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.

Finale of the Persian Monarchy and Prelude to the Iranian Revolution

imagesFJ3M4EYBMohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, departed Tehran on January 16, 1979 to seek medical treatment and to escape growing political unrest in the country he ruled. The Shah had consolidated his hold on power after the 1953 U.S.-backed overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh and was considered a vital ally to the U.S., a leader in fighting communism and promoting regional stability.  Iran had been increasingly prosperous and the Shah’s grip on power unassailable.

Pahlavi’s fortunes changed when his “White Revolution” of social, economic and political reforms stalled with the end of the 1960s oil boom and his secret police (SAVAK) ramped up their vicious repression of political dissidents. Observers at home and abroad began to question the regime’s viability in light of reports of rampant corruption and human rights abuses. Self-aggrandizing acts by the Shah, notably an extravagant commemoration of the 2500 years of Persian monarchy held in the ruins of Persepolis, consolidated political opposition and propelled unrest into revolution. continue reading »


Persistence, Vision and Luck: Creating a Center for Diplomatic Training

IMG_6157Can you imagine the bureaucratic struggles involved in persuading the Department of Defense to hand over acres of prime real estate for a State Department training facility and then convincing Congress to authorize the transfer? This impossible dream was accomplished thanks to vision, persistence and a large dose of luck by a small group of individuals; among them, Stephen Low (seen right). The Department of State was founded in 1789, but it took more than another century before the opening of the first school for diplomats, which provided basic tutelage on foreign policy and consular operations. More detailed instruction was given in a school that opened in 1920.

It wasn’t until the Foreign Service Act of 1946 that Congress mandated advanced training for diplomats, and in 1947 the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) opened in the Mayfair Building in Washington, D.C. FSI relocated to two State Department annex buildings in Arlington, Virginia, then to its permanent home at Arlington Hall, previously the Arlington Hall Junior College, and later an Army installation. FSI opened at its new location, the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, in October 1993. continue reading »


Agent Orange and the Vietnam War

AGENT-ORANGEIn 1961, United States forces in Vietnam began to use chemical herbicides and defoliants on South Vietnamese crops, bushes, and trees in order to deprive the Vietcong of both food and cover for ambushes. Code-named Operation Ranch Hand, the campaign used a variety of herbicides but the most commonly used, and most effective, was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted on the 55-gallon drums in which the mixture was stored. It was one of several “Rainbow Herbicides” used, along with Agents White, Purple, Pink, Green and Blue.

Ultimately spraying more than 20 million gallons of herbicide on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the campaign destroyed five millions acres of forest and untold millions of acres of crops. Many of those exposed to Agent Orange, Vietnamese and Americans alike, suffered health complications as a result, and scores of children were born with severe birth defects which were believed to be linked to the herbicides. continue reading »


Bad Blood: The Sino-Soviet Split and the U.S. Normalization with China

dragon bearIn the 1960s, in the depths of the Cold War, the world was viewed in terms of a zero-sum game: wherever the USSR won, the U.S. by definition lost. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), despite its massive size, was considered to be the Soviets’ little brother and thus not a real player. The State Department and others were hesitant to improve relations with China as they believed it was more important to focus on the Soviet Union which, after all, was a nuclear superpower. Cracks in the USSR-China relationship then began appearing, which led President Richard Nixon to pursue improving ties with Beijing, a move which drastically altered the dynamics of the trilateral power game. continue reading »


Observing the Fiftieth Anniversary of VJ-Day in Japan

tumblr_nu0nupKQKn1r65o3qo2_1280How to commemorate an important anniversary of the country in which you’re posted when it marks a low point in the bilateral relationship? World War II came to an end when Imperial Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945; officials from its government signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2 aboard the USS Missouri. It was the end of a series of losses for Japan, including the detonation of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, the declaration of war on Japan by the Soviet Union on August 8, and the launch of a second bomb on Nagasaki by the U.S. on August 9.

