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.

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 government tried to mock them by calling them “las locas,” the crazy ones.

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 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 »


The Unending Quest for Self-Determination in Western Sahara

PolisarioThe disputed region of Western Sahara in Northern Africa is the largest by both population and area on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories. Although Morocco has formally claimed Western Sahara since its own independence in 1957, Spain officially relinquished its administration of the territory to joint control by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. The International Court of Justice acknowledged the Saharawi’s right to self-determination, but King Hassan II of Morocco refused to give up the territory and instead led 350,000 people on a peaceful Green March across the border. Morocco then fought with Mauritania as well as a Sahrawi national movement called the Polisario Front for control of the region until Mauritania’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1979. The Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and gained support from the Soviet Union, Algeria, Cuba, and Libya. Beginning in 1981, Morocco erected a sand-berm “Moroccan Wall” to repel the Polisario’s guerilla fighters. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991. continue reading »


Ethiopian Flight 961 — The Worst Hijacking in History Before 9/11

Ethiopian-Airlines-Flight-961On November 23, 1996, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 was flying from Addis Ababa to Nairobi when the plane was hijacked by three Ethiopians. One report later described them as “young (mid-twenties), inexperienced, psychologically fragile, and intoxicated.” It would turn out to be the deadliest hijacking in history until 9/11. The men threatened to blow the plane up in flight if the pilots did not obey their demands. They declared in Amharic, French and English that if anyone tried to interfere, they had a bomb and they would use it to blow up the plane. (Authorities later determined that the purported bomb was actually a covered bottle of liquor.) When the hijackers demanded the plane be flown to Australia, where they demanded asylum, the captain tried to explain they had only enough fuel for the scheduled flight and thus could not even make a quarter of the way, but the hijackers did not believe him. continue reading »


Halt! We Want to Surrender!

panzer surrenderMay 1945 — the end of World War II. Time to drink a beer, have fun, and enjoy the countryside. But hold on — what’s that on the horizon? A Nazi Panzer division?

George Jaeger was born in Vienna, emigrated to the U.S. and became an interpreter for the U.S. Army. He later served as a Foreign Service officer. You can read about his experience with the Kindertransport, when he and thousands of other children were taken to the UK right after Kristallnacht. continue reading »


Escape from the Nazis via the Kindertransport

KindertransportKristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938 — SA forces vandalize Jewish-owned stores and synagogues. Five days later, a delegation of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appeal in person to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and ask that the British government permit the temporary admission of unaccompanied Jewish children. The British Parliament acted swiftly and ultimately allowed some 10,000 German, Polish, Czech, and Austrian Jews under 17 years of age to enter the country. The first group of nearly 200 children arrived in Harwich on December 2, just three weeks after Kristallnacht. The program, called the Kindertransport, placed children into foster homes, schools, and hostels to protect them from Nazi persecution.  Many of the children were the only ones in their families to survive World War II as many of their relatives perished in the Holocaust. George Jaeger, who later joined the Foreign Service, was one of the lucky ones. He recounts his experiences in pre-Anshcluss Vienna, how many of his relatives were sent to concentration camps, how he ended up in a landed estate in England, and his unexpectedly historic Atlantic crossing with British gold.   continue reading »


The U.S. Invades “A Little Island Called Grenada,” Part II

C33429-21APlanned in secret and executed quickly, the U.S. intervention garnered a mixed and fervent reaction. For the most part, the American public and Congress supported the invasion, mainly due to the need to evacuate the American medical students. However, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others criticized the Reagan Administration’s decision. After the U.S. defeated the Cuban and Grenadian forces, Ambassador Charles Anthony (Tony) Gillespie, Jr. led the effort to establish the first American Embassy in Grenada and restore political stability. The newly instated head of government Governor General Paul Scoon formally broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. It then fell on the United States to fly the Cubans and Soviets off the island.

continue reading »


The U.S. Invades “A Little Island Called Grenada,” Part I

grenada II.1 - Marine helicopterIn one of the smallest proxies of the Cold War, the United States, with the support of troops from other Caribbean governments, invaded the island nation of Grenada to depose its military dictator and secure the evacuation of American students in the country. Grenada had gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1974 and experienced civil unrest until Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement overthrew the government in 1979. The Bishop government attracted attention from U.S. government officials in the summer of 1983 when it began constructing the Point Salines International Airport with assistance from Cuba, Britain, and others. Although it was originally conceived by the British and Canadians in the 1950s, the U.S. suspected the large airport was being built for the use of the Soviet and Cuban military.

On October 16, 1983, Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard led his military-backed rival faction in seizing power from the Bishop government. Hudson Austin, the military leader, murdered Bishop and many of his supporters. The leaders of Barbados, Jamaica, and the members of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States expressed alarm at the crisis and sought American assistance. The U.S. was also concerned with the presence of 1,000 American medical students at St. George’s University, who were unable to evacuate Grenada. A joint force of U.S. and the Caribbean Regional Security System (RSS) troops invaded the island on October 25 in Operation Urgent Fury. The Grenada invasion would be the first U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War. continue reading »


KAL 007: A Targeted Assassination?

Helm 2On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 en route on its second leg from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul, South Korea was shot down by a Soviet interceptor aircraft into the Sea of Japan when it deviated from its intended route into Soviet territory.  The total death toll of 269 passengers included the U.S. Congressman from Georgia, Lawrence McDonald.  This act only further heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Leaving 15 minutes after KAL 007, the ‘sister flight’ KAL 015 carrying North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms, Idaho Senator Steven Symms, and Kentucky Representative, Carroll J. Hubbard, arrived in Seoul without incident. As the Political Counselor in Seoul from 1983 to 1987, Thomas P.H. Dunlop discusses finding out about the downed plane and the reaction of Senator Jesse Helms; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 1996.  Senator Helms, described by Dunlop as the ‘Cold War Senator’, thought that the downed plane was actually a targeted assassination attempt against him and demanded to leave the country on an Air Force flight immediately.   continue reading »


Leaving with Their Heads Held High – The U.S. Expulsion from Eritrea, 1977

eritrea - Kagnew stationThroughout its history, there have been numerous occasions where the United States has been forced to shut down its embassies quickly, usually because of war or because the U.S. had fallen into disfavor with the host government.  Eritrea in 1977 was one of those instances. However, with the fall of Saigon and the panicked evacuation from the embassy still fresh on people’s minds, the American staff was determined to leave with calm and dignity – and leave little parting gifts for Soviet intelligence as well.    continue reading »



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