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Duty and Danger: A Diplomatic Spouse Recounts Narrow Escapes from Uganda and Cambodia

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.

Drafted by Reed Piercey

Louise S. Keeley’s oral history interview was conducted by Jewell Fenzi on September 2, 1988.

Read Louise S. Keeley’s full oral history HERE.

Read Robert V. Keeley’s oral history HERE.

[We] heard that our Marines had been expelled. Well this terrified me.

Evacuation from Uganda: Bob [then serving in Uganda as chargé d’affaires] told the Department in March of that year, 1973, that he felt that Americans could not continue their work. The people in AID [Agency for International Development] around the country were in danger and were endangering their Ugandan counterparts. The people in the Peace Corps and AID [were in danger], and he felt that the staff should be cut down to a minimum. Now, back in Washington, they didn’t understand this. Why would a Chargé try to make his embassy smaller and try to close it?

They sent an inspector out who wouldn’t stay at the hotel. He felt it was too dangerous. He stayed with us, and we would watch Ugandan television to see what General Amin would be up to. He’d always say, “I admire you people. They’ve just come down from the trees here and yet you can talk to them, you can live amongst them.” This is the kind of inspector they sent. He took a vote in the Embassy: “Do you want to go or stay?”

Well a lot of the TDY [Temporary Duty] people, or the communicators—and I don’t want to put all this down, frankly, but let’s say the people with less responsibilities, who never would be out amongst the populace, would be more or less in the safety of the building, who were getting higher salaries—voted that we shouldn’t close the Embassy. And you know, the officers and the people with responsible jobs, I mean the Station Chief, the USIS [U.S. Information Service] Chief, the AID Director, and Bob, would vote to close the post. And that’s what really should have counted, but it didn’t, so we didn’t close the post. That was March.

. . . A couple of weeks later, I don’t remember, at some stage, it was decided to evacuate us. . . . [We] went out just a couple at a time, absolutely disciplined and [committed] to the U.S. Government. Left our things.

I smuggled . . . things down to the British in the night. . . . And we went out to Nairobi. And while there, we couldn’t dial Kampala. We were told not to use the phone line, so we never called our homes in Uganda. . . . I mean, I was the DCM’s wife, so I was always going in and challenging the Embassy and acting obnoxious because I would hear this bad or that bad story from my different little group. We were a close little group. So I probably didn’t help the cause by always asking for things, but on the other hand, I thought they should have been given some help and attention.

. . . But it was the kindness of friends. It was nothing that the Embassy did for us. They wouldn’t give us any information. As I say, they treated us like pariahs. The press kept trying to get in touch with us and we were told not to speak to the press. We were correct in every respect. I don’t think the Embassy behaved well at all.

One night we’d all gone out together for a Japanese dinner and I went back, turned on the radio as was usual, and I heard something about subversive American forces expelled or something from Uganda. I didn’t know what it was. I waited until morning, stupidly, called the Embassy, and nothing. Everything was fine in Kampala. So I went to have my hair done and I ran into [a friend] at dinner and I told her what I had heard and she said she’d heard something, too. And in fact, she’d heard that our Marines had been expelled. Well this terrified me, because I felt that this was Bob’s last defense, because he was so visible.

So I went out and said, “I’m going to the Embassy,” and I was just walking along in a rage and I kept running into [people]. We knew some Kenyans who were exiled there and—I mean some Ugandans and some Kenyans and some foreign diplomats. I kept running into people, and this time as I walked along they kept saying, “Is everything all right?” and I kept saying, “Everything’s fine.” With gritted teeth, I went out to the Embassy and I asked to know something and in effect they said, “It’s not up to you to know anything.” So I really was furious.

I went back to the hotel, and about an hour later I got a call from the secretary of the Chargé saying to come in for a briefing. And I said I wouldn’t come in for a briefing. That I’d gone to try and find out something and I was now just too upset. I was having lunch. I was in bed and I was just not going to come into the Embassy at that time. That one of our members was coming. Maybe he said I had called. Another one of our group. And I said, “She can tell me whatever you’re going to tell her.” I mean, I’ve never been so angry in my life. It turned out that the Marines had been expelled. Just a few left, a skeleton staff, Bob and a communicator, and that wonderful Patrick Kennedy, who was sent out as a young burner, you know, to burn papers. He much later became head of Administration in the State Department.

