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.

Politics, Pinatubo and the Pentagon: The Closure of Subic Bay

Mount Pinatubo IIThe closure of Naval Base Subic Bay, the U.S. Navy’s massive ship-repair, supply, and rest and recreation facility in the Philippines, was prompted by both political and geological unrest. Once the second largest U.S. overseas military installation in the world, it was acquired by the U.S. in the 1898 Treaty Of Paris and because of its strategic location, played a key role in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and Operation Desert Storm. But with the departure of President Ferdinand Marcos and the rise of the People Power Revolution, the operation of the bases by U.S. forces was increasingly seen as incompatible with Filipino nationalism.

The political turmoil was complicated by the June 15, 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. The second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, it produced high-speed avalanches of hot ash and gas, giant mud flows, and a cloud of volcanic ash. The U.S. Air Force evacuated and closed down Clark Air Base. Naval Base Subic Bay was also evacuated but less badly damaged and operations resumed. On September 13, 1991, the Filipino Senate voted to reject a lease extension on the bases, ending almost a century of American military presence.  The closing required the relocation of 5,800 military personnel, 600 civilians and 6,000 military dependents, and resulted in a major economic loss for the Southeast Asian island nation.  continue reading »

Roaring through the Riots of Libreville

bongo_omarOmar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, one the longest-serving rulers in history, opened his newly-independent country’s political system to multiple party participation in the wake of destructive riots in May 1990. As a young man, he held key positions in the government of first President Léon M’ba, was elected Vice President in 1966 and became Gabon’s second president when M’ba died. Bongo served as president of the small sub-Saharan African country for 42 years, from 1967 until his own death in June 2009.

Gabon was prosperous under his rule thanks to a huge resource of oil and a small population, but the millions went to the coffers of Bongo’s family and friends rather than to improve the health conditions of the population or infrastructure of the nation. Although Gabon had one of the highest levels of GDP growth in Africa, it also had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world under Bongo’s rule. continue reading »

The Battle to Create the Foreign Service Institute

FSIThe art of diplomatic relations and negotiations is as old as civilization itself. However, the State Department did not have any formal training facility until the Consular School of Application was founded in 1907. Then came the Wilson Diplomatic School (1909), the Foreign Service School (1924), the Foreign Service Officer’ Training School (1931) and the Division of Training Services (1945). By the mid-1940s, the need for an enhanced and permanent Foreign Service training center became apparent. As a result, Secretary of State George Marshall announced the establishment of the Foreign Service Institute under the authorization of the Foreign Service Act on March 13, 1947. FSI consists of five schools: Leadership and Management, Language Studies, Professional and Area Studies, Applied Information Technology, and the Transition Center.

For years, FSI occupied two increasingly inadequate high-rise office buildings in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Foggy Bottom. continue reading »

Trouble in Chiapas: The Zapatista Revolt

Economic development in Mexico has been uneven for generations, as some blamed the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for exacerbating the nation’s income disparity and leaving southern states like Chiapas behind. Dissatisfaction with the government’s economic policies and growing resentment regarding its indifference toward Chiapas eventually led to an all-out revolt in the state. On January 1st, 1994, the day that NAFTA took effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a revolutionary leftist guerrilla group, went public and began occupying several areas inside Chiapas.

The Zapatistas and their primary spokesman, a mysterious, pipe-smoking figure known as Subcomandante Marcos, quickly gained international attention. News teams swiftly descended upon Chiapas to document the revolt, anxiously awaiting Mexico City’s response. The rebels claimed several early victories, including the capture of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a prominent religious center, but counterattacks launched by the Mexican Army drove the Zapatistas into remote areas of the Lacandon Forest before the government called a truce less than two weeks later, on January 12. continue reading »

Naming Names: U.S. Embassy Jakarta and Indonesian Purges 1965-1966

generalsuhartoAn article by an American reporter alleged that the U.S. embassy in Jakarta played a role in the Indonesian massacres of 1965-1966 by supplying a list of known communists to Major General Suharto (seen right), whose forces then hunted them down and killed them. The violence began when Communist forces killed six of Indonesia’s senior army officers on October 1, 1965. In response, army forces under the command of Suharto began a campaign to rid Indonesia of the communist party (Partai Komunis Indonesia or PKI) and other leftist organizations. The purges and ensuing civil war left an estimated half-million people dead. President Sukarno remained in power for six more months before being ousted by Suharto.

