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First India, Next the World: Madhumita Gupta’s Story of Determination and Drive

Madhumita Gupta had a long and successful career serving as a Foreign Service National with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Her background and upbringing played a key role in making her the person she became.

Indian Parliament Building Delhi India. Taken by Shahnoor Habib Munmun. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Indian Parliament Building Delhi India. Taken by Shahnoor Habib Munmun. Source: Wikimedia Commons

She grew up in a household that was constantly brimming with knowledge. Her father was proficient in economics and government, which led to the family moving around a lot and thus exposing Gupta to many new and different situations. Gupta’s father also had some high-profile friends, such as Dr. Kenneth Arrow, Dr. Amartya Sen, and Professor Leontief—all of whom are Nobel prize laureates. As a young woman experiencing this during her formative years, Gupta was always learning new things and this segued perfectly into her professional life. As a career Foreign Service National with USAID, she worked in many different sectors and places, with her determination and drive always pushing her towards success. All of this came together to create a unique, successful, and impactful career.

Madhumita Gupta’s father taught her many things, but it was her own discipline and drive that led to her success. She wanted to be an economist, like her father, and she notes that although he was supportive he tried to dissuade her—most likely because “he knew the frustrations of being an economist.” She pursued this interest, studied economics at American University, and received her Masters in Business Administration from George Washington University. However similar their passions, Gupta worked tirelessly and achieved everything she did on her own merit; her father always taught her to be “self-taught and self-made” and did not want his position as a well-known economist to be the reason she was able to get positions. This gave Gupta the ambition to work hard, and stands as a true testament to the idea that working hard can lead to great rewards.

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A Gift from Nixon: A Moon Pebble for Each Head of State

Almost two years ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sold the first ticket to the moon. A few months later, on January 3, 2019, a Chinese spacecraft named Chang’e 4 became the first robotic mission to land on the far side of the moon.

Man in Astronaut Suit (2016) Pixabay | Pexels
Man in Astronaut Suit (2016) Pixabay | Pexels

Since then, both an Israeli ship and an Indian mission have attempted a lunar landing. The United States and Russia have long been competing for the advantage in space technology, and now other nations have joined the so-called Space Race.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we look back to arguably the most important moment in space exploration. When Apollo 11 finally landed humans on the moon, a sense of euphoria spread across the globe. Neil Armstrong’s now famous words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” meant that America had achieved something previously thought to be impossible.

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A Failure of American Ideology?—The Spread of Communism in South America and the International Sphere

The United States’ war on Communism has crucially shaped much of our foreign policy today. Since the First Red Scare roughly a century ago, we have passed laws, fought wars, and set up international institutions—all in the name of preventing its proliferation. Whether we succeeded is a different story.

International Labour Organisation Logo | Youth Job Creation
International Labour Organisation Logo | Youth Job Creation

In the context of the Cold War, certain advocates will lionize the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union as an embodiment of a U.S. ideological victory, which in turn established our country as the leader of—at least until recently—a unipolar international system. However, we cannot deny that the U.S. failed to achieve this goal in other respects, whether it be militarily, politically, or economically.

John T. Fishburn is one particular individual who witnessed firsthand the challenges and insufficiencies of American efforts on this ideological front. Throughout his time in South America, communist leaders always seemed to be present to stymie his efforts of extending U.S. relations. During his first assignment abroad to Argentina as a Labor Officer, the 1943 coup and Juan Perón’s subsequent appointment as Labor Minister restricted explicitly free democracy, in turn precipitating his transfer to Montevideo, Uruguay. Similarly in Brazil many years later, Fishburn found his role as a Labor Attaché frustrated by governmental collaborations with the communist party.

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Out with the Old, in with the New—Celebrating Georgian Independence

Every American is familiar with the excitement and patriotism that sweeps across the nation on the Fourth of July. Many spend the day with family and friends, eating BBQ, and watching the fireworks explode in the night sky. Around the world, different peoples celebrate traditions for their own national holidays, which are shaped by unique cultures and histories.

