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 Iran Hostage Crisis — Part I

iranian hostage crisis_1November 4, 1979 – Radical Iranian students take over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and hold 52 Americans hostage. The embassy had been seized in February of that year, shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris, but that was resolved quickly; few suspected that this diplomatic crisis would end up lasting 444 days and cost the lives of eight soldiers who died during the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt on April 24, 1980.

Bruce Laingen was Charge d’affaires of the embassy and was one of three people who spent most of that time held hostage at the Foreign Ministry. In this interview, conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting in January 1993, he discusses the run-up to the takeover, his stay at the Ministry, the “Canadian caper,” which became the inspiration for the movie Argo, and the negotiations which led to their eventual release. continue reading »


Tie a Yellow Ribbon — The Iran Hostage Crisis as Seen from the Home Front

yellow ribbon on treePenelope (Penne) Laingen is the wife of Bruce Laingen, who had served in Germany, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan before being named ambassador to Malta in 1977.  He was sent back to Iran to serve as Charge d’Affaires, and had been there for only a few months when the U.S. Embassy was overrun by student protesters.  In this interview, Penne Laingen describes the agony of the hostage crisis from the spouse’s perspective, the now ubiquitous yellow ribbon campaign she started, and the chronic frustration of dealing with the U.S. government. She was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi starting in March 1986. Read Bruce Laingen’s account here. continue reading »


The Missiles of October

pawn!October 14, 1962, witnessed the start of one of the most potentially devastating moments in history, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photographs taken by a high-altitude U-2 spy plane offered clear evidence that Soviet medium-range missiles — capable of carrying nuclear warheads — were now stationed 90 miles off the American coastline.

Tensions between the U.S. and the USSR over Cuba had been steadily increasing since the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Though the invasion did not succeed, Castro was convinced that the United States would try again, and set out to get more military assistance from the Soviet Union. During the next year, the number of Soviet advisers in Cuba rose to more than 20,000. continue reading »


Lessons Learned from a Former Hostage

In Captive in the Congo, Mike Hoyt describes his ordeal as one of 300 hostages taken by armed rebels. They were eventually rescued in a joint U.S.-Belgian operation code-named Dragon Rouge. In this article, he discusses U.S. government policy on hostages and argues for a re-evaluation, contending that the longer people talk with hostage-takers, the greater the chances are that the hostages can be saved.  He was interviewed by Ray Sadler in 1995; these excerpts were taken from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Country Reader. continue reading »


Those Little Bastards at the State Department

Ah, the power of bureaucrats! It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re talking about the upper echelons of the State Department or the lowly ranks of the DMV, some people just never learned to share. Theodore Achilles, who later became ambassador to Peru, served in Washington as Chief of the British Commonwealth Division in the State Department from 1941 to 1945.  Here he relates Secretary of State Byrnes’ view of the very Department he oversaw.  He was interviewed by Richard D. McKinzie in 1972.

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Captive in the Congo

Michael Hoyt was Commercial Officer in Leopoldville from 1962 until 1965 and was serving as interim Principal Officer in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) when he and his staff, along with 320 other people, were taken hostage by the rebel Simbas.  Held for 111 days, they were eventually rescued in a joint U.S.-Belgian operation code-named Dragon Rouge on November 24, 1964. He talks of how they had to destroy classified material and fight off the rebels at the consulate before they were taken hostage, the many times they thought they would be executed or fed to the crocodiles, the daring rescue, and the less-than-positive feelings he had toward the ambassador who ordered him to stay at the consulate. Hoyt is a recipient of the Secretary’s Award for his actions and was interviewed by Ray Sadler in 1995. These excerpts were taken from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Country Reader.

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Operation Dragon Rouge

William E. Schaufele, Jr. was the Congo Desk Officer at State from 1964 to 1965, when 330 people, including the staff of the U.S.consulate, were taken hostage by Congolese rebels in Stanleyville (now Kisangani). Held for 111 days, they were eventually rescued in a joint U.S.-Belgian operation codenamed Dragon Rouge. Schaufele, who later served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, from  1975 to 1977, was interviewed by Lillian Mullin on November 19, 1994.

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The Cairo Fire of 1952

The Cairo Fire, also known as Black Saturday, was a series of riots that took place on January 26, 1952, marked by the burning and looting of some 750 buildings and the country’s Opera House in downtown Cairo. It was triggered by the killing of 50 Egyptian auxiliary policemen by British occupation troops a day earlier. The spontaneous anti-British protests that followed these deaths were quickly seized upon by organized elements in the crowd, who burned and ransacked large sectors of Cairo amidst the unexplained absence of security forces. King Farouk appointed a series of short-lived cabinets but they failed to restore public confidence. As a result, instability over the next six months helped pave the way for the Free Officers coup on July 23, 1952. That in turn resulted in Farouk’s forced abdication and the abolition of the monarchy a year later.

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Dancing with the Stars…And Stripes

Soapy WilliamsMichael Rives joined the Foreign Service in 1950 and served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Brazzaville from 1963 to 1966.  In this excerpt from his oral history, he remembers the rather unforgettable Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.  G. Mennen Williams, whose grandfather, Gerhard Heinrich Mennen, founded the Mennen line of men’s personal care products, was nicknamed “Soapy” and wore a trademark green bow tie with white polka dots.  After serving 12 years as the governor of Michigan, he served in the Kennedy Administration and had a unique way of keeping diplomats on their toes.  continue reading »


A Hostage in Communist China, 1948-49

Mukden -China,_Mao_(2)As Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army swept through China during the Civil War against the Nationalists in 1948 and 1949, it took over Mukden (now Shenyang), a major trade center. The Communists demanded that American Consul Angus Ward surrender the consulate’s radio transmitter. Ward refused. In response, PLA troops surrounded the consulate on November 20, 1948, putting Ward and 21 staff members under house arrest. For months, without communication, water, and electricity, Ward and the other Americans were completely isolated.  continue reading »