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.

Scotland, A Land Apart

ScotlandFlagScotland can trace its links to the United Kingdom to more than 400 years ago, when James VI, King of Scots, ascended to the thrones of England and Ireland upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1603, thus uniting England, Scotland, and Ireland under a single monarch, with each keeping its own parliament and laws. When England’s Parliament passed the Union with Scotland Act in 1706 and Scotland’s Parliament passed the Union with England Act in 1707, England and Scotland were formally united into a single kingdom of Great Britain.

The growth of Scottish nationalism after World War II led to calls for greater autonomy.  A referendum in 1997, which supported the creation of a Scottish parliament with devolved powers from the United Kingdom, led to the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. In the 2007 Scottish parliamentary election, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which advocates  Scottish independence, was able to form a minority government.  Just four years later, in 2011, the SNP was able to form the very first majority government since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. This allowed the SNP to push for a referendum on Scottish independence.  After considerable negotiations, a deal was worked out between the UK government and the Scottish Parliament on terms relating to the referendum. The referendum on Scottish independence will take place on September 18, 2014.  continue reading »


Oil, Blood and Steel: The Failed Attempt to Create a Democratic Congo

TOPSHOTS Children play on a burned tankThis is the story of how a corrupt multinational oil company, a self-centered dictator,  lingering ethnic tensions, and lack of attention from the West all served to undermine efforts to transform a Marxist-Leninist client state into a democratic African nation.

Congo’s struggles have for years been complicated by outside influence from its former colonial ruler, France, with foreign (i.e., usually French) companies seeking to profit from the small country’s rich oil reserves. Supported by France, the oil company Elf Aquitaine was able to force the Congolese government into accepting wildly unfavorable terms on profit-sharing (13% vs. 51% that other African countries received).  The company was later found guilty of an unrelated fraud scandal in 1994, which brought to light its questionable business practices in Africa. President Pascal Lissouba sought transparency and better treatment from Elf, but was refused. In response, he negotiated a $150 million oil deal with the American oil company Occidental Petroleum in order to fund his bankrupt government. This economic success largely drove Lissouba’s subsequent election victory. Elf later would allegedly supply arms to the opposition. continue reading »


Egos and Architecture — The Joys of Embassy Building in the 1980s

fbo logoThe design of U.S. embassies has swung through varying phases over the past several decades. Some embassies, such as the one in Athens, were designed by world-renowned architects like Walter Gropius. Security concerns beginning after the Embassy Beirut bombing in 1983 led to the construction of embassies with blast-proof walls and long setbacks, which were often built away from city centers in the suburbs and were often criticized for being “fortress embassies.” In the past few years, the pendulum has swung back toward the middle, to critically acclaimed buildings in Beijing and London which are also secure. (Go here to read more.) Whatever the trend, the task falls on the State Department’s Office of Foreign Building Operations (FBO), to design U.S. embassies, consulates and other government property worldwide. And sometimes, the difficulties of security and architecture can take a backseat to the more vexing problems of tight budgets, multiple demands, and in-house politicking. John Helm worked in FBO in the early 1980s and had to deal with high-strung bosses, unsuitable designs, and unreasonable promises. He was finally shipped off to work in Mogadishu after he told off one too many colleagues and superiors. continue reading »


The Grisly Tradition of Beheading

Saudi beheading 2The act of beheading has been used as a means for execution and retribution for millennia. The guillotine, which was originally welcomed as more humane, was used in France until 1977 (capital punishment was outlawed there in 1981). Sharia law in many Islamic countries determines the punishments for crimes, of which beheading is one. Saudi Arabia, for example, still imposes beheading for such crimes as murder and drug trafficking and is often done publicly.  Terrorist groups have also resorted to beheading as a grisly way of gaining attention.  In 2002, for example, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted by a Pakistani militant group and decapitated by al Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr. was an American engineer living in Saudi Arabia who was abducted by militants tied to al Qaeda. Despite American and Saudi attempts to deal with the situation diplomatically, Johnson was beheaded on June 18, 2004.  Three other Americans were also beheaded in 2004, this time in Iraq by militant Islamists in response to the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison. Recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) have brought back painful memories of these events.  continue reading »


