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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 Diplomacy of Tragedy: Burmese Airways Crash Kills 14 Americans in 1987

In the early morning hours of October 11, 1987, a Burmese turboprop plane transporting 49 passengers, including 36 foreign nationals and four crew members, departed from Rangoon (now Yangon) and began its flight towards the popular tourist town of Pagan.  Approaching the airport, the plane’s wing clipped the ridge of a mountain just outside the city, sending it crashing down the ridge. All 49 people aboard the plane were killed.

Among the 49 killed were 14 Americans, seven Swiss, five British, four Australians, three West Germans, two French, and one Thai national. In the wake of this tragedy, the U.S. embassy in Rangoon was faced with the challenge of identifying and returning the bodies and belongings of the American nationals back to their families in the United States. This challenge proved difficult due to different standards of identification, the state of the victims’ bodies, and the looting of the crime scene by local villagers.

Aloysius M. O’Neill was  the Chief Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. O’Neill was the American counterpart on a team of diplomats from various embassies who were responsible for returning the nationals killed in the crash to their home countries. A career Foreign Service Officer, O’Neill served in various posts throughout East and Southeast Asia in addition to Burma (now Myanmar), including Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.  Below is an excerpt of his interview conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2008.

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Russian Interference and the Marshall Plan

Russian Disinformation is Not New, Say Diplomats Who Implemented the Marshall Plan

The obstacles the United States faced in implementing the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s and early 1950s included a vigorous propaganda contest with the USSR and their European communist allies. By the time Secretary of State George Marshall announced the plan at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, the United States was already implementing an ambitious foreign aid program — and working to counter Russian influence. Thomas W. Wilson, an Information Officer in Paris, and U.S. Ambassador William H. Taft III both recall early issues with Marshall Fund implementation. Each was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy. Jacob J. Kaplan Head of Economic Research for the Southern Region of Europe was interviewed by W. Haven North.

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Remembering Thailand’s King and the Transition to Democracy

Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, was the ninth monarch of Thailand and the longest-serving head of state in the world at the time of his death in October 2016. Beloved by his people, he was also a friend of the United States. Ambassador David Lambertson recalled his experiences with King Bhumibol and other members of the royal family in a 2004 interview.

Bhumibol’s reign began in 1946. A coup in 1957 ushered in a series of military dictatorships until Thailand began to democratize after protests in 1992. The king played a key role in democratization and what would be termed “The Crisis of 1992,” and intervened after violence and riots threatened to start a civil war. After the king’s intervention, Thailand held a general election and established a civilian government. Bhumibol was highly respected and extremely popular among his people.

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Act of Kindness: Chinese President Xi Jinping helped grant an American ambassador his final wish

Amb. John Leighton Stuart was a central figure in U.S.-China relations until his recall in 1949, when the United States broke diplomatic relations. His ashes were interred in at his childhood home in Hangzhou in 2008, with the assistance of then-Zhejiang Party Secretary Xi Jinping, now China’s powerful President.

Stuart was the first president of Yenching University in Beijing and became the United States Ambassador to China in 1946. He was recalled in 1949 when the U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with China. Stuart, whose parents were American missionaries, was born and raised in China. He died in Washington in 1962. Ambassador Stuart stipulated in his will that his final wish was to be buried in China.

Beatrice Camp was the Consul General in Shanghai from 2008-2011 and recalls how John Leighton’s final wish was largely fulfilled due to the intervention of then Party Secretary Xi Jinping, who made the arrangements for Stuart to be buried in China. Below is an excerpt from the collection “Shanghai Stories” which was published in 2013.

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Getting Mexico to the NAFTA Negotiating Table

U.S. diplomats who helped lay the groundwork for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) first had to overcome entrenched Mexican skepticism.  The United States, Canada, and Mexico decided in mid-1990 to start negotiating a free trade agreement.  Discussions began in earnest early the following year.  By mid-1993 the parties were fine-turning a draft agreement.  After vigorous debate in the U.S. Senate, the United States ratified NAFTA later in the year and the agreement went into effect on January 1, 1994.  But the path to implementation was also difficult in Mexico.  Prior to the early 1990s, Mexico maintained high tariffs — which many U.S. exporters sought to lower.  During negotiations Mexicans were skeptical, and worried about the impact of a free trade agreement on a plethora of state-run companies seen as vital to Mexican industry.  Julius L. Katz, the Deputy Director to Special Trade Representative (1990-93) recalls events leading up the NAFTA talks, including Mexico’s recalcitrance.  William E. Primosch of the National Security Council Economic Office (1992-93) notes that Mexico had much to lose in the form of reduced tariffs, and that U.S. participants did not fully grasp the political ramifications of the agreement. 
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The collapse of Zaire at the end of the First Congo War 1997

In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, ethnic Hutu refugees — including génocidaires — who had crossed into East Zaire to escape persecution from the new Tutsi government carried out attacks against ethnic Tutsis from both Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Rwandan refugees. The Zairian government was unable to control the ethnic Hutu marauders, and indeed lent them some support as allies against the new, Tutsi-led Rwandan government.  In response, the Tutsis in Zaire joined a revolutionary coalition headed by Laurent-Désiré Kabila.  Kabila’s aim was to overthrow Zaire’s one-party authoritarian government run by Mobutu Sese Seko since 1965.  With Kabila’s forces on the march,  Zaire was soon engulfed in conflict.  These hostilities, which took place from 1996-1997, are known as the “First Congo War” and lead to the creation of Zaire’s successor state The Democratic Republic of Congo. The United States, who had supported Mobutu until the end of the Cold War, recognized how potentially dangerous the situation was as Kabila gained control of most of the country and advanced rapidly towards the capital city of Kinshasa. In 1997, the United States sent a small group of diplomats to broker negotiations and attempt to come to a peaceful agreement between Mobutu and Kabila.