And so it sounds incredible, but there was going to be the Marine Ball. So our newly expelled Marines arrived, which was nice, because we met the Marines at the airport and they came to our hotel. And the Marines said that they wanted to join in the Marine Ball with the Nairobi Marines. And the USG [U.S. Government] were going to take out at the end the last people from Kampala, but before it ended, the Station Chief came to Nairobi. He’d been attacked at night. They didn’t know whether any of his guards survived. He described all that to us, his wife and me, in Nairobi.

Oh, Bob called me up, I guess, and said this had happened, but don’t tell us why because she was one of my great friends, the one who had gone to the Embassy to get the information, such as it was. And anyway, we were really scared. So it was I think a Saturday night and those three last ones, Bob, the communicator, and I think his secretary were coming out. It was the night of the Marine Ball. Bob felt very strongly about our Marines.

Their Marines did not want to have our whole group. And we were not a very big group. I mean, people were paying. And the Chargé didn’t certainly want a hero like Bob to be there. And our Marines said, “All of us or none of us.” And so finally the Nairobi Marines gave in and said, “You can have your guests.” Which really consisted of the head communicator, a really great guy, and that wonderful secretary and the Station Chief’s wife. We were not a huge group at this time. And Bob left Uganda. He was to get there not until 10 o’clock. The ball started at seven. So he left Uganda in his black tie, not to be a diplomatic black tie, but because the Marines would be in uniform, and he to honor them.

He got there quite late. We got there quite late and we sat all together with our group and we were very happy. So then we went back to the hotel. I guess we stayed very late with our group, and we went back to the hotel. It was about 3 or 4 in the morning and the phone rang. That wonderful hotel had fallen from private hands, but it was the one right in the middle of town. Yes, that was the hotel. It was really wonderful to us. Anyway, they called up and they said, “Mrs. Keeley, if you have a man in your room, you’re going to have to pay for him.”

Time magazine wanted to put Bob on the cover because he saved everybody. I mean, nobody lost their lives, most property saved as instructed, but Bob said no. There were still American missionaries in Uganda who wouldn’t leave and shouldn’t be endangered.

He put the black tie on because he knew he wouldn’t have time to go home and change. It was to honor our Marines who had laid their I-don’t-know-what’s on the line to have our little Kampala group at the Nairobi Marine Ball. Our Marines had said, “They won the best Marines in the area, but their run was all on the flat.” That’s the kind of rivalry there really was. Our run was uphill and their run was on the flat. You see, the Nairobi Marines had said that they would have a Chargé and a Station Chief, and not the others. But our Marines said, “All or nothing.” And Bob—it sounds stupid now—but he wore his black tie because he said, “I honor our Marines and they’re in their uniform and I’m in my uniform. I don’t care how stupid they think I look.”

Of course, no diplomat except the French had the courage to come out and see Bob off. That’s how dangerous he was considered, even to his colleagues. So he left Kampala with Joe Chaddic, this great communicator. And his wife was nine months pregnant and having her baby in Nairobi and was our nurse. And that wonderful secretary. And they were the last three. The Station Chief was a Golden Gloves boxer, you see. I was counting on him to save Bob, but because of the attack on him, they got him out soonest, which was a few days, I guess, before [Bob]. Anyway, so that was sort of the end of Uganda.

“The Khmer Rouge were circling and rocketing the city.”

Evacuation from Cambodia: At that point, John Dean [Ambassador to Cambodia] asked [Bob] to go to Cambodia. My heart sank. We had [our son] Chris, who was wrongly diagnosed as a manic-depressive. It’s a long story, but it turned out really to be drug addiction. So he had many, many problems with schools and behavior and lack of his father being around in a lot of cases, and again because Bob had to leave for Cambodia early.

[Bob] was DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission]. He got there in about June or July. Chris went to boarding school in the fall. Children were not allowed in Cambodia. But they were going to make a dispensation at Christmastime. Anyway, I guess I got there in October, I don’t remember exactly. It was very interesting, I’m very glad I had that experience, but it was rather short-lived—dangerous, frightening, intense.

This was as the Khmer Rouge were approaching. It was the Pol Pot era in the sense that the Khmer Rouge were circling and rocketing the city.

