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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 Bombing of U.S. Embassy Beirut — April 18, 1983

Beirut Security at the US EmbassyThe suicide bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon on April 18, 1983 was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission up to that point. The blast killed 63 people, 17 of whom were Americans. The attack is thought of as the beginning of anti-U.S. attacks from Islamist groups. Along with the Marine Corps barracks bombing that same year, the terrorist attack prompted a review of security measures at the Department of State and led to the creation of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and the Diplomatic Security Service. Ambassador to Lebanon Robert S. Dillon recounts the explosion, the Hezbollah terrorists, the issues with embassy security, and how the attack changed his life. You can read Diane Dillard‘s account as a consular officer and Anne Dammarell’s thesis on the effects the bombing had on survivors. continue reading »


Crossing Qaddafi’s Line of Death – April 15, 1986

Moammar GadhafiThe late 1980s saw an alarming decline in U.S.-Libyan relations. A plane hijacking and airport attacks in Rome and Vienna in 1985, all linked to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi  further escalated tensions between the two countries. The U.S. discovered that surface-to-air missiles were being deployed in Libya around the same time. In contravention of international sea regulations, Qaddafi also claimed the whole Gulf of Sidra for Libya, drawing the so-called “Line of Death” on the Mediterranean. This led to the United States bombing of Libya on April 15, 1986. Michael Ussery, Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for Near East Asian Affairs from 1985 to 1988, recounts the run-up to the attack, the plans to topple Qaddafi, how the Libya desk officer refused to participate in the planning on moral grounds, and the blowback encountered over plans to spread disinformation through the American media. continue reading »


Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady

Thatcher-locOne of the most prominent political figures in Cold War history, Margaret Thatcher, led Britain as the only female prime minister from 1979 to 1990. In these brief excerpts from their oral histories, Tom Niles recalls the surprisingly acrimonious meeting between President Reagan and Thatcher over sanctions, which eventually led to Secretary of State Haig’s resignation. In a very different anecdote, Lynne Lambert, who was trade policy officer at Embassy London, tells of a rather awkward situation with the Chancellor of West Germany. continue reading »


Operation Eagle Pull before the Fall of Phnom Penh

phnom penh 1975It took place in the shadow of the dramatic evacuation from Saigon, which signaled the close of an era and the end to a U.S. presence in Vietnam. However, the fall of Phnom Penh proved to be an even greater tragedy, as it paved the way for a takeover by the ruthless Khmer Rouge, whose leader Pol Pot orchestrated the Cambodian Genocide, in which an estimated two million people died from 1975 to 1979. On that day in April 1975, the U.S. embassy had to respond to try to save as many people as it could. continue reading »


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 »