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.

Embassy Islamabad in Flames

islamabad1The November 21, 1979 attack on the American Embassy in Islamabad started as a small group demonstration in front of the embassy, where protesters shouted anti-American slogans and demanded entry into the campus. Police officers were able to stop the protesters and have them leave the area. However, about fifteen minutes later, some six busloads of Pakistani students arrived and laid siege to the American embassy compound for several hours, from midday until nightfall. The students were angry because of suspected U.S. involvement in the coup d’état of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and execution in April 1979. The final straw came from false reports, made by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, that the United States had launched a terrorist attack on the Grand Mosque, Masjid al-Haram, at Mecca. continue reading »


Algeria’s Struggle for Independence

algeria-indepThe modern-day People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria is now a proud, sovereign state in North Africa that readily influences the region. However, before 1962, Algeria had been a French colony, dating back to the French invasion of Algiers in 1830. Following a brutal conquest that some termed as genocide, France began a policy of “civilizing” their new North African colony. To help assimilate Algeria, the colony was administered as an integral part of France and thus split into three département of the nation. The motto of Algeria would soon be: L’Algerie c’est la France (Algeria is France).

Under this new administration, the French implemented new laws and policies that were aimed at “civilizing” the country. As a part of the département system, Algeria would have representatives in the French National Assembly. continue reading »


Seek and Destroy – The Mine Ban Treaty

images2su7vec9Signed in Ottawa, Canada on December 3, 1997, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (Mine Ban Treaty/Ottawa Treaty) was designed to eliminate landmines across the globe. The objective of this United Nations-led treaty was to make all governments commit to ceasing production and destroying their arsenals of landmines. Despite the benefits of such a treaty, some countries did not sign, including Russia, China, and the United States.

The United States’ decision not to sign the Mine Ban Treaty was derived from the commitment to defend South Korea by placing landmines in the neutral zone between North and South Korea. Even though the U.S. did not support the treaty, it works with nonprofit organizations that focus on disarming landmines and has donated over $2.3 billion for the destruction of conventional weapons in foreign countries since 1993. continue reading »


Anatomy of an Overthrow: Why a Revered African Leader was Toppled

famine-in-ethiopia-by-dawitA council of combined security forces known as the Derg staged a coup d’état on September 12, 1974 against Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, arresting and imprisoning the monarch who had ruled for decades. The committee renamed itself the Provisional Military Administrative Council, took control of the government, soon abolished the monarchy and established Marxism-Leninism as Ethiopia’s ideology. Emperor Haile Selassie died in August 1975; some believe his political successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was complicit in his death.

Why oust someone who led his country for 45 years and who millions of Rastafarians revered as a messianic figure? Conditions for the take-over began with the Selassie regime’s failure to undertake economic and political reforms, along with inflation, corruption and drought-related famine in northeastern provinces, so that military unrest quickly spread to the civilian population and ignited a nation-wide revolution. There was general resistance to Selassie’s reign because of an array of grievances including higher fuel prices, curriculum changes in the schools, low teachers’ salaries, poor working conditions in general and the need for land reform. continue reading »


The Long, Incomplete Road for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

CTBT doveThe movement to limit or even prohibit the testing of nuclear weapons has been around almost since the dawn of the nuclear age itself. Concern over harming the environment and causing widespread damage to human life led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which limited underground nuclear tests to 150 megatons. In the 1993, with the fall of the USSR, negotiations were begun in earnest on a comprehensive test ban treaty at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Established in 1979, the CD meets in annual sessions three times a year and serves as a forum for states to discuss the reduction of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

Not surprisingly with an agreement of this scope and severity, there were many obstacles to overcome. continue reading »


Cannabis and Cabbages: Serving at the Last Stop of the Hippie Trail

tumblr_o7wpsapzs11vnkarlo1_500In the late sixties – early seventies, the “Hippie Trail” started in Europe, crossed over to Istanbul, ventured into Iran and Afghanistan and, for many adventurous souls, ended in Nepal. It was an era of experimentation, reflection and free love. Sandal-clad hippies with backpacks from throughout the world sought enlightenment amid the fumes of cannabis and charms of Kathmandu. Classic rocker Bob Seger had a 1975 hit song about escaping to kkkkkk-Kathmandu.

