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.

We Don’t Give a Dam — The Feud Over Financing the Aswan High Dam

aswan dam constructionEgypt’s agriculture has always depended on the water of the Nile; the river’s perennial floods, while critical in replenishing the fertile soil, constantly threatened to wash away a season’s harvest. The Aswan High Dam was built to regulate the river’s flooding as well as to create hydroelectric power and a reservoir for irrigation. Its planning and financing in the 1950s played a major role in American-Egyptian diplomatic relations, and was in part responsible for precipitating the Suez Crisis in 1956. (Photo: Corbis)

Following the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952, new president Gamal Abdel Nasser viewed a new, larger dam as politically and economically vital for Egypt. The United States, looking to counter Soviet influence in the Middle East, offered to finance the construction of a dam as well as provide arms shipments to Egypt, on the condition that the weapons be used only defensively and that the U.S. supervise all training. continue reading »


Getting on the Seoul Train — The 1988 Summer Olympic Games

1988_Summer_Olympics_logo.svgThe Olympic Games represent the height of sporting diplomacy, with thousands of athletes transcending politics for two weeks as they represent their countries on the world stage. While the athletic spectacles entrance and amaze on television, without the behind-the-scenes political efforts and negotiations, there would be no Olympic Games. For many countries, hosting the Olympics is an opportunity to show the world its culture, hospitality, and innovation. The 1988 Summer Games served as just such an opportunity for South Korea, as they gave the world a preview of South Korea’s impending economic boom, as the country moved alongside Japan to become a leader in technological development.

Moreover, the 1980 and 1984 summer Olympic Games, held in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively, were marred by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent boycotts.By 1988, there were no such issues and Seoul had one of the highest participation rates to date, with 159 countries and 8400 athletes attending. It also marked the swan song for Olympics powers the USSR and East Germany. as both ceased to exist before the next Olympic Games. continue reading »


The Day the Fountain Ran Dry: An Indian Duck Tale

SetWidth350-duckling-trio-mallards1As a Foreign Service Officer serving abroad, it is natural to become close friends with the colleagues with whom you share embassy offices; in many cases, they get to be like your family away from home. In the same way, any creatures which happen to be resident in diplomatic spaces become like family pets. As with every family, there are those who like animals and those who do not. It follows that if something happens to those creatures, there is bound to be trouble. Such was the case with the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, where jobs were nearly lost, ducks were kicked and ambassadors were insulted.

Former Ambassador to India William Clark Jr. (1989-1992) recounts the time when resident ducks were forced to depart the premises of the embassy. He was interviewed by Thomas Stern in January 1994. continue reading »


What Have I Gotten Myself Into? Tales from Rough First Tours

worried-faceLife in the Foreign Service certainly has its advantages – working in often exotic locales, meeting fascinating people, being a part of important, sometimes historical, events. But, like other glamorous jobs, it has its drawbacks, not the least of which come with the drudgery of first and sometimes second tours, where most FSOs end up doing thankless consular work or drafting tedious reports.

Theresa A. Loar discusses the challenges of entering the Foreign Service as a first-tour consular officer in Mexico City in 1986 and how, despite feeling that her work was unsatisfying, the tour became unexpectedly dramatic. Loar was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2001.

Albert Thibault describes his challenging first tour in Conakry, Guinea as a Political/Economic Officer between 1969 and 1971 when the Portuguese invaded Guinea in an attempt to overthrow the Guinea government. He was by interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2005. continue reading »


Who Let the Dogs Out? – A Pet Evacuation from Kinshasa

dog in a jungleDear Fido,

If you’re reading this, we’ve been evacuated (and you learned how to read!…). But don’t worry ol’ pal! I’ll send for you as soon as I can. I left one of each sock behind, so it’ll be like nothing changed. Food is in the pantry and water’s in the toilet. Call for Lassie if you need anything. See you again real soon, buddy!

In 1991, Ambassador Melissa F. Wells was faced with overseeing the kind of operation not normally covered during training — a full-scale evacuation of diplomatic pets from Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).   continue reading »


Alexander Haig’s Fall from Grace

Alexander Haig IIA highly decorated military leader and influential political figure, Alexander Haig’s career, which included such roles as Supreme Allied Commander to Europe (SACEUR) and Chief of Staff to Presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, culminated with his appointment as President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State on January 22, 1981. As White House staff and Department of State personnel quickly discovered, however, Haig’s wealth of experience did not prepare him for smooth sailing in Washington or abroad.

Haig’s brash leadership style was met with growing frustration from within the administration.  During his one-and-a-half-year stint as Secretary of State, Haig’s approach toward Israel during the Lebanon War of 1982 and the developing dialogue between China and Taiwan over the One-China policy and arms sales helped to seal his fate. After repeated clashes with his colleagues over his operating style, Haig submitted his resignation on June 25, 1982 and was replaced by George Shultz less than a month later. continue reading »


The Chile Burn Victims Case: Containment vs. Human Rights under Pinochet

RODRIRODEDuring a 1986 protest in Santiago, Chile against the human rights abuses of Augusto Pinochet’s regime, teenagers setting up barricades were arrested by a military patrol. What happened next to Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri (seen right) and Carmen Quintana is a matter of dispute, but in the end, Rojas was dead and Quintana severely burned. An official Chilean report claimed that Rojas, an American legal resident, and Quintana, an engineering student at the University of Santiago, were carrying Molotov cocktails which broke, setting them on fire.

Quintana maintains that both were brutally beaten by the army patrol, soaked with gasoline, set on fire and dumped in a ditch. Rojas died of his burns and injuries. In 2015, seven Chilean army officers were charged in connection with the killing of the 19-year old Rojas and attempted homicide of the 18-year old Quintana.

Chile was in a state of political upheaval during this era. Mass protests demanding democratic reforms were commonplace and many erupted into violence. The U.S.-Chile relationship was strained. continue reading »


Cleaning up America’s Backyard: The Overthrow of Guatemala’s Arbenz

3333The Central Intelligence Agency launched a covert operation on June 18, 1954 to overthrow the left-leaning government in Guatemala. The coup, code-named Operation PBSUCCESS, deposed Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz Guzman, ended the Guatemalan Revolution and installed the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. Armas would be the first in a series of U.S.-backed strongmen to rule Guatemala.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the CIA to carry out Operation PBSUCCESS in response to growing concerns over the spread of Communism in what was considered “America’s backyard.” Árbenz permitted the Guatemalan Communist Party to operate openly and his land reform program threatened U.S. commercial interests, in particular those of the United Fruit Company. continue reading »


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 »



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