U.S. Foreign Service Officer John Dinger arrived in South Africa to serve as a regional trade officer at the time when Frederik Willem De Klerk was elected as the president of the country. De Klerk’s election in 1989 promised to bring apartheid to an end. Yet, as Dinger faced during his service, tense situations were still prevalent in South Africa: labor movements, the ban of the African National Congress, the anti-apartheid struggle, “necklacing” (punishment to black people by their community for perceived collaboration with the apartheied government), distrust in white people, and the spread of communism.
Black workers formed the backbone of South African industry. But soon white managers at mining and manufacturing plants would find no black person working for them. Rising worker discontent led to the creation of a new commission to allow black workers to organize. This decision led to the first (and, at that time, only) Black South African labor union. Soon, labor unions formed in different sizes: Mineworkers, Metalworkers, and The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) among others. Apartheid was nearing its demise.
Another concern, however, was the expansion of communism. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that, as a regional trade officer, John Dinger focused on getting trade unionists’ perspective on democracy, despite a lack of interest on the part of the trade union representatives to engage with the U.S. government. Overcoming the challenges of gaining trust, meeting with labor union representatives, and facing the tirade against the U.S. government, Dinger encouraged unionists to join the international dialogue and an international labor organization.
Following Allied victory in World War II, the world plunged headfirst into a bitter rivalry lasting decades between the two superpowers of the time: the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. and the USSR strived for superiority in the buildup of nuclear weapons, the space race, and the ability to exert ideological influence on other nations.
The 1970s, however, marked a turning point with the introduction of a period of détente, or an easing of strained relations, between the two entities. Individuals in both countries began to advocate for the opening of security negotiations that would facilitate the easing of tensions between the battling states.
In July 1973, thirty-five nations began talks under the framework of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Talks continued in Geneva until 1975, after which the participants reconvened in Helsinki on August 1, 1975 to sign the Helsinki Final Act. This agreement became known as the Helsinki Accords, which served as the groundwork for the later Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), established in 1995 under the Paris Charter of 1990.
The Helsinki Final Act tackled a variety of issues which were divided into “baskets.” The first basket (security dimension) dealt with an array of military and political issues, such as the definition of borders in a Europe plagued by war and competing political philosophies. The second (economic dimension) emphasized the importance of active trade, protecting the environment, and other economic issues. The third (human dimension) focused on human rights, including freedom of emigration and freedom of the press. Finally, the fourth and final basket defined the details of a follow-up meeting and implementation measures. The passage of the act led to greater cooperation between Western and Eastern Europe and contributed to significant political and social changes in Europe.
Like much of Africa, Ethiopia experienced a watershed moment at the end of World War II, emerging out from under the colonial rule of Italian occupation. Newfound independence flickered out after thirty years, submerging the country into communism after a period of civil unrest in 1974. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Ethiopia would remain well within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.
It was this communist Ethiopia that greeted Roberta Cohen in 1982. A long-time champion of human rights after leaving the realm of nongovernmental organizations for the State Department, Cohen joined her husband, David Korn, to his posting as chief of mission. Cohen’s record to that point had included upholding visibility of human rights in Africa as a deputy assistant secretary of State, supporting Tex Harris’s reports on violations in Argentina, and a storied working relationship with Patt Derian.
In Addis Ababa, Cohen quickly made use of her time and her expertise, kickstarting a program for public affairs desperately needed amidst the heavy communist influence disseminated from Ethiopian ideologues. Noting the pro-American sentiments within the people of Ethiopia at odds with their leadership, Cohen worked to re-establish a USIA program and find support from the local university, reinvigorating an American presence in the Ethiopian mainstream. In this “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Cohen recounts her experiences in Addis Ababa and her eventual recognition from policymakers in Washington, D.C. for her important work.
Roberta Cohen’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on September 26, 2008.
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“. . . it became clear that there was a great reservoir of pro-American feeling in the country, that people were ready to take some risks, and that the regime’s control apparatus wasn’t so absolute.”
