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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 Show Trial of U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers

Francis Gary PowersOn May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured. The Eisenhower administration initially attempted to cover up the incident but was soon forced to admit that the U.S. had been conducting reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union for several years. The ensuing diplomatic crisis ended a period of warmer relations between the two superpowers and heightened Cold War tensions.

During the course of his captivity, Powers was interrogated at length and found guilty of espionage after a show trial. continue reading »


Four Days in September — The Kidnapping of the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil

four days in septemberIt sounds like something out of Hollywood. Indeed, it was made into a Brazilian movie in 1997 with Alan Arkin (in his pre-Argo days). Charles Burke Elbrick, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, was kidnapped and held for four days in September 1969. What made the incident so strange was that Fernando Gabeira, a member of the guerrilla group called the Revolutionary Movement 8th of October (MR8) and a key figure in Elbrick’s kidnapping, later wrote a book called O que é isso, companheiro? (“What’s this, comrade?”) in which he discusses the kidnapping and his armed resistance to the military dictatorship. Gabeira lived in exile for several years and was elected federal deputy for Rio in 1995. In a 2009 interview he said he was “in error” in kidnapping Elbrick; however, he is still not allowed a visa to travel to the U.S. The movie Four Days in September was nominated for several awards, including Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards. In these excerpts, Elbrick’s widow Elvira discusses her husband’s kidnapping and life after his release, as well as how she “got even” with Richard Nixon. continue reading »


The Assassination of Ambassador Spike Dubs — Kabul, 1979

Spike_DubsAdolph “Spike” Dubs was a career diplomat who served in Germany, Liberia, and the Soviet Union. He became a noted Soviet expert, and in 1973-74 he served as charge d’affaires at Embassy Moscow. In 1978, he was appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan following a coup d’etat which brought the Soviet-aligned Khalq faction to power.

On February 14, 1979, Dubs was kidnapped by armed militants posing as police. The kidnappers demanded the release of the imprisoned leader of their party. Hafizullah Amin’s government refused to negotiate with the militants. Dubs was then assassinated. A successor to Dubs was not named and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The U.S. embassy was finally closed in 1989 as security deteriorated.

Documents released from KGB archives in the 1990s showed that the Afghan government clearly authorized an assault on the kidnappers despite forceful U.S. demands for peaceful negotiations and that the KGB adviser on the scene may have recommended the assault as well as the execution of a kidnapper before U.S. experts could interrogate him. continue reading »


Ignoring Washington for the Sake of Argentina

While human rights in foreign policy has generally enjoyed broad bipartisan support for several patt_derianyears now, it was not always so. As Secretary Clinton noted at the 35th anniversary celebration of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) in June 2012,  there were ” plenty of critics at post and in this building who said we have no business pestering people about human rights, that it would only get in the way of real diplomacy.” In these excerpts from his oral history, taken from the Subject Reader on Human Rights in Latin America, Robert S. Steven, who served as a political officer in Buenos Aires from 1976 to 1977, talks about how the embassy’s leaders at that time did the unthinkable and ignored high-ranking officials from Washington. continue reading »


The USS Pueblo Incident — Assassins in Seoul, A Spy Ship Captured

Pueblo Newspaper HeadlineJanuary of 1968 saw two of the most serious incidents to occur on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. Skirmishes had become common along the demilitarized zone since 1967, but none were more brazen than the attempt by North Korean commandos to assassinate President of South Korea Park Chung-hee the night of January 21. An elite North Korean unit successfully crossed the DMZ and came within 100 meters of the Blue House, the president’s official residence, before being thwarted by South Korean security forces.

The failure of this mission may have prompted the North Koreans to seize the American naval intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, on January 23. While collecting signals intelligence in international waters near the North Korean coast, the ship was attacked and captured, with one crew member killed and the rest taken hostage. continue reading »


Incoming! Surviving SCUD Attacks in Dhahran

Scud-launcherKen Stammerman was economic counselor in Kuwait from 1986 to 1987 before becoming consul general in Dhahran in 1989. Home to the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or ARAMCO, Dhahran hosted many American citizens during Stammerman’s service.  It was also the target for numerous SCUD missile attacks during Desert Storm. Here he talks about the fear in the American community over the attacks, the difficulty in trying to evacuate people while SCUDs are falling and the “silly, stupid, media-driven game” of gas masks. You can read U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman’s account of Desert Storm here. continue reading »


A Real Life “Thunderball”: The Day the U.S. Lost Hydrogen Bombs in Spain

Thunderball closeupThe March 2009 edition of Time magazine called it one of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” On January 17, 1966, a B-52 bomber of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) carrying four hydrogen bombs collided with a tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000 feet over the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. The tanker was completely destroyed when its fuel load ignited, killing all four crew members. The B-52 broke apart, killing three of the seven crew members aboard.

Three hydrogen bombs were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares. However, the non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impact with the ground, resulting in the contamination of 490 acres. The fourth fell into the sea and was eventually recovered intact after a 2½-month-long search.

News stories related to the crash began to appear the following day, and it achieved front page status in both the New York Times and Washington Post on 20 January. Reporters sent to the accident scene covered angry demonstrations by the local residents. The incident had an eerie similarity with the recently released James Bond movie Thunderball, in which SPECTRE steals two NATO H-bombs, which end up submerged on the ocean floor of the Bahamas. continue reading »


Desert Storm: “The War Never Really Ended” — Part II

Chas_W_FreemanChas Freeman was U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and consulted frequently with General Norman Schwarzkopf and others on the conduct of the war.  In this segment, he discusses his frustrations in dealing with Washington, his preoccupation with “visitor management”, his lack of respect for the media which covered the war, and the absence of a war termination strategy, which meant that the war never really ended and nothing was fully resolved. continue reading »


Desert Storm “The War Never Really Ended” — Part I

saddam_hussein01It was the first major foreign policy crisis for the U.S. since the end of the Cold War.  Iraq, which had built up the fourth-largest army in the world with U.S. assistance, was heavily in debt after its costly eight-year war with Iran. It pressured Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to forgive its debts, but they refused. Iraq had claimed, since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1932, that Kuwait was rightfully Iraqi territory, and accused Kuwait of exceeding its OPEC quotas for oil production.

This all came to a head in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a major supplier of oil to the United States, and also threatened Saudi Arabia.  In the last months of 1990, the United States participated in the defense of Saudi Arabia in a deployment known as Operation Desert Shield. continue reading »


Senator Chuck Hagel on Foreign Policy Challenges

HagelSenator Chuck Hagel, who has been nominated by President Obama to be the next Secretary of Defense, was awarded ADST’s Ralph J. Bunche Award for Diplomatic Excellence in February 2010.  In his extemporaneous acceptance remarks, Hagel stressed the importance of questioning past assumptions and of understanding new international frames of reference in facing new challenges. He called for a spirit of consensus among our national leaders and for accommodating common interests among nations in unpredictable and unstable times.  At right, Senator Hagel with ADST President Ken Brown. continue reading »