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.

Mission Unspeakable: When North Koreans Tried to Kill the President of South Korea

Shwedagon-PanoOn October 9, 1983, while South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan was on a visit to Rangoon, Burma to lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Mausoleum of Swedagon Pagoda, a bomb concealed in the roof exploded, killing 21 people including four senior South Korean officials. President Chun was spared because his car had been delayed in traffic and he was not at the site at the time of the detonation.

Chun had seized power in South Korea in December 1979. His tenure as president was characterized as poor on human rights and strong on economic growth and harshly enforced domestic stability. He was on a diplomatic tour in Rangoon when would-be assassins believed to have received explosives from a North Korean diplomatic facility targeted him. It was during Chun’s administration that South Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, in which North Korea refused to participate. As a result of the Rangoon bombing, Burma suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea and Chinese officials refused to meet or talk with North Korean officials for several months. continue reading »


The Technology of Terror – South America in the 70s and 80s

imagesPVAQ5RSATerrorism the world over poses a threat to the lives of Foreign Service Officers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s terrorist groups threatened the safety of FSOs serving in South America. In Argentina, two such groups, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Montoneros, resorted to armed resistance 1969-1970 in response to the regime of Juan Carlos Onganía. The ERP was a Marxist group with the goal of establishing socialism in Argentina. Active in Tucuman and Buenos Aires, its members resorted to kidnapping people as well as sabotaging the police and military outposts. Like the ERP, the leftist Montoneros also operated in urban areas and were known for political kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings of police and military outposts. The Montoneros worked to bring about the return of exiled former president Juan Peron; ironically, upon his return, Peron distanced himself from the group. Peron proceeded to form close relationships with right wing groups which prompted the Montoneros to resort to political violence.

Colombia also has a long history of terrorism not only with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but also with narcotraffickers who conduct illicit drug trade throughout the country. These traffickers were constantly fighting the Colombian military as well as U.S. efforts to combat the drug trade during the 1980s. The United States fought to stop the flow of cocaine from the Medellin and other prominent cartels, into the U.S. by working with police in Colombia and bringing in Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. Actions to undermine American intervention in the drug trade included blowing up police stations and attacking U.S. buildings in Bogota. continue reading »


Crisis Management: Occupation of USIS in South Korea, 1985

835545-boy-arrested-after-throwing-flaming-bottleOn May 25, 1985, seventy-three South Korean students barged into the United States Information Services (USIS) library in Seoul and began a three-day occupation. The students’ primary demand was an apology from the U.S. Ambassador, Richard L. “Dixie” Walker, as the representative of the American government, for the United States’ alleged role and complicity in the 1980 “Kwangju incident,” a massacre of hundreds of protesters in Kwangju, South Korea on the orders of President Chun Doo-Hwan.

Though the United States had no involvement in the Kwangju incident and was distancing itself from the repressive Chun regime, lingering resentment toward the U.S. and misunderstandings about Kwangju persisted through the end of the twentieth century. After three long, tense days, the students, having shared their concerns with the Americans and with the larger South Korean public, peacefully left the library. The resolution of the occupation of the U.S. Embassy’s library was seen as a case study in successful crisis management. continue reading »


Welcome to Moscow, Mr. Ambassador! Ignore the Coup

gorbachev-forosIn August 1991, hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) who opposed President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and decentralization of government powers tried to overthrow him. The short-lived coup attempt is considered pivotal in the rise of Boris Yeltsin and the eventual breakup of the USSR. The attempt took place at a dacha in the Crimea, when several high-level officials demanded that Gorbachev resign from power or declare a state of emergency. When he refused, they put him under house arrest, shut down communication lines which were controlled by the KGB, and posted additional guards at the gates to stop anyone from leaving.

Gorbachev had tried to liberalize Soviet economic policies, moving from a state-controlled to free market approach, and to democratize the communist political system. He also advocated warmer relations with the United States, winning the respect of President Ronald Reagan. His initiatives were seen less positively by opponents in the USSR; some felt he was driving the Soviet Union to second-class status, others felt the reforms were not far-reaching enough. Among them, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party in protest, yet he opposed the coup against Gorbachev and called on the Russian people to demonstrate against it. They filled the streets by the thousands, and the coup failed, but Gorbachev would resign by the end of the year in part because of the attempt with Yeltsin emerging as leader of the state of Russia. continue reading »


American-Israeli Tensions over the Black Hebrew Community

Ben Ammi 2The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, often referred to as the Black Hebrew Community (BHC), is a religious group that claims to be Jewish descendants of one of the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel. According to the group, in 1966, their founder, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel (born Ben Carter, a Chicago metallurgist), had a vision calling for African Americans to return to the “Promised Land” (Israel) and establish the “Kingdom of God.”

In 1967, Ben Ammi led a group of a small group of disciples to Liberia and then on to Israel, where they intended to settle permanently. Upon their arrival in Israel, however, the Israeli rabbinical authorities deemed that Ben Ammi and his followers were not descendants of the lost tribe. Slowly, the Government of Israel attempted to deport the BHC.