Ethiopia on America: Let me start with Revolution Day in Red Square in 1982, not that long after we arrived. David was back in D.C. on consultations, so I went with the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] to hear Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of state, give his three-hour speech. The first part was on domestic issues and Marxist ideology, the second part on foreign policy and it was a blistering attack on the United States. He blamed the U.S. for just about every ill that happened to Ethiopia, and at the end tried to whip up the crowds against the United States. I then had to go down into the crowds from the grandstand, where there were thousands, if not tens of thousands of people in the square. I was scared, I must say, as I headed for the big black American Cadillac flying the American flag, but people all around started yelling, “Viva America,” and waving to me. And as we got into the car and it inched through the crowd, everybody was knocking on the window, smiling, and yelling, “Viva America.” So it became clear that there was a great reservoir of pro-American feeling in the country, that people were ready to take some risks, and that the regime’s control apparatus wasn’t so absolute.
Out of this was born a public affairs program. When David saw that there was no one at the embassy to circulate the wireless file, which carried news stories and articles about the U.S. of interest to Ethiopian government ministries as well as African organizations and embassies, he cabled to Washington and got approval for a part time position for a local American to identify the articles and send out material to the ministries, and to the African embassies (more than 30) and organizations (like the Organization of African Unity, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and so forth). It just happened that I was the only one available for the job.
I was fascinated because as I saw it, the U.S. was essentially in the middle of an information and political war with the Soviet Union and should have every reason to play up its news especially as there were a lot of disenchanted people with communist rule. But it was not an easy road to hoe. At the NSC [National Security Council] and USIA [United States Information Agency], there was a lot of anger against Ethiopia and desire to punish it for “turning” to the Soviet Union. No distinction was made between the Ethiopian people and the ideologues running the place. It didn’t occur to them that Ethiopia should be treated like a bloc country. Well, my experience at Revolution Square told me something different and I began developing distribution lists and expanding the information base in order to gain entry on the Ethiopian side. By the time I left, I developed a full-fledged USIA public affairs program, which Congress approved, and USIA gave me an award, and assigned one of their senior officers to replace me. And I was asked to overlap with him, which really flattered me because I didn’t know anything about USIA.
Early Days: When I first began, I cabled USIA for books and films, but they would write back and say they didn’t have a program in Ethiopia so they couldn’t send me anything, and I would cable back and explain why it was important to have one and mention that there were Ethiopians, some connected to the government, who in some cases were taking risks by requesting U.S. materials. So little by little they began sending things and some of the USIA people came out, and I began reporting to them, and then they took over my efficiency reports, the State Department paid me and I used leftover USAID local staff. So a small operation developed. I remember a USAID official who knew me in the Carter period dubbed it “a typical Roberta Cohen operation.” David of course had to win the support of the NSC and State for a program in Ethiopia and also for his wife doing it. He had to answer questions about the politics of the situation and also about nepotism, about the chief of mission’s wife working—this was a sensitive issue in 1982.
While everyone agreed to a program at the OAU [Organisation of African Unity] and the UNECA [United Nations Economic Commission for Africa] (the programs here had been shut off inadvertently when USIA left), agreeing to programs with “communists” was another matter. There was also the problem of how to make contacts with Ethiopians in the Information Ministry, at the university, at film institutes. So, for starters, I decided to enroll at the university—Addis Ababa University (AAU), built with U.S. funds. It was a hotbed of Marxist-Leninist thought, although the library remained the John F. Kennedy Library and the bust of Kennedy was still there, next to a big poster of Lenin. Enrolling was not an easy thing to do because they didn’t want me there. I asked to audit a course so that I would learn about Africa, I said I would pay. It all created a political stir.
Q: What was the course?
International Relations in Africa in the political science department. Although I was initially brushed off, I kept coming back and asking why they don’t want to help me learn about Africa? So finally they said, you can audit the course but you cannot be listed as taking the course, and we will accept no money. So I began to audit the class and the professor told me that “even though you are not listed as being here, you will give a talk to the class like all the other students but you don’t have to take the exam.” I went every week to class—it was at night—and the students studiously avoided talking to me. In fact no one acknowledged my being there—everyone averted their eyes as if I weren’t there, which was amusing because I was the only non-Ethiopian person in the room, one of the few women, an American from the embassy to boot and the wife of the chief of mission! On occasion I raised my hand in class and said something. And I was also assigned a topic to present to the class—apartheid and the Bantustans in South Africa. I think the class thought I was going to defend racism in South Africa because of the Reagan administration’s constructive engagement policy. But I didn’t by a long shot and the professor let me speak longer than other students. A few times, he invited me to have coffee and I discovered that he didn’t have a Master’s degree and very badly wanted one, but there were no graduate programs at AAU. I saw he was real smart and managed to deal effectively with the ideologues in the class who would speak up to try to test his loyalty to Marxism. One day when we had coffee I asked him, “Have you ever heard of the Fulbright program in the U.S.?” He was more than interested and to make a long story short, I got him a Fulbright and he went to the United States where he got two M.A.s and then returned to the university in Addis.
