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.

Lost in Translation

miscommunicationWorking as a U.S. diplomat overseas requires patience, composure, and the ability to communicate cross-culturally. Oftentimes, diplomats can speak multiple languages, or use interpreters to make their opinions known to another party. However, as is the case with any linguistic encounter, misunderstandings and miscommunication can often occur.

In interviews with Charles Stewart Kennedy, Hans N. Tuch (interviewed in 1998), Richard P. Butrick (1998), John M. Evans (2009), Francis Terry McNamara (1993), and Richard A. Dwyer (1990), all recount humorous incidents involving language mix-ups. continue reading »

King of Jordan and of the Go-Kart Racing Circuit

go kart (1)Prince Hussein bin Talal, who became King of Jordan following the assassination of his grandfather and the abdication of his father, was a risk-taker both politically and personally. He asserted the independence of Jordan against British rule and repeatedly reached out to other nations to secure peace in the region.  He also enjoyed pushing the envelope through sports and hobbies:  a trained pilot, he flew jet aircraft and helicopters and enjoyed racing around Jordan on his motorcycle.

Robert Keeley was in Jordan from 1958-1960 working as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy when he became close with the King. Keeley was about the same age and they shared a hobby:  go-kart racing. continue reading »

Opening an Embassy in the Land of Genghis Khan

Mongolia-Editorial-Image-12Getting a new embassy up and running is a tremendous task, especially when the host city has an annual average temperature of thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Joseph Edward Lake was the second U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia, and the first to reside permanently in the country. He was charged with establishing a functional embassy in Ulaanbaatar and coordinating greater communication between the U.S. and Mongolia.

Mongolia was historically a socialist state with very strong ties to the Soviet Union. The U.S. officially recognized Mongolia on January 27, 1987, and the first embassy was opened the following year. In late 1989, Mongolian students engaged in large protests against the government, leading to a call for democratic elections the following year. Ambassador Lake oversaw the first democratic elections and the coordination of U.S. and international aid for Mongolia.

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Diplomacy Despite It All – Kissinger’s India Fix

with indiraSecretary of State Henry Kissinger visited India October 28, 1974 to discuss its nonalignment policy, which aimed at preserving India’s post-colonial freedom through refusal to join any coalition, including the U.S. or Soviet blocs. Relations between New Delhi and Washington were anything but cordial at this time. The 1971 refusal of Nixon and Kissinger to support India during the Bengali Genocide, combined with India’s testing of a nuclear bomb in May 1974, set the scene for a tense visit.

From denying his speechwriter access to the speechwriters’ office to demanding that his plane turn around to giving a speech he hated, Secretary Kissinger managed once again — despite everything — to score the jump-start of a diplomatic success.

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Frenemies: Warm Encounters with Cold War Soviets

Friends USSRJust because the war between the two superpowers was cold didn’t mean that relations between U.S. and Soviet diplomats had to be frosty. While there were certainly some testy times, U.S. diplomats report that their relationships with Soviets were sometimes warm, funny, and congenial — especially if the Soviet officer was trying to convince them to defect.

And while they may not have cared for U.S. politics, a number of Soviet diplomats loved other aspects of American culture, especially Westerns, rifles, magazines, and, of course, Kentucky bourbon.

Thomas F. Johnson reports the amusing exchanges he had with Soviet diplomats during his time in Liberia in a 2003 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy. George G.B. Griffin and Ernestine S. Heck both share their experiences with Soviet defection with Kennedy in 2002 and 1997, respectively. (The happy poster says “Person to person. Friend, Comrade and Brother!”) continue reading »

Wordsmithing in the Fires of Olympus — Writing Speeches for Henry Kissinger

Henry KissingerWords are the tools of diplomacy. When done well, high-flung rhetoric can help define an era, such as John F.  Kennedy’s moving “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech or President Ronald Reagan’s demand to “Tear down this wall.” Poorly executed speeches, such as President Carter’s “Malaise” speech, can seriously damage reputations, no matter how well meaning. With a foreign policy doyen like Henry Kissinger, the stakes were even higher, as he viewed speeches as not just a means to enunciate existing policy, but an opportunity to create new policy.

Mark Palmer and John Kelly discuss what it was like toiling in the crucible that was Kissinger’s State Department – conducting extensive research, editing numerous drafts, and dealing with the highly demanding — and often demeaning — Dr. Kissinger himself. continue reading »

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child: A Caning in Singapore

michael fay caningDuring the spring of 1994, Americans were gripped by an incident in Singapore which unexpectedly became a cause celebre:  the caning of Michael Fay, who was sentenced for his role in vandalizing property in Singapore. The sentence caused outrage in the United States and even President Bill Clinton became involved in the court proceedings. The seemingly minor incident became such an issue that it threatened to derail the normally friendly bilateral relationship. The Singaporean government eventually lowered the penalty to four lashes from six; the caning was administered on May 5, 1994. continue reading »

Starting an Embassy from Scratch in Papua New Guinea

pngflag_raiseIn the decades following World War II, as colonies across the globe gained independence, the United States worked to establish embassies and consulates in these new nations, some in the remotest areas of the world. Papua New Guinea, which gained autonomy from Australia on September 16, 1975, was one such case.

Mary Olmsted was assigned as the first Consul General to Papua New Guinea in early 1975 and was later promoted to become the first U.S. Ambassador to the country after independence. She describes the challenges she and her small staff faced in pioneering America’s first diplomatic outpost in this developing country, including dealing with such minor details as not having enough chairs for guests. She spent five years watching Papua New Guinea evolve from colony to independent nation, and her diplomatic status changed with that of the country in which she served.

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Monkey Business

gorillaEmbassies around the world focus on some very important issues – bilateral trade negotiations, helping American citizens abroad, reporting on political developments. And then there are the things that come up that can drive you absolutely bananas. Theodore Wilkinson was Chief Political Officer in Mexico City in 1993 when he received an interesting phone call. continue reading »

Turning Out the Lights at U.S. Embassy Havana, 1961

The United States and Cuba officially severed diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961, the culmination of months of increasingly hostile bilateral relations. Fidel Castro had seized power in early 1959; relations between Cuba and the U.S. deteriorated rapidly as Cuba nationalized American and other foreign property and companies. The U.S. began to cut back trade with Cuba, barring U.S. companies from exporting to the island. Castro established trade relations with the USSR and, amid rumors that the U.S. embassy was a base for spies, demanded that the embassy staff be reduced.

Ambassador Philip W. Bonsal was recalled in 1960 and in 1961 the United States broke all ties, closing the Embassy and lowering the U.S. flag. At the time the embassy closed its doors, more than 50,000 visa applications were on file from Cubans wanting to come to the U.S. continue reading »

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