Over the next several decades, however, new disciples continued to join the BHC’s unauthorized settlement in Israel. Consequently, the Israeli government stepped up its use of creative tactics to spur the BHC to leave of their own accord and to prevent more members from arriving. When these tactics began to affect African Americans who were not of the BHC as well as the American children of the BHC, the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv had no choice but to get involved. continue reading »


How to Get Your Letter Signed by the President (Hint – It’s Who You Know)

pres-sealWith the end of the Cold War, the U.S. began to put greater emphasis on enforcing its policy of protecting human rights worldwide, based on the core belief that people have a set of inviolable rights simply on grounds of being human. Some foreign counterparts were skeptical that the U.S. would give priority to human rights at the expense of other goals. Among them was President Vinicio Cerezo Anevalo of Guatemala, who refused to accept the word of Ambassador Thomas F. Stroock that the U.S. would no longer tolerate human rights abuses in his country. This led Ambassador Stroock to devise a plan to prove that his admonitions did in fact reflect the official stance of the U.S. Government. He decided a letter of support from President George H.W. Bush would persuade Guatemala’s president. The question now was how to get President Bush to sign it, and it had to be done in less than a week.

Getting a letter signed by the President requires the right connections and a lot of persistence. Stroock had made his fortune in the oil business and became heavily involved in Wyoming politics. As chairman of the Western States Republican Organization, Stroock fervently supported George H.W. Bush, who had been a classmate at Yale. After Bush was elected President in 1988, he named Stroock ambassador to Guatemala, a role in which he served from 1989 to 1992. continue reading »


Negotiating the Mexican-American Border: the Case of Chamizal

riverDefining the border between Mexico and the United States has not always been in the hands of politicians; at one point, a shift in the Rio Grande River created a new boundary and generated a diplomatic dispute. In February 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and designated the Rio Grande the boundary line between the two nations. However, due to flooding and the changing flow of the river, over time, the banks of Rio Grande shifted. The alteration was so significant that a 600 acre piece of land between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Jaurez, Chihuahua, known as the Chamizal, went from being in Mexican territory to north of the river in American territory.

Americans began to settle in the Chamizal and incorporated the land into the city of El Paso. In 1895, the Mexican government, which claimed the land as part of Mexico, elevated the dispute to the International Boundary Commission (IBC), a body of U.S. and Mexican officials. Four years later, the IBC created a cement track to redirect the Rio Grande and avoid future floods, a project jointly funded by the U.S. and Mexico. This man-made alteration moved yet another piece of land, Cordova Island, from the Mexican to the American side.

Later, the Arbitration of 1911 awarded the Chamizal to Mexico, but the land remained disputed and Americans continued to live there. Cordova Island, an essential “no-man’s land” for decades, became a haven for illicit activities from drug smuggling to human smuggling. Both the Chamizal and Cordova Island remained a source of friction between the countries. continue reading »


A New Way of Teaching America’s Frontline Diplomats

Little-Officer-and-applicantThe State Department invests significant resources in training its incoming consular officers. They learn through courses taught at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) by senior consular officers using group projects and case studies, as well as field trips to airports to observe how visa holders are processed at the port of U.S. entry. Officers must pass weekly examinations that measure and document their mastery of US immigration law. The training does not stop at FSI; once consular officers have reported to work at their embassies abroad, they are immediately given additional on-the-job training and receive ongoing instruction in consular law application and interpretation throughout their careers. It is a carefully-engineered academic and experiential way of learning to prepare officers to serve at the forefront of U.S. diplomacy and to represent, for many abroad, the face of the United States.

It did not start out that way. In the 1980s, FSI underwent a shift in the way it taught consular courses, from lectures and book learning to scenario-oriented training. John T. Sprott, Deputy Director of FSI from 1981-1993, devoted most of his career to developing diplomatic talent at the Foreign Service Institute. While he was dean of Professional Studies, he argued for the development of “ConGen Rosslyn,” leading the push for experiential learning into the overall FSI curriculum. The highlight of Sprott’s service was the contribution he made to the design, construction and relocation of FSI to its current campus in the fall of 1993. continue reading »


Drogas y Derechos Humanos: Changing U.S. Policy towards Guatemala

guat girlsIn June 1954 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, concerned about the threat of communism in Guatemala, assisted in the overthrow of the government led by President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. A five-member junta assumed power. Following communications with Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry and consultations with countries in Central America, the U.S. determined that the new Guatemalan government intended to fulfill international obligations and was not communist.

A little more than a month after the coup, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles instructed Ambassador John Peurifoy at the U.S. Embassy at Guatemala City to establish diplomatic relations with the new Guatemalan Government. With the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward Guatemala began to prioritize eliminating the drug trade and human rights abuses. Thomas F. Stroock, who presided over the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala from 1989 to 1992 when bilateral relations shifted, was interviewed by Andrew Low in November 1993. continue reading »


Rooted in the Good Earth: From “China Brats” to Foreign Service

book3A confluence of two rising movements in the early 1800s, Western outreach to China and reinvigorated Christian evangelism, led to a surge in missionaries going to China from the U.S., the UK and Europe. The Protestant and Catholic missionaries were initially restricted to living in an area now known as Guangzhou and Macau. They were later allowed to settle in five coastal cities, and then permitted to work throughout the country. The number of missionaries in China grew from 50 in 1860 to 2,500 in 1900. Missionary activity reached its highest point in the 1920s; by 1953, the communist government of China expelled them.

Living and working in China was a challenge because of health problems, linguistic barriers, spartan living conditions, and a low success rate in converting Chinese citizens to Christianity. Among the most famous children of missionary families in China was Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, whose Southern Presbyterian missionary parents took her to China as a baby. She recalled in her memoir that she lived in “several worlds,” one a “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and the other the “big, loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world,” and there was no communication between them. Writing about the life of Chinese peasants in her Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” she also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. continue reading »