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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.

You Know a Coup is Coming but No One will Listen: Sudan 1964

640x392_48883_134104Sudan’s long history has been riddled with internal conflict. The United Kingdom and Egypt controlled Sudan for the first half of the twentieth century, then agreed to cede it self-government in 1953. In December 1955, the premier of Sudan declared unilateral independence. The newly independent Republic swiftly fell into a pattern of civil wars, coups d’état, ethnic conflict, and government instability that continues to affect the region today.

The government that formed in 1956 led by Prime Minister Ismail al-Azhari was short-lived, soon to be replaced by a fractious and ineffectual coalition of conservative leaders. In 1958, the forces of Lieutenant General Ibrahim Abboud overthrew the parliamentary regime in a bloodless coup. Abboud worked to improve Sudan’s economy and foreign relations but did not return the country to civilian rule. Resentment over repressive domestic policies began to build, especially among non-Arab ethnic groups in the south and student activists, leading to riots and strikes. continue reading »


Foreign Service Newly-Weds in 1960s Yemen

0077f0acc240d4bec284e342af14a847Since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen was been a hot spot for unrest in the Middle East. The 1960s saw instability and hostile relations between the socialist South Yemen and the authoritarian Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), also known as North Yemen. The YAR was in the midst of a bloody civil war that would rage for the majority of the decade and would draw Saudi Arabia and Nasser’s Egypt into one of the region’s intractable conflicts. Even today, Yemen continues to be ravaged by internal conflicts with regional partners using the nation as a battlefield to promote their interests in and influence over the Middle East.

The United States recognized the YAR when they deposed King and Imam Muhammad al-Badr who had only risen to the throne the week prior following his father’s death. However, as the fighting continued to tear across the country and the Egyptian military, who at that time were the guarantors of the YAR’s fight against the royalist factions, took increasingly provocative acts against Americans in Yemen, the U.S. Secretary of State made the decision to close its embassy in Sana’a in 1967. The city was captured by republican rebels later that year.

David and Marjorie Ransom were newlywed Foreign Service Officers who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Taiz, Yemen from 1966 until its closure in 1967. David Ransom also served in Tehran, Beirut, Jeddah, the Department of State, Abu Dhabi, the Department of Defense, Damascus, finishing off his thirty two-year career as the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain. Marjorie Ransom served in Amman, Mumbai, Tehran, Beirut,  Abu Dhabi, Damascus, and Cairo over a period of thirty eight years. continue reading »


Guns, Oil and Education: Qatar’s Evolving Relationship with the U.S.

12The State of Qatar declared independence from Great Britain on September 3, 1971 and the U.S. recognized it two days later, establishing diplomatic relations in March 1972. The American Embassy in Doha was launched the following year, and the first resident U.S. Ambassador to Qatar presented his credentials in August 1974. The relationship has developed over the decades, especially in the defense sector. Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command Forward Headquarters and has supported North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. military operations in the Arabian Peninsula area.

Bilateral relations are strengthened by person-to-person exchanges and economic interests. Hundreds of Qataris come to the U.S. for university study and six U.S. universities have branch campuses in Doha: Texas A&M, Cornell, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Commonwealth and Northwestern. On the economic side, the U.S. is Qatar’s largest foreign investor and source of imports. One hundred and twenty U.S companies have offices in Qatar, particularly in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors. The two countries signed a trade and investment framework agreement in 2016, and Qatar announced a plan to invest $45 billion of its sovereign wealth fund in the United States within five years. continue reading »


Intelligence, Research, God and Country: a Tour in INR

Schaffer-200x300Teresita Schaffer enjoyed an illustrious 30-year career in the Foreign Service, developing a reputation as a leading expert on South Asia and international economics. She served in embassies in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh and as U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 1992-1995. After a first tour in Israel, Ms. Schaffer returned to Washington to work as the Israel analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) from 1969 to 1971. While at INR, she also had a chance to gain experience as a public speaker at U.S. colleges.

Secretary of State George Marshall established INR in 1947, making it the oldest civilian intelligence element in the U.S. Government. INR analysts draw on a myriad of sources to provide an independent analysis of world events of interest to State Department policymakers. The Bureau of Intelligence and Research ensures that U.S. intelligence activities support foreign policy and national security purposes, and, among other responsibilities, analyzes geographical and international boundary issues. continue reading »


 The Afghan Revolution of 1978: Invitation to Invasion

sn070802-Coalition-Forces-Afghanistan019Afghanistan has had a long history of living under foreign rule. Once a protectorate of the British Empire, Afghanistan became fully independent in 1919, but its vulnerable monarchy led by King Zahir Shah was unable to unite the country’s many ancestral tribes into a central government. This set up the conditions for internal political instability. The monarchy came to an end in 1973 when Zahir Shah’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, led a bloodless coup against the king, declared himself president and foreign minister and established a secular republic.

President Daoud’s own rule came to a violent end on April 27, 1978 in what was known as the Saur Revolution when pro-Communist rebels stormed the palace in Kabul and killed him and his family. The ensuring domestic turmoil encouraged foreign intervention, and the Soviets invaded the following year.

