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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.

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 »


A Sketch in Time: Cape Verde from an Ambassador’s View

Cape Verde Dancing PaintingThe nation of Cape Verde, now known as Cabo Verde, is a group of islands located off the western coast of Africa. Its total territory is slightly larger than Rhode Island, and its citizens number just over 550,000 inhabitants. The United States and Cape Verde have deep historic links. Cape Verdeans have long been known as skillful sailors. As early as the 1740’s New England whaling ships began recruiting crews from the islands. Many of these sailors later settled in the United States. Today, over 95,000 members of the Cape Verde diaspora live in the United States, primarily in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The first U.S. consulate in sub-Saharan Africa was established in Cape Verde in 1818. The United States established diplomatic relations with Cabo Verde in 1975, following its independence on July 5 from Portugal. Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau – 900 kilometers south-east of Cape Verde on the west coast of Africa — were both Portuguese colonies which campaigned together for independence with a plan for unification, but the countries separated after 1980. Cabo Verde was under one-party rule from independence until 1990; the first multiparty elections were held in 1991. American Foreign Service Officers stationed in Praia have witnessed the nation’s transition to democracy, the expansion of its economy, the evolution of its social practices, and American commitment to the region. continue reading »


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 »


The 1991 Coup Against Mikhail Gorbachev

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 »