Georgian flag | publicdomainpictures.net
Georgian flag | publicdomainpictures.net

Georgia waited seventy years for its turn to celebrate its independence from the Soviet Union, and the patriotic festivities did not disappoint. However, declaring independence proved to be easier than actually living it. On May 26, 1918, following the chaos surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution, Georgian government officials signed the Act of Independence, which declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Georgia from the dying Russian Empire. Much to the Georgians’ dismay, this newfound freedom was short-lived. In early 1921, the Red Army invaded the country and annexed it into the Soviet Union. Under six decades of Soviet oppression, Georgians were unable to openly celebrate their independence until May 26, 1989, just a month after the infamous April 9 tragedy which left twenty-one Georgians dead at the hands of the Soviet government. Georgia officially seceded from the Soviet Union on April 9, 1991, just months before the final lowering of the Soviet hammer and sickle flag over the Kremlin on Christmas day.
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From the Ground Up: USAID in Post-Soviet Russia

Six months after the fall of the Soviet Union, James (Jim) Norris became the USAID mission director in Russia. Not long before he set foot on Russian soil, though, the hammer and sickle flag was still flying over the Kremlin and Mikhail Gorbachev was still in office.

Fall of the Soviet Union  (2011) Wikimedia Commons | Foreign Policy
Fall of the Soviet Union (2011) Wikimedia Commons | Foreign Policy

However, the Soviet Union fell just as quickly as it had risen sixty-nine years prior, and with its dissolution came a great deal of local and regional transformations. Boris Yeltsin assumed the presidency, Russia grappled with its new identity in the post-Soviet space, and former Republics embarked on the path to regain independence. Jim arrived just as these transformations—and more—were underway, allowing America to be right there on the ground in the midst of it all.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Russia, USAID was ready to hit the ground running. Program officers, led by Jim as their mission director, began strategizing about how to promote long-term political and economic development in Russia. That said, the team ran into a considerable number of roadblocks—everything from bureaucratic red tape to finding viable office space.

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Atomic Age Uncertainty—Tension Between the United States and the Soviet Union

One of the most defining moments of the twentieth century was the detonation of an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Not only did it hasten the end of the Second World War, but also ushered in a new era for international conflict, fraught with uncertainty and the recognition of a latent rivalry between two superpowers.

A photo of Hiroshima prepared by U.S. Air Intelligence for analytical work on destructiveness of atomic weapons (1945) U.S. National Archives, RG 77-AEC
A photo of Hiroshima prepared by U.S. Air Intelligence for analytical work on destructiveness of atomic weapons (1945) U.S. National Archives, RG 77-AEC

However, for many of us, this shift in history is not particularly personal—we hear about these events long after their occurrence, which differs from the perspective gained through living during their unfolding.

Edward L. Rowny was a lieutenant general who served in World War II and witnessed firsthand the changes that the atomic era brought in. He was involved in planning the invasion of Japan that never happened, and he worked to restructure the military to meet the demands of the developing Cold War. He experienced the effect that a weapon of mass destruction had on war planning; particularly the strategy of its use and how to respond militarily in the event of a nuclear attack. If already the future seemed uncertain with the drastic increase in the magnitude of warfare, it was compounded by the realization of an emerging ideological struggle. Rowny also witnessed the rising salience of the Soviet Union and its designation as the United States’ foremost enemy.

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An Embassy in Brazzaville During the Time of Independence

Prior to mid-August 1960, the United States had limited diplomatic activity in the French African colonies. However, within a 48-hour time span, Alan Wood Lukens, the U.S. Consul in Brazzaville, suddenly had plenty to do when the French announced a rapid withdrawal from their African colonies.

JFK welcoming Fulbert Youlou, the first president of the Republic on Congo (1961) JFK Library, Wikimedia Commons
JFK welcoming Fulbert Youlou, the first president of the Republic on Congo (1961) JFK Library, Wikimedia Commons

This action suddenly promoted him de facto as the only U.S. representative to four new countries. Fortunately, the 36-year-old World War II veteran from Pennsylvania had experience at performing under pressure and was well equipped to think on his feet. Arriving in Central Africa after stints in Paris, Martinique, and Istanbul, Brazzaville was simply a new adventure for him.

