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The U.S. De-recognizes Taiwan in Favor of Communist China — January 1, 1979

“The Government of the United States of America acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” With this Second Joint Communiqué of the U.S. and China, issued on January 1, 1979, the Carter Administration no longer recognized Taiwan as a sovereign state, but rather preserved the “cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.” The U.S. embassy there was abolished and its place the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was established. The change in U.S. position led to massive protests in the streets of Taipei when it was first announced on December 15, 1978. At right is the symbol of National Day in Taiwan, the Double Ten (for October 10, 1911 and the fall of the Qing Dynasty.) Read more

Castro’s Cuba – The Early Days

On January 1, 1959, after a sustained armed revolt led by Fidel Castro and others took control over most of the country, Fulgencio Batista fled Havana, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. With the departure of the despised dictator, there was initially hope that life in Cuba would improve. William Lenderking, arriving in Havana in March 1959, witnessed how optimism quickly gave way to fear and repression as the new government began indoctrinating youth and instituting widespread control over libraries, newspapers, and magazines. Lenderking concludes that Castro was never truly interested in good relations with the United States. Read more

New Year’s Eve with the Roosevelts

For most of us, New Year’s Eve means watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV. For a lucky few, it may mean a fun party. For Abraham Sirkin, December 31st, 1941 was spent at the White House, ringing in the New Year with President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Invited to the White House by the First Lady, Sirkin had the opportunity to rub elbows with a few political officials and FDR himself, who understandably was not in a very jovial mood. Sirkin was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May 1997. Read more

Ringing in Y2K — on Fiji

The Year 2000 Problem, more commonly referred to as Y2K, was a worldwide scare stemming  from the belief that when clocks ticked over from 1999 to 2000, chaos would reign as computers and everything they controlled, including stop lights, electrical grids, and even nuclear missiles,  would malfunction because the code, which was often written decades earlier, was not properly programmed to handle any year beginning with a 20–. Therefore many governments and private companies began rewriting code and taking precautions to prepare for this potential disaster. (The plot of the movie “Office Space” deals with one such company.) As the countdown to New Year’s Eve 1999 began, the world held its collective breath, waiting to see what the new millennium had in store. Read more

In Ambassador We Don’t Trust: Working Under the Leadership of the Infamous Turner Shelton

As movies like “The Devil Wore Prada” attest, bad bosses can make everyone’s life miserable (and can be quite entertaining for those who don’t have to work for them). When he served in Managua, Nicaragua, James Cheek had a front-row seat to Ambassador Turner Shelton, whom he describes as “the worst of the worst.” Shelton was notorious for his fawning admiration for Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and at times even had to be warned by Washington about his behavior.

As a result, Cheek’s tenure as Political Counselor consisted of trying to thwart Shelton’s efforts to rule the embassy as a monarchical ambassador. In an odd footnote, Somoza put Shelton on the 20 cordoba bill, which has to be one of the only times in history that a U.S. ambassador was so honored. But even with the darkest cloud there is often a silver lining:  Cheek notes that he learned from Shelton how not to behave as ambassador. Read more

The Lockerbie Bombing and Its Aftermath

On December 21, 1988, Pan American flight 103 flying from London Heathrow to JFK Airport in New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing a total of 270, including 11 people on the ground. Following a three-year investigation, murder warrants were issued in November 1991 for two Libyans. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi eventually handed them over for trial in 1999 after protracted negotiations and UN sanctions. In 2001 a Libyan intelligence officer was jailed for the bombing, but was released on compassionate grounds in August 2009, which sparked recriminations against the Scottish government. In 2003, Qaddafi finally accepted responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the families of the victims, although he maintained he never ordered the attack. Lockerbie remains the deadliest act of terrorism to occur in the United Kingdom.

Because of the criminal nature of the event, U.S. consular services had a negligible role in alerting next of kin and collecting the effects of the deceased. However, a major controversy erupted when it was discovered that some official Americans had supposedly been warned of a possible attack against a Pan Am flight and changed their plans. While this proved to be inaccurate, anger was focused on the Department, leading to numerous Congressional hearings and emotional outbursts from the victims’ families.  Ultimately, this tragic incident led to changes in procedure regarding American deaths overseas. Read more

The Dramatic Hostage Crisis and Daring Rescue at the Japanese Embassy in Peru

It sounds like something out of a novel:  a group of rebels, helped by an American, seize an embassy in a South American country and hold dozens of people hostage for more than four months. Indeed, the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis inspired the 2001 best-selling novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

The real-life crisis began on December 17, 1996 in Lima, when 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), a Marxist-Leninist organization dedicated to the overthrow of the Peruvian government, blew a hole through the wall of the Japanese ambassador’s residence and took hostage more than 700 high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party celebrating Emperor Akihito’s birthday. While most of the hostages – including all the Americans — were soon released, 72 were held hostage for 126 days, until they were rescued on April 22, 1997, during a raid by Peruvian Armed Forces commandos. The commandos entered the residence by digging holes under the floor, detonating explosives and rushing into the building. Read more

John S. Service – The Man Who “Lost China,” Part II

John Service, the son of missionaries who grew up in China, was one of the Department’s “China hands,” an expert on the region who also served as a key member of the “Dixie Mission,” which met with Mao and other Communist Chinese in Yenan in 1944. He and a few others correctly predicted that Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Kuomintang, would fall because of the KMT’s corruption, incompetence and brutality.

However, this position ran afoul of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who  blamed Service and his colleagues for “losing China” because of their Communist sympathies. In 1950, McCarthy singled out Service as one of “the 205 known communists” in the State Department; he was dismissed from the Foreign Service on December 13, 1951. Read more

The Civil War in China, Part II –The Dixie Mission and Losing China

After attempting to convince Washington that a civil war in China was imminent and that the Communists would be the likely victors, John S. Service and a group of other U.S. diplomats traveled to Yenan in July 1944 to meet with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Nicknamed the Dixie Mission, the U.S. Army Observation Group spent several months there learning about the Communists, who were involved in a bitter struggle with Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT). Ultimately, Washington’s view towards China did not change and, if anything, became more anti-Communist. Read more

The Civil War in China, Part I – The Bureaucratic Fight in Washington

Oftentimes the greatest foreign policy struggles are not with the host government but rather with the government bureaucracy back home. Such was the case with China in the 1940’s in a fight that would define geopolitics for a generation and would ultimately ruin the careers of those diplomats who were on the losing side.

After the death of China’s last post-emperor autocratic ruler in 1916, China was left without any recognized central authority and fragmented into a nation of competing warlords. Sun Yat-sen united the early Kuomintang (KMT) parties in 1919. The KMT gradually increased its influence from its base in Guangzhou, but was unable to control  all of China. With Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek became the leader of the KMT. The fledgling Communist Party of China joined the KMT in the United Front, which allowed the KMT to seize power throughout most of China by 1927. Chiang then purged the Communists from government.  A civil war between the two sides lasted until the Second United Front was formed in 1936 to fight the Japanese. Read more