Kenneth Yates, an information officer for the United States Information Agency (USIA), the public affairs branch of the U.S. foreign affairs community, describes the events of the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan. The local offices are referred to as the “United States Information Service” (USIS). continue reading »


To be Young, Rich and Ambassador to Paris in the ’50s

tower at sinriseC. Douglas Dillon was a politician and diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to France in the critical post World War II period, 1953-1957, and later as Under Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary. Son of a wealthy investment banker, Dillon graduated from Groton and Harvard, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, returning to become president of his father’s Wall Street firm. He doubled its investments in six years. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed C. Douglas Dillon to be Ambassador to France.

It was an exciting time to be in Paris. The city was undergoing massive reconstruction following the war. Christian Dior was reestablishing Parisian influence on world fashion, and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus forged new forms of literature. But there was still wide-spread poverty, trauma from the war and pressure from the Soviet Union. During his tenure as ambassador, Ambassador Dillon had to contend with French backlash against the U.S. execution of convicted espionage conspirators Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, antagonism against the U.S. in response to the encroachment of communism, and rising Cold War tensions. continue reading »


Wait ‘til the Winter: Iran, Iraq and the Kurdish Rebellion

peshmerga soldier

Iraqi Kurds are scheduled to hold a referendum on independence in September, 2017. The Kurdistan region of about five million people already has a great deal of autonomy, with its own parliament and armed forces, but relations with the central Iraqi government have become increasingly strained in recent years. This latest development tracks with a prolonged history of conflict between the Iraqi region of Kurdistan and Baghdad.

The Kurdish people have sought autonomy in northern Iraq for decades, conducting military operations against successive Iraqi regimes from 1960 to 1975. In March 1970, Iraq announced a peace plan that would provide for autonomy to be implemented in four years, but the negotiations failed. In 1974 the Iraqi government launched a new offensive against the Kurds, pushing them close to the border with Iran. Kurdish rebel forces which had fought against each other for supremacy, including the Popular Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Tabalani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mustafa Barzani, united in trying to drive out Saddam Hussein’s army.

Iran and the United States were giving clandestine material support to the Kurdish rebels. But as the fighting intensified, Iraq made a deal with Iran: in exchange for Iran ending its support of the Iraqi Kurds, Iraq transferred strategic territory to Iran. Ultimately the Kurdish militias collapsed and Iraqi troops regained control of northern Iraq. Barzani and most of the KDP leadership fled to Iran.

continue reading »


CNN, Tanks, and Glass Walls: The August 1991 Coup

untitledIn August of 1991, hard-liners opposed to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a coup attempt to overthrow him. The rebellion occurred in part because of financial strife as the Soviet Union transformed quickly from a statist to a market-based economy. Long lines formed for essential goods including medicine and fuel, and grocery shelves were empty. Inflation rates rocketed upward as the winter approached, leading to factories lacking the funds to pay their employees. The economic crisis reflected badly on Gorbachev’s leadership and encouraged resistance to the regime.

The coup was led by members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). They held Gorbachev at his country home, demanding that he either resign or declare a state of emergency. However, following heavy civil resistance, the coup attempt ended unsuccessfully a few days after it began.

Although the takeover ultimately failed, the attempt signaled an end to the Soviet era and contributed to the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991. It also led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, who played a pivotal role in opposing the coup from Moscow. While the rebellion ended with little bloodshed, it raised anxiety among those who experienced it first-hand, many of whom feared a rise in violence and a return to hard-line Communism.

continue reading »


The Lion King of Swaziland

king sobhuzaKing Sobhuza II was proclaimed King of Swaziland at the age of four months and would rule for 83 years, becoming the world’s longest-reigning monarch. His grandmother, with help from his uncle, acted as regent of Swaziland until his coronation in December 1921, when his name was changed to Ngwenyama, which means “The Lion.” Sobhuza’s leadership and stature were key to Swaziland’s gaining independence from British administration and in resisting the incorporation of the small landlocked country into the Union of South Africa.

In 1922, Sobhuza challenged the 1907 partition of the Swazi lands by the British High Commissioner, traveling to Britain with a Swazi delegation to meet with King George V and petitioning him to restore the lands to the Swazi people. King George refused, but after 15 years of entreaties agreed to help Sobhuza acquire land from white owners and return it to Swazi occupation. Swaziland remained a Protected State until regaining full sovereignty on September 6, 1968.

During King Sobhuza’s reign, Swaziland was an African success story, a model of political and economic stability. He supported foreign investment and management of the mineral-rich country, hoping that such economic development would benefit his own people, most of whom were living in rural poverty. continue reading »


The Rough Road to Moscow for Malcolm Toon  

28toon-obit-2-master180Malcolm Toon was a fluent Russian speaker and one of the State Department’s top experts on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He was ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Israel, and the Soviet Union. Toon was characterized in The New York Times in 1978 as “one of the most influential of the postwar ambassadors in shaping the policy of the United States toward the Soviet Union.”  On May 1, 2017 The New York Times published an article referencing Toon’s death in 2009, titled “Malcolm Toon Made Waves as a Diplomat, but His Death Went Largely Unreported.”

Outspoken and opinionated, while serving as an ambassador Toon had direct access to several Secretaries of State and met with the President. According to Toon, Henry Kissinger asked him to serve in Tel Aviv because he wanted “a tough-minded S.O.B.” in Israel as ambassador in order to put the Israelis in their place.

The son of Scottish immigrants, Toon grew up in Scotland and the United States, graduated from Tufts, and was accepted into the Foreign Service but delayed joining the State Department to enlist in the Navy where he captained a PT Boat during WWII in the South Pacific. continue reading »