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Leaving with Their Heads Held High – The U.S. Expulsion from Eritrea, 1977

Throughout its history, there have been numerous occasions where the United States has been forced to shut down its embassies quickly, usually because of war or because the U.S. had fallen into disfavor with the host government.  Eritrea in 1977 was one of those instances. However, with the fall of Saigon and the panicked evacuation from the embassy still fresh on people’s minds, the American staff was determined to leave with calm and dignity – and leave little parting gifts for Soviet intelligence as well.   

Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie had enjoyed strong bilateral ties with the United States until 1974, when the Derg, led by President Mengistu Haile Mariam, took control of Ethiopia. Eritrea would not gain its independence until 1993. Relations with Ethiopia under the Derg quickly deteriorated because of its growing ties to the USSR and its human rights abuses. Among other things, this impacted the Kagnew Station, established as an Army radio base in Asmara, Eritrea in 1943. American personnel at the station were gradually reduced amidst the Ethiopia-Eritrea fighting. In January and September 1975, four American contractors were abducted from the facility in two different raids. Although the station was important to Army communications, the U.S. had planned to close Kagnew by September 1977. Instead, in April 1977 Mengistu ordered the expulsion of several Americans in Ethiopia and the closure of Kagnew Station by April 29.

Ambassador Keith L. Wauchope, interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in March 2002, served as Deputy Principal Officer in Asmara from 1975-1977. Because the Consul General was out of the country at the time of the expulsion order, Wauchope coordinated the evacuation as Chargé d’affaires. He talks about the difficulties of dealing with the Ethiopian government, especially as a mid-level FS-03 officer, the creative ways they found to destroy classified materials and weapons, and paying off the last bills before they departed.

Read also about the fall of Phnom Penh and diplomats who have been declared persona non grata.


“Eritrea fell below the radar”

WAUCHOPE: The Horn of Africa is sort of a crossroads in a lot of ways between Islam and Africa and of the Christian-Muslim conflict. There are lots of longstanding feuds and territorial disputes in the region. There were not only the Eritrean separatists, but the Tigrean separatists just to the south of Eritrea. They were pretty quiescent at that time. As history has shown, however, they became the dominant force in Ethiopia when they took over the government in Addis. There was also the Oromo liberation movement in southeast Ethiopia which was becoming more active. There was also an insurgent group along the Sudanese border.

The Derg were really under siege in a lot of ways, hence, it became more autocratic and more disinclined to listen to other points of view. [President] Mengistu himself felt that he had to eliminate all potential opponents or contestants for power.

The government became more and more distasteful as time went on, and the U.S. conducted assessments to determine how important Ethiopia was to our regional and global interests. The response from DOD [Department of Defense] focused on the ongoing commitment to support the U.S. military forces in the Indian Ocean and in the Gulf, and that was working well.

There was no budget for any replacement facility at this time, as it seemed to be a relatively cheap operation. Given the Department’s policy horizon at that time, Eritrea fell below the radar. To take a cynical perspective, all the costs of the political upheaval, including the kidnapping of five Americans and the death of the two technicians, were all civilian contractors. The navy complement was only 13 and it administered the operation while these civilian technicians operated the facility.

It was a low-cost operation and no one was ready to pull plug saying it was no longer important. If Kagnew shut down, then the Consulate General would have shut down as well. Our other interests in Eritrea were limited and increasingly not worth the risk. There were some American missionaries there and we wanted to follow events there, but it would never have been enough to warrant maintaining a consulate….

There was some concern that the Soviets were looking for a Red Sea port for rest and refit and refueling their ships. Ethiopia’s relationship with the Soviets began to improve under the Derg because it was looking for alternative source of weapons, and the Derg leaders started parroting leftist jargon. Mengistu declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist. The Soviets were very pleased; they thought they had a convert and did not have to try very hard to persuade them. Marxist-Leninism, as was the case in many other Third World countries, was an instrument of maintaining political control over their people more than it was philosophical conviction.

If you had asked Mengistu what the tenets of Marxist-Leninism were, he would have a damned difficult time telling you. Basically it was a unifying concept that allowed him to require loyalty of all his subordinates, and he was the head of the Supreme Soviet, if you will, of Ethiopia. As this process developed, there were concerns that the Soviets were moving in to replace the U.S., and there were reports that the Soviets were seeking the right to take on fresh water and to refuel in Massawa.