With the French withdrawal from their African colonies in 1960, formerly unified colonial states were rapidly given their independence and separated into distinct countries. Lukens, then Consul of French Equatorial Africa stationed in Brazzaville, was the only U.S. representative in the area when it was announced that the four countries of Central Africa—Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and the Central African Republic—would each become officially independent within 48 hours of one another. Unfortunately for Lukens, since France tended to take the lead on Western policy in Central Africa, he didn’t have much official guidance from the U.S. government to draw from. Furthermore, policy was hard to solidify from the top down as the Eisenhower administration entered its twilight era and the election between Nixon and Kennedy loomed. At this point of transition, Lukens jumped into action. He realized that in order to get diplomatic relations off on the right foot, and as a show of goodwill, these countries needed a U.S. representative at their independence ceremony.

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Dealing with a Leftist Dipsomaniac: The United States and Ecuador’s Carlos Arosemena

At the beginning of the 1960s, U.S. foreign policy had two bugbears: the Soviet Union and Cuba. Fidel Castro had come to power in 1959, and the United States wished to prevent another Cuban Revolution with policies like the Alliance for Progress, designed to forestall revolutionary tendencies by encouraging moderate reforms.

Carlos Arosemena | Wikimedia Commons
Carlos Arosemena | Wikimedia Commons

But the United States was nonetheless worried about potential leftist revolutions springing up across the region. That certainly played out in Ecuador.

When Ambassador Maurice Bernbaum arrived in the country to replace the previous appointee (who had died four days into the job), perennial president Jose María Velasco Ibarra was in office. However, the military soon deposed him, and Ecuador elected his vice president, Carlos Arosemena, the new president. However, as Bernbaum soon found out, Arosemena, a committed leftist, did not always support U.S. policies or interests. Matters came to a head when Arosemena drunkenly insulted the United States at a banquet, an event the military used as an excuse to overthrow Arosemena.

Bernbaum, who had previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Ecuador, continued as Ambassador to Ecuador until 1965. He subsequently became Ambassador to Venezuela until 1969, when he retired.

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Setting the Record Straight: Accountability in Reporting on the Guatemalan Economy

For policymakers to make the right decisions, it is crucial that they first have the right information. With this in mind, career U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officer Terrence Brown used his position as the USAID Mission Director in Guatemala to correct discrepancies in diplomatic reporting on the Guatemalan political economy in the early 1990s.

Guatemala City National Palace (2002) Gary Todd | WikiMedia
Guatemala City National Palace (2002) Gary Todd | WikiMedia

Thanks to his leadership, USAID provided policymakers in Foggy Bottom with a more accurate picture of Guatemala’s economic reforms in the midst of a 36-year-long civil war.

In June of 1990, the Guatemalan military killed Michael DeVine, a U.S. citizen living and working in Northern Guatemala. In response to DeVine’s death—as well as other human rights violations—the U.S. government suspended Foreign Military Funds to Guatemala in December of 1990. Five years later, however, the New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency was continuing to surreptitiously fund the Guatemalan military in an effort to support the army’s crucial role in the war on drugs.

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Life as a Vietnam War POW

In 1966, well into the Vietnam War and three years into Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Charles Graham Boyd took his eighty-eighth mission into Hanoi to search and destroy anti-aircraft missiles. It was during this mission that Boyd was shot down by Vietnamese artillery and landed in the unfortunate location of an enemy rice paddy.

F-100D firing rockets Vietnam (1967) USAF| U.S. Defense Imagery
F-100D firing rockets Vietnam (1967) USAF| U.S. Defense Imagery

He was promptly captured afterward and taken to Hoa Lo Prison where he was interrogated and tortured by a man nicknamed “The Rabbit” for his buck teeth. After giving his captors false information, Boyd was put in a cell called the “Heartbreak Hotel,” then brought out days later for a prisoner march through a local town.

For about the next seven years, Boyd endured the hardships of Vietnamese POW (Prisoner of War) camps as he resisted interrogation, torture, and harsh living conditions. Though a terrible experience to live through, his memories are now preserved in the form of oral history, leaving behind an inspiring memoir of survival. In this “Moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” Boyd recounts his time as a POW, including communicating with his fellow prisoners through taps on the wall and learning about his neighbor’s lives and families without ever seeing them face to face. This also became a mental exercise by which the prisoners could spread knowledge. Boyd learned Spanish through this system and by the end of his time in Vietnam, he learned 2,700 Spanish vocabulary words, 700 verbs, and advanced grammar.

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