Marc Baas was an American Foreign Service Officer who served at a variety of different locations in Africa from 1972 to 1998, including Tunisia, Gabon, Zaire, and Ethiopia. Baas was part of the small group of diplomats that were sent to broker negotiations in Zaire and was there until the fall of Kinshasa in 1997. Baas continued to serve as the Director for Central African Affairs in Washington D.C. for one more year before moving to the Economic Bureau.  He retired  in 2001. Below is an excerpt of his interview, conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in November 2005.

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Sound, Fury, Brilliance & Booze: Faulkner in Post-War Japan

William Faulkner, among the most decorated writers in American literature with the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award among his honors, was invited to Japan in 1955 under the auspices of the Exchange of Persons Branch of the United States Information Service (now consolidated into the State Department.) He was to speak at the annual Seminar in American Literature the U.S. Government sponsored for Japanese teachers of English language and literature in the mountain resort town of Nagano, then give lectures in other venues.

Enthusiasm for Faulkner in Japan was based in part on his stature in world literature, strengthened by parallels between Faulkner’s writings about the defeated South and postwar Japan, recovering from its massive losses in World War II and its rebuilding under the administration of a foreign army. Faulkner’s visit generated tremendous interest, but its overall impact was limited by his inebriation and subsequent inability to interact with some of the Japanese and American interlocutors he had been brought over to meet.  continue reading »


Protecting Greenland: The American Consulate at Godthab, 1940-42

e9d29a3b988f21dff381583fbec6f788During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied continental Denmark, leaving the Kingdom’s other two territories, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, exposed to a possible German invasion. The United Kingdom quickly occupied the Faroe Islands and, along with Canada, made plans to occupy parts of Greenland, which would drag the otherwise neutral island into the war. The United States, which at that point had not yet entered the war, rejected these plans and instead made Greenland a de facto protectorate and established formal diplomatic relations with the opening of a consulate.

The United States recognized that Greenland was strategically essential in that much of Europe’s weather patterns originated in the Arctic, so a meteorological station on the island would be a boon for any country fighting a war there. Furthermore, the mine at Ivittuut on the island’s southwestern shore provided the rare mineral cryolite, which was useful in the mass production of aluminum. Therefore, it was critical for the United States that Greenland was kept safe and in friendly hands in a time of all-out war in Europe. continue reading »


Raymond Hare: Our Man in Cairo during WWII

RAF over SuezEgypt and the Suez Canal became a point of global strategic interest during WWII because of the quick access the waterway could provide to Middle East oil, raw materials from Asia, and– for the British Empire particularly– a connection to its distant territories. Britain, as the first state to launch a completely mechanized military, was particularly dependent upon its shipping routes from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Maintaining Allied control of oil exports from the Middle East was also of strategic importance to the United States even before it entered the war, and it therefore commenced a Lend-Lease program in Egypt to equip the British with necessary materiel.

The United States publicly took a position of neutrality early in the war (the Neutrality Act of 1939), and could not sell weapons to foreign governments. In order to protect the national interest without violating the Act, the Lend-Lease program was devised to permit the non-monetary transfer of materiel “to the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” It was during this period that Raymond A. Hare was appointed Second Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and orchestrated the movement of American materiel to British forces in Egypt and later to Soviet forces via Iran. continue reading »


Rebuilding Iraq after the Second Gulf War: Lewis Lucke

000_nic284955-siIn January 2003, the U. S. Government established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) to act as a caretaker administration and begin to rebuild Iraq. Coalition forces from the U.S., UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq two months later, launching Operation Iraqi Freedom. The initial phase, with major combat operations, lasted from March 19-April, 2003. Lt. General Jay Garner and three deputies were appointed in April 2003 to lead ORHA; among them, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission Director Lewis Lucke was named Deputy of Reconstruction. Garner stayed in the job less than a month; he was replaced by L. Paul Bremer in May. ORHA was abolished and recreated as the Coalition Provisional Authority under the Department of Defense.

At that time, Lucke had retired from USAID, having been Mission Director in Amman, Jordan and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His work in Jordan was touted as a model of how USAID should work in the Middle East. He presided over a USAID budget of $400 million, ensuring this money was used for water access, family planning, education and economic opportunity for the Jordanians. Lucke retired after his posting in Haiti but because of his previous success in the Middle East and working knowledge of Arabic, was called back to lead the ORHA’s Reconstruction efforts in Iraq. continue reading »