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.

Bad Blood: The Sino-Soviet Split and the U.S. Normalization with China

dragon bearIn the 1960s, in the depths of the Cold War, the world was viewed in terms of a zero-sum game: wherever the USSR won, the U.S. by definition lost. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), despite its massive size, was considered to be the Soviets’ little brother and thus not a real player. The State Department and others were hesitant to improve relations with China as they believed it was more important to focus on the Soviet Union which, after all, was a nuclear superpower. Cracks in the USSR-China relationship then began appearing, which led President Richard Nixon to pursue improving ties with Beijing, a move which drastically altered the dynamics of the trilateral power game. continue reading »


Observing the Fiftieth Anniversary of VJ-Day in Japan

tumblr_nu0nupKQKn1r65o3qo2_1280How to commemorate an important anniversary of the country in which you’re posted when it marks a low point in the bilateral relationship? World War II came to an end when Imperial Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945; officials from its government signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2 aboard the USS Missouri. It was the end of a series of losses for Japan, including the detonation of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, the declaration of war on Japan by the Soviet Union on August 8, and the launch of a second bomb on Nagasaki by the U.S. on August 9.

Fifty years later, American diplomats in Japan struggled with acknowledging the events of that fateful year in a way that would strengthen ties with an enemy-turned-ally yet not minimize the sacrifices of Americans who fought in the war. continue reading »


Far from the Madding Crowd — Leeds Castle and the Road to Camp David

jul-07-1978-middle-east-peace-talks-leeds-castle-dayan-and-kamel-meet-e11j6j“Where you stand depends on where you sit” – an oft-heard epigram used to describe negotiations. And it’s true – something as simple as a seating arrangement, with one side facing the other across a long table can only serve to encourage rigidity and a sense that the negotiations are a zero-sum game. Because of this, mediators will often get the conflicting parties in a neutral site to break the ice. That was precisely the idea behind the two-day conference of U.S., Israeli and Egyptian Foreign Ministers on July 18-19, 1978 at Leeds Castle in Kent, England.

Relations between Israel and Egypt remained tense after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Negotiations had gone on for five years and progress was frustratingly slow. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat helped break the logjam with his historic visit to Jerusalem in October 1977, while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin countered with a 26-point plan, which would set up an interim local Palestinian government on the West Bank for five years, while Israeli troops would continue to handle defense and security matters.  continue reading »


Thailand’s Bloodless Coups d’état

ThailandCoup2111When a country undergoes internal conflict and something as dramatic as a coup d’etat, the results can often lead to a dizzying shift in policies as well as an abrupt change in those who are in charge. In Thailand, the situation is different. The country has gone through 12 coups since 1932 (not counting a number that had failed or were thwarted), the process – though far from democratic — is usually bloodless and the change in government is often minimal.

The first successful coup in the 20th century occurred in 1932. In the Siam Revolution of 1932, military leaders overthrew King Prajadhipok and established a constitutional monarchy. This resulted in the first drafting of the constitution. continue reading »


When Friends Spy on Friends: The Case of Jonathan Pollard

imagesFormer Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard delivered over 800 highly classified documents to the Israeli government over a 17-month period. According to an article by Seymour Hersh published in the New Yorker, Pollard stole and sold militarily sensitive Signals Intelligence information, a year’s worth of memos by intelligence officers in the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet recording  their observations of Soviet planes, ships, and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea, documents on how Navy intelligence was tracking Soviet submarines, and material revealing the capabilities of one of America’s most highly classified photo-reconnaissance satellites.  In a 1998 op-ed published in the Washington Post, four former directors of naval intelligence noted that Pollard “offered classified information to three other countries before working for the Israelis and that he offered his services to a fourth country while he was spying for Israel.”

FBI agents arrested Pollard in Washington on Nov. 21, 1985 after he sought political asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 with a mandatory-parole clause after 30 years. He was released November 20, 2015. continue reading »


Operation Storm — The Battle for Croatia, 1995

croatia-3_1873537iAfter the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, the Balkans descended into a bloody ethnic and sectarian conflict. Although there were roughly six discrete Yugoslav conflicts, the first major war was the Croatian War for Independence. Starting in 1991, when Croatia declared its independence as a nation-state, the war was fought between forces loyal to the Croats and the Serb-controlled JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army). The JNA initially tried to keep Croatia within Yugoslavia by occupying all of Croatia. After this failed, Serb forces established the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) within Croatia. After the ceasefire of January 1992 and international recognition of the Republic of Croatia as a sovereign state, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was established and combat became largely intermittent in the following three years. continue reading »


Charlie Wilson’s Warpath

charlie_wilson300Congressman Charlie Wilson was a twelve-term United States Democratic Representative from Texas from 1973-1997 who was known by his (in)famous nickname “Good Time Charlie.” A self-proclaimed “ladies’ man,” Wilson embraced his hard-partying image, claiming that his constituents knew they were not electing a “constipated monk.”

Despite his playboy persona, Wilson was known for his passionate anti-Communism. He famously fought to increase U.S. funding and support for the Afghan Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, which was later described in a book and movie, both titled Charlie Wilson’s War.  Congressman Wilson made several trips to neighboring Pakistan on fact-finding missions – sometimes accompanied by one of his attractive “Charlie’s Angels.” continue reading »


East Germany Builds the Berlin Wall

Building of Berlin WallThe summer of 1961 was fraught with tensions between Moscow and Washington. Berlin, which had been a Cold War flash point during the Berlin Airlift, was once again the source of tension. Between 1949 and 1961, some 2.5 million East Germans fled from East to West Germany, most via West Berlin. President John Kennedy in a speech delivered on nationwide television the night of July 25, 1961 reiterated that the United States was not looking for a fight over Berlin and that he recognized the “Soviet Union’s historical concerns about their security in central and eastern Europe.” That was viewed by Moscow as an indication the U.S. would not respond militarily to any move it took regarding East Germany.

And so, on the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers began to install more than 30 miles of barbed wire barrier through the heart of Berlin and blocked East Berlin citizens who tried to travel to West Berlin.  continue reading »


Redesigning the Foreign Service Exam

InterviewThe Foreign Service Exam is one of the most selective of its kind in the United States. Of the thousands who take it every year, less than 3% of applicants will ultimately succeed in becoming Foreign Service Officers (FSOs).  The evaluation process includes: the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) an exam consisting of multiple choice and essay questions, a personal narrative submitted for review by the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), and the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), a day-long assessment comprising a written assessment, structured oral interview, and a structured group exercise.

The exam has undergone extensive changes over time.  In 1989, a court order found that the Department of State had discriminated against women in the written portion of the Foreign Service Officer Test, which led to initial changes in the exam. continue reading »


The Foreign Service Exam – Finding a More Diverse FSO

Foreign-ServiceThe process to become a Foreign Service Officer is long and grueling. If you successfully pass the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) multiple choice and essay questions, you then are asked to submit a personal narrative to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), which will determine if you will be invited to take the Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA), a day-long assessment comprising a written assessment, structured oral interview, and a structured group exercise. It is extremely competitive — of the approximately 20,000 people who take the FSOT each year, only about 500-700 are actually offered positions in the Foreign Service, about 2-3%.

Previous versions of the exam had their share of critics, however, and were determined to have been biased. In 1976, Alison Palmer filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of State for violating the Civil Rights Act after failing to get several higher ranked positions in the Foreign Service. continue reading »



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