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Folk Songs and Fellowship: The Power of Music in the Labor Movement

Organized labor holds power in the histories of countries all across the world, coming to the forefront as a political entity at the turn of the twentieth century. In unifying the working class with a political consciousness, the labor movement quickly gained might and influence—demanding integration into government dealings, as typified by the role of labor officers in the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in the 1950s and 60s.

           
Joe Glazer (1981), George Tames | New York Times
Joe Glazer (1981), George Tames | New York Times

Yet, the labor movement shares deep roots with folk music, songs shared orally that comment on national cultures. In the mid-twentieth century, a revival of the folk tradition carried powerful political messages through a populace, often commenting on the state of labor workers and unions, as exemplified in songs like “Union Burying Ground” by preeminent folk artist Woody Guthrie. Many such folk musicians reached fame supporting union efforts at rallies and gatherings nationwide, integrating music into the fabric of the labor movement irrevocably.

Joe Glazer, a long-standing labor officer and advisor, exemplified the role of labor in international dealings, finding his start in the Rebel Workers Union in Akron, Ohio in the early 1950s before developing a decades-long career in the federal government. Upon entering USIA in 1961, Glazer moved to Mexico City, where his love for music played a key role in developing cultural diplomacy.

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Gas Masks and Sealed Rooms: Serving in Israel During the Gulf War

The First Gulf War. The Persian Gulf War. Desert Storm and Desert Shield. All of these titles and operation names are associated with the same war, the first major U.S. military action since the Vietnam War.

During the 1980s, while at war with Iran, the Iraqi government borrowed heavily from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to fund the nation’s growing army.

U.S. Troops in the Persian Gulf War (1991) U.S. DOD | commons.wikimedia.org
U.S. Troops in the Persian Gulf War (1991) U.S. DOD | commons.wikimedia.org

As a result of the devastating eight-year conflict in which no side claimed clear victory, Iraq emerged with the fourth-largest army in the world.

Iraq’s newfound military prowess and resentment towards Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (after the two nations refused to forgive $30 million of Iraqi debt) worried the United States and its allies about the actions that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, was willing to take.

Their concerns would prove to be justified.

On August 2, 1990, Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait; and Iraqi troops immediately started to occupy the small oil-rich country.

The international community was quick to react. The following day, on August 3, the United Nations Security Council called for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. After the Iraqi government’s failure to do so, the council implemented a worldwide trade ban with the country.

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“The Good Coup” of 1999—the Very First Coup in Côte d’Ivoire

In December 1999, Côte d’Ivoire experienced its first ever coup d’état after years of stability and economic growth—a coup that brought hopes for a better political situation, but then shattered them in an outbreak of violence and fear for the fate of the country.

Ivory Coast (2010) Sanofi Pasteur / Norbert Domy | Flickr
Ivory Coast (2010) Sanofi Pasteur / Norbert Domy | Flickr

Côte d’Ivoire’s was one of the strongest economies in Africa, with the country prospering for forty years. However, the political situation was not ideal: the opposition often found itself suppressed or prosecuted, ethnic tensions were growing, and the situation only deteriorated under President Henri Bédié. The first military coup in Côte d’Ivoire began on December 24, 1999, and resulted in the overthrow of the government. The coup’s organizer, General Robert Guéï, announced the ouster of President Bédié himself. Many believed it was a “good coup” and hoped that it would bring about change in the political environment.

A good first step toward ensuring free and fair elections involved allowing former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara [and the current president of Côte d’Ivoire since 2010] to run for office, since he was denied that opportunity in 1995. These hopes quickly disappeared in 2000 when Outtara was once again barred from participating in the presidential election. The one opposition candidate allowed to run, Laurent Gbagbo, received more votes, but Guéï refused to recognize the result and falsely announced his victory. Ivorians took to the streets to protest, which ultimately brought Gbagbo to power. Ouattara’s supporters, however, were outraged at his exclusion from the election and attempted protests that were violently suppressed. The human rights situation deteriorated, and the country was bloodied by fear, violence, and growing instability, which contributed to the outbreak of the First Ivorian Civil War in 2002. The unrest continued for many years after.

