Speaking a foreign language is critical in the Foreign Service and can sometimes rescue you from the diciest situations. Case in point: Political officer Ken Landon, who had been sent to Hanoi in the immediate aftermath of World War II and found himself abandoned by the French group with which he was traveling. Stuck some 30 miles from his destination with no food, Landon was forced to get creative. Luckily, he had spent the 1930s working as a missionary in Asia and had picked up — as gifted polyglots often do — Swatow Chinese, a dialect spoken by many of the Chinese soldiers stationed in Vietnam following the surrender of Japan. Read more
Chinese “big-character posters,” or dazibao, are handwritten posters mounted on walls and published in papers or pamphlets to communicate protest or launch ideas into public discourse. During the era of Mao Zedong, throughout the Great Leap Forward and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, dazibao were part of mass campaigns directed by the Communist Party. As the Cultural Revolution wore on, the posters began to appear widely, conveying everything from satire to denunciation, sometimes used as weapons of aggressive personal attacks which cost the targets their jobs.
Recognized as an important propaganda tool, these posters attracted the attention of U.S. diplomats, and of journalists who published photos of them as the U.S. and China were normalizing the bilateral relationship. The posters reflected political development in mainland China, including a movement towards democratization. Read more
The development and potential use of nuclear weapons defined the Cold War era and kept the world under the shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction. A major step towards dispelling that threat came with the 1970 ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is predicated on the three pillars of non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology.
Even though the treaty was originally conceived with a limited duration of 25 years, the signing parties decided, by consensus, to extend the treaty indefinitely and without conditions during the Review Conference (REVCON) in New York City on May 11, 1995, culminating successful lobbying efforts led by Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr., who often was outnumbered in the discussions within the U.S. government on the issue. Read more
In the summer of 1990, concerns were growing that Saddam Hussein, who was massing troops near the border with Kuwait, was preparing an all-out invasion. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein on July 25, 1990 to convey the United States’ position. While she did not have a demarche from Washington, she reiterated U.S. policy that border disputes should be resolved peacefully. However, her meeting did not forestall an Iraqi invasion; Saddam invaded just a few days later, on August 2.
Soon thereafter and several years since the end of the Gulf War, Ambassador Glaspie was widely blamed for allowing or even encouraging an Iraqi invasion. The New York Times on September 23, 1990 quotes Glaspie as saying, “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. Read more
Yugoslavia had long been a simmering caldron of ethnic and nationalist tensions. After the death of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito, the thin ties keeping the country together began to fray. Kosovo Albanians demanded that their autonomous province be upgraded to a constituent republic. Serbs in turn saw the high autonomy of the provinces and the weakness at the federal level as inimical to Serbian interests.
Slobodan Milošević came to power in Serbia in 1987 and was able to gain de facto control over Kosovo. In 1990 separatist parties won victories in Yugoslavia’s first multi-party elections and in 1991-92, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina proclaimed independence. After a string of inter-ethnic incidents, the Yugoslav Wars ensued, first in Croatia and then, most severely, in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo: Reuters) Read more
The U.S. focus on terrorism began to intensify in the late 1970s and 80s. However, it was often difficult to get actionable intelligence on many groups, given how hard it was to infiltrate them. And in those cases where the U.S. was able to track a major terrorist figure down, that person was often able to elude capture.
L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) in 1986, discusses the many difficulties the U.S. encountered in infiltrating groups, dealing with countries like Greece, which often turned a blind eye to terrorist groups, and his experience with Delta Force. He also describes how they were able to capture one terrorist by inviting him to a party on a yacht with women in bikinis. Needless to say, he was surprised to discover those women were FBI agents. Read more
In the aftermath of Iraq’s crushing defeat during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991, protesters and rebels in the northern and southern parts of Iraq took advantage of what they saw as weakness in Saddam Hussein’s regime and attempted to overthrow his government. Anticipating American military support, their rebellion failed in the face of Iraqi army helicopters and tanks as the United States was too slow to react and provide assistance to the rebels. As Saddam Hussein’s forces retaliated against the rebels, hundreds of thousands of people in the north and south fled. In the south, the Shia refugees found haven across the border in Saudi Arabia and were able to take shelter in refugee camps.
However, in the north, Kurdish refugees were not as fortunate, as the Turkish government refused to allow them to enter Turkey in fear of adding to the already restless Turkish Kurdish population. Read more
In the 1980s, one of the focal points of U.S. foreign policy was the rise of leftist militants throughout the globe, particularly in Central America. Under the Reagan Doctrine, the U.S. in 1982 began actively supporting anti-Communist insurgents — the Contras — in Nicaragua in their fight against the Sandinistas. By 1985, public support for the Contras had waned after reports surfaced that the Contras had trafficked in cocaine and used “death squads.”
After Congress prohibited aid to the Contras, the Reagan Administration, under Lt. Col. Oliver North, began funding them illegally, in what would be known as the Iran-Contra Affair. After the Contras and Sandinistas agreed to a cease-fire in March 1988, Congress passed a law that put non-lethal Contra aid under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Read more
In the wake of the U.S.-led Coalition Forces invasion of Iraq in March, 2003 and dissolution of the Ba’ath Party, a transitional administration was created, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The CPA held executive, legislative and legal authority for a little over a year, beginning April 21, 2003, while a more permanent Iraqi government was being established. The goal was to undo the damage of Saddam Hussein’s regime and get the country back on its feet as an active member of the world community. As the top civilian administrator of CPA, Paul “Jerry” Bremer ruled by decree, notably banning the Ba’ath party in all forms and dismantling the Iraqi Army.
On July 13, 2003, Bremer approved creation of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council, chose its members and empowered the CPA to develop and implement a new Iraqi constitution. These transitions were far from smooth. Iraqis opposed having foreigners control their government and different components of society struggled for power in the new regime. Read more
Living abroad often comes with an array of challenges and frightening encounters. In the 1930s before joining the Foreign Service, Ken Landon served as a missionary in Thailand with his family, where his run-in with a king cobra would prove to be one of his most vivid experiences during his time in Asia. The king cobra is not only extremely venomous, but it is also much larger than other cobra species and a bold predator. Inhabiting many parts of Southeast Asia, king cobras, although posing an obvious threat to humans, are often depicted as protectors in Buddhism, making these snakes culturally significant figures in Thailand.
Soon after moving to Nakhon Si Thammarat province on the Malay Peninsula, Landon was walking home from church one Sunday when he came face to face with a king cobra as it encircled his newborn daughter near their home. Read more