Fifty years later, American diplomats in Japan struggled with acknowledging the events of that fateful year in a way that would strengthen ties with an enemy-turned-ally yet not minimize the sacrifices of Americans who fought in the war. continue reading »


Far from the Madding Crowd — Leeds Castle and the Road to Camp David

jul-07-1978-middle-east-peace-talks-leeds-castle-dayan-and-kamel-meet-e11j6j“Where you stand depends on where you sit” – an oft-heard epigram used to describe negotiations. And it’s true – something as simple as a seating arrangement, with one side facing the other across a long table can only serve to encourage rigidity and a sense that the negotiations are a zero-sum game. Because of this, mediators will often get the conflicting parties in a neutral site to break the ice. That was precisely the idea behind the two-day conference of U.S., Israeli and Egyptian Foreign Ministers on July 18-19, 1978 at Leeds Castle in Kent, England.

Relations between Israel and Egypt remained tense after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Negotiations had gone on for five years and progress was frustratingly slow. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat helped break the logjam with his historic visit to Jerusalem in October 1977, while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin countered with a 26-point plan, which would set up an interim local Palestinian government on the West Bank for five years, while Israeli troops would continue to handle defense and security matters.  continue reading »


Thailand’s Bloodless Coups d’état

ThailandCoup2111When a country undergoes internal conflict and something as dramatic as a coup d’etat, the results can often lead to a dizzying shift in policies as well as an abrupt change in those who are in charge. In Thailand, the situation is different. The country has gone through 12 coups since 1932 (not counting a number that had failed or were thwarted), the process – though far from democratic — is usually bloodless and the change in government is often minimal.

The first successful coup in the 20th century occurred in 1932. In the Siam Revolution of 1932, military leaders overthrew King Prajadhipok and established a constitutional monarchy. This resulted in the first drafting of the constitution. continue reading »


When Friends Spy on Friends: The Case of Jonathan Pollard

imagesFormer Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard delivered over 800 highly classified documents to the Israeli government over a 17-month period. According to an article by Seymour Hersh published in the New Yorker, Pollard stole and sold militarily sensitive Signals Intelligence information, a year’s worth of memos by intelligence officers in the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet recording  their observations of Soviet planes, ships, and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea, documents on how Navy intelligence was tracking Soviet submarines, and material revealing the capabilities of one of America’s most highly classified photo-reconnaissance satellites.  In a 1998 op-ed published in the Washington Post, four former directors of naval intelligence noted that Pollard “offered classified information to three other countries before working for the Israelis and that he offered his services to a fourth country while he was spying for Israel.”

FBI agents arrested Pollard in Washington on Nov. 21, 1985 after he sought political asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 with a mandatory-parole clause after 30 years. He was released November 20, 2015. continue reading »


Operation Storm — The Battle for Croatia, 1995

croatia-3_1873537iAfter the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, the Balkans descended into a bloody ethnic and sectarian conflict. Although there were roughly six discrete Yugoslav conflicts, the first major war was the Croatian War for Independence. Starting in 1991, when Croatia declared its independence as a nation-state, the war was fought between forces loyal to the Croats and the Serb-controlled JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army). The JNA initially tried to keep Croatia within Yugoslavia by occupying all of Croatia. After this failed, Serb forces established the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) within Croatia. After the ceasefire of January 1992 and international recognition of the Republic of Croatia as a sovereign state, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was established and combat became largely intermittent in the following three years. continue reading »


Charlie Wilson’s Warpath

charlie_wilson300Congressman Charlie Wilson was a twelve-term United States Democratic Representative from Texas from 1973-1997 who was known by his (in)famous nickname “Good Time Charlie.” A self-proclaimed “ladies’ man,” Wilson embraced his hard-partying image, claiming that his constituents knew they were not electing a “constipated monk.”

Despite his playboy persona, Wilson was known for his passionate anti-Communism. He famously fought to increase U.S. funding and support for the Afghan Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, which was later described in a book and movie, both titled Charlie Wilson’s War.  Congressman Wilson made several trips to neighboring Pakistan on fact-finding missions – sometimes accompanied by one of his attractive “Charlie’s Angels.” continue reading »