ADST Facebook Page ADST Twitter Feed RSS Feed ADST Youtube

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.

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 »


Fleeing Rwanda to Survive, then Returning to Rebuild, 1994

Rwanda-Genocide2On April 6, 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated when their plane was shot down near Kigali airport and crashed into the grounds of the Rwandan presidential residence. The incident ignited genocide by the majority Hutus against Tutsis and against those supporting peace negotiations to bring Rwanda out of civil war. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died over three months of slaughter, constituting as much as eighty percent of the Tutsi population. The Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) eventually gained control of the country, a victory that forced another two million Rwandans, mostly Hutus, to flee as refugees.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the failure of the international community to intervene to prevent the atrocities and displacement drew condemnation. Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the PBS news program Frontline: “The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia.” The United Nations and Belgium had forces in Rwanda but no one ordered them to stop the conflict, and most of the peacekeepers withdrew after ten Belgian soldiers were killed. The U.S. had recently suffered a loss of troops in Somalia and determined not to intervene. continue reading »


North Yemen: Ambassador to a Divided Land

A Yemeni mother in a burqa with her daughter (Photo by Chi Modu/diverseimages)Yemen has experienced violence and poverty in recent decades, but for centuries was a pivotal crossroads for trade and travel. Once the center of civilization, commerce and wealth on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen prospered through agriculture and the cultivation and marketing of spices and aromatics. In the twentieth century, Yemen was cleaved in two separate nations along a north-south divide. North Yemen had been part of the Ottoman Empire and became independent when the Empire collapsed in 1918. South Yemen was under British control until Britain withdrew in 1967.

The U.S. established diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Yemen (North Yemen) in March 1946 and appointed an American Special Diplomatic Mission. Thirteen years later, the U.S. established an American Legation, elevated to Embassy status in 1963. In South Yemen, the U.S. established diplomatic relations and an embassy in Aden in December 1967. In 1990, the two Yemens combined to form the Republic of Yemen. continue reading »


Ireland and the U.S.: The Best of Friends, Except When They Weren’t

Culture_adds_flavorRelations between the U.S. and Ireland have traditionally been strong, thanks to common ancestral ties, history and shared values. Irish citizens immigrated to the thirteen Colonies, fought in the War of Independence and were among the first to drive cattle westward. Prompted largely by the Great Irish Famine, from 1820 to 1860 two million Irish arrived in the United States. These ties have been strengthened throughout the years by scientific and educational agreements as well as business and economic advances. American multinational corporations have established subsidiaries in the Emerald Isle to take advantage of low taxation; the U.S. is Ireland’s largest export partner and second-largest import partner.

But U.S.-Irish relations have not always been as comfortable as the proverbial “warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night.” Areas of bilateral dispute have concerned aviation landing rights, the support of some Americans for the Irish Republican Army, and differences in business practices and cultures that have complicated commerce between the two nations. continue reading »


Revolutionizing Public Diplomacy: U.S. Embassy Tokyo in the 1970s

12fb43cb7154314f426f739d1e4a88ceThe goal of public diplomacy (PD) is defined as supporting the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advancing national interests, and enhancing national security. It is done by informing and influencing foreign publics and strengthening the relationship between the people of the U.S. and citizens of the rest of the world. In Washington, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is in charge of the bureaus of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Public Affairs, and International Information Programs.

There has been an evolution in the practice of public diplomacy over the years since the State Department created the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs in 1946. This office was replaced in 1953 by a separate foreign affairs agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), whose officers managed press, cultural relations and exchanges at U.S. embassies and consulates. USIA’s offices overseas were called the U.S. Information Service (USIS).

The continuing changes in Public Diplomacy are the subject of academic scrutiny, with advanced courses notably at the University of Southern California, George Washington and Syracuse. This marks a transformation from the days when communicating with foreign audiences was done in a rigidly structured way. One of the first U.S. embassies to revolutionize its approach was in Japan. In the mid-1970s, under the leadership of Alan Carter, Public Affairs Officer in Tokyo, programming in Japan shifted away from historical lectures toward two-way discussions on contemporary issues with targeted audiences. continue reading »