This had a very sinister tone. We didn’t like the concept of the Soviets being in the Red Sea in any capacity, but the Ethiopians were going to do what they were going to do. We didn’t have much influence remaining as we were increasingly viewed as an unreliable arms supplier by this time. So, we were concerned….

“The expulsion was an extraordinary exercise”

This brings me to the closure of Kagnew and our expulsion from the country. It turned out that the relationship was now very bad and we were receiving reports that the Soviets and the Cubans were gaining influence in Addis and that they were prodding the Ethiopians to change the relationship with the United States because the Americans were unreliable .

Our Consul General, Bob Slutz, had long planned a trip to Europe for R&R. He departed on a Friday morning. I remember because it was the Saturday afternoon that we learned of the expulsion order.

We had just come back from playing volleyball over at Kagnew when I got a call from Addis saying that they had just received a diplomatic note saying that five U.S. activities in Ethiopia were to come to cease operations and depart the country in four days. They included Kagnew and the Consulate General in Asmara. Also it was the U.S. military mission, the DAO [Defense Attaché Office], and a naval medical experiment facility. Those three were in Addis. We were to make plans right away to how we would carry out the closeout….

I got on the phone with the Kagnew  Naval commander and the ranking leader of the contractors, and we started our planning. The next day was Sunday. Of course they gave the expulsion order on a Saturday because they knew Sunday was a non-functioning day and it would make things that much more difficult for us. The expulsion was an extraordinary exercise that ended up lasting six days. We got a two-day extension on the third day.

I was the Chargé. The thought of getting Bob Slutz, the CG, back quickly vanished when they figured they couldn’t get him back in any reasonable period of time. So they had to count on me, an FSO-3 [mid-level officer], to manage the evacuation. It turned out to be just constant chaos. I remember the first night we had all these plans by phone and radio, constantly calculating what we would need to do, what the phases would be, what we needed to get out and how we would get the people out. I got two hours of sleep that first night.

On Sunday we started to get things together and immediately found that we had two Americans down in Massawa on R&R. The two liaison guys had been transferred out, but Kagnew folks still went on R&R down there. I went to the new martial law administrator and asked his help in getting these people out. He immediately saw an opportunity to essentially keep them hostage to be sure that we behaved ourselves and followed their orders.

“The Ethiopian guards turned against our people”

Unfortunately, at the first facility that we started to shut down things went awry. The Ethiopian guards, who were supposed to protect us, now turned against our people and came onto the compound. They went into the buildings and prevented them from destroying the classified equipment, and there was a confrontation.

The men at the site foolishly tried to sneak out some firearms in the trunk of a car and they were caught at it. That tore it. The Ethiopians said we could no longer go back to this compound. Well, we had a lot of classified equipment still there. We communicated the situation to Washington in a flash message because American lives are at risk. The Navy said we had to destroy this communications equipment that is very sensitive, but they had no suggestions as how to do so.

So on Monday we started negotiations with the Ethiopian authorities. I had taken a course on emergency evacuation several months before, and this was one of the times when training actually served some benefit in the course of this negotiation.

In the negotiating course we were told that every detail is important. The first thing you want to figure out is what should be the physical location of the talks. You want to take the opposite sides of the table and put them at the greatest disadvantage that you can. Things like having the sun shine in their eyes. Also, they said, if you know the size of the other delegation provide one less chair than that number so they are scrambling around for a chair and it puts them at a disadvantage. So I dredged up all the things that I had learned in this course, which at the time I thought was kind of silly.

The Ethiopian delegation was all senior military officers and there was the pre-planned scramble for seating. I was able to lay out for them the issues that we absolutely had to have, and one of them was access back to this facility. Among other points, I asserted that we were immune from search. They countered that everybody’s baggage would have to be searched. We went back and forth on this point.

Just to give you an idea of this issue, at the Consulate we had something like 30 or more firearms. We had perhaps seven carbines left over from when Kagnew was a bigger operation. Our local Ethiopian guards were paid off and told to leave the compound.

