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The Fall of South Vietnam and Operation Babylift

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The fall of Saigon and the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy is one of the most infamous episodes in American diplomatic history. For Mary Lee Garrison, it was also part of her first job. At age 22, Garrison arrived in Saigon in June 1974 to an internal political consensus that the conflict was winding down and South Vietnam was finally on secure footing. The enormous multi-decade American campaign had culminated in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, enabling the withdrawal of the vast majority of U.S. forces. However, just months after arriving, Garrison began to notice some ominous signs. Applications for student visas were surging, and members of the well-connected Chinese business community rapidly began making arrangements to leave. By the following March, the country was in full-blown panic, and enormous mobs of Vietnamese started gathering outside the embassy trying to secure visas. As the military situation further north started to deteriorate, it became increasingly clear that U.S. officials did not appreciate the severity of the situation.

In a riveting interview, Garrison recounts the chaos that was unleashed as she and her colleagues worked to evacuate as many American and allied South Vietnamese personnel as possible as the capital fell to North Vietnamese forces. Simultaneously, Garrison was involved in the scramble to locate and evacuate thousands of Vietnamese family members of U.S. soldiers still in-country, as well as Operation Babylift—a last-minute effort to evacuate two thousand South Vietnamese orphans. Before long, the disastrous crash of a Babylift cargo plane and the disabling bombardment of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport by approaching North Vietnamese troops forced a harrowing fallback evacuation directly from the embassy via helicopter.

As Saigon descended into total anarchy, Garrison and her colleagues worked desperately to destroy the enormous trove of sensitive documents in the building and facilitate the helicopter evacuation before the ambassador finally ordered them to evacuate on April 29, 1975.

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“Encouraging” Soviet Workmen in 1984—Vodka, Cigarettes, and Snow Plowing in Soviet Russia

Source: Ammodramus / Wikimedia Commons
Source: Ammodramus / Wikimedia Commons

The currency of Soviet Russia was the ruble—or was it? When General Services Officer Robert Weisberg was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1984, he found out first-hand that things sometimes get done a little faster with a few cartons of cigarettes and bottles of vodka.

In a winter with heavy snowfall, it fell on Weisberg to put the embassy in top shape, which meant finding ways to get the snow cleared daily. When workmen didn’t complete the job, he learned quickly how things really got done in Moscow—making deals to overcome the inefficiency that often plagued the USSR at the time. By exchanging vodka and cigarettes that he purchased on his own for the snow-clearing labor the embassy needed, Weisberg was able to leverage the Soviet system to accomplish the mission.

Under the USSR’s communist economic system, high-demand consumer goods were difficult to secure. Soviet central planning was endemic with false reporting, which led to underproduction and severe shortages of some consumer goods. Out of necessity, unofficial barter and exchange systems developed to fill in the gaps. Commodities, like cigarettes, could be valuable tools in the network of favors that operated outside of the parameters of the official economy—so Moscow’s workmen were eager to trade.

Robert Weisberg experienced a dramatic change going from Bombay, India (his first post) to Moscow. A career member of the Foreign Service, he went on to serve abroad in Italy, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Poland, Venezuela, Indonesia, and Finland. Ultimately, Weisberg served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Congo before retiring in 2008 with the rank of Minister Counselor.

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“She’s Not a Woman, She’s a Diplomat”—Navigating Saudi Arabia in the 1980s

 Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress
Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress

A car full of armed guards trailed after Janice Bay as she defiantly walked down the gate-lined road away from the car and driver who had refused to take her any further. She had an appointment with the military general in charge of civil aviation, and they were not going to stop her from meeting him. As the first female economic officer in Saudi Arabia, Janice Bay successfully negotiated the business world and disproved those who were skeptical that a woman could do her job. Relying on men for transportation was sometimes tricky, but with persistence, Bay was able to gain access to important and powerful people. 

Other women in Saudi Arabia at the time worked out exceptions to driving rules which allowed them to tackle typically male tasks. The ban on driving during the 1980s was very strict but enforcement was not yet as harsh as it would become later. Bedouin women and expatriates were some of the groups that were able to assert a limited amount of independence. As of June 2018, all Saudi Arabian women were officially given the right to drive through an order issued by the aging King Salman. But he also kept in prison some of the women activists who had pressed for this change.

