On March 23rd, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, signaling a massive paradigm shift in U.S. policy on nuclear policy. Dubbed “Star Wars” after the 1977 movie, SDI represented Reagan’s rejection of Mutual Assured Destruction. MAD had fostered an uneasy peace during the Cold War as neither the U.S. nor the USSR attacked the other knowing that it would in turn be the target of a massive nuclear retaliation annihilating it (and much of the planet). By extension, so the argument went, a weapons system that could deflect most of an opponent’s nuclear barrage would undermine MAD by making that country feel more protected and thus potentially more likely to at least consider launching an offensive attack. Read more
The worldwide increase in demand for recreational drugs in the 1960s and 1970s prompted drug barons in Colombia to ramp up production, processing and export of coca and marijuana. As it became a key exporter of cocaine and marijuana to the U.S., Colombia suffered from drug-related violence among competing cartels that increased in later years. The U.S. Government intervened with some success to reduce Colombian production and trafficking of drugs to the U.S. Serving at the U.S. Embassy during that time called for considerable courage; given the need for tight security, embassy personnel were required to drive around in armored cars and take added safety measures to avoid bombings and other acts of inter-cartel war. Read more
In June of 1937, Beijing became one of the first cities to fall as Japanese forces began their conquest of China. In contrast to the atrocities committed by Imperial forces during their capture of Nanjing in December of that year, residents of Beijing lived relatively peaceful lives after occupation. This included the city’s population of Westerners, who could move freely throughout the city even under Japanese rule.
This all changed after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 (December 8 in China) 1941. With Japan’s entrance into World War II, Westerners from Allied countries living in Beijing were placed in a walled off portion of the city and put under heavy surveillance. On March 25, 1943, these expatriates would be forced into the Weixian internment camp in Shandong Province where they would spend the remainder of the war. (Picture at right by William A. Smith)
Arthur Hummel Jr., at the time a twenty-year-old English teacher, was one of the American civilians imprisoned by Japanese forces in Beijing. After being interned for three years, Hummel was finally able to escape in May of 1944 and would spend the rest of the war aiding a Nationalist guerilla group as it fought both Japanese and Communist armies. Read more
Visits by dignitaries of other countries can be quite productive and even pleasant or, depending on the state of bilateral relations and the scale of faux pas, tetchy and awkward.
Such was the case with King Saud, who ruled over Saudi Arabia from 1953-1964 and visited the United States two times during his reign— an official visit in 1957 and an informal visit in 1962. The first visit had more than its share of tensions — a three-day visit stretched out to nine, an excessively large coterie with some Saudis sleeping in tents across from the White House.
But it was the second, when Saud was in the U.S. for medical care, which really threatened to set relations back, as President Kennedy had to be dragged to see the King, while the White House insisted on serving alcohol during the dinner — during Ramadan no less. Read more
The shock of terrorist attacks in Europe in the past decade, notably in Paris, London, and Madrid, sadly recall an even grimmer period during the 1970’s and 80’s when terrorism was a widespread and chronic threat throughout the continent, especially in Greece. One of the chief culprits was the Revolutionary Organization 17 November, also known as November 17th or 17N, which carried out numerous attacks over the better part of three decades in Greece. Borne out of the armed struggle against the Greek military junta that ruled the country from 1967-1974, the group carried out attacks against Greek targets as well as American and British diplomatic personnel.
Due to poor police work, popular support for the group among many Greeks, especially those on the far left, and a lack of political will to crack down, the group was able to carry out attacks for many years. Only in the early 2000’s, with the threat of a possible boycott of the 2004 Olympic Games over security issues did the Greek government finally end the group’s reign of terror. Read more
Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in April 1991, and problems and instability arose almost immediately. The first President of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, governed in an authoritarian fashion and was deposed in a violent coup d’état less than a year later. Eduard Shevardnadze, seen as more moderate, was chosen as Georgia’s second president in 1995. Several bloody conflicts wracked the young country early on, such as a stunning military defeat by a separatist movement in the region of Abkhazia and ethnic violence in the region of South Ossetia.
During this time, Shevardnadze’s government faced many charges of corruption and steadily declined in support and popularity. The instability during Shevardnadze’s presidency led to poverty and economic stagnation, which, coupled frustration with the government, led to a widespread desire for change. On November 2nd, 2003, elections were held for the Georgian Parliament. Read more
On the first day of January 1979, the United States de-
recognized the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan or the ROC) as the official government of China, recognizing the People’s Republic of China (the PRC) instead. While this declaration helped to strengthen the U.S. relationship with the PRC against the Soviet Union, it created chaos in Taiwan. With the closure of the U.S. embassy in Taipei came a widespread financial crisis, the result of a mass exodus of investors from the country.
What may not have been clear was that the U.S. government, under the Carter administration, was not seeking to sever ties with the island. Although the U.S. had officially revoked its recognition of Taiwan as a legitimate political entity, significant U.S. financial and military interests remained on the island. The closing of the U.S. embassy in Taipei presented an obstacle to protecting those interests. Thus began the search for a solution that would allow the U.S. to conduct diplomatic relations with Taiwan in an unofficial capacity.
The Geneva Summit of 1985 was the first meeting between President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to talk about the arms race, particularly the Strategic Defense Initiative, and to establish personal relations between the leaders of the world’s superpowers. Held November 19, 1985 at a chateau owned by the Aga Khan, the first meeting went over schedule by half an hour. It was a promising start, and Gorbachev accepted Reagan’s invitation to visit the U.S. within the year.
The summit helped transform U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. But as with all such major diplomatic events, a vast amount of preparation took place behind the scenes before the first words were spoken by the heads of state.
In the lead-up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, State Department officials realized they would need to deploy scores of Foreign Service Officers familiar with the language and culture of Iraq to put the country back on the path to successful governance once the fighting was over. Finding officers with the necessary skills to rebuild Iraq from the ground up when the ranks of Middle East specialists were already stretched thin meant reaching out to retired as well as active-duty officers. The ready agreement of those recruited for Iraq to put their lives on hold for months and fly into a war zone was indicative of the willingness of Foreign Service Officers to make personal sacrifices, even after retirement, to fulfill the “needs of service.”
James Larocco served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau (NEA) from 2001-2004. During his time at NEA he was charged with assembling as many FSOs with experience in the Middle East as possible in advance of the Iraq invasion. Read more
Liberia erupted in violence on April 12, 1980 as Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe seized power from President William Tolbert, ending 133 years of political dominance by Americo-Liberians. Americo-Liberians traced their ancestry to African Americans and Black British subjects who immigrated to Africa and became the founders of the Republic of Liberia, in power from 1847-1980.
In October 1985, having promised to return Liberia to civilian rule, Doe was declared the winner of Liberia’s first multi-party elections. The results were largely rejected by the international community after his own staff took the ballots to a hidden location to be counted. Lacking experience in government, Doe’s rule was characterized by civil unrest and the murder of political opponents. He was murdered in September of 1990 by members of a rival faction.