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The Canadian Caper, Argo, and Escape from Iran

The years leading up to the autumn of 1979 in Iran proved to be turbulent, resulting in a radical transformation of the nation. The U.S had backed the semi-absolutist monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, even when the increasing popularity of Islamic fundamentalism, Iranian Nationalism, and opposition to western influence exploded, culminating in protests against the Shah in 1977. The Shah used increasingly brutal tactics to suppress rebellion; his actions only further inflamed the revolutionary fervor of the populace.

Organized armed resistance began in 1977. The Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979, leaving a provisional government in power. Meanwhile, the fundamentalist leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who had lead opposition movements before his exile, returned and resumed leadership over the revolution. Khomeini rallied his forces and disposed of both residual royalist troops and the provisional government that ruled in the Shah’s name, thus formally establishing himself as Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic. Rival factions were subverted, and Revolutionary Guards roamed the country to ensure the preservation of the new order.

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A Tale of Two Countries — and One Bizarre Hostage Situation

If you think your relationships are complex, consider the convoluted ties among Ghana, Guinea, and the United States in the mid-1960s. The friendship between Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, and Guinea’s first President, Ahmed Sékou Touré, proved problematic for the United States, and even led to the first U.S. diplomatic hostage situation, years before Iran.

Nkrumah and Touré were both anti-Western presidents of recently independent countries. In 1966 after Nkrumah was deposed while on a trip to China, Touré welcomed Nkrumah to Guinea, and named him Co-President of Guinea. Washington, which was glad to see Nkrumah go, had little desire to deal with him now in Guinea. However, the new Ghanaian government then kidnapped the Guinean Foreign Minister and said it would not release him until they got Nkrumah. On October 29, in an odd counter move, Guinea then detained American diplomats until their Foreign Minister was released. Read more

The U-2 Spy Plane Incident

On May 1, 1960, an America U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, causing great embarrassment to the United States, which had tried to conceal its surveillance efforts from the USSR. In 1957, the U.S. had established a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan in order to send U-2 spy planes into Soviet airspace and secretly sent the spy plane into Soviet territory.

Upon release of the news, the United States initially covered up the story by claiming the U-2 was a NASA aircraft that had gone missing north of Turkey. However, President Eisenhower had to eventually admit the mistake after the Soviets produced the missing U-2, the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, and pictures of Soviet bases that the spy plane had captured. Read more

The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 14-28, 1962

The early years of the Kennedy Administration proved to be a tense time in relations with the Soviet Union. Kennedy had decided to go ahead with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion (which had initially been authorized by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower) and then was severely tested during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened to cut off allies’ access and make Berlin a “free city.”

Just a year later, the United States noticed a large influx of weapons being transported from the Soviet Union to Cuba. Based on aerial surveillance, Washington realized these were nuclear missiles, capable of reaching much of U.S. territory. President Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22 as the world feared it was on the brink of a nuclear war. Read more

The Making of a Martyr – The Murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko

Polish opposition to Soviet-backed Communist rule gathered steam with the growing popularity of Solidarity. Founded in 1980 by future Polish President Lech Walesa, Solidarity was a movement and trade union that sought to effect social change and support workers’ rights in Poland. Owing to its growing influence and anti-Communist sentiment within Poland, the Polish government imposed martial law between December of 1981 and July of 1983, but eventually had to negotiate with the union.

The Catholic Church, led by Pope John Paul II (a Polish national himself), was a major supporter of Solidarity and the movement came to be closely identified with the Church.  Jerzy Popiełuszko was a young, charismatic Polish priest who openly criticized Poland’s communist government. His sermons, which took a firm stance against communism and incited many to protest, were broadcast by Radio Free Europe and responsible for his mass popularity. Read more

The Last Emperor – The Fall of Haile Selassie

None could be more considered more central to the modern history of Africa’s longest independent nation, Ethiopia, than Emperor Haile Selassie.  Regent from 1916-1930, he became emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930 and ruled for nearly 45 years. While Ethiopia was able to avoid colonization and remained a political leader and symbol of African independence throughout his reign, the feudal system of governance prevented the country from keeping pace with economic and technological developments happening elsewhere and the lack of progress eventually led to his ouster. More than most other authoritarian rulers, Emperor Selassie embodied one-man rule, ultimately to the detriment of his own health and the growth of his nation.

In the end, his efforts to modernize the country’s education system also contributed to his downfall, as foreign-educated students returned to Ethiopia seeking reform. Calls for change by students, the military and other members of the ruling family, combined with the emperor’s decreasing mental awareness, led to his abdication in 1974. Haile Selassie can be considered the world’s last emperor who held true political power.

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Sue McCourt Cobb: Ambassador and Summiteer of Mt. Everest

Climbing Mount Everest has long been the epitome of physical and mental endurance. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit on May 29, 1953, only some 4000 have been able to duplicate the feat; another 200 have died in the attempt.

Ambassador Sue McCourt Cobb learned first-hand how dangerous and grueling a climb up Mount Everest can be when she set out in 1988 to become the first woman from the United States to reach its summit. She traveled through China and Tibet and approached the mountain from the little traveled north side. Her ascent was made without Sherpas and without the use of oxygen. (All photos from Sue Cobb) Read more

French Colony to Sovereign State: Moroccan Independence

Moroccans celebrate November 18 as Independence Day in commemoration of their Sultan’s return from exile in 1955 and Morocco’s transition from French protectorate to autonomous nation the following year. France claimed Morocco as a protectorate in 1912. Moroccan nationalists would eventually base arguments for independence on declarations such as the Atlantic Charter, a U.S.-British statement that set forth the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which to live. Moroccan nationalists believed an Allied victory in World War II would lead to independence, but when it did not, in 1944 the Istiqlal (Independence) Party demanded self-rule.

A 1952 riot in Casablanca prompted French authorities to outlaw the Moroccan Communist and Istiqlal parties and to send Sultan Mohammed V into exile in Madagascar. This kindled opposition both from political nationalists and from those who revered the Sultan as a religious leader. Faced with such opposition, the French brought Mohammed V back to Morocco, where he negotiated independence through reforms that would transform the country into a constitutional monarchy. In 1956, France officially relinquished its protectorate.

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That’s What Friends Are For

One of the great advantages of being in the Foreign Service is the opportunity to live abroad, learn new languages, experience different cultures — and have some very unusual pets. Here are a few anecdotes about families who decided not to have their turkey for Thanksgiving and one boy who insisted on having a vulture as a pet. And for you more conventional types, we included a story about a dog. (Sorry, nothing here for cat lovers, though you can read this Moment about how one cat almost caused a military crisis.)  Read more

A Battle of Wills in Berlin, 1959

Throughout the Cold War, Berlin was one of the main battlegrounds for the psychological warfare between the United States and the USSR. The city had been divided among the four Allied countries, France, Great Britain, the U.S., and the USSR, after WWII when it quickly became clear that the powers had very different intentions for the city. As living standards in the East worsened, millions of people fled Soviet-occupied countries, many going through Berlin. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev then announced that Western powers no longer could remain in Berlin, and issued an ultimatum for the city to be demilitarized and turned over to East Germany within six months.

Kempton B. Jenkins, who was posted in Berlin from 1958-1960, recounts his experiences with the Soviets’ “salami tactics,” whereby they attempted to dominate Berlin “slice by slice,” with a series of provocations to test the West’s will, and how  he was able to get his views across when the White House ignored State Department reporting. Read more