Louise Keeley waited and worried in neighboring countries when her husband, American diplomat Robert V. “Bob” Keeley, faced the encircling Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the depredations of Idi Amin in Uganda. Waiting for news of a spouse on a dangerous diplomatic assignment can be more stressful than the assignment itself. And when U.S. family members are evacuated to neighboring posts, they have not always received the support they needed. Louise Keeley’s candid oral history captures the pride, dedication and resolve of diplomats and their spouses in two of the most harrowing crises of the 1970s.
Idi Amin Dada, who styled himself “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE,” ruled Uganda as a dictator from 1971-79 after taking power in a military coup. His administration was characterized by brutal state killings of ethnic minorities and political dissidents, corruption, and nepotism. As the situation worsened, American personnel including Louise Keeley were evacuated to neighboring Kenya. The U.S. Embassy in Kampala closed completely on November 10, 1973, when interim Chargé d’Affaires Bob Keeley shut the doors and flew off—in a tuxedo—to attend Embassy Nairobi’s Marine Ball.
A mere two years later, the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communist guerrilla group, toppled the pro-American government in Phnom Penh. Bob and Louise Keeley were again on the scene in the chaotic weeks leading to the fall of the Cambodian capital in 1975. Once in power, the Khmer Rouge proceeded with violent attempts at social engineering and widespread state-sanctioned murder. Under Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, nearly 25 percent of Cambodia’s population was killed in what is now known as the Cambodian Genocide. To this day, Cambodians still find human bones from Khmer Rouge massacres as they till their fields. Louise Keeley and other American Embassy staff and family members left first, for refuge in nearby Bangkok. Deputy Chief of Mission Bob Keeley and Ambassador John Dean were evacuated on April 12, 1975 in Operation Eagle Pull, a mere five days before the city fell to the Khmer Rouge’s onslaught.