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Presidents, Russians, and Diplomatic Wives: Anecdotes from a Voice of America Newsman

President Harry S. Truman addressing Congress (12 March 1947) | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum | Wikimedia Commons
President Harry S. Truman addressing Congress (12 March 1947) | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum | Wikimedia Commons

Journalist Euguene F. Karst knew the importance of words. He personally witnessed how communication could highlight the opinions of little known Russian farmers but also lead to embarrassing misunderstandings for the President of the United States. Through the Office of War Information, Voice of America, and other reporting, Karst worked to spread the principles and spirit of America to audiences in the U.S. and abroad. His recollections provide a candid behind the scenes look at diplomacy and the news.

Voice of America (VOA) originated as part of the Office of War Information. VOA began airing in 1942 to combat Nazi propoganda and continues to produce programming on U.S. ways of life, culture, economics, and politics to countries around the world. It has played an important role in influencing public opinion abroad regarding U.S. policy, although some view it as a source of American propaganda. Karst experienced the difficulties of transmitting VOA programs to an audience in the Soviet Union. This long-standing problem was intensified in 2017 when Russia’s Justice Ministry labeled Voice of America as a foreign agent.

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The Question of Puerto Rico: The U.S. Faces International Criticism in the Late 20th Century

Flag of Puerto Rico | Wikimedia Commons
Flag of Puerto Rico | Wikimedia Commons

As decolonization was embraced on the world stage, the U.S. government and its diplomats had to decide, “How do we deal with the question of Puerto Rico?”

The island had been an “organized but unincorporated” American territory since the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. After negotiations between Puerto Rican political leaders and the U.S. Congress, Puerto Rico held a referendum in 1952 that established itself as a Free Associated State (Estado Libre Asociado), known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

While Puerto Rico was granted this local autonomy, the ambiguous language associated with the “commonwealth” status has since continued to spark political debates amongst both Puerto Rican leaders and members of the international community. The Puerto Rican nationalist movement continued during the 1960s—a time of radical political change, in which 32 countries in Africa gained independence from their European colonial rulers. These newly-independent African nations and some Latin American countries, including Cuba, attempted to support the Puerto Rican nationalist movement in world fora, to the chagrin of the U.S. government. Amidst the decolonization movement, the United States faced criticism for its continued retention of territories in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. During the latter half of the 20th century, amidst much discussion at the UN, Puerto Rico was officially declared a colony of the United States in 1978 by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Amongst other critiques, members of the committee—who consider the people of Puerto Rico to have their own national identity of a Caribbean nation—have referred to Puerto Rico as a “nation” in their reports.

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Not so Sudan-ly—Six Years for Independence

(2016) Jason Patinkin | Wikimedia Commons
(2016) Jason Patinkin | Wikimedia Commons

Allan Reed’s extraordinary relationship with Sudan can be traced all the way back to the late 1960s, when he joined the Peace Corps as a twenty-something university graduate. Volunteering for three years along Ethiopia’s western border to assist Sudanese refugees fleeing the conflict of their homeland, Reed became highly invested in the country and its people. Following this service, he walked over 3,000 miles through Sudan with the people of the Anyanya Movement and Dr. John Garang. He worked with both the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the World Council of Churches to film and research the conditions he observed.

Soon thereafter, Reed joined the Foreign Service, taking postings in Mauritania, Swaziland, Guinea, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Senegal, before finally making his way back to Sudan. There, he worked closely with Dr. John Garang and witnessed the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the Second Sudanese Civil War, and the eventual Referendum for Self-Determination, by which South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.

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Promoting International Tennis Diplomacy in Bahrain

George Bush & Chris Evert playing tennis at Camp David (1990) US federal Government | Wikimedia Commons
George Bush & Chris Evert playing tennis at Camp David (1990) US federal Government | Wikimedia Commons

In the heat of the Iran-Iraq War, paranoia and uncertainty engulfed the region, with many American allies looking to the United States for support and assurance. Fearful that the seemingly dominant Iran would assert its historical claims over the island of Bahrain, Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa grew increasingly concerned. U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Donald Leidel facilitated dialogue with the Bahraini government amidst the unfolding chaos while also preparing for one of many high-profile visits to his embassy at the time: Vice President George Bush would be addressing these issues in person with Bahrain’s Emir.