Janice Bay first entered the Foreign Service in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam war. She was one of an unusually high number of women—eight in total—that were part of the 80th Foreign Service Class. She went on to serve in a variety of interesting locations over the next decade before serving in Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1984. Bay continued her career with assignments in Egypt, France, Germany, and Washington, D.C. In 2003 she retired from the Foreign Service. 

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The 1964 Murder of Noted Composer Marc Blitzstein in Martinique

Marc Blitzstein Unknown | Library of Congress
Marc Blitzstein Unknown | Library of Congress

In 1964 on the French island of Martinique, well-known American composer Marc Blitzstein was found on the street badly injured and shouting for help. Blitzstein had been brutally attacked and robbed by three sailors after attempting to pick them up in a bar. The U.S. consular officer in Martinique, William B. Milam, rushed to check on Blitzstein in the hospital after the assault. Milam went on to a distinguished diplomatic career, serving as U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Blitzstein, tragically, died from a ruptured liver caused by the severe beating.

Blitzstein was best known for “The Cradle Will Rock,” a 1937 musical addressing corruption, union organizing, prostitution and other sensitive issues in a steel town. The Works Progress Administration famously shut down the show just before its opening night on Broadway. Blitzstein, director Orson Welles, and the rest of the cast marched uptown to another theatre. With Blitzstein at a battered piano and actors singing from their seats in the audience, the show opened and became a musical theatre legend. 

Blitzstein was also gay, and his murderers almost went free because of the stigma attached to homosexuality at the time. Initially Blitzstein told Milam that his injuries were the result of a car accident and asked that this be passed along to his relatives. Although openly gay, Blitzstein had kept his homosexuality private from his family and had briefly been married to Eva Goldbeck before she died at the age of 35. His ultimate decision to report the attack and identify his attackers resulted in the conviction of his three assailants of involuntary homicide and theft in 1965. Milam helped Blitzstein secure a translator and a medical examination for the police report.

Martinique was William B. Milam’s first foreign service post in a long career. Joining the Foreign Service in 1962, Milam went on to multiple postings in Washington, D.C. and abroad working on economic issues. From 1990 to 1993 he was ambassador to Bangladesh. He then served in Islamabad as ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2001, dealing with such questions as nuclear proliferation and the rise of the Taliban.

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“A Special Place in My Heart:” Memories of USAID in Vietnam

Images of the U.S. military in Vietnam are part of the American consciousness. But these images are only part of the story.  Often the lives and sacrifices of USAID workers are overlooked. They too made great contributions, joining with military personnel to deliver supplies to locals, promoting development in dangerous areas, and working with hamlet chiefs and ordinary civilians. Some USAID workers even lost their lives. Sidney Chernenkoff’s first overseas assignment with USAID was in Vietnam at the height of the war. His service is an excellent example of the complexity and value of USAID’s contributions to a war that remains controversial long after it has ended.

Chernenkoff initially joined USAID after spotting an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the agency was hiring for service in Vietnam. He was interviewed, scored highly on a language aptitude test, and was sent to Hawaii for six months to learn Vietnamese.  He then boarded a plane in March 1967 and arrived in Vietnam just as the war was entering its most intense phase. Chernenkoff worked as a part of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program in the town of Tuy Phuoc, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

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Geiger Counters, and a Nanny Who Became a Millionaire—Establishing a USAID Mission in Kazakhstan

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, USAID made Central Asia a top priority—“no matter where you were posted and where you were on your current assignment” employees were urged to head there. Jonathan Addleton was working for USAID in post-apartheid South Africa. Central Asia intrigued him, and the organization quickly agreed to send Addleton to help establish the first USAID mission in Kazakhstan, “land of the Great Steppe.” Addleton served as a program officer, with responsibilities across Central Asia. Addleton’s spouse, Fiona, called Almaty “the hardest assignment [they] ever had.”

