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.

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.

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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.

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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 »


A Day of Mixed Messages over Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait

kuwait-invasionIn 1991, the U.S. led a coalition of over 30 nations to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait after Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion and annexation of the small oil-rich country. Although the invasion caught many throughout the world by surprise, those who had worked in the Middle East had been seeing tensions rise for some time. In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq was devastated economically and owed its Gulf Arab neighbors a tremendous amount of debt, which they refused to waive or lower.

Iraq also had complaints about its lack of access to the sea and demanded that Kuwait cede two islands in the nether part of the Tigris Basin. Coinciding with the end of the war, the very same Gulf neighbors to whom Iraq owed money began to substantially increase their oil output, thereby driving down the price of Iraq’s main foreign-currency earner at a time when it needed every petro-dollar. Baghdad even accused Kuwait of stealing oil from an Iraqi oilfield near the border by slant drilling.

During this time, the U.S. worked to mediate and maintain peace in the region. Diplomats from Iraq and Kuwait were often in touch with the State Department hoping for a solution to the growing friction between the two countries, but none was found. In fact, mixed signals sent by the Administration in Washington to Iraq and a lack of communication with the American embassy in Baghdad gave Saddam the impression that he could use his military might without repercussions from the U.S. Such events, coupled with Saddam’s paranoid nature and fragile temper, led to the invasion and annexation of his southern neighbor on August 2, 1990. continue reading »


Warming to the New Administration at the State Department, 1980-1981

Reagan_and_CarterAdministration transitions, during which power over the federal executive branch is transferred from the sitting president to the president-elect, can be stressful for federal personnel. During the weeks between Election Day and inauguration day, there can be changes in policy, staff and budgets, and the new administration needs to learn about the work of the executive branch. The transition from former President Jimmy Carter to incoming President Ronald Reagan in 1981 was jarring for some in the State Department as Carter’s strong prioritization of human rights gave way to his successor’s return to Cold War realpolitik in foreign policy.

Among those who witnessed the changes from within the State Department was Marc Grossman. After joining the Foreign Service in March 1976, his first overseas assignment was in Islamabad. He then returned to the Department, where he became the Special Assistant to the Special Advisor for Jewish Affairs in the White House.  When President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, Grossman was selected to be Liaison Officer to the Reagan Transition Team. continue reading »


Unexploded Ordnance, Spam and Moonshine–Life as Ambassador to Micronesia

MicronesiaaaThe Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), sometimes known simply as Micronesia, consists of four states — Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae – spread across the Western Pacific Ocean. They are north of Australia, south of Guam, west of the Marshall Islands and almost 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Together, the states comprise 607 islands spread across a distance of almost 1,700 miles. The capital is Palikir, located on Pohnpei Island. The first Micronesians settled on the islands 4,000 years ago. 

The FSM was formerly a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, (TTPI), a United Nations Trust Territory under U.S. administration, but it formed its own constitutional government on May 10, 1979.  FSM became a sovereign state after independence was attained on November 3, 1986 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States. continue reading »


First Attempt to Limit North Korea’s Nuclear Program

taepodong test 1998The first agreement between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) aimed at limiting North Korea’s nuclear program was the Agreed Framework, concluded in 1994. The Agreed Framework aimed at freezing the DPRK’s indigenous nuclear power plant development and stopping its plutonium enrichment program. The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) was founded in 1995 by the United States, Japan and South Korea to implement the Agreed Framework. KEDO’s principal activity was to construct two light water nuclear reactors in North Korea to replace planned DPRK reactors. Light water reactors are considered more “proliferation-resistant” than other types of reactors because reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from a light water reactor is more difficult and expensive than with other reactors. KEDO was also to fund the supply of heavy fuel oil to North Korea to make up for the lost energy production from two nuclear plants the DPRK agreed not to build.

Soon after the Agreed Framework was signed, control of both houses of Congress switched to the Republican Party, which did not support the agreement.  KEDO’s first director, Stephen Bosworth, later noted “the Agreed Framework was a political orphan within two weeks after its signature.” continue reading »


New President, Bad Plan: the Bay of Pigs Fiasco

JFK1After Fidel Castro ousted Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista, expropriated American economic assets and developed links with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower authorized the CIA in March 1960 to develop a plan to overthrow Castro. The agency trained and armed Cuban exiles to carry out the attack. Shortly after his inauguration, John F. Kennedy learned of the invasion plan, concluded that Fidel Castro was a Soviet client posing a threat to all of Latin America and, after consultations with his advisers, gave his consent in February 1961 for the CIA-planned amphibious assault.

Launched from Guatemala on April 17, 1961, the invasion force of 1,400 Cuban exiles known as Brigade 2506 landed at the beaches along the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba. They immediately came under fire. Cuban planes strafed the invaders, sank two escort ships, and destroyed half of the brigade’s air support. Over the next 24 hours, Castro ordered 20,000 troops to advance toward the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban air force continued to control the skies.

President Kennedy authorized six unmarked American fighter planes to help defend the brigade, but the B-26’s arrived late and were shot down by the Cubans. The invasion was crushed later that day. Castro’s military had counterattacked with surprising speed, sinking most of the supply ships, killing over a hundred of the exiles and capturing 1,200. Brigade 2506 was defeated within two days by Cuban armed forces under the direct command of Castro. The Cuban leader used the attack to solidify his power in Cuba and to justify more military assistance from the Soviet Union, including missiles and the construction of missile bases. Kennedy publicly accepted blame for the catastrophic outcome. continue reading »


The U.S. Incursion into Cambodia

nixon announces troops into CAmbodiaWhen President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger vowed to find a way to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam quickly and honorably without appearing to cave in to communist pressure. The U.S. launched a secret air campaign, thirteen major military operations, against North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. Cambodia’s neutrality and military weakness had made its territory a safe zone where North Vietnamese troops established bases for operations over the border.

President Richard Nixon gave formal authorization to commit U.S. ground  troops, fighting alongside South Vietnamese units, against North Vietnamese troop sanctuaries in Cambodia on April 28,1970. The incursion was possible because of a change in the Cambodian government in which Prince Norodom Sihanouk was replaced by pro-U.S. General Lon Nol. News of the military action in Cambodia ignited massive antiwar demonstrations in the U.S., in part because the determination to invade was made secretly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, which had closed in 1964, was in the process of reopening. The fact that only a small circle of people in Washington knew what the Nixon administration was planning to do in Cambodia, including the April 1970 incursion, complicated the work of U.S. diplomats there. continue reading »