In her May 19, 1990 article “Ex-agents say CIA compiled death lists for Indonesians,” Kathy Kadane of States News Service asserted, “U.S. officials acknowledge that in 1965 they systematically compiled comprehensive lists of Communist operatives, from top echelons down to village cadres. As many as 5,000 names were furnished to the Indonesian army, and the Americans later checked off the names of those who had been killed or captured.” The article, published in The Washington Post and other dailies, was refuted by New York Times reporter Michael Wines, who examined transcripts of Kadane’s interviews for inconsistencies and spoke to her sources. continue reading »

Beijing Spring and the Lead-up to Tiananmen Square

behind-the-scenes-images-tell-the-story-of-the-iconic-tiananmen-square-tank-man-photo-taken-26-years-ago-todayThe iconic image of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and brutal government crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators is that of the “Tank Man,” the unarmed citizen who, carrying nothing but shopping bags, peacefully blocked the path of tanks sent by the Chinese government to assert control in the days after the crackdown. While the image may lead one to believe that the demonstrations were a short-lived event, in reality the crackdown on June 4, 1989 was the culmination of nearly two months of peaceful protests calling for an end to corruption within the Chinese Communist Party.

The protests began as student-led demonstrations in the aftermath of the death of former General Secretary of the Communist Party Hu Yaobang, considered to be a reformer, who had been deposed by the more hardline elements within the Party leadership. continue reading »

A Front Row Seat to the 1975 Coup d’Etat in Chad

c4f97493d3e59876cdb2f1f7f96f0689Throughout the 1970s, trouble was brewing in Chad. President François (N’Garta) Tombalbaye was the first president of Chad following its independence from France in 1960. His authoritarian regime became increasingly distrustful of and alienated from Chad’s military and Tombalbaye had jailed several prominent commanders. An insurgency in the north led by the Libyan-armed FROLINAT [National Liberation Front of Chad] guerilla group underlined the frustrations of the northern population with the regime. At the same time, a drought had set in and wheat crops were failing, beginning a long famine across many Saharan countries and increasing the political unrest.

All this led to a coup d’état on April 13, 1975 that violently deposed Tombalbaye. General Felix Malloum seized control of the state and took over as head of a seven-member junta. The coup left many issues unaddressed and their lack of resolution led to more conflict. Years of power struggles ensued. continue reading »

Death of an AUB President and Father of a Future NBA Coach

Malcolm KerrHe was a brilliant scholar who focused on the Middle East and whose books were widely read by Arabists. His son Steve would later play for the NBA champion Chicago Bulls and then become coach of the Golden State Warriors and lead them to a championship in 2015 and break the record for most wins in a regular season in 2016. Malcolm Kerr grew up in Lebanon, on and near the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB), where his parents taught for forty years. He returned to the U.S. and went graduated from high school at the Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and later got his Bachelor’s from Princeton.

After teaching at UCLA, he moved to Cairo and in 1965 published his book The Arab Cold War. He became President of AUB in 1982, in the midst of the Lebanon Civil War.  U.S. Ambassador Frank Meloy and Economic Counselor Robert Waring were assassinated in 1976.  U.S. Embassy Beirut was bombed in 1983 and the Marine Corps barracks were attacked just a few months later. Sadly, Kerr would also become a victim to the violence:  On January 18, 1984, he was shot and killed by two gunmen outside his office. He was 52. continue reading »

I, Spy?  Diplomatic Adventures during Soviet-American Détente    

kgb-bannerAmong the challenges of serving as a U.S. diplomat in the USSR during the Cold War years of 1945 to 1991 were the certain knowledge that one’s words and actions were being monitored and reported back to the host – and often hostile – government. Intelligence gathering was carried out by both sides to learn about the other’s intentions, technological advances and military capabilities.  Diplomats served under restrictions in terms of the people they could meet and the places they could go, and U.S. officers knew that wherever they went, agents from the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security) would surely follow.

James E. Taylor and his wife Louise Pfender Taylor were U.S. diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union from 1974-1976. They experienced the KGB’s watchful eyes during their tenure, realized their apartment was bugged and were mistaken as being spies themselves by a grievously disappointed Russian contact.   continue reading »

“Austria is Free!” Part II — Negotiating with the Soviets

Figl-Presents-TreatyFor several years since the end of World War II, the U.S., UK and France had done what they could to support war-torn Austria economically and promote fledgling democratic institutions. Efforts to negotiate a treaty which would grant Austria its full independence and allow the withdrawal of the Four Powers were continuously blocked by the USSR, which was actively plundering the small country. Things changed dramatically in March 1953, with Stalin’s death and Moscow’s desire for detente with the West.

However, negotiations of this magnitude, especially with an adversary like the USSR, are fraught with tension even under the best of circumstances. The U.S. side had to sit it out and make sure it did not give in to Soviet tactics. continue reading »

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