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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.

The Panama Riots of 1964: The Beginning of the End for the Canal

Life PanamaWhen President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama in 1903, the United States gained sovereignty over the portion of the newly formed country of Panama which would become the Panama Canal, a modern-day marvel that revolutionized international shipping and solidified America as a global power. While the benefits to the U.S. were enormous, the politics surrounding the Canal and the treatment of Panamanians themselves engendered profound social repercussions that persisted for more than half a century.

On January 9,1964, grievances between native Panamanians and “Zonians”, or Americans residing within the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone, boiled over into a series of anti-American riots which resulted in an evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Panama City, widespread looting, and dozens of deaths. Most importantly, this uprising, honored annually in Panama as Martyr’s Day, eventually led to a renegotiation of the original 1903 treaty and is commonly remembered as the beginning of the end of American hegemony over the Panama Canal Zone. continue reading »


The U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands gets Addicted to Pac-Man

pac-man-feverJuly 2016 saw the explosion of the global phenomenon Pokémon Go, where people walk around town (and often into traffic or ditches) trying to catch various animated creatures that look like they are actually sitting there in front of you. (If you really do believe they are in front of you and not just on your smartphone, please seek medical attention immediately.) While many welcome this as a fun way to get out off the couch and others see it as another Sign of the Approaching Apocalypse, truth be told obsession with video games has been around at least since the 1980s and has even affected high-ranking government officials who ought to know better. continue reading »


Sputnik, The Ugly American, and the Push to Improve FSI Language Training

ugly americanIn the depths of the Cold War, the USSR in 1957 launched Sputnik,  the first satellite to orbit the earth. This had a profound effects on American society, as it both frightened Americans and undermined the notion of American exceptionalsim.

The very next year saw the publication of The Ugly American, the bestselling novel which excoriated American diplomats for their failure to understand Southeast Asian customs and language, in marked contrast to the Soviets, who were able to communicate effectively with the locals and thereby win influence. These two rather disparate events not only led to a dramatic turn towards the hard sciences in school, but also in a revamping of the Foreign Service Institute’s language programs. continue reading »


Should I Stay or Should I Go? Evacuating Liberia, 1990

1996-Escaping_thBeing caught up in violent political upheaval and forced to evacuate is among the risks of diplomatic service, as at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in 1990 in what the Marines called Operation Sharp Edge. The problems started a decade before when a group led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe staged a military coup in Liberia, toppling the government established over a century before by freed American slaves, and beginning a ten-year rule characterized by corruption, economic mismanagement and repression of political opponents. In 1983, Liberian government official Charles Taylor, charged with embezzlement, fled to the US, was arrested and imprisoned. He escaped, underwent military training and raised an army, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. It surged into Liberia in December 1989.

Taylor’s forces quickly gained control of most of the country, but then other rebel factions entered the conflict, not only because of ideological and ethnic differences but also the desire to control natural resources such as gold and diamonds. continue reading »


“The World Was Tired of Haiti”: The 1994 U.S. Intervention

Clinton & AristideThe United States found itself embroiled in several interventions in the 1990s that focused on upholding basic human rights standards and encouraging democratic regimes to flourish, from Somalia to the Balkans to America’s own backyard in the Caribbean. Despite Haiti being the second nation in the Western Hemisphere to proclaim independence, it has suffered from the beginning to establish an orderly and legitimate system of governance.

In 1991, anarchy ensued once again when the Haitian military, led by Commander-in-chief Raoul Cedras, overthrew Jean-Baptiste Aristide, a controversial yet nevertheless democratically elected President of the nation. The coup represented a decisive step backward from the overall positive trend towards democratization in the region and led many in the U.S. to call for an intervention to restore human rights and democracy.

