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.

Vietnam, A Look Back

1964 Domino_Theory-HerblockThe Vietnam War remains one of the most contentious foreign policy issues in American history. U.S. military involvement was initially justified in view of the domino theory, the widely held belief that a failure to prevent the spread of Communism in Vietnam would ultimately to Communist victories in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Incidents such as the My Lai Massacre and the Tet Offensive convinced Americans that the War was turning into an unwinnable – and immoral – stalemate and that the toll in American lives was too high a burden. The U.S. eventually withdrew in 1973, after which South Vietnam fell to the Communist North. Over 40 years later, the debate over whether U.S. intervention in Vietnam was warranted in many ways echoes the ongoing discussions over U.S. missions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. continue reading »


Chile’s 1988 Plebiscite and the End of Pinochet’s Dictatorship

NO+Pinochet1The 1970s and 1980s were a long, dark time for Chile. The September 11, 1973 coup against Socialist president Salvador Allende led to the brutal dictatorship under Commander-in-Chief Augusto Pinochet, who immediately began to round up thousands of opponents in stadiums and elsewhere and have them killed. In 1980, a new constitution was approved, which mandated a single-candidate presidential referendum in 1988, where a candidate nominated by the Junta would be approved or rejected for another 8-year period. That would provide democratic forces a glimmer of hope. A national referendum was held on October 5, 1988 to determine whether should stay in power for another eight years. The “no” vote won with nearly 56%, thus ending the junta’s 16 years in power. Presidential and parliamentary elections took place as scheduled on December 14, 1989; Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin won and took office on the following March. continue reading »


Take This Job and Shove It, Mr. Kissinger

kissinger nixon 2In the late 1960’s, the United States had become polarized by the Vietnam War, as even many defenders were beginning to question the goals and tactics of the military. One such person was William Watts, who at the time had been promoted to the position of White House Staff Secretary for the National Security Council under President Richard Nixon in 1969. As such, he worked closely with Henry Kissinger, who at the time was National Security Advisor, as well as prominent people from the Nixon White House, such as H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Bureaucratic tensions were often high and interpersonal skills were often lacking, which not surprisingly led to bitter infighting and nasty confrontations over policy. U.S. policies on Vietnam and the planning over the invasion of Cambodia, which took place from April-July 1970 were strongly opposed by Watts, which left him an outsider. Watts resigned from the NSC in 1970 after a fiery exchange with Alexander Haig, then Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff.      continue reading »


Secretary Ron Brown’s Plane Crashes in Croatia

ron-brown-portraitOn April 3rd, 1996, just before the Easter holiday, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash in Croatia. He was 54 years old. He was on a trip to Dubrovnik, flying from Zagreb to meet with President Franjo Tuđman on an official trade mission. Brown had offered to make the trip on behalf of President Bill Clinton as the President’s schedule was very tight and Brown was available. The crash occurred as the pilot attempted to land at Dubrovnik’s Cilipi Airport on visual flight rules in severe weather. The plane crashed into a mountainside; Ron Brown and 34 other people were killed instantly. Only Air Force Technical Sergeant Shelly Kelly was able to survive the impact; however, she died on her way to the hospital. In March 2011, the new United States Mission to the United Nations building in New York City was named in Brown’s honor (see photo below).  continue reading »


A Soldier Uncovers the Horrors of the Nazis’ Hadamar Camp

ConcentrationCampAs a soldier in the U.S. Army towards the end of World War II, George Jaeger, who was part of V Corps’s four-man war crimes team, happened upon the town of Hadamar, located between Frankfurt am Main and Cologne. Hadamar has since become notorious as the site of a top-secret extermination site involved in the sterilization and extermination of the handicapped and mentally ill in Nazi Germany.  The Hadamar Euthanasia Centre was one of the six sites carrying out Action T4 resulting in the mass murder of those deemed “undesirable” by the Nazis.  The program claimed 70,000 victims in its two years of operation from 1939 to 1941.  Although the program was officially concluded in 1941, operations and practices of physicians went underground.

