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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.

As If Getting a Venereal Disease Weren’t Bad Enough…

doctors rounds.600Chas Freeman had an extraordinary career in the Foreign Service. He accomplished the unparalleled feat of becoming nearly bilingual in less than two years of training and served as one of President Nixon’s interpreters on his historic trip to China.

He then helped open the Liaison Office in Beijing in the 1970s, where he had a range of responsibilities, including helping the Marine Security Guards posted there. In this excerpt he describes how one MSG got into a rather prickly situation. continue reading »


The Truth Behind “Midnight Express”

Midnight ExpressIt was one of the travel nightmares of the 1970s, along with being hijacked to Cuba or being stuck behind the Iron Curtain – being thrown into a Turkish prison and left to rot. The 1978 movie “Midnight Express,” based on a book by Billy Hayes, and adapted into a screenplay by Oliver Stone, shows Hayes’ arrest for trafficking in hashish, his beatings and the squalid prison conditions. Though originally sentenced to a relatively mild four years, just two months before his release date, a superior court overturned the decision and sentenced him to 30 years. Other prisoners try to escape (which gives the book and movie their name), while Hayes remains, going slowly insane until his girlfriend visits him and urges him to escape as well. After an attempt to bribe the guard fails, he attacks the guard, who is accidentally killed. Hayes is then able to flee prison. According to Robert Dillon, who was deputy chief of mission at the embassy, the real story was a bit less lurid. continue reading »


Guests of the Gestapo

interned BrennersHotelNazi Germany launched the Spring Offensive against France, Belgium, and the Netherlands in May 1940. Within six weeks it had achieved complete military dominance. The French government agreed to sign the Second Armistice agreement, whereby France was divided into two parts:  the North was occupied by the Germans, while Vichy France was nominally independent.

During this time, the American Embassy moved to Vichy and American consulates continued operations. Following the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942, Germany decided to occupy the South as well. American diplomatic personnel in Vichy France were arrested and held in Baden-Baden, Germany until they were exchanged for German personnel. continue reading »


Being Gay in the Foreign Service

gay_pride_flag_kimiko_rPublic perception of gay rights, including the right to marry and to serve in the military, has undergone a sea change in the last few years, so much so that President Obama nominated five openly gay ambassadors. However, it was not that long ago when simply being gay meant automatic suspicion as a security risk and often harassment or worse. In these excerpts, Russell Sveda talks about persecution from the Diplomatic Security (DS) bureau, the ensuing bureaucratic battles, and his subsequent 14-year grievance case, the longest in State Department history. He also discusses the fear he and others had when they started the Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) in 1992 and the support he received from other FSOs. continue reading »


The 1958 U.S. Marine Invasion of Lebanon – It was no day at the beach

leban Beirut_beach1958 — Lebanon was yet again at the forefront of foreign policy concerns. Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the most prominent politicians of the postwar world, was powerful not only in Egypt, but also in much of the Arab World. Known for his Arab nationalism and sharp criticism of Western power, his influence reached many throughout the Middle East. In the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Christian leader of Lebanon, President Chamille Chamoun, was sharply criticized by Nasser and Lebanese Muslims for maintaining diplomatic ties with the involved Western powers. Tensions escalated with the creation of the United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria and led by Nasser, as Chamoun refused to join despite pressure from Lebanese Muslims. Mindful of the recent overthrow of the pro-Western king of Iraq and threatened by civil war, Chamoun asked for help. President Eisenhower authorized Operation Blue Bat on July 15, 1958. U.S. troops landed on the beaches of Beirut and remained in the city until October. continue reading »


A Book you can Swear By: Becoming Ambassador in the Most Unusual of Circumstances

swear witness-taking-oathTraditionally, U.S. government officials put their hand on the Bible for their swearing-in.  In recent years, some have used alternatives, such as the Qur’an or the U.S. Constitution.  In June 2014 Suzi LeVine was the first ambassador to be sworn in on an e-reader. Ambassador Peter de Vos, however, had nothing readily available when he was rushed off to Liberia in 1990, set to take over the post in the midst of a raging civil war.  continue reading »


The Headache That Is the Fourth of July Party

4th tired statueThe Fourth of July is a celebration of the United States’ independence.  It is a day of family, friends, food, and a few beers.  However, this is not typically the case for those representing the United States overseas.  When the time comes, members of an embassy overseas are charged with putting on a big party to showcase the American pride and unity that comes with this historic day.  Yet, these parties often come with more headaches and fake smiles than one would expect. Hosting a Fourth of July party comes with the responsibility of representing the United States to the host country; this type of party could help mend or, possibly, worsen relations between the two countries. Below are a collection of stories from Fourth of July parties all over the world, including an embarrassing speech in Zimbabwe in front of former President Carter, the clever ways ambassadors signal guests that it’s time to go, and a well-meaning, but criticized, hot dog reception. continue reading »


“We’re in East Germany! We better get the hell out quick!”

pow Missions_prohibited_signIt began as a routine trip to test artillery battalions. It ended as a minor international incident that lasted several weeks and potentially could have been even worse. In 1958 Colonel Frank Athanason, then a captain, and eight others lost their way and crashed in a forest in East Germany. They were picked up by the East Germans and interrogated by the Soviets. In these excerpts, Athanason talks about spending July 4th in captivity, their eventual release, and the surprising revelation regarding a counter-intelligence agent. continue reading »


The Nazis Take Paris

paris hitlerAfter German troops invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. Despite this, there were no major battles between the three countries for several months, the so-called “Sitzkrieg” or “phony war.” That changed drastically with the German invasion of France in May 1940. In six short weeks, the Germans defeated the French Army, taking almost two million prisoners. On June 14th, the Nazis occupied Paris. French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned on June 16th, and was replaced by World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Petain, who asked the Germans for an armistice. The agreement was signed on June 22nd. According to the terms of the agreement, the North of France would be occupied by the Germans; the rest of the country would remain nominally independent, but a de facto German puppet state, with its capital in Vichy. continue reading »


No-tell CODELs

codel US Congress SealOne of the more important tasks that an embassy deals with is the Congressional delegation or CODEL in Washington-speak. These visits by Members of Congress, usually during recess, are meant to give — theoretically, at least — a first-hand view of some of the more pressing foreign policy issues. They are usually short but can be very intense and in some instances, require thick skin and a great deal of diplomacy. For Michael Boorstein, then an Administrative Officer, his first CODEL to Sicily soon turned into a minor disaster. Vladimir Lehovich talks about his time in Saigon, where he was to do or get anything – anything — that Teddy Kennedy wanted during his visit there. Laurence Silverman, then Ambassador to Yugoslavia, recalls a similar encounter with the Speaker of the House.

continue reading »