“The Worst Day” — 9/11 and the International Response

Pentagon 9/11“It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.” –Senator John Kerry

In the hours and days after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, nations across the world gathered in solidarity and commiseration for those who had lost their lives. The assaults on both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon stirred international outrage as the United States and the world mourned both the loss of life and the loss of security. French newspaper Le Monde released a front page article entitled “Nous sommes tous Américains,” “We are all Americans.” Public transportation across Europe shut down and millions gathered to pray and light candles in public squares. China, Cuba, North Korea and Iran all sent messages of condolence or lit candles to publicly acknowledge the tragedy. For Edward Hull, 9/11 was especially momentous, as he was at the Pentagon during the attack, getting briefed before he assumed his post as Ambassador to Yemen. continue reading »


A Guest of the Japanese Army

Ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces successfully invaded the Philippines. Those Americans and Filipinos who did not retreat endured three years of Japanese rule, murder, torture, and hard labor. Thousands died in the infamous Bataan Death March, and countless more were coerced into work details or brothels. General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines in late 1944, but fighting continued until the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945. In the following interview with G. Lewis Schmidt in August 1989, James J. Halsema recalls his experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the clever ways he found out about current events, and the humanity of the Japanese commandant.
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From Nation-Building to Black Hawk Down: U.S. Peacekeeping in Somalia

Black Hawk Down movie posterSomalia has become synonymous with well-meaning but ill-fated humanitarian intervention. Live television footage of American soldiers being dragged in the streets by the very insurgents they hoped to defeat in the Black Hawk down incident disillusioned Americans from the concept of nation-building abroad. Many credit the U.S.’s embarrassment in Somalia to the international community’s failure to intervene during the genocide in Rwanda and in more recent humanitarian crises such as Syria. The situation in Somalia has undoubtedly created a legacy of hesitation in international intervention and heightened the role of the media’s “CNN effect” on U.S. foreign policy.

The crisis began after the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. Over half of the population were in severe danger of starvation and malnutrition-related disease; some 300,000 died outright in the early months of 1992 and another million fled the country as refugees. The UN Security Council responded by creating the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) to send in humanitarian supplies; however, most of that was stolen by local warlords, who often exchanged it with other countries for weapons. continue reading »


The Fight to Ratify the Panama Canal Treaty

carter (1)Since Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903, the Panama Canal had been a dramatic and ongoing point of discussion. The United States had engineered Panamanian independence from Colombia when it did not want to pay higher construction fees proposed by the Colombian and French companies building the canal; the new country then signed a treaty with the U.S. establishing the Canal Zone just a few weeks later. The Canal was viewed as a vital asset, as it drastically reduced the transit time from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and was a much safer passage. President Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate; and while the debate goes on, the canal does also.” continue reading »


The Beijing Conference on Women

250px-Beijing-Poster“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”—First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton

At the United Nations’ 4th World Conference on Women, which was held from September 4-15, 1995, several countries united in support of women’s equal rights to life, education, and security across the world. The conference crusaded for female empowerment and women’s inclusion in national and international decision-making. Discussions on such controversial issues as contraception, reproductive rights, and equal inheritance allowed advocates to raise women’s rights to the forefront of international diplomacy. Once the conference had ended, however, nations, including the U.S., struggled to incorporate those precepts into foreign policy or to negotiate with those countries that violated conference principles. continue reading »


Life Under Il Duce

220px-Mussolini_biografiaCharismatic, admired, and feared, Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922, when he became the youngest Prime Minister in Italian history. After destroying all political opposition through his secret police and outlawing labor strikes, Mussolini and his fascist followers consolidated their power through a series of laws that transformed the nation into a one-party dictatorship. Within five years he had established dictatorial authority by both legal and extraordinary means, aspiring to create a totalitarian state. In 1935–1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia, ostensibly for both long-range expansionist plans and to give Mussolini a foreign policy triumph that would allow him to a freer hand at home. However, on 24 July 1943, soon after the start of the Allied invasion of Italy, Mussolini was defeated in the vote at the Grand Council of Fascism. In late April 1945, with total defeat on the horizon, Mussolini was re-captured and summarily executed; his body was to Milan where it was hung upside down at a service station for public viewing .

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