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Bodies on the Doorstep: Jamaica in the 1970s

The island country of Jamaica in the Caribbean Sea experienced strong economic growth following its independence in 1962. This economic growth was fueled in part by private investments in bauxite, an aluminum ore, as well as tourism, and the manufacturing industry. The Labor Party that had controlled the government was ousted in 1970 when the growth stopped. A democratic-socialist party, known as the People’s National Party (PNP), came into power in 1972 with a socialist plan that would rewire Jamaica’s education and health programs. By 1980, Jamaica’s gross national product had declined to some 25 percent below the 1972 level. Increasing debt at home and abroad drove the government to seek aid from the International Money Fund and the United States.

Michael Norman Manley, a Democratic Socialist, served as the fourth Prime Minister of Jamaica from 1972 to 1980 and from 1989 to 1992. To the chagrin of many in the United States, Manley encouraged and sustained relations with the leader of an island just north of Jamaica: Fidel Castro of Cuba. Read more

The Thai-tanic: Responding to the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997

Asian countries took a financial hit in 1997, resulting in a crisis that reverberated throughout the world. It began on July 2, when the central Bank of Thailand allowed the baht to float against the U.S. dollar for the first time in 14 years. The baht plunged between 15-20 percent in overseas currencies. The collapse of the baht resulted in a huge loss of foreign exchange reserves and plunged the country into financial panic. The “Thai-tanic” rippled throughout the rest of Asia, the Americas and Europe.

Although there had been signs of an impending slump, few policy makers expected the magnitude of the devastation that would follow. Crony banking, reliance on foreign savings, heavy borrowing and risky lending practices fueled the economic spike that preceded the fall of the baht. The devaluation presented political challenges for U.S. diplomats in Thailand, who had to respond to pleas for aid from an important long-time ally. Read more

Basketball: the Fifth Basket of the Helsinki Final Act

The Helsinki Final Act, an agreement signed by 35 nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on August 1, 1975, addressed a spectrum of global problems and had a lasting impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Helsinki Final Act dealt with a variety of issues divided into four “baskets.” The first basket dealt with political and military issues, the second economic issues, trade and scientific cooperation. The third basket emphasized human rights, and the fourth formalized procedures for implementing the agreements.

The multilateral negotiations were stressful and demanding. In this case, one means of reaching decisions on the four baskets came in the form of basketball. But just as in the case of diplomacy, in basketball you can run across “ringers”  – people whose abilities may not be readily apparent. Not everyone knew that Soumi – Finland – had its share of athletic diplomats who could make a lay up. Jonathan Greenwald, who served as the Legal Advisor to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin from 1973-1977, highlighted the role that basketball played in bringing together different delegations during the negotiating process of the Helsinki Final Act, in an interview with Raymond Ewing in March 1998. Read more

Negotiating the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT)

Due to rising concern about radioactive fallout from increasingly big nuclear tests underwater, in space, in the atmosphere and underground, as well as concern over the burgeoning arms race between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, the US, UK, and USSR decided to negotiate a test-ban treaty. These concerns became more pronounced after the United States successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and a thermonuclear device with the power of eight megatons of TNT in November 1952, and 15 megatons later on, and when the U.S.S.R. detonated a 50-megaton nuclear warhead, deliverable by a bomber, in October 1961.

Diplomatic exchanges went through 1959 and 1960, and in-person negotiations continued until 1963, when five Warsaw Pact countries, five NATO countries, and eight non-aligned countries met in Geneva to hammer out the details of what would become the Limited (or Partial) Test Ban Treaty). Initially, the Soviet Union proposed a testing ban along with a disarmament agreement dealing with both conventional and nuclear weapon systems. It was only later during 1959 and into the early 1960s that the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union agreed to detach a general agreement on nuclear disarmament from a ban on nuclear weapons testing.

The Soviet Union  agreed only to a testing ban with no verification regime or protocols. The United States and United Kingdom insisted on intrusive, inspection-based control systems as a means to verify compliance. On the other hand, the U.S.S.R. held the position that surveillance and seismic detection equipment operated from outside the boundaries of any signatory was adequate to verify compliance. The Western Powers thought that any agreement not subject to a control system rigorous enough to verify compliance would set a bad precedent in nuclear arms control for future agreements. Read more

Chipping Away at Czechoslovak Communism: The Helsinki Final Act and Charter 77

The Solidarity Movement. Perestroika and Glasnost. The fall of the Berlin Wall. All of these movements, policies, or events had a tremendous influence on the dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. While not attributed the same attention and certainly less well known, many diplomats operating behind the Iron Curtain recognized that the Helsinki Final Act, signed August 1, 1975, was a crucial step towards the fall of communism.

The final product of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe [CSCE] in 1975, the Helsinki Final Act produced a series of principles intended to guide relations between the thirty-five participating states. Of most crucial importance was the “Third Basket”, the portion of the agreement that dealt with human rights principles.

Much to the surprise of the Soviet Union, many throughout the Warsaw Pact countries took these human rights provisions very seriously and ultimately resulted in the formation of dissident groups. Operating in Czechoslovakia, the most formidable of these groups was known as Charter 77. Despite government crackdowns, Charter 77 wielded a considerable amount of influence over the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Read more

Teaching the Foreign Service to Speak Foreign Languages

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the primary training institution to prepare American diplomats to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests, teaching, among other things, the languages of the countries where Foreign Service Officers will serve. At the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia, FSI’s School of Language Studies provides 25 hours of classroom instruction per week in 24-week courses for languages such as French and Spanish, and 44 weeks for “hard” languages such as Russian and Thai. For Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, considered the most difficult to learn, FSI has Field Schools abroad that provide an additional 44 weeks of instruction.

The State Department’s language program got a boost after a 1954 study by scholar Henry Wriston pointed to problems of low morale and levels of recruitment into the Foreign Service. Wriston called for the integration of certain Civil Service employees into the Foreign Service and a requirement that Foreign Service Officers spend part of their careers in Washington. A process that took several years, “Wristonization” tripled the size of the Foreign Service and emphasized training. Part of the process included increasing language teaching. Read more

Peloponnesian Pilgrimage: An Idyll with the King and Queen of Greece

It was the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Greece, John Peurifoy (seen right), who gave him the sobriquet “Pistol Packing Peurifoy” because of his confrontational, straight-shooting style as Chief of Mission in some of the world’s trouble spots in the early 1950s. New York Times foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis once wrote that he was not really a diplomat but a politician, a man of action who favored a blunt informality matched only by his preference for loud, checkered shirts.

In Greece, he worked to counter the return of communism and to strengthen the center-right Greek government that included the Greek royal family, with whom the Peurifoys had a close friendship. Peurifoy would later serve as ambassador to Guatemala and to Thailand, where he and his son died in an auto accident on August 16, 1955. Read more