In October 1993, the Clinton administration dispatched the USS Harlan County to prepare for the return of Aristide, but it was met at the pier in Port-au-Prince by a mob of Haitians, appearing to threaten violence. continue reading »


Sports Boycotts

sports boycott 5Sport has often been used throughout history as a political tool. In particular, sport boycotts have been effective measures for countries to express disdain and condemnation for the actions of another. In the last half of the 20th Century, the more famous boycotts were imposed as a response to apartheid policies in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s; the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow; and the subsequent quid pro quo boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

During apartheid, South Africa was boycotted from several international sports competitions, dating from the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. This ban lasted until 1992, when South Africa was welcomed back at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. In 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and killed President Hafizullah Amin, President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The full-court diplomatic press resulted in only 80 countries participating. continue reading »


The U.S. Returns Okinawa to Japan, 1971

okinawaparadecoverIn 1945, towards the end of World War II, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps invaded Okinawa with 185,000 troops; a third of the civilian population was killed. After the war, Okinawa became a de facto trustee of the U.S. government, which established several military bases there and on other Ryukyu islands. In addition, the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands altered the currency and culture of the region, causing tensions between native Ryukyuans and U.S. officials.

In 1960 the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed, which stipulated that the U.S. would come to Japan’s aid should it be attacked. In turn, the Japanese allowed more access to base and ports for the U.S., provided that the U.S. government confer with the Japanese regarding any significant military action. The treaty was up for renewal in 1970. However, in the years preceding renewal, Japanese officials began to pressure the United States to return the Ryukyu Islands to Japan. The possibility that the Japanese might not renew the Security Treaty if the reversion was not addressed gave Tokyo additional leverage and made the Ryukyu Islands a pressing issue for Washington. continue reading »


It’s Feng Shui or the Highway: Building the Chinese Embassy in Washington with I. M. Pei

Feng-ShuiUsesFeng shui seeks to promote prosperity, good health, and general well-being by examining how energy, qi, (pronounced “chee”), flows through a particular room, house, building, or garden. Feng means “wind” and “shui” means water; in Chinese culture, wind and water are associated with good health so that good feng shui means good fortune, and bad feng shui means bad luck.

Micheal Boorstein served as the Director of the Beijing Program Office from 1999-2000 in the State Department’s Foreign Buildings Office and oversaw the construction of China’s embassy in Washington, DC. Boorstein describes his experience with bad feng shui and the renowned architect I.M. Pei in his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, which began in September 2005.

 

 

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Martinis, Carpets and Sacks of Gold: A U.S. Diplomat in French Tunisia

Bab_Bhar_(Porte_de_France)_-_Tunis_-_Tunisia_-_1899Tunisia achieved independence from France after almost 75 years as a protectorate. Life under French rule was pleasant for some, including foreign diplomats. The number of French colonists grew, ultimately occupying one-fifth of the arable land of Tunisia, and the French directed the building of roads, ports and railroads, and the development of mines. But resentment against the European colonizers became apparent soon after the turn of the twentieth century. By 1911, Tunisian nationalist sentiment led to civil disturbances within the universities, building to massive demonstrations and only subsiding with the imposition of martial law.

After World War I, Tunisians seeking self-rule established political parties, and following World War II, the nationalist struggle intensified with violent resistance. France granted independence to Tunisia on March 20, 1956, establishing a constitutional monarchy. The following year, Prime Minister Habib Bourguiba abolished the monarchy, took power, and would dominate the country for the next 31 years.

Joseph Walter Neubert shared some of the lighter aspects of his experience as an Economic Officer in Tunis between 1949-1952, prior to the Tunisia’s independence.  He completed his memoir in 2007. continue reading »


From Russia with Love and Back Again: Rostropovich’s Exile and Return

220px-RIAN_archive_438589_Mstislav_RostropovichMstislav Rostropovich, considered one of the greatest cellists of the twentieth century, was born in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in 1927. Graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, Rostropovich quickly established himself as the preeminent concert cellist in the USSR, collaborating with composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten. In 1955 he married Galina Vishnevskaya, a soprano at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Though he was immensely popular as a musician, Rostropovich’s outspoken political views and support of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents prompted the Soviet government to restrict his foreign travel and performances within the Soviet Union.

In 1974, while in France for a series of performances, Rostropovich requested permission from his government to travel to New York for a concert at Lincoln Center. The musician made the trip west with his family despite his government’s refusal, and his Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978. In 1990, as Mikhail Gorbachev worked to reform the USSR, Rostropovich returned to Moscow as conductor of the U.S. National Symphony Orchestra for a series of performances, and in that year his Soviet citizenship was restored.  He died in Russia in 2007. continue reading »