In order to begin the visit on a positive note, Ambassador Leidel organized a diplomatic tennis match between Vice President Bush and the Bahraini foreign and interior ministers, with whom the ambassador played with frequently. Although being known as an accomplished athlete and avid tennis player, Vice President Bush surprised everyone when he won four games with different partners each time. Ambassador Leidel even attributed the success of the

Vice President’s visit to the friendly match.
Throughout his time as Ambassador to Bahrain, Donald Leidel hosted a plethora of other prominent guests and sought to make their visits unique and interesting. This included desert tours with the late American astronaut Ronald E. McNair and heated exchanges with Donald Rumsfeld.

Ambassador Leidel graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1949 and continued to study law at the University of Wisconsin Law School until 1951. He went on to serve in the Central Intelligence Agency for ten years before joining the Foreign Service and ultimately becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain.

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Brief Portraits of the Ghanaian People—A Collection of FSO Personal Perceptions

(2007) Fogster | Wikimedia Commons
(2007) Fogster | Wikimedia Commons

With a rich history, beautiful landscape, and friendly people, Ghana is one of the most welcoming countries in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the buildings at the Kotoka International Airport in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, even has the word “Akwaaba,” meaning “Welcome!” spelled in giant letters across its side, reflecting the well-known hospitality of the Ghanaian people.

Foreign Service Officers lucky enough to work at the U.S. Embassy in Accra are quickly surrounded by the Ghanaian character, and many, while recounting their oral histories to ADST, have shared their fond impressions of the country’s residents. This “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” provides a collection of such impressions—stories and comments from diplomats and ambassadors throughout the years.

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60 Minutes in Central America: The Politicization of Development During the Cold War

Managua Earthquake (1972) USGS | Wikipedia
Managua Earthquake (1972) USGS | Wikipedia

Complex geopolitical realities, poor leadership, and economic dysfunction characterized the Cold War in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. USAID (United States Agency for International Development) played a crucial role in strengthening the political and economic institutions of these countries. Its ability to work and achieve success in Cold War conditions was nothing short of extraordinary. However, the melding of national security and development objectives created an easy target for American media outlets, particularly CBS’ 60 Minutes.

60 Minutes had a noticeable influence on political discourse of domestic and foreign policy issues. Media became an important tool in the hands of politicians who leveraged 60 Minutes to attack sitting presidents, campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize, and stoke economic anxiety. In his oral history, John Sanbrailo recounts three times that 60 Minutes discredited important USAID programs. 60 Minutes lowered the morale of USAID employees abroad and created a negative perception of development projects at home.

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FLOTUS For a Night—USAID Employee Stands in at First Ladies Conference

Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China (5 September 1995) Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office | Wikimedia Commons
Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China (5 September 1995) Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office | Wikimedia Commons

When USAID employee Judith Gilmore was asked to play First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), it wasn’t because a president had asked for her hand in marriage—it was because her boss had asked her to fill in for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the real FLOTUS, who was running behind and couldn’t make the opening ceremony of the Vital Voices First Ladies Conference in 1998. As the most senior woman in the USAID bureau assisting with the conference, Judith Gilmore stepped up that night in a ceremonial capacity and later contributed as she returned to her staff role during the conference.

Established by First Lady Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright following the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, the Vital Voices Global Partnership was designed to prioritize the advancement of women as a U.S. foreign policy goal. Together with the Summit for Americas, the First Ladies Conferences created forums where leaders could discuss common policy issues, affirm shared values, and commit to action at the national and regional level.

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Guns and Underwear: Burma in the 1990s

Kyat Bank Note (2012) Isriya Paireepairit | Flickr
Kyat Bank Note (2012) Isriya Paireepairit | Flickr

A U.S. Embassy’s General Service Officer (GSO) has wide ranging responsibilities. Stanley Jakubowski, who was stationed in Burma (Myanmar) from 1990 to 1992, learned this first-hand. In one instance, he persuaded the State Department and the Department of the Treasury to recognize the unofficial exchange rate in Burma—roughly 100 kyat to the dollar, as opposed to the official rate of six kyat per dollar. This change lowered the cost of gasoline to only six cents a gallon and gave local staff a salary increase of 1,566 percent. The U.S. Treasury Department also considered the new rate a success because it facilitated its efforts to disperse reserves of 10 million kyat in only eighteen months, instead of the ten years it had initially predicted.

