean War broke out.

Following the Chinese Civil War, tensions remained high between the Republic of China (ROC) and the Chinese Communist Party. In 1950 with the Communists victorious, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was created and established in mainland China. The ROC was forced to relocate to Taiwan and the outlying islands of Penghu, Quemoy, and Matsu. However, no armistice or peace treaty has ever been signed, thus the civil war never formally ended. People have used this for justification of the PRC’s attack and capture of islands under the ROC’s jurisdiction.

In early 1950, President Harry Truman stated that the United States would remain neutral in matters regarding the Taiwan Strait. However, the outbreak of the Korea War in mid-1950 complicated matters. Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait became a high priority to the United States, as PRC occupation of Taiwan would pose a threat to the security of the region and U.S. forces fighting in Korea. continue reading »


Finale of the Persian Monarchy and Prelude to the Iranian Revolution

imagesFJ3M4EYBMohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, departed Tehran on January 16, 1979 to seek medical treatment and to escape growing political unrest in the country he ruled. The Shah had consolidated his hold on power after the 1953 U.S.-backed overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh and was considered a vital ally to the U.S., a leader in fighting communism and promoting regional stability.  Iran had been increasingly prosperous and the Shah’s grip on power unassailable.

Pahlavi’s fortunes changed when his “White Revolution” of social, economic and political reforms stalled with the end of the 1960s oil boom and his secret police (SAVAK) ramped up their vicious repression of political dissidents. Observers at home and abroad began to question the regime’s viability in light of reports of rampant corruption and human rights abuses. Self-aggrandizing acts by the Shah, notably an extravagant commemoration of the 2500 years of Persian monarchy held in the ruins of Persepolis, consolidated political opposition and propelled unrest into revolution. continue reading »


Persistence, Vision and Luck: Creating a Center for Diplomatic Training

IMG_6157Can you imagine the bureaucratic struggles involved in persuading the Department of Defense to hand over acres of prime real estate for a State Department training facility and then convincing Congress to authorize the transfer? This impossible dream was accomplished thanks to vision, persistence and a large dose of luck by a small group of individuals; among them, Stephen Low (seen right). The Department of State was founded in 1789, but it took more than another century before the opening of the first school for diplomats, which provided basic tutelage on foreign policy and consular operations. More detailed instruction was given in a school that opened in 1920.

It wasn’t until the Foreign Service Act of 1946 that Congress mandated advanced training for diplomats, and in 1947 the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) opened in the Mayfair Building in Washington, D.C. FSI relocated to two State Department annex buildings in Arlington, Virginia, then to its permanent home at Arlington Hall, previously the Arlington Hall Junior College, and later an Army installation. FSI opened at its new location, the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, in October 1993. continue reading »


Agent Orange and the Vietnam War

AGENT-ORANGEIn 1961, United States forces in Vietnam began to use chemical herbicides and defoliants on South Vietnamese crops, bushes, and trees in order to deprive the Vietcong of both food and cover for ambushes. Code-named Operation Ranch Hand, the campaign used a variety of herbicides but the most commonly used, and most effective, was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted on the 55-gallon drums in which the mixture was stored. It was one of several “Rainbow Herbicides” used, along with Agents White, Purple, Pink, Green and Blue.

Ultimately spraying more than 20 million gallons of herbicide on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the campaign destroyed five millions acres of forest and untold millions of acres of crops. Many of those exposed to Agent Orange, Vietnamese and Americans alike, suffered health complications as a result, and scores of children were born with severe birth defects which were believed to be linked to the herbicides. continue reading »


Bad Blood: The Sino-Soviet Split and the U.S. Normalization with China

dragon bearIn the 1960s, in the depths of the Cold War, the world was viewed in terms of a zero-sum game: wherever the USSR won, the U.S. by definition lost. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), despite its massive size, was considered to be the Soviets’ little brother and thus not a real player. The State Department and others were hesitant to improve relations with China as they believed it was more important to focus on the Soviet Union which, after all, was a nuclear superpower. Cracks in the USSR-China relationship then began appearing, which led President Richard Nixon to pursue improving ties with Beijing, a move which drastically altered the dynamics of the trilateral power game. continue reading »


Observing the Fiftieth Anniversary of VJ-Day in Japan

tumblr_nu0nupKQKn1r65o3qo2_1280How to commemorate an important anniversary of the country in which you’re posted when it marks a low point in the bilateral relationship? World War II came to an end when Imperial Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945; officials from its government signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2 aboard the USS Missouri. It was the end of a series of losses for Japan, including the detonation of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, the declaration of war on Japan by the Soviet Union on August 8, and the launch of a second bomb on Nagasaki by the U.S. on August 9.

Fifty years later, American diplomats in Japan struggled with acknowledging the events of that fateful year in a way that would strengthen ties with an enemy-turned-ally yet not minimize the sacrifices of Americans who fought in the war. continue reading »


Far from the Madding Crowd — Leeds Castle and the Road to Camp David

jul-07-1978-middle-east-peace-talks-leeds-castle-dayan-and-kamel-meet-e11j6j“Where you stand depends on where you sit” – an oft-heard epigram used to describe negotiations. And it’s true – something as simple as a seating arrangement, with one side facing the other across a long table can only serve to encourage rigidity and a sense that the negotiations are a zero-sum game. Because of this, mediators will often get the conflicting parties in a neutral site to break the ice. That was precisely the idea behind the two-day conference of U.S., Israeli and Egyptian Foreign Ministers on July 18-19, 1978 at Leeds Castle in Kent, England.

Relations between Israel and Egypt remained tense after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Negotiations had gone on for five years and progress was frustratingly slow. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat helped break the logjam with his historic visit to Jerusalem in October 1977, while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin countered with a 26-point plan, which would set up an interim local Palestinian government on the West Bank for five years, while Israeli troops would continue to handle defense and security matters.  continue reading »



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