So, in the dead of night, I had our Marines smash all these weapons into pieces and threw them down the defunct well. We didn’t want to turn weapons over to the Ethiopians. They did insist that we turn over the .45 automatics from our contract guards. The Marines had several Uzis, shotguns, and their side arms and we just simply weren’t going to turn them over. We had seven classified communications machines at the Consulate. We immediately destroyed five of them along with all of the classified material in the Consulate. We kept two machines operating, and one principal and one backup.

Throughout the negotiation, I sent messages to Addis and Washington and asked that they squeeze the Ethiopians because they are the host of the Organization of African Unity. We had friends among the African delegations, and I wanted the U.S. to go to the government in Addis and demand that they not search our materials. The argument was Ethiopia cannot be the host of the OAU and yet treat consular officials without regard for internationally recognized privileges and immunities. The embassy did prevail upon the authorities and after a while the Ethiopians relented. They let us go back to the abandoned facility and agreed that they would not inspect our effects.

Before we went back to the site we worked out a destruction plan in advance. First, we decided the essential equipment that we had to destroy, and then a strategy to do so while the Ethiopians weren’t paying attention. We decided to have our people carry clipboards as if they were inventorying everything. When the guards got bored with following them around, then they would actually remove what they had to destroy.

Things worked out remarkably as we had planned. Those pieces they couldn’t disable they destroyed by putting them in a drainage sump with an automatic pump. They would detach as much of the components from the circuit boards as possible and put the pieces in this sump. Whenever anyone put their hand in the sump, the pump would automatically roar into action which would make people disinclined to probe into the sump. They were able to take every element out of it that was classified and needed to be destroyed. We were able to pack and ship out some of the unique equipment.

“The Eritreans just wanted their piece of the pie”

On Tuesday, the Ethiopians agreed to extend the evacuation by two days. On Wednesday, the first two C-141s landed. These 141s they brought in some Air Force cargo handlers with a forklift trucks and by now the Ethiopians were more cooperative on what we were being allowed to take out. So we sent out about a third of our people, including the two from Massawa who had just returned by air that morning, as well as most of our people’s effects.

When the first C-141 was loaded and departed, the second aircraft was barely half full. The Air Force guys said, “Don’t you have anything else to take out? We’re headed back out to Greece.” They saw the principal officer’s Chevrolet, which was armored, and it had arrived about three months earlier after months in transit. They said just drive it in the back of the C-141….

Besides the two people from Massawa, we had a senior contract employee who had a common-law marriage with an Eritrean woman and she had a child. He wanted to evacuate her and the child together with him. This proved a major problem as they were Ethiopian nationals and not subject to the expulsion order. So after several attempts, I dug out a copy of the Ethiopian law code and I cited the law to the Martial Law Administrator. I knew I had him nailed as the woman qualified under their law for a common law marriage.

After a long hesitation, he replied, “Maybe Ethiopian revolutionary law will have to prevail in this case.” I asked if that law had been codified. If not, the prevailing law is what the Ethiopian code says. Unless you can show me that it has been superseded by some subsequent law, it is still the law of your land. In the end, he let the woman and her child leave with us. It was a very exciting and exhilarating time.

The DOD was moving ships in toward the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. A destroyer was dispatched into the Red Sea to provide support if it were needed. Realistically, the Navy would have had to come to Kagnew by helicopter, and at 7,700 feet, a helicopter can’t carry much in the way of a payload. So, the C-141s were the way to go.

As an operational manager at that time, what I felt was necessary was not only to give clear directions to everybody but also to get them all working together and to prevent our people from doing stupid things. One of our contractors who was packing out his household effects at his villa downtown had too much to drink and he started throwing his clothes and possessions over the wall. This created a disturbance. Of course the police arrived and threatened his arrest. This is just what we didn’t need. This fellow was sent out on the first plane.

Another minor crisis was that our local employees, including the unions at Kagnew, demanded to be paid off before we departed. The Ethiopian authorities supported this demand. So I sent a message to the Department and DOD and they authorized the payment in the form of statements of obligations to pay, which fortunately satisfied our Eritrean workers. Without the cooperation of these employees, our evacuation would have been much more difficult.