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A Whole New World: Life as a New Foreign Service Spouse

Life as a Foreign Service spouse is constantly evolving, particularly for Foreign Service wives. While the State Department is now having active conversations about how to best support women and families, in earlier days, women’s needs were not always considered a priority. Wives of ambassadors especially bore the brunt of this unfortunate reality.

Dancing at festival in Benin (January 2013) (images.lebenin.info)  | mondoblog.org
Dancing at festival in Benin (January 2013) (images.lebenin.info) | mondoblog.org

They were expected to leave behind their careers, enter a new post with their husbands, and focus on matters such as entertaining guests or keeping up their residences (in addition to decoding the written and unwritten rules of social life). This transition was made more difficult due to the lack of clear information provided to wives by the State Department.
Alice McIlvaine is one such Foreign Service spouse who entered this new world with little to no formal guidance from the State Department. Upon joining her husband Robinson McIlvaine in the Foreign Service in 1961 and heading to Dahomey (now Benin), Alice immediately began to navigate her role as an ambassador’s wife. She was aided by other wives who took her under their wing, and learned new lessons constantly throughout her journey.
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“Coincidence is God Acting Anonymously!”—Faith in Service

Life can sometimes be unpredictable in the Foreign Service. Serving as a development officer may perhaps be even more unpredictable, since one often confronts unique challenges in distinct parts of the world. Many who are called to public service have a passion for change and improvement; they embark on a path unlike any other.

USAID; U.S. Embassy & Consulate
USAID; U.S. Embassy & Consulate

The United States sends men and women across the world to serve in diplomacy, trade, humanitarian aid, and development projects. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States invested more resources in Latin America; Central America was a prime example—Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala. Much of this investment was dedicated to infrastructure development for national governments, and its success depended on the efforts of dedicated public servants.

Henry “Hank” Weiss was one such person—a man of faith and service. He defines his life in five words: “Coincidence is God acting anonymously.” Life brings strange consequences to situations unimaginable. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Hank Weiss learned from his many years overseas—from Latin America to Africa to Eastern Europe—that it absolutely takes a village to raise a child. Weiss, with strong faith and the support of friends, worked with USAID, the Peace Corps, and the Department of State, and sought to make a lasting contribution in the countries where he served.

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Art as the Universal Language: Cultural Expression Serves as the Bridge for the Separated People of Cyprus

A sense of misunderstanding is what undoubtedly lies at the heart of conflict, especially between nations who apparently strive for what is best for their peoples. But as time moves on, so too do the Turkish and Greek Cypriots who first began their detachment from their respective governments’ political impasse in the early 1990s. Marcelle Wahba, a USIS public affairs officer at the time, subsequently bridged both the physical and social divide between the north and south sides of the island of Cyprus through a form of expression limited to no bounds: art.

A tent city near Dhekelia for Greek-Cypriot refugees and displaced persons from the battles in and around the resort of Famagusta where Turkish amphibious forces had landed on the sandy beaches and occupied the city (2009) Brian Harrington Spier  | Wikimedia Commons
A tent city near Dhekelia for Greek-Cypriot refugees and displaced persons from the battles in and around the resort of Famagusta where Turkish amphibious forces had landed on the sandy beaches and occupied the city (2009) Brian Harrington Spier | Wikimedia Commons

In 1974, the growing international dispute over Cyprus between Greece and Turkey ultimately culminated in a Greek coup d’état of the local government that was swiftly answered by a Turkish military invasion of the island. As political gridlock ensued with no resolution in sight, thousands of civilians found themselves displaced from their homes. Turkish Cypriots therefore settled in the North while Greek Cypriots lived in the South. The UN established a Buffer Zone, also known as the “Green Zone,” which prevented citizens of both nationalities from crossing. The violent conflict that resulted from the previous engagements ultimately left psychological wounds amongst Cypriots that lasted for years.

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Tex Harris: Representing at Home the Officers who Serve Abroad

A lack of due process, serious disorganization, and inadequate representation. This was the state of affairs of Foreign Service labor management in the late 1960s, when officers who served abroad could not rely upon a personnel system that was sorely outdated and lacked the means to sufficiently take care of its people. These circumstances would culminate in the tragic suicide of Charles Thomas in 1971 after being wrongfully selected out of the Foreign Service.