Jakubowski did more than simply write cables about the exchange rate. As GSO, his varied duties ranged from guarding the embassy’s currency window, shotgun in hand, to easing the passage of official Americans through the airport in Yangon, which he discovered could be sped up by distributing much coveted Victoria’s Secret catalogs to customs officials. His oral history describes the career of a management-coned officer in the Foreign Service.

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Jakarta on Fire: The May 1998 Riots and Indonesian Revolution

Suharto Resigns (21 May 1998) Office of the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia, B. J. Habibie: 72 Days as Vice President | Wikimedia Commons
Suharto Resigns (21 May 1998) Office of the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia, B. J. Habibie: 72 Days as Vice President | Wikimedia Commons

Shawn Dorman watched as Jakarta descended into violent chaos and destruction overtook the city. At the conclusion of the May 1998 riots, thousands had been burned or beaten to death, over a hundred ethnically Chinese women had been raped, and a large part of the city had been destroyed. Dorman’s family and all non-essential U.S. personnel were evacuated. As the unrest continued, Dorman met with students as they occupied the parliament building in a series of protests that brought about the resignation of then-President Suharto.

The people of Indonesia had been suffering from the Asian Financial Crisis. Suharto’s regime “The New Order,” which had remained strong for 30 years, was severely damaged by rampant corruption and its inability to maintain economic stability. Nationwide student demonstrations in support of democracy called “Reformasi” (reform) spread rapidly. On May 12, the death of four protesters at Trisakti University provoked mass rioting and looting targeted at ethnically Chinese individuals and businesses. Allegedly instigated by the Indonesian military, this violence was largely separate from the student movement that resulted in Suharto’s resignation a week later. The Indonesian Revolution was a success, but Suharto’s successor Vice President B.J. Habibie was not the reformer the protesters had wished for and violence against the Chinese left a lasting legacy of pain.

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Construction Equipment in the Middle of the Jordan River—Blacklisting Threats, an Ultimatum, and Diplomatic Activity after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War

Israeli armored unit stands in the Negev Government Press Office of Israel | Wikimedia Commons
Israeli armored unit stands in the Negev Government Press Office of Israel | Wikimedia Commons

As a first-tour USAID loan officer in Amman, Jordan, Anthony Schwarzwalder observed first-hand the economic aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Following Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem, a U.S. contractor’s construction equipment, valued at $1 million, sat stranded and in limbo at the Jerusalem airport. Recovering the equipment would require a creative effort, as the contractor faced threats of blacklisting from other Arab countries for dealing directly with the Israelis. The U.S. government stepped in diplomatically, issued an ultimatum against Israel, and the abandoned machinery ultimately inspired the first real communication between Israel and Jordan since the West Bank changed hands. With the Jordan River as the new boundary and scene of the exchange, the U.S. government and Schwarzwalder facilitated this remarkable interaction.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria lasted just six days but the devastating effects could be seen decades later. Aggravated by tensions over shipping through the Straits of Tiran, Israel launched a surprise preemptive attack against Egypt’s airfields. This high-stakes gamble paid off. Israel was able to cripple the militaries of its opponents, cause heavy casualties, and seize large stretches of land in just a few days. Ongoing economic activity in the new Israeli occupied territory of the West Bank halted as the displacement of large numbers of the Arab population led to chaos and uncertainty.

Anthony Schwarzwalder’s first assignment was Amman, Jordan. He went on to serve as director of the Office of Relief and Rehabilitation in Pakistan where he dealt with issues such as the 1970 Bangladesh Cyclone. From 1979 to 1984 he served as USAID mission director in the Philippines. After his retirement in 1984, Schwarzwalder worked extensively with a variety of nonprofits.

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