Their apartment measured just over 200 square feet, and they had to fit their sons Iain and Cameron in as well. Because of concerns regarding nuclear waste in the area, the Addleton family needed geiger counters for their residence—and years later Fiona and an unusual number of their friends developed thyroid cancer. The children’s nanny was eager to work for the family, and to learn English. When Addleton returned twenty years later, the nanny had a beautiful home, drove a Lexus, and owned vacation property on the Turkish coast.

Born and raised in Pakistan as the son of missionaries, Addleton returned to spend much of his professional life in Asia. He was posted to Kazakhstan from 1993–1996 as a Program Officer and served as USAID Mission Director from 2013–2015. He holds a BSc in journalism, history, and Asian Studies from Northwestern University and a PhD in international development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He served as ambassador to Mongolia 2009–2012.

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Death, Love and Conspiracy: The Nepalese Royal Massacre of 2001

Facing domestic unrest, including a Maoist insurgency, the Nepalese royal family never suspected that the greatest threat to the monarchy lived within the palace walls. On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal got drunk and high (as he often did). Stumbling into the royal dining hall, the prince gunned down King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, and eight other members of the royal entourage, including his younger siblings. The prince allegedly then turned the gun on himself in an attempt to commit suicide. He failed to end his own life and plunged into a coma. As heir to the throne, the murderous Crown Prince Dipendra was declared King of Nepal. He reigned for three days in the hospital before being declared brain dead.

The massacre left the Nepalese population deeply traumatized. They “viewed the king as a god. Literally a god,” according to Larry Dinger, the senior American diplomat in Nepal at the time of the massacre. Many Nepalese remain suspicious of the official story, pointing to inconsistencies in the evidence. Supposedly, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his family so he could be with the woman he loved. While attending school in the UK, he fell for Devyani Rana, a Nepalese woman from an important family. He wanted to marry her, but his mother—the Queen—disallowed it because Devyani’s grandmother was a concubine. The prince was willing to give up his title to marry her, but Devyani said she would only marry him if she became queen. After learning this, Crown Prince Dipendra “put on his camouflage fatigues. . . . He went into [the] Friday evening royal family gathering and shot the place up.” After the collapse of the royal family, various political groups vied for influence in the government. Although it took several years, the Nepalese royal massacre eventually paved the way for the multi-party system that Nepal has today.

Larry Dinger served in Nepal as Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy when the tragedy unfolded at Narayanhity Royal Palace. He would later go on to serve as ambassador to Micronesia, Fiji (and concurrently Tuvalu, Tonga, Nauru, Kiribati), and as Chief of Mission in Burma.

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The Struggle for Equal Rights: LGBTQ Advocacy in the Foreign Service

While working at the U.S. embassy in Seychelles in 1985, David Buss fell in love with a Peace Corps volunteer, David Larson. After their relationship became common knowledge, Buss was investigated by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Allegedly, the State Department was concerned that foreign persons could blackmail Buss because of his sexual orientation. Buss did not buy this. He said that the investigation was a “witch hunt,” meant to intimidate him and to identify other LGBTQ+ State Department personnel. Buss soon learned of dozens of other similar ongoing investigations. He decided to take action.

In 1992, Buss and Larson hosted a now-famous brunch—bringing together federal employees from several different departments—in an effort to establish an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. After a series of meetings, the “Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies” (GLIFAA) was formed. Buss was the first president. The founding members were so worried about the consequences of these meetings that one of the first rules of the organization was that there would be “no outing of or speculation about anyone present at the meeting or not present.” GLIFAA fought hard for concrete non-discrimination policies and for official recognition of their romatic partners. After founding GLIFAA, serving as its president, and nurturing the organization through its formative years, Buss retired from the State Department in 2006. He was finally able to marry Larson four years later.

David Buss was born and grew up in Homewood, Illinois. After high school, he was recruited by the CIA. While visiting his girlfriend in Kinshasa a few years later, Buss was offered a job working for the embassy’s commissary, which he accepted. He went on to serve as a GSO in Port-au-Prince, Dar es Salaam, and Nouakchott. While working as the Chargé d’affaires in Seychelles, Buss met and fell in love with his future husband, David Larson. Buss eventually returned to Washington, where he passed the Foreign Service exam and became an FSO in 1992. He continued to work in embassies across the world, finally ending up at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Buss retired in 2006 and moved to Poughkeepsie, New York with Larson, where they live to this day.

