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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 Terrorist Attack on the Saudi Embassy — Khartoum, 1973

Khartoum_hostage_cristsLess than a year after its members murdered 11 Israeli athletes and one German police guard during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the infamous Palestinian terrorist group Black September Organization (BSO) on March 1, 1973 launched a brazen raid on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, kidnapping U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) George Curtis Moore, along with the Saudi ambassador, his wife and four children, and the Belgian and Jordanian charges d’affaires, who were all attending a farewell dinner in honor of Mr. Moore. The BSO demanded the release of Arab militants. President Nixon said in a March 2 news conference that the U.S. would “not pay blackmail.” Ambassador Noel, Moore, and the Belgian were allowed to write final letters to their wives; they were killed 12 hours later. continue reading »


Nixon Goes to China

Nixon_Mao_1972-02-29“There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” Richard Nixon, after his election in 1968, pushed for better relations with China despite historical tensions and hostilities. In 1971, National Security Advisor and future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took two trips to China – the first made in secret – to consult with Premier Zhou Enlai. After more than two decades of icy relations, Nixon embarked on a trip to China starting on February 22, 1972. Not only did this visit strengthen Chinese-American relations, but it also served to encourage progress with the USSR. continue reading »


McCarthy’s Red Herring

senator-joseph-mccarthyWith his infamous Wheeling, West Virginia speech on February 9, 1950, in which he declared he had a list of communists working in the State Department, Senator Joseph McCarthy ushered in one of the darker periods in the post-war era.

The speech came at a time when the fear of communism and communist infiltrators in American society was at an all time high, exacerbated by alarming developments like the “loss of China” to communism and the successful detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union. The case of Alger Hiss, accused of spying for the Soviets while working for the State Department, made McCarthy’s allegations plausible. This environment enabled McCarthy to spearhead the movement to investigate suspected communist dissidents within the State Department and elsewhere.

Often, he relied on colorful rhetoric to make up for a lack of evidence. His tactics contributed to creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation throughout the Department. A number of people were unjustly accused and were either forced out or suffered lasting damage to their reputations. One such person was Vladimir I. Toumanoff. continue reading »


President Nixon Meant to Thank Faisal, not Faisal

09269L01.jpgLess than a month before President Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, he took a presidential tour of the Middle East.  The trip was meant to strengthen U.S. relations with the region as well as provide the president with a respite from the onslaught of bad press at home due to the infamous Watergate scandal. The following took place at a state dinner in June 1974, most likely the 14th, about a year before the assassination of King Faisal, the monarch of Saudi Arabia, at the hands of his own royal nephew. Hume Horan served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Saudi Arabia from 1972 to 1977. Photo by AFP. continue reading »


“You’re nothing but a two-bit dictator” – Dealing with the DR’s Rafael Trujillo

TRUJILLO MOLKnown as “El Jefe,” or “The Chief,” Rafael Trujillo ruled as dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years. During this time, more than 50,000 people were killed under Trujillo’s oppressive and corrupted regime. He was assassinated in 1961, less than a year after Ambassador Joseph Farland left the Dominican Republic. Farland served as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic from 1957 to 1960. continue reading »


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 »