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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.

A Soul Filled with Shame –The Rwandan Genocide, April 7- July 18,1994

rwandan-genocideA colony of Belgium until 1962, Rwanda became dominated politically by the minority Tutsis. During the independence movement, the majority Hutus seized control of the government, killing thousands of Tutsis and forcing even more into exile. Many fled to Burundi and Uganda as refugees. Tensions between the two ethnic groups continued to fester over the course of the next two decades, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in 1990. Exiled Tutsis regrouped as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and led an invasion to overthrow the Hutu-controlled government and re-establish themselves in Rwanda. Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Hutu president of Burundi were then killed on April 6, 1994, when their airplane was shot down as it was landing in Kigali. continue reading »


“Two Men, One Grave” — The Execution of Pakistan’s Ali Bhutto

Pak zulfikar-ali-bhutto11Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), served as president of Pakistan in the 1970s.  By 1977, opposition against Bhutto and the PPP had grown due to incidents of repression, corruption, and alleged election fraud. Violence escalated across Pakistan, and Bhutto was overthrown by his army chief, General Zia-ul-Haq. Bhutto was put on trial for authorizing the murder of a political opponent, and executed on April 4, 1979. However, his party remains Pakistan’s largest national political party, and his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, served as Prime Minister before her assassination in a 2007 bombing. Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, served as President from 2008-13. continue reading »


The Somalis will do Without the Slobber, Mr. Ambassador

kid-kissing-pigWhen traveling abroad, it’s always good to remember local customs and cultural aversions. It also doesn’t hurt to remember that not all people love your dog as much as you do. This excerpt is taken from Stephen Keat’s oral history. continue reading »


An American in Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”

DolgunHe was a victim of cruel fate, a young American living in the USSR forced to endure unimaginable torture and brutal beatings, who would later be one of the many sources for Gulag Archipelago. In 1933 Alexander Dolgun’s father went to the Soviet Union to work as an automotive technician; however, when his short-term contract expired, he was not allowed to leave. Alexander and his sister Stella thus grew up in Moscow during the Great Purge and World War II. He started working at Embassy Moscow in 1943 at the age of 16. In 1948 he was apprehended by State Security and interrogated at the notorious KGB headquarters at Lubyanka on suspicions of espionage. He was brutally tortured and finally forced to “confess.” He was then transferred to Sukhanovka prison, which was known for being even worse than Lubyanka. His nightmare had only begun. continue reading »


House for Rent in the War-torn Congo–Three Baths, no Squatters

baluba-warriors-in-the-central-congo-province-of-kasai-train-for-battle-with-homemade-small-arms-on-january-2-1961 Balubas in CongoHousing for FSOs was not always provided on assignments abroad. Francis Terry McNamara had to find housing for himself and his family in many different places, some under unconventional situations. McNamara tells about his house-hunting in Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi), Congo in 1962 after the city had been ravaged by an attempted insurrection and continued unrest since independence in 1960. With the help of an Indian Gurkha colonel, McNamara was able to secure a fixer-upper, but one with some drawbacks. continue reading »


FSO Ends Up in an Irish Stew Over His Christmas Letter

Mr. PotatoWe’ve all wanted to blow off steam about our boss, co-workers, or those troglodytes in Human Resources. Robin Berrington, who served as Public Affairs Officer in Dublin from 1978 through 1981, was no different. He talked about his frustrations with his job and with Ireland in general in what was supposed to be a private Christmas letter in 1980 to friends and family, writing things like, “The country has food and climate well matched for each other — dull.”  People have said much worse. However, someone somehow leaked the contents of Berrington’s letter to the media and all hell broke loose. The Irish tabloids ran headlines like “American Embassy Diplomat says We Irish Are Small Potatoes.” And then it went downhill from there. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2000. continue reading »


When Visa Officers Went Bad

Visa Fraud handcuffsConsular officers are often the face of the U.S. government overseas.  They are the ones interviewing visa applicants, dealing with prospective adoptive parents, helping U.S. citizens who have had their passports stolen or gotten in a scrape with the law. It can often be a demanding job, with weekend calls as duty officer or the emotionally draining meetings with people who unexpectedly lost their loved ones during a trip abroad [See Dealing with Death]. Consular officers, like other FSOs, routinely endure hardships in service to their country. In rare instances, for reasons of venality or misplaced sympathy, they may take a wrong turn.  continue reading »


Japanese Fishermen and the Bikini Atoll H-bomb Blast

800px-Castle_Bravo_BlastOn March 1st, 1954, the U.S. conducted its largest hydrogen bomb test ever near the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. An unexpected blast of 15 megatons — 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb — affected Australia, India and Japan with widespread radioactive fallout. The Fortunate Dragon (Daigo Fukuryū Maru), a Japanese fishing boat, was about 150 kilometers from the blast and was gravely affected. At least one crew member died due to direct exposure. The U.S. initially tried to cover up the incident. The shock stemming from the tragedy helped further an anti-nuclear movement in Japan. It also inspired the 1954 movie Godzilla, in which the nuclear test awakens and mutates the monster, which then attacks Japan. continue reading »


The Day Stalin’s Daughter Asked for Asylum in the U.S.

Stalin_with_daughter_Svetlana,_1935On March 9th, 1967, Svetlana Alliluyeva —  Joseph Stalin’s only daughter — walked into the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and requested political asylum. No one knew she was even in India. (She had traveled there in 1966 in order to place the ashes of her boyfriend, an Indian Communist she had met in Moscow, in the Ganges; she then stayed at his family’s home.) After several countries refused to allow her to stay permanently, she finally was allowed to come to the U.S. Upon her arrival in New York in April, she held a press conference in which she denounced her father’s regime and the USSR. She later lectured and wrote at Princeton before moving to Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona at the behest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow. She died in 2011. continue reading »


The Red Scare Hits the Foreign Service Institute

FSI SollenbergerThe Foreign Service Institute plays a central role in the training of American diplomats and other professionals in the U.S. foreign affairs community. Decades of experience and its hundreds of course offerings–from language and area to studies to management and technical training–have made FSI uniquely qualified in this regard. Despite its importance, the Institute’s existence was once put in jeopardy.

FSI was still a young institution when the Red Scare and McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s. It had been in business only since 1947, but it had already developed a record of successful training, especially in its language programs thanks to the efforts of people like Howard E. Sollenberger.  A future Director of FSI, Sollenberger was a professor of Chinese studies and an executive officer of the language school at the time. In the following excerpts from his oral history, he discusses how FSI unjustifiably came under suspicion during the McCarthy period. continue reading »