AFSA President Eric Ruben presents F. Allen “Tex” Harris with the AFSA Achievement and Contributions to the Association Award (2019) Joaquin Sosa | American Foreign Service Association
AFSA President Eric Ruben presents F. Allen “Tex” Harris with the AFSA Achievement and Contributions to the Association Award (2019) Joaquin Sosa | American Foreign Service Association

FSO Tex Harris, who had already been in the midst of resolving due process issues within the State Department, then became personally convicted by Thomas’ death and set out to accomplish what many colleagues would remember him for: establishing a grievance system that epitomized his unwavering morality and sincere care for all of his fellow FSOs.

Tex Harris first joined the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in 1968 as a junior officer, citing his initial aims to combat what were then simply due process issues. He joined the board as part of the “Young Turk” movement within the Foreign Service that sought to revolutionize the personnel system’s standards, ensuring that the work conditions and voices of all FSOs would be heard loud and clear. As a result, Tex Harris and the rest of the board effectively unionized AFSA with the intent of creating a more suitable personnel system based on merit and a legislative enactment of a grievance system long overdue.

This “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history conveys how Tex Harris strived to embody the values of justice he held so dear and the passion with which he would inspire both peers and mentors to take action wherever he went. His work here would serve as a foundation for a long career that started with scrutiny faced alone, in places like the bureaucracy and the Dirty War in Argentina, and ended with commemorations as president of AFSA surrounded by admirers of a man who never seemed to stop fighting the good fight.

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Operation Sapphire: Nuclear Diplomacy in Kazakhstan

Working with nuclear materials is, by its very nature, volatile. Carrying out diplomacy over nuclear materials is even more so. The 1990s posed a particularly fragile moment as the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving nuclear successor states in its wake. In particular, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan emerged onto the global scene equipped with weapons and the infrastructure to produce more nuclear devices.

Billet of Highly Enriched Uranium | Wikimedia Commons
Billet of Highly Enriched Uranium | Wikimedia Commons

The question for diplomacy (amidst the familiar pressures and excitement of establishing relationships with newly independent, nascent states) was how to steer the moments that would follow—a world where the number of nuclear-armed states had suddenly multiplied. Without carefully proceeding, the moment could turn sour, leading to further proliferation and heightened risk.

For over forty years, the Soviet Union and the United States had been locked in a nuclear escalation in the Cold War, generating the vast majority of the world’s supply of nuclear weapons and warheads. In the Soviet Union, this peaked at a stockpile of approximately 68,000 warheads just a year before its fall. After December 26, 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, those warheads were now split between the resulting new republics it left in its wake.

For Janet Bogue, a move to Kazakhstan as a Foreign Service officer in 1994, less than three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, meant an entrée into careful negotiations around the new Republic’s nuclear stockpile. Luckily for Bogue, Kazakhstan proved flexible, eager to de-arm and to negotiate with the United States. In this particular case, the obstacle proved to be the United States itself, much to the consternation of the Foreign Service officers posted in Almaty.

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Labor Unions During the Cold War

The end of World War II brought about the beginning of the Cold War, whose influence played a significant role in U.S. policy, and consequently the handling of labor union movements and how they were perceived. The fear of communism and the dominating presence of Cold War politics only added to the obstacles confronting labor unions that advocated for work and human rights.

Jack Sheinkman at the Americans for Democratic Action 50th anniversary convention, delivering the keynote address (1997). C-SPAN Network
Jack Sheinkman at the Americans for Democratic Action 50th anniversary convention, delivering the keynote address (1997). C-SPAN Network

Jack Sheinkman was a New Yorker from the Bronx who, thanks to his service in the Navy and the help of the G.I. Bill, attended the Labor Relations School at Cornell. His interest in trade unions had already begun as a student in the Workmen Circle Schools and socialist youth groups such as the Red Falcons. He has been a dedicated leader and advocate for labor unions, strongly believing that “labor rights…are part of democratic rights.” Throughout his lifetime, he’s been involved in striking, collective bargaining, and legal and organizing aspects of labor rights and unions.

While policies suppressing labor unions in places like Latin America have often been presented as part of the anti-communist war, this fails to acknowledge the important role social uprisings and unions play in maintaining democracy and achieving peace. To labor union leader Sheinkman, it seemed the Cold War pushed everything else to the backseat, including undercutting America’s own economic and national interests, stating that in some instances, the United States even made deals with undemocratic countries simply because they were anti-communist.

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