Then the telephone company said we couldn’t leave until we paid their bill as well. I said, talk to the Derg, they ordered the evacuation. I told them to send the bill to our Embassy. I even had to deal with an Ethiopian who lived across the street from me. Weeks before, my gardener had left the brake off in my car and the car had rolled across the street and damaged the neighbor’s cement block fence. He now said that I couldn’t leave until I’d paid to fix his fence. When the Eritreans heard the Americans were leaving after 35 years, they just wanted their piece of the pie before we closed down.

“I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t being driven out with our tails between our legs”

That said, we had a very clear sense that the Eritrean people felt that the forced evacuation of the Americans was the last straw. When the Americans go, they feared that the Ethiopians would be unleashed to conduct ethnic cleansing which would result in great suffering once all the foreigner observers were gone. We tried to reassure them.

We also had to try to reassure our FSNs [Foreign Service Nationals, locals who work in the embassy] that we would help them. We would have loved to taken them with us on the plane with us, but we couldn’t. Nonetheless, they helped us right to the last minute with the pack-out, getting our gear aboard, and liaison with the local authorities. It was really extraordinary. Thank God, all of our principal FSNs got out of Eritrea….

In the last days we made a point of sanitizing of the Consulate offices destroying all calendars, schedules, calling cards etc.

On the other side of the coin, we did plant some things in our desks. I left papers that looked like codes slipped into stacks of blank paper. They were from Dungeons and Dragons.

Even more lethal than that, out at the Kagnew site we were forced out of they placed a destruction packet in a closet. This phosphorous blanket, meant to melt a safe, was detonated by a ring on a string. Some guy put the blanket on a high shelf in a closet, and then had the string hanging down like a light cord, thinking that would teach them. We were persuaded that the Soviets were going to come in right after we left to search for intelligence. This motivated us to see to it that we did the most thorough destruction possible. We retrieved about three and a half million dollars’ worth of equipment, unique classified equipment. We left nothing that they could use.

In terms of executing our evacuation, I think we all did an excellent job. My only regret was not packing up the CG’s silverware, but I did make the Ethiopians sign for the compound. On the very last day, it was a Friday, I made out a receipt for the Consulate and our property.

The last C-141 was to take us out that early afternoon. I organized a ceremony formally closing the consulate with our heads up. We had three Marines left and they were in their dress uniforms. We ceremonially lowered the flag. All the FSNs were there. We played the national anthem on a tape recorder. The Marines lowered the flag, folded it, and they handed it to me and I marched out with it. We then got into a convoy joining the last people from Kagnew and drove down the main streets.

People lined the streets to see the Americans leave. Some people were in tears to see the Americans go. In part, they were concerned for themselves, but also, they were sorry to see the end of that relationship which had been a very good one for both sides. We headed to the airport and we said tearful goodbyes to our FSNs on the tarmac, and wished them the best.

We got on the plane and taxied to takeoff. When we were wheels up, we all had a great sense of relief. In that six days of the evacuation I’d probably had a total of ten or 12 hours of sleep. When the plane lifted off there was a great cheer from all the people on board. Off we went to Athens. My one regret was that my wife at this point was assigned in Nairobi….I wanted to try return to the U.S. via Nairobi to see my wife, as we had been married for just six months. Unfortunately, any flight going from Athens to Nairobi went through Addis. So I asked the embassy if they would see if I could get an Ethiopian transit visa. I found out through this effort that I had been PNG’d [declared persona non grata]. I was not allowed even to transit Addis. So I didn’t get to see my wife for another five months.

Anyway, I received a presidential letter of commendation and a superior honor award and other recognition. I sent out a final telegram from Asmara explaining what we had done, how our group had operated superbly as a team, and of course, praise for all the help that they’d received from all American agencies. I tried to make our evacuation an exercise we could take some pride in doing professionally and with dignity.

I had served in Vietnam and the departure of Americans from Saigon was, I thought, disgraceful, and I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t being driven out with our tails between our legs. So we made a proper show of it. Everybody seemed to appreciate the effort that we had made in that regard.

Closing the Consulate and Kagnew station was the end of an era. Ironically, the U.S. is now back in Asmara. We reestablished relations when Eritrea became independent in 1993. We are back in the same compound, which the Eritreans turned back over to us.