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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 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 »


Looking at the War in the Falklands/Malvinas from Both Sides Now

0e81d2422b69cfd46be52e02e7ec6d0aIn 1982 a long-simmering dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over a small group of islands – the Falklands for the British, the Malvinas for the Argentinians – erupted into war. The disagreement arose from a dispute that goes back to the 1700’s when France, Spain, and Britain all tried to claim and settle the islands (with France selling her claim to Spain). Britain and Spain almost went to war over the archipelago before coming to a compromise that while neither recognized the claims of the other, they would not interfere in each other’s settlement activity. Eventually both sides abandoned their outposts due to the economic pressure of supporting the distant, windswept islands.

Businessman Louis Vernet began a settlement in 1829 as a business venture with the permission of the new Argentine government, which had inherited the Spanish claim. After a series of disagreements and violent incidents among several parties that involved the near destruction of  Vernet’s settlement by an American warship (the U.S. did not recognize the claim of any country over the islands at the time) the British reestablished authority in 1833 and brought in settlers whose descendants make up most of the current Falklanders.

During the post-WWII populism of Juan Peron, Argentina began to raise the issue again. Britain told Argentina that there was no hope of an eventual transfer. Seeing no diplomatic way forward, the Argentine military junta launched a surprises attack on the Islands in April, 1982. Within three months the British retook the islands. continue reading »


Picturing the “War of Ideas”: Wartime Film-Making in Korea

24760ecc336962e41f6cab51e3de0382Throughout the Cold War, democratic and communist nations waged a “war of ideas.” The United States, seeking to expose the disadvantages of communism and to encourage democracy, engaged in numerous media campaigns targeted at influencing peoples in zones of Cold War conflict. The U.S. State Department, along with branches of the American military and other government agencies, published leaflets, newsreels, films, articles, and cartoons in numerous languages around the world.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), this use of soft power was intended, in the words of Public Affairs Officer James L. Stewart, “to create democratic-minded people in Korea friendly to the United States.” For much of the war, the State Department’s domestic film-making campaign in Korea was headed by a single American, William G. Ridgeway, and staffed by dozens of South Koreans who had reinvented themselves as film industry workers.

Ridgeway played a key role in sharing American ideas and shifting South Korean sentiment against communists as the Motion Picture Officer in Korea from 1950-1958. It was far from an easy task; he contended with an evacuation from Seoul, a severe dearth of equipment, and local cultural norms. continue reading »


Between Iraq and a Hard Place: Declared Persona Non Grata by Saddam

39659Image1Iraq expelled an American diplomat stationed in Baghdad on November 17, 1988 for having contacts with Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Haywood Rankin, head of the American Embassy’s political section, was forced to leave the country after he and a British diplomat returned to Baghdad from a trip to Kurdistan that had been approved by Iraqi authorities. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was infuriated by U.S. charges that his forces used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels in far northern Iraq, repeatedly denying the allegations and saying they are part of a “Zionist plot” to defame Iraq in the wake of its military victory against Iran.

Upon Rankin’s return from his visit to the north, he sent detailed cables to Washington documenting his strong suspicion that chemical weapons had been used by the Iraqi military against Kurdish villages. Soon afterward, the Iraqis informed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that Rankin would be expelled for ”talking to Kurds” and ”contact with Kurds.”  Despite attempts to overturn the expulsion order, Rankin and the British diplomat were declared persona non grata and told to leave. continue reading »


Soft Power in a Cold War: Challenges of Reaching out to the Soviets

downloadThe “Iron Curtain” was a term used to denote the efforts of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to block its citizens from contact with the West. It persisted from the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War. Throughout those decades, the U.S. endeavored to breach the Curtain and reach out to Soviet society through radio, exchanges, exhibits and other forms of public diplomacy.

The U.S. Voice of America (VOA), launched during the Second World War as a radio program to explain America’s policies and raise the morale of U.S. allies, continued after the Allied Victory to make information available to listeners throughout the world. VOA began its first Russian-language radio broadcasts into the Soviet Union on February 17, 1947 with the words: “Hello! This is New York calling,” The programs contained news, entertainment, educational features and music. A Harvard University study estimated that 28 million people in the Soviet Union tuned in at least once a week. continue reading »


Grapes of Wrath and Strained Relations with Chile

33Grocery stores throughout the United States pulled tons of grapes from their shelves when traces of cyanide were found in two grapes shipped from Chile to Philadelphia on March 13, 1989. The Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration advised Americans to get rid of all fruit in their homes unless they were certain it was not from Chile.

Hundreds of inspectors from the food agency and the Agriculture Department checked Chilean fruit stopped by the U.S. Government at ports of entry. The inspections began after an agitated anonymous caller to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago revealed he had poisoned grapes bound for the U.S. The ban on Chilean produce led to angry demonstrations in Chile and posed another setback to bilateral relations, which had been struggling to return to normalcy after the dark days of the Pinochet regime. continue reading »