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.

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 »


Brass Tacks and Kashmir: India-Pakistan Military Crises in the 1980s

india-pakistan-flagsA crisis between India and Pakistan erupted between November 1986 and March 1987 after India launched the largest-ever military exercise in the subcontinent, called Operation Brass Tacks. The exercise took place in the desert area of Rajasthan, a few hundred miles from the Pakistani border, and included nine infantry, three mechanized, three armored and one air assault divisions.

Pakistani analysts interpreted Brass Tacks as a threatening exhibition of conventional force and responded with maneuvers of its own near India’s state of Punjab. International concerns spiked when Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan was quoted as saying in March 1987 that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb. U.S. diplomats sought to diffuse tensions between the two countries to prevent a nuclear war. Before the end of the decade, India and Pakistan would again nearly come to war over military exercises, prompting the intervention of Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates. continue reading »


Diplomacy in Cold Blood: Fatal Encounters Around the World

behind-barsAn American citizen abroad accused of murder: this is a particular nightmare for consular officers. These cases can become public scandals and political quandaries, and it is the job of American Citizen Services to ensure that Americans accused of major crimes beyond U.S. borders receive appropriate treatment in accordance with international law. If an arrested American citizen requests that authorities contact the U.S. Embassy or consulate, they must do so. The consular officer will visit the detained person in jail and contact family, friends or employers with the  prisoner’s consent. The consular officer will also try to make sure the citizen is getting appropriate medical care. What they can’t do is get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas, provide legal advice, serve as official interpreters or pay legal, medical, or other fees. Many Foreign Service personnel have had to deal with murder abroad – by fellow Americans, local despots and other killers – during the course of their careers.

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Bodies on the Doorstep: Jamaica in the 1970s

1768063_three-gangsters_jj5prhncp45p4yqnw6pljvus74oxpy7q62c4u66siw3t6qwph3oq_757x567The island country of Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea experienced strong economic growth following its independence in 1962. This economic growth was fueled in part by private investments in bauxite, an aluminum ore, as well as tourism, and the manufacturing industry. The Labor Party that had controlled the government was ousted in 1970 when the growth stopped. A democratic-socialist party, known as the People’s National Party (PNP), came into power in 1972 with a socialist plan that would rewire Jamaica’s education and health programs. By 1980, Jamaica’s gross national product had declined to some 25 percent below the 1972 level. Increasing debt at home and abroad drove the government to seek aid from the International Money Fund and the United States.

Michael Norman Manley, a Democratic Socialist, served as the fourth Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972 to 1980 and from 1989 to 1992. To the chagrin of many in the United States, Manley encouraged and sustained relations with the leader of an island just north of Jamaica: Fidel Castro of Cuba. continue reading »


The Thai-tanic: Responding to the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997

92Asian countries took a financial hit in 1997, resulting in a crisis that reverberated throughout the world. It began on July 2, when the central Bank of Thailand allowed the baht to float against the U.S. dollar for the first time in 14 years. The baht plunged between 15-20 percent in overseas currencies. The collapse of the baht resulted in a huge loss of foreign exchange reserves and plunged the country into financial panic. The “Thai-tanic” rippled throughout the rest of Asia, the Americas and Europe.

Although there had been signs of an impending slump, few policy makers expected the magnitude of the devastation that would follow. Crony banking, reliance on foreign savings, heavy borrowing and risky lending practices fueled the economic spike that preceded the fall of the baht. The devaluation presented political challenges for U.S. diplomats in Thailand, who had to respond to pleas for aid from an important long-time ally. continue reading »


Basketball: the Fifth Basket of the Helsinki Final Act

karu1The Helsinki Final Act, an agreement signed by 35 nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on August 1, 1975, addressed a spectrum of global problems and had a lasting impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Helsinki Final Act dealt with a variety of issues divided into four “baskets.” The first basket dealt with political and military issues, the second economic issues, trade and scientific cooperation. The third basket emphasized human rights, and the fourth formalized procedures for implementing the agreements.

The multilateral negotiations were stressful and demanding. In this case, one means of reaching decisions on the four baskets came in the form of basketball. But just as in the case of diplomacy, in basketball you can run across “ringers”  – people whose abilities may not be readily apparent. Not everyone knew that Soumi – Finland – had its share of athletic diplomats who could make a lay up. Jonathan Greenwald, who served as the Legal Advisor to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin from 1973-1977, highlighted the role that basketball played in bringing together different delegations during the negotiating process of the Helsinki Final Act, in an interview with Raymond Ewing in March 1998. continue reading »