The hippies even developed their own vernacular for their newly-adopted city: the ancient Buddhist shrine Swayambhunath was called “The Monkey Temple” and Jhochhen lane, in the heart of the capital city, was known as “Freak Street.” Freak Street was considered hippie heaven, where marijuana and hashish were legal and sold openly in government-licensed shops.

But the higher you get, the harder you may crash, and those serving at the U.S. Embassy were often called on to help Americans who got into trouble in paradise. continue reading »


“The Cold War Was Truly Over” — The 1986 Reykjavik Summit

reagan-gorbachev-reykjavikAfter the 1985 Geneva Summit, where President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, met for the first time, the Reykjavik Summit, held on October 11-12, 1986, presented an opportunity to try to reach an agreement between the two sides on arms control. While Gorbachev wanted to ban all ballistic missiles and limit the talks to arms control, Reagan wanted to continue to work on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and sought to include talks on human rights, the emigration of Soviet Jews and dissidents, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Though ultimately a failure, the Reykjavik Summit changed the relationship between the United States and the USSR, and provided a platform for a continuing dialogue between the two countries. It eventually resulted in the 1987 signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and is often cited as the end of the Cold War. continue reading »


“The Wild West” — Peshawar and the Afghan Mujahedeen

afghan-mujIn the late 1970s, the USSR had been supporting the Afghan government in its fight against rebels, who had made considerable inroads and controlled territory outside Afghanistan’s major cities. Determined to squash a growing threat, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. Soviet troops and swarms of helicopters overthrew the government, which Moscow believed had contributed to the instability, and installed a pro-Soviet government, forcing millions of Afghanis into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Syria.

However, the Soviet military faced significant resistance from a group of highly motivated fighters called the mujahedeen, literally “one engaged in Jihad.” The Islamic fighters fought the Soviets aggressively and attracted the attention of the United States, most famously Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, whose work on the issue became the subject of the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War. Most famously, he successfully fought to give the mujahedeen Stinger surface-to-air missiles, which proved to be very effective against Soviet helicopters. The Soviets eventually withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989, in what has widely been deemed “Russia’s Vietnam.” continue reading »


When Archaeology Meets Diplomacy: The Dig at Herculaneum

herculaneum-4When Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 AD, it famously engulfed the Roman town of Pompeii and, less famously, the richer town of Herculaneum. Both places sat under 50-60 feet of volcanic ash until they were rediscovered in 1748. In contrast to Pompeii, the hot gas and rock flow preserved Herculaneum’s organic-based objects, such as wooden roofs, beds, doors, and food. Until recently, it was believed that almost all of Herculaneum’s inhabitants had been able to evacuate.

However, in the 1980’s, some 300 skeletons were surprisingly discovered along the seashore. This was an incredible archaeological discovery and would lead to greater insight into the lives of the Romans. However, the dig ran into serious financial difficulties. Fortunately, one American diplomat was able to get the National Geographic Society involved. Herculaneum is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. continue reading »


Pay Bribe, Win Contract: Doing Business in Post-Soviet Lithuania

bribelatimes2How do you promote U.S. investment in another country when bribes are an ingrained way of life in its business culture and the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits American companies from slipping payments under the table? It is a dilemma faced around the world by Foreign Commercial Officers and others charged with promoting U.S. business abroad.

Such was the case when the Baltic state of Lithuania became independent of the Soviet Union. The Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania declared on March 11, 1990 that Lithuania was once again a sovereign nation. The United States recognized this independence in September of the following year and four days later the Soviet Union officially concurred. Lithuania’s economy struggled as it shifted from a statist model of communism to principles of free trade, and the early post-Soviet years in the Baltic States were filled with economic and political turbulence. continue reading »



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