We had promised John Dean that if he allowed us in Cambodia, he wanted his wife there, and he said, “I’ll accept any wife who speaks French to work in the refugee camps.” So we did, the few of us that were there. We worked in the refugee camps. And we did whatever we could. Martine Dean was really wonderful. We had a very fine, small group. We had two darling young Military Attachés’ wives. We all went off in the Attaché’s plane and evacuated to Bangkok. We all went together and we found an Embassy that really didn’t want us around, and we had some of our own members there. But nobody really gave us the support we needed. The military eventually helped us to set up, allowed us to have these phone calls to our husbands. And they were allowed to come out twenty-four hours at a time. This was, again, extremely difficult—it was a war situation. We’re not talking about, “just the wife should go and sit in Bangkok,” because the conditions were unpleasant. It was a war. And again, we were just so terrified for our husbands.

And then we were even more terrified when we learned that they were going to be kept there an extra week. That Kissinger [Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State], after months of refusing to let John Dean do certain negotiations or talk to certain people, had suddenly decided that everybody should be evacuated but John and Bob. Can you envision what happened later? The press would not believe what the Embassy and all the others were telling them, that the Khmer Rouge were going to have a bloodbath. And Kissinger wanted John and Bob to stay there. And there was a phone call which Bob had with Phil Habib [Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian & Pacific Affairs]. Well anyway, I have to not get into all of the Cambodian thing. But you’ll see that Kissinger will never write his volume on Cambodia because he can’t tell the truth. And John has it all. So many sad things.

But anyway, we were there. And again, John wanted us to go out and be evacuated and set the good example. The American Embassy was responsible for quite a few embassies. He felt that if his wife and I left, it would encourage other wives to go. Well, most wives stayed as long as they could, understandably. They wanted to be with their husbands. They didn’t have their children there, and they felt that it was better to be together than to be apart and chewing your hands in Bangkok.

Anyway, in Bangkok, we couldn’t get information as usual. I remember I was robbed. I was paying extra money out of my allowance to stay in a very good hotel with adjoining rooms with the Australian Chargé’s wife. In spite of that, I was completely robbed of all my jewelry. And what worried me, I had two suitcases of John’s in there with a lot of his things and had very, very little help from the Embassy Security Officer. . . .

We just laughed so much over some of these things. I mean, it was so annoying and tiring. I had to go down and sit in these Thai police stations by myself with no translator. And once—again at a bridge game—I told an American colonel about this, who was absolutely horrified. He sent me two Thai-speaking sergeants and they talked to the hotel, and the hotel became very crestfallen and wanted to pay my bill and give me a free [room]. Of course, I couldn’t accept, you know. I mean, I wish I had. Bob wouldn’t let me. And so the colonel got me permission to move to the military hotel, which was called the Chao Piya, where I was right next door to the darling Military Attachés’ wives who repeated the wonderful thing that had been said in Nairobi. That we evacuees were treated, by the Embassy, worse than tourists. History repeated itself.

And then one day we were called and told that [the remaining staff at Embassy Phnom Penh] were coming. I mean, we knew that something was happening. And I was offered transport to the airport. The others weren’t, and so I tried to get the others transport. They had to take a taxi to the airport. All these government cars went out empty. I mean, just little things like that, it was constant. And again, you see, because the Ambassador’s wife had gone to stay with the general’s wife. Her husband really wanted her off the scene because of the press. . . .

And then John decreed that his household staff and our household staff, as well as the Embassy employees—because I kept saying they should be treated as members of the Embassy—could go. So I’m happy to say that we’re still in touch with all five. . . . And I had to make—because our house was rocketed—I made a little bomb shelter. Anyway, I had marshmallows and Kool-Aid and things like that. And that little child had been there. And their families used to come in from the countryside. By the time Bob left, their families were sleeping all over the house.



     B.A., Smith College                                                                                                                                         1951

Robert Keeley Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                     1956

     Amman, Jordan (evacuated)                                                                                                                        1958-1960

     Bamako, Mali                                                                                                                                                   1961-1963

     Athens, Greece                                                                                                                                                 1966-1970

     Kampala, Uganda (post closed)                                                                                                                   1971-1973

     Phnom Penh, Cambodia (post closed)                                                                                                       1974-1975

     Port Louis, Mauritius                                                                                                                                    1976-1978

     Harare, Zimbabwe                                                                                                                                         1980-1984

     Athens, Greece                                                                                                                                               1985-1989