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Strong-arming Other Donors: Part of USAID’s Response to Famine in Ethiopia

Food distribution on the docks (1984) British Red Cross | Flickr
Food distribution on the docks (1984) British Red Cross | Flickr

Described by one reporter as “a biblical famine in the 20th century,” the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine was a humanitarian crisis that was initially little known to much of the rest of the world.  For six months, General Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the military junta ruling Ethiopia, refused to acknowledge the famine–even as millions of people starved. When USAID Administrator Peter McPherson visited Ethiopia at the height of the famine, he was appalled by the scope of the suffering.  And he resolved to take action.

Back in Washington, McPherson met with President Reagan and showed him photographs of the famine.  In an Oval Office meeting, Reagan agreed to overlook political differences with the Mengistu regime and uttered the famous words, “a hungry child knows no politics.”   U.S. policy changed, and the aid began to flow. The Live Aid concert and expanded press coverage solidified public engagement and support. But McPherson’s engagement with Reagan was also critical.

McPherson returned to Ethiopia and was again outraged, this time by delays in food delivery.  USAID hired its own vehicles to transport food aid from Ethiopian ports to people in need. Other donors relied upon the Mengistu government to transport the food, and refused to publicly hold the government accountable when the vehicles did not show up.  McPherson asked a colleague to surreptitiously photograph other donors’ clearly-marked food assistance lying uncollected at the ports. Armed with photographs of wasted food and visible donor names, McPherson gave local ambassadors a choice: join USAID in issuing a public call to action or be embarrassed before a global public that was finally beginning to pay attention to the crisis.  Days later, a press conference was held and the food began to move.

During his tenure as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (1981-87), Peter McPherson combined realism and idealism to protect USAID from budget cuts, a loss of relevance, and domination by the State Department. He worked on diverse challenges—from family planning in China to economic policy in Egypt—and was equally adept in political battles as in meeting the challenges of promoting development and providing humanitarian aid around the world.  Read more

Persuading an Arms Dealer to Come Clean in a New South Africa

Yacht trips, golf junkets, and private receptions with Oprah. These are rare events even in elevated diplomatic careers.  Yet William Center, who served in the U.S. Commercial Service during a period of tremendous economic change, experienced all this and more.  His time in South Africa after the fall of apartheid was particularly notable. He faced new political leaders deeply suspicious of the United States.  He also faced business leaders who had operated at the margins of international commerce under the apartheid government—and sometimes broke U.S. laws. He even managed to persuade a major South African arms manufacturer to come clean on secret transactions with Libya—clearing the way above-board trade with the United States.

By the late 1990’s, South Africa had emerged as a new democracy no longer plagued by apartheid and international isolation. The country faced an unprecedented opportunity to forge stronger economic ties to the rest of the world.  However, efforts to break into the United States and global markets met negative perceptions of the African continent, and limited understanding of how quickly South Africa was changing. In some cases, however, South Africa was not changing fast enough.  Many of the countrys biggest firms had been tied up in the illegal activities of the apartheid government. Nowhere was this issue more acute than in the country’s vast arms industry, which had long supplied rogue regimes in violation of international sanctions.  Case in point: arms sales to Libya. Center used every tool at his disposal to overcome the legacy of apartheid, illegal behavior by prominent firms, and enduring distrust of the United States.

William Center spent 30 years in the U.S. Commercial Service (1984-2014). He majored in History at Brown University. After college, he moved to Taiwan for three years to learn Chinese. Returning home unemployed, Center had a happenstance encounter at a Seder dinner, and learned that the newly established Foreign Commercial Service was scrambling to hire Mandarin speakers. He was soon posted in Hong Kong, and later, Shenyang, China in the midst of the country’s opening to the outside world. Center then went on to serve in Paris for five years before returning to China as the principal commercial officer in Shanghai from 1997 to 1999. Following his work in South Africa, Center worked as an adviser at the World Bank as well as at the U.S. embassies in Islamabad and London before retiring in 2014.  

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