Killings still went on during this covert phase where additional estimates of 200,000 people were killed in all the Action T4 facilities.  Under the Action T4 program, the development of the use of lethal gas to perform mass murders occurred.  These techniques were later implemented for mobile death vans and extermination camps.  Following World War II, Hadamar fell within the American occupation zone.  In October 1945, Americans conducted the Hadamar Trial, which was the first mass atrocity trial after the end of World War II. Jaeger and the V Corps later went to Flossenbürg concentration camp, which was used for, among others, political opponents. In a gripping account which is often difficult to read, Jaeger describes the horrific scenes he and his colleagues discovered and the emotional stress he experienced. continue reading »


Life in Ceausescu’s Romania

ceausescuRomania in the 1970s was a study in contrasts. Traditionally a rich agricultural breadbasket, its backward economy could not provide enough food for its inhabitants.  A despotic, communist dictatorship, it still enjoyed a close relationship with the United States, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled Romania from 1967 to 1989, as an intermediary with countries such as China. E. Ashley Wills was posted to Embassy Bucharest in his first overseas position with the Foreign Service from 1973 to 1977. Here he discusses life in that drab, oppressive country, the affairs within the embassy community, including a couple of which were with women in the pay of the Securitate, the omnipresent Romanian secret police, for which he had some, uh, choice words when they threatened one of his human rights contacts.   continue reading »


The Birth of NATO

nato tableAfter the devastation of World War II and the ensuing Cold War with the Soviet Union, nations across the globe sought out alliances to protect themselves and to avoid a possible World War III. The United Nations was created, as were various regional alliances, such as the Rio Treaty for the Western Hemisphere. Europe’s growing concern about Soviet aggression led to the March 1948 signing of the Treaty of Brussels, which united the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg), France, and the United Kingdom, but not the United States. Theodore Achilles and a handful of other American diplomats rightfully predicted the USSR’s expansionist policy and saw the glaring need for a military alliance which included the U.S.; however, such a treaty would encounter strong opposition in a Congress wary of further entanglements abroad.  After months of writing, negotiating and meeting, twelve nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949; it came into effect in August 1949. Today, NATO has 28 members and relationships with several non-member nations. continue reading »


The Iran Hostage Crisis — “I had very little faith in my government protecting me”

Metrinko, blindfoldOn November 4, 1979, some 3000 radical Iranian students protested at the U.S. embassy. The embassy had been taken over earlier in the year but the problem was resolved quickly leading most to believe this situation would be similar. People were angry over President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow the Shah of Iran, who had been forced out of Iran earlier amidst widespread discontent over his reign, into the United States’ for medical treatment. What was expected to be a short demonstration turned into a 444-day-long hostage crisis.

Michael Metrinko (blindfolded in photo), a political officer in Iran at the time, was fooled into being at the embassy at the time of the takeover. He spent most of his fourteen months as a hostage in solitary confinement. With little faith in the U.S. government rescuing him, he did what he could to maintain sanity and stay alive, including a strenuous exercise regimen and mouthing off to his captors. continue reading »


Argentina’s Dirty War and the Transition to Democracy

Madres de la PlazaIt was one of the darkest periods in Latin American history. From 1976-1983, a brutal military junta ruled Argentina in what was called “the dirty war,” when some 10,000 persons were “disappeared” and human rights abuses were rampant. Many of the disappeared were believed to have been abducted by agents of the Argentine government during these years; the disappeared were often tortured and killed before their bodies were disposed of in rural areas or unmarked graves. In response the movement called “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” arose, wearing signs with photos and names of their children who had vanished, standing in silent protest. The junta remained in power until Argentina’s cratering economy and woefully unsuccessful attempt to seize the Falklands/Malvinas Islands from the United Kingdom further undermined any remaining shred of credibility. The military leaders, with some convincing from the U.S. and others, stepped down; the general election on October 30, 1983 — and the surprising defeat of the Peronist party — marked the return of constitutional rule. Over 85% of eligible voters participated.

continue reading »


Antarctica — Diplomats at the End of the World

South PoleAntarctica remains as mysterious as it is legendary.  Studied throughout history for its geology, climate, and resources, Antarctica’s allure is widespread.  The Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959 and went into effect in 1961, stipulates that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes and that “no new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.” To ensure compliance, all areas of Antarctica, including the bases, are open for inspection at all times. Scientists conducting research make up the majority of the temporary population. While tourism is growing, few individuals get the opportunity to visit the frozen continent, although some Foreign Service Officers are able to travel there on official business. continue reading »



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