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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.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre — June 4, 1989

tanksThe 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square was one of the most heart-wrenching displays of state suppression of peaceful assembly in recent history. Following the death of pro-reform Communist leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989, thousands of Chinese students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to march in his memory. Within days the gathering had transformed into a mass demonstration against corruption in the government, with calls for democratic reforms. The students were joined by civil workers, intellectuals, and public servants; at the height of the protests, up to a million people assembled in the Square.

By mid-May protests had spread to 400 cities. After several failed negotiations to persuade the protesters to leave, the government resolved to use force. Soldiers and tanks from the People’s Liberation Army were deployed to take control of Beijing and clear Tiananmen Square on June 3-4. The PLA opened fire on the crowds, killing hundreds to thousands of civilians. continue reading »


The Chinese Interpreter Who Said “No” to President Nixon

china Nixon and MaoIt is one of the most important Presidential visits in American history. Richard Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao led to a diplomatic opening with China and greatly altered geopolitics. Being a member of the official delegation was, of course, a great honor, and everyone did what they were asked to do by the White House. That is, except for Chas Freeman, who was the senior interpreter. continue reading »


Another Crazy Day in the Consular Section

cons Angry-BusinessmanConsular officers need to be prepared for whatever American citizens traveling abroad can throw at them. The consular section can often be a chaotic and stressful environment, as Foreign Service officers try to deal with an array of characters, usually with demands as outlandish as their personalities. Alexander Watson, who later became an ambassador, served at Embassy Madrid from 1964 to 1966 as a consular officer. The following account details his experiences with some of the most interesting Americans ever to walk — or sometimes stumble — into an American embassy. continue reading »


Sic Semper Tyrannis – The Assassination of El Jefe, May 30, 1961

DR trujillo-chevyRafael Trujillo, El Jefe, ruled the Dominican Republic as dictator from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo gained prominence after the U.S. occupation in 1916. He joined the National Guard in 1919, trained with U.S. Marines, and earned the rank of general only nine years later. In 1930, a rebellion broke out against President Horacio Vasquez. Trujillo made a secret deal with rebel leader Rafael Estrella Urena whereby Trujillo could run for president in new elections. Estrella’s rebels were allowed to capture the capital and Trujillo, the only candidate allowed to run, claimed victory with 95% of the vote and immediately assumed dictatorial powers. His reign was marked by bloody massacres, stringent laws, and an overbearing personality cult. His rule is considered one of the bloodiest in the Americas and responsible for more than 50,000 deaths.  continue reading »


Japanese Terrorists in Israel

Lod Airport MassacreOn May 30, 1972, Israeli security at Lod  Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) was caught by surprise when three Japanese travelers opened fire upon their arrival. Airport security was focused on possible Palestinian attacks. The Japanese Red Army members, who were trained in Lebanon by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and were casually dressed, were able to get by undetected. The terrorists carried a violin case containing a Czech Vz 58 rifle. They were also armed with grenades and plenty of ammunition. Two of the three attackers were shot and killed during the massacre, the other was wounded and captured, but not before 26 people were killed. Seventeen victims were U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico, one was from Canada, and eight were Israeli. Since 2007 Puerto Rico has commemorated the death of its 17 Christian pilgrims every May 30th on “Lod Remembrance Day”. continue reading »


Relying on the Kindness of Strangers — The Start of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation

Una Chapman CoxEstablished in 1980, the Una Chapman Cox Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the effectiveness and professionalism of the U.S. Foreign Service. Its founder, Una Chapman Cox, created it after a Foreign Service officer named Royal Bisbee got her out of a dilemma in Bombay in 1948. Her gratitude inspired her to do what she could to help the Foreign Service. You can learn more about the foundation here.

In the following excerpts from ADST’s oral history collection, Royal Bisbee, who was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2010, gives his account of his fateful encounter with Ms. Cox. Betty Atherton, a Foreign Service spouse interviewed by Mary Louise Weiss in 1987, talks about the creation of the foundation. continue reading »


Born in the Congo: The Experience of Giving Birth During a Civil War

Congo-Baringa_HospitalEmergency medical care in developing countries can be problematic, if not wholly inadequate. Even more so in the 1960s. When you’re expecting twins. In a country in the midst of a civil war. However, when Terry McNamara’s wife went into labor in the conflict-ridden Province of Katanga in the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1961, they had to tough it out at a small, understaffed and scant clinic with only a nun, and later, a doctor. With a cigar. continue reading »


The Attack on the U.S. Compound in Benghazi — September 11, 2012

benghazi_probe_11_15_2012The attack began the night of September 11, 2012, at a compound that is meant to protect the consulate building in Benghazi, Libya. A second assault early morning the next day targeted a nearby CIA annex in a different diplomatic compound. Four people were killed, including  Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Ten others were injured. The attack was strongly condemned by the governments of Libya, the United States, and many other countries. The following is the transcript of Gregory Hicks’ testimony, delivered May 8, 2013 before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Darrell Issa (R-CA), regarding the events of Sept. 11, 2012, in Libya. Hicks served as Deputy Chief of Mission and was at Embassy Tripoli on the night of the attacks. continue reading »


Tom Clancy Bombs Korea

Clancy Op-Center_coverRemember when renegade South Korean soldiers set off a bomb in Seoul during a festival and make it look like it was done by North Korea? And how the head of the Operations Center and the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Gregory Donald had to prove that North Korea had nothing to do with it before the situation got hostile? No? That’s because it was only the plot of a 1995 Tom Clancy novel, inspired in part by the career of real-life Ambassador Donald Gregg, who served in the Central Intelligence Agency for 31 years, including in Korea, and was Ambassador to South Korea from 1989 until 1993. Here he discusses his 2002 visit to the Hermit Kingdom of the North and its attempts to understand the U.S. better, including by reading Tom Clancy novels. continue reading »


Independence and “Catastrophe”: The Deadly Founding of Israel, May 14, 1948

Israel Ben-Gurion declaring independenceOn May 15, 1948, the UK withdrew from Palestine. (It had been given a mandate over the territories after it defeated the Ottomans in World War I.) The evening before, David Ben-Gurion, President of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declared Israel’s statehood and independence. This prompted the Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Saudi Arabian armies to invade Israel. Thus began the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Israelis beat back all of their attackers and established Israel as a state. To this day the war is known as the War of Independence in Hebrew and The Catastrophe in Arabic. continue reading »