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Windshield Tour of a Military Coup in Benin

The small Western African country of Benin (formerly Dahomey) has had a turbulent post-colonial history. Since gaining independence from the French in 1960, the country has experienced various forms of government, coups, periods of military rule and ethnic strife. A number of politicians rose and fell from power in a series of coups between 1960 and 1972.

On October 26, 1972, the army led by Commander Mathieu Kérékou overthrew the government, dissolved its governing bodies and suspended the constitution.  In November 1974 he announced that the state would be Marxist-Leninist, and banks and the petroleum industry were nationalized.

In 1975 the country was renamed the People’s Republic of Benin.

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Eyes of the Dragon — Under Surveillance in China

The extent of the surveillance operations of the Soviet KGB is legendary, but the Soviet Union was not the only country to maintain an intelligence service. China established its own version, known as the Ministry of State Security (MSS), to provide for national security, gather foreign intelligence, and coordinate surveillance activities to identify subversive activities against the government. Although the MSS generally keeps a low profile, U.S. diplomats have inevitably come into contact with Chinese security over the years, creating memorable stories along the way. Read more

An Opportunity Lost — The 1991 Iraqi Uprising

In the days following the decimation of the Iraqi Army during Operation Desert Storm, groups of Iraqi minorities, specifically the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north, seized on the weakness of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces to try and overthrow the Iraqi Baathist regime that had oppressed  them for decades. At the behest of President George H. W. Bush, protesters and Iraqi Army deserters began to take over major cities such as Basra and Kirkuk; they believed that with anticipated American aid they could overthrow Saddam Hussein and end his tyrannical regime.

At one point, the Kurdish forces in the north and Shia protestors in the south controlled 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces.  However, American aid never materialized, leaving the Shia and Kurdish rebels vulnerable to attack by Iraqi Army helicopters and tanks. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images) Read more

Drug-Sniffing Mongooses and Other Tales of the Sri Lankan Civil War

In July 1983, tensions increased between Tamil minority separatists and the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka, erupting into civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or the Tamil Tigers) fought to create an independent state in the northeast of the island nation.  Most of the fighting took place in the north, but the conflict moved to the capital Colombo in the 1990s with devastating suicide bombings.

The civil war would continue for next twenty-five years, creating both economic and political instability, inhibiting tourism and leading to international condemnation of human rights abuses as casualties mounted. The violence led to the deaths of over 70,000 people.

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Day of Atonement, Day of Animosity – The 1973 Yom Kippur War

For Egypt and Syria, the 1967 Six-Day War was a bitter defeat at the hands of long-time foe Israel. They wanted to regain the Sinai and the Golan Heights while Egyptian President Anwar Sadat also wanted to reopen the Suez Canal. On October 6, 1973 they launched a surprise attack on Israeli positions in the Israeli-occupied territories on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism, which also occurred that year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The hostilities in turn led to even greater tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which began to rearm their allies, Israel and Egypt. Fears of a large-scale battle in the Middle East, perhaps escalating to the Cold War superpowers themselves, ultimately persuaded all involved to back away from the abyss and negotiate a peaceful resolution. Read more

From Victim of Nuremberg Laws to “Kissinger’s Kissinger”

The Nuremberg Laws were introduced by the Nazi government in Germany on September 15, 1935 to ostracize and impoverish its Jewish population. The laws prohibited marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans, limited employment and revoked citizenship.  Jewish workers and managers were fired and Jewish businesses sold to non-Jewish Germans at prices far below market value. Jewish doctors were forbidden to treat non-Jews and Jewish lawyers were barred from practicing law.

By the start of the Second World War in 1939, more than half of Germany’s 437,000 Jews had emigrated to the United States, Palestine, Great Britain, and other countries. In December 1941, Hitler decreed that the Jews of Europe should be annihilated; an estimated 6 million people died in the resulting Holocaust.

Among those caught up in these winds of war was the family of Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who emigrated to the U.S. and had a long, distinguished career in foreign policy. Read more

So Many Soldiers, So Little Protection — The Pillaging of Iraqi Culture, 2003

As the cradle of civilization, Iraq has thousands of years of history and artifacts that provide a glimpse into the origins of human civilization and customs. When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, thousands of artifacts, priceless pieces from centuries of different cultures and civilizations, were destroyed and stolen as U.S. forces made little effort to try to preserve Iraq’s cultural artifacts. While many artifacts were eventually recovered or returned, it is difficult to ascertain the true scope of the pillaging as the Ministry of Culture did not have a complete inventory.      Read more

“Drain Your Glass” — Alcoholism in the Foreign Service

Each and every job has a certain set of requirements and restrictions. Alcohol has played a large role in diplomacy, helping to lubricate relations at state receptions, meetings with heads of state, or just with other diplomats at the end of the day. Unfortunately, for some people, the constant exposure to alcohol and expectation to imbibe may lead to a drinking problem.

These excerpts deal with the issue of alcoholism in the workplace and how the Foreign Service dealt with it, beginning in the 1960s, when people did not know quite what to do, to later years when more and more people began to view alcoholism as a disease.    Read more

A Dissident for Dinner — George H.W. Bush’s Ill-Fated Banquet in China

An essential part of being an ambassador is knowing how to push the envelope when it comes to dealing with repressive regimes and opening up to human rights, while also ensuring that these efforts do not cross the line and detrimentally impact the relations between the two countries. Succeeding in such policies requires a delicate touch, especially so when it comes to a nation as tough on dissent and free speech as China.

Winston Lord had to walk this tightrope as Ambassador to China, when Embassy Beijing was preparing for President George H.W. Bush’s state visit. The Embassy had proposed inviting several people to the February 26, 1989 state dinner, including renowned scientist and dissident Fang Lizhi. Although the Chinese had given their approval for the guest list, they reneged just a few days before the start of the visit. Read more

The “Lavender Scare”: Homosexuals at the State Department

In the 1950s and 60s, security within the U.S. government, including the State Department, was on high alert for internal risks, particularly Communists and what were considered to be sexual deviants—homosexuals and promiscuous individuals. Investigating homosexuality became a core function of the Department’s Office of Security, which ferreted out more people for homosexuality than for being a Communist.

In 1950, a subcommittee chaired by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings convened to investigate Joseph McCarthy’s notorious list of “205 known communists.” Tydings worked to discredit McCarthy’s claim, but, in the process, the subcommittee concluded that the State Department was overrun with “sexual perverts,” part of the so-called “Lavender Scare.”  Read more