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.

Suicide Bombers and the Rapper M.I.A. — The Sad Legacy of the Sri Lankan Civil War

sri lanka conflictArtistic inspiration, such as it is, can come from the most unexpected of places. Case in point, Grammy-nominated one-hit wonder rapper M.I.A. (2007’s “Paper Planes”), who fills many of her songs with references to the violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Her father, Arul Pragasam, founded the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a political Tamil group affiliated with — and later absorbed by — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990 during the civil war in Sri Lanka. The LTTE would gain worldwide notoriety as the innovators of suicide bombing vests.  continue reading »

Dissension, Tension and Succession in the House of Saud

In 1932, Saudi Arabia was established by King Abd al-Aziz and has been ruled by the Saud clan ever since. On the demise of the King, the Crown Prince assumes the throne, with a new Crown Prince traditionally appointed among the sons of Ibn Saud. However, sometimes things don’t go so smoothly. In 1954 the eldest brother, Saud, became King but it soon became apparent that he was unfit to serve. However, he did not want to go willingly, which led to considerable friction in the royal family. In 1964, after years of palace intrigue, Crown Prince Faisal was officially named King of Saudi Arabia, as Saud was sent into exile. continue reading »

A Conflict in El Salvador

El Salvador death squadCentral America in the 1980s became a proxy battleground as the United States supported right-wing leaders against leftist socialist guerrillas who, in turn, were usually funded by the Soviet Union, Cuba and others.  In El Salvador, the struggle for power took an ugly turn when  Archbishop Óscar Romero, who had openly pleaded for the government and military to end the violence and who was seen as the “voice of the voiceless” to many Salvadorans, was gunned down while celebrating mass in a small chapel in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Many people, including U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, believed the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government was responsible.

Later that same year on December 2, three American Catholic nuns and one lay missionary (Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel) were kidnapped, raped, and murdered, their vehicle found burning twenty miles away. White and most Salvadorans again suspected the government’s death squads. However, many in the Reagan administration believed that the attack could have been staged to blame the military or that higher-ups were unable to control subordinates who acted on their own. This led to a confrontation between Washington and Ambassador White, who was convinced the Salvadoran military and government were lying. He was eventually recalled, by order of Secretary of State Alexander Haig and when he was not given a suitable onward assignment, he resigned from the Foreign Service, but only after doing a critical interview on 60 Minutes.     continue reading »

Evacuating Uganda — With Style

Idi AminFrom 1971-1979, Uganda was under the control of the mercurial Idi Amin, one of the most brutal military dictators ever to rule in Africa. Towards the end of 1973 it became clear that the United States could no longer maintain its embassy in Kampala and would have to shut it down. Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Keeley discusses the intense negotiations he had with the West German ambassador for that country to become a protecting power of the U.S. embassy property; how their attempts to keep plans to evacuate quiet were undermined and how Keeley was lampooned  in the Ugandan media; how Amin murdered his own foreign minister; and Keeley’s eventual departure from Kampala in a tux and the hero’s welcome he received at the Marine Ball in Nairobi. continue reading »

A Dream Deferred

Haun-JusticeWhat happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

                                                                       Or does it explode?

                                                                                    — Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” 1951 continue reading »

Horrible Bosses

horrible-bossesAfter years of serving in Africa, you finally  get a nice cushy assignment at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, with your own staff, a large budget, a fancy title, and you don’t even have to worry about the regular office bureaucracy. It should be a dream job. Except your boss is a former used tire salesman who despises the UN and hates the Foreign Service. And because this is your last assignment and you know you don’t have a chance for promotion, you don’t feel at all constrained in letting your feelings known, as undiplomatic as they may be. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy tour…  continue reading »

Dark Times in the City of Lights

terror in parisParis is one of the most beautiful and glamorous places in the world. But like most urban centers, it also has a dark side, as shown yet again by the horrifying assault on the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent kidnappings. In these excerpts, Foreign Service officers recall the violent, disturbing time of the 1980s, when Paris – and the U.S. Embassy in particular – were the target of a string of attacks, usually orchestrated by Middle East terrorist groups. It made Paris “the most dangerous assignment I’ve ever had,” in the words of one FSO. In the span of just a few short years, there was an attempted bombing of the embassy, a terrorist explosion on the street where one official lived, an attack against two other officials, and the assassination of a military attache.

continue reading »

The Queen of Thailand Deep in the Heart of Texas

There are many hallmarks of a good diplomat — the ability to understand foreign cultures, communications skills, flexibility, the ability to think on one’s feet. One usually thinks of such skills being used in negotiations on peace accords or bilateral treaties and not with what amounts to a high-level sales trip to Nieman Marcus. However, that is precisely the situation Richard Howland found himself in when, as the Thailand desk officer, he got involved with Queen Sirikit’s 1981 trip to the United States, which focused on selling Thai silk to places like Texas. No matter the amount of advanced planning, some things are bound to go wrong, like the unexpected guests who showed up at the Marcus residence, the toasts that ran counter to protocol, and the sudden request for a plane. And that doesn’t even touch on the late-night dancing at the world’s largest honky tonk, the ineffectual Thai ambassador, or the childrearing advice for the wayward Crown Prince.  continue reading »

A Crown for Hungary

CrownFor centuries, it was the national symbol of a nation. For decades, it was kept in Fort Knox for safekeeping. The Crown of Saint Stephen dates back to the year 1000, when Stephen, a devout Christian and the patron saint of Hungary, became King and Pope Sylvester II gave him the crown as a gift. From the twelfth century onward, the Crown of Saint Stephen was used in the coronations of some fifty kings. At the end of World War II, the Hungarian crown jewels, along with the Crown, were eventually given to the United States Army by the Hungarian Crown Guard to keep them out of the hands of the Soviet Union. The Crown was kept at held Fort Knox, Kentucky alongside the bulk of America’s gold reserves and other priceless historical items.

President Jimmy Carter made the controversial decision to give the crown back to Hungary based on evidence that it had improved its human rights record and allowed for travel of its citizens. On Epiphany, January 6, 1978, a U.S. delegation led by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and including Senator Adlai Stevenson, Congressman Lee Hamilton, and Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi, returned the crown to Hungary. continue reading »

The Afghan Invasion as Seen from U.S. Embassy Moscow

moscow-opening-ceremony-aaasz035cio-gaThe Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was, among other things, a horrible political miscalculation, lasting nine bloody years and resulting in the death of some one million civilians as well as forcing millions of others to flee the country. It led to another cold spell in U.S.-Soviet relations as the Carter administration responded by boycotting the USSR’s pride and joy, the 1980 Summer Olympics, and lobbied other countries to do likewise.  continue reading »

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