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Returning the Crown of Saint Stephen to post-Cold War Hungary

For centuries, it was the national symbol of a nation. For decades, it was kept in Fort Knox for safekeeping. The Crown of Saint Stephen dates back to the year 1000, when Stephen, a devout Christian and the patron saint of Hungary, became King and Pope Sylvester II gave him the crown as a gift. From the twelfth century onward, the Crown of Saint Stephen was used in the coronations of some fifty kings. At the end of World War II, the Hungarian crown jewels, along with the Crown, were eventually given to the United States Army by the Hungarian Crown Guard to keep them out of the hands of the Soviet Union. The Crown was kept at held Fort Knox, Kentucky alongside the bulk of America’s gold reserves and other priceless historical items.

President Jimmy Carter made the controversial decision to give the crown back to Hungary based on evidence that it had improved its human rights record and allowed for travel of its citizens. On Epiphany, January 6, 1978, a U.S. delegation led by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and including Senator Adlai Stevenson, Congressman Lee Hamilton, and Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi, returned the crown to Hungary. Read more

The Afghan Invasion as Seen from U.S. Embassy Moscow

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was, among other things, a horrible political miscalculation, lasting nine bloody years and resulting in the death of some one million civilians as well as forcing millions of others to flee the country. It led to another cold spell in U.S.-Soviet relations as the Carter administration responded by boycotting the USSR’s pride and joy, the 1980 Summer Olympics, and lobbied other countries to do likewise.  Read more

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan — December 1979

It was to last nearly a decade and would plant the seeds for the rise of the Taliban and Islamic terrorism and the subsequent invasion by the U.S. more than 20 years later.  On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan and immediately assumed complete military and political control of Kabul and large portions of the country. It was the only time the Soviet Union invaded a country outside the Eastern Bloc. Read more

Re-establishing Ties with Cuba, 1977

“Cuba ought to be free and independent, and the government should be turned over to the Cuban people.” That in many ways summarizes decades of U.S. policy towards its island neighbor. However, the quote is not by John F. Kennedy or George W. Bush, but rather by President William McKinley — which demonstrates rather clearly that the intense feelings each has towards the other are rooted in a history that long pre-dates Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.

Attempts to improve relations and ultimately lift the U.S. trade embargo have stalled for various reasons over the years, until President Barack Obama’s historic announcement on December 17, 2014, that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba. In many ways, the U.S. has been here before: back in 1977, the Carter administration decided to establish ties with Cuba, with the goal of ultimately lifting the embargo and establishing embassies. While there was initial progress, relations were again put on the back burner over Cuban troops in Africa and increasing involvement in Central America. Read more

“Like Star Wars and Fiddler on the Roof” — Life with the Sinai Field Mission

The relative peace between Israel and Egypt, particularly on the Sinai, has been one of the few bright spots in the Middle East in the last 40 years. In 1975, Israel made a key compromise to withdraw from the strategic Giddi Pass and Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for monitoring by third parties. The United States established the Sinai Field Mission to monitor access to the passes and carried out reconnaissance flights. Political leaders in both countries eventually praised the system. The increased cooperation helped lay the groundwork for the 1979 Camp David Accords, signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which provided for a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.

The initial peacekeeping force was provided by the Sinai Field Mission, while efforts were made to create a UN force. SFM operations officially ceased in April 1982 when the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) came into existence. Russel Sveda was one of the first Americans to serve in the SFM, from December 1977 through February 1979 and tells some fascinating stories about what it was like to work on a desert frontier he describes as “Star Wars” with the cast of “Fiddler on the Roof” — and that was just the Israeli camp. Read more

An Axe Murder Triggers a Standoff in Korea’s DMZ, 1976

The United States and North Korea have not had the best relations, to put it mildly. Even in a place like Cuba, which Washington does not recognize diplomatically, the U.S. has an Interests Section which can get a better idea of the situation in country and which can serve as a channel, however imperfect, with Havana. Not so in Pyongyang. Over the decades, there has been a raft of provocative incidents which fortunately did not lead to all-out war between the two sides. The most notable of these is the 1968 USS Pueblo incident in which North Korea, having failed to assassinate the South Korean president, decided to follow up by seizing an American surveillance vessel in international waters; the crew was held for nearly a year. Most recently, Sony Pictures, which was behind the December 2014 movie The Interview, was hacked; North Korea, thought to be by many to be the perpetrator, denied involvement while it applauded the act.

One of the most bizarre, and potentially inflammatory, incidents, was the axe murder of two United States Army officers by North Korean soldiers on August 18, 1976, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The U.S. Army officers had been part of a work party cutting down a poplar tree in the JSA that was blocking the view of United Nations observers. Read more

The Bhopal Chemical Disaster

On December 3, 1984, a gas leak began at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide located in Bhopal, India.  Due to the leak of more than thirty tons of chemicals and the highly toxic gas, methyl isocyanate, over half a million people were exposed to the toxic substances immediately that night as densely populated slums and shanty towns surrounded the plant.  The immediate death toll from the initial release of the toxic gas was confirmed by the State Government to be 3,787 people.  Individuals exposed to the gas suffered from cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest, burns in their throats and eyes, as well as nausea.  Within two weeks, more than 8,000 individuals had died.  Over the years, it is estimated that 15,000 deaths, and over half a million injuries and disabilities were directly caused by the Bhopal disaster.     Read more

In Vino Veritas

Josip Broz, better known by his nom de guerre Tito, was a tough warrior who had been a member of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet secret police years before he was able to break Yugoslavia away from Stalin’s grip. Although by the 1960s, relations with the United States had improved, Averell Harriman was tasked with the unenviable duty of discussing Vietnam with him. The conversation started off on a bad foot and seemed to get even worse when Tito suddenly left the room, apparently in a huff.  Read more

Not-So Full Disclosure

So you have been entrusted with a very important mission — in this case, trying to convince several countries in the 1950’s to allow take-off and landing of a new, super-secret aircraft, the U-2, which would allow the U.S. to conduct surveillance over the USSR at such a high altitude that Soviet MiG-17s would be unable to shoot them down. One problem, however — a few key countries, like Pakistan, would not normally allow U.S. spy planes on their territories. What to do, what to do? Such was the dilemma of Anthony Marshall, who worked at the CIA at the very beginning of the U-2 program. (At right, a U-2 with fictitious NASA markings at Edwards Air Force Base, 1960.) Read more

Moscow in the 1950s

The General Services Officer or GSO is responsible for carrying out such functions as contracting, clearing goods through customs, maintenance, and warehouse supervision. It is an important job (ask any FSO who has been to a post with a bad GSO) and often one of the more under-appreciated ones. However, in interesting places they can have some of the more interesting stories. Like Joseph Neubert, who served at Embassy Moscow from 1953-56, first as a GSO then as a Political officer. Here he talks about scrubbing rugs, irate clientele, a July 4 reception conversation with WWII military hero Marshall Georgiy Zhukov, and the next-to-impossible process of getting a driver’s license.  Read more