Q: Was that program still in operation while you were there?
No. There was no longer any official USIA program in Ethiopia, but the USIA Fulbright officer in Washington didn’t seem to know that. He just thought the embassy hadn’t nominated anyone for a while. So I put forward a candidate. And the office processed it. But getting him out of Ethiopia was a problem because he needed an exit visa and approval by the university, and the Ethiopians in charge (department heads, deans) said, “We should be the ones to select.” They wanted to send one of their ideologues. So I went to see the President of the University, who was a figure head and pro-American and basically supportive of the Fulbright program. But I discovered that the obstacle was the Vice President, the real power behind the throne—who was the ideologue and wanted to do the selecting. Well, I basically told him, “If you turn down my candidate, you won’t get another chance” and because he realized that Fulbrights might be something the university might want in future, he agreed. And I said, “Next year we can consider the candidates you put forward, but the U.S. of course will decide.”
During this time, I began to meet some academics at the university and I learned that some hoped the U.S. would give Fulbrights to the ideologues in order to get rid of them whereas others did not want such people rewarded, which I agreed with. Soon I began to wonder how I could get some of these academics over to the embassy and came upon the idea of movies—U.S. feature films, which everyone liked but were no longer shown in Addis. Why not show a movie at the residence, I thought, which could seat about 150 people or more when you cleared out all the furniture? The residence was a palace the Haile Selassie family had donated to the U.S., and since the U.S. no longer had a cultural center in Addis, it seemed the next best thing. So we began sending out invitations to movies, plus desserts, like chocolate cakes—rare in Addis—and coffee before the movie so people could mill around, and before the film was shown I always said a few words to try to get a social message across. Of course many Ethiopians were afraid to come to the embassy because of the security camera across the street, and spies in the crowd, but coming in groups to a movie seemed like something they could risk. And so they began to come little by little and before we knew it more than 100 people were coming to the American embassy residence for the movies every month. I also went over to the medical school and invited doctors, and further found a lot of interested Ethiopians at the independent Rotary and Lions Clubs where whoever was left of the business community congregated. And there were Ethiopians working at the ECA and OAU.
Reaching government people was more difficult, I don’t mean just for the movies but for education and information programs I was trying to develop. But then I came to realize that the deputy minister of information was somebody I knew. I had met him at graduate school. I remembered him because I had never met ‘a revolutionary’ before and …
Q: At SAIS [School of Advanced International Studies]?
Well, actually he was studying at the University of Chicago but visited SAIS. And he and I had long talks which fascinated me so I remembered him. I soon found out that he was one of the people who supported the revolution that overthrew the Emperor. He was a political scientist and communications person, became director of radio and television for the revolution and when we arrived in Addis was number two at the information ministry. I wasn’t so sure he would remember me because our conversations were twenty years ago but I sent a message to him indirectly through the director of the German cultural center (the Goethe Institute). The director informed me he did remember me, and the Director then invited my husband and me to dinner—we went in an unofficial car—and he arranged for the deputy minister to drop by later in the evening. So we reconnected.
When I told him I was now the public affairs officer at the American Embassy and would like to meet with people at the Ministry, he said he would help me. And he did. Let me note that by this time he was disenchanted with the revolution and must have seen the contact as an opportunity to meet with Americans. He invited me over to the Ministry, which for USIA was an event. I asked him for a friendlier media both for me personally and for the U.S. I told him that I had been part of a group of volunteers helping out at the leprosy center and a group picture was taken and put in the Ethiopian Herald [the English language daily]. But that one face in that group had been cut out, and that was mine. That amused him and he said, “You know Henry Kissinger once said, even the paranoid have enemies.” I said, “Well, I would like to be able to have American events and donations in the newspaper.” Not that I had any donations from USIA to give at that time, so I called upon all my friends in the States to send me books. And they did, and I had cartons of books. They were old books. They were books about anything. And I went over to Addis Ababa University library and said, “I have all these books and would like to make a donation.” The librarians who looked at them said, “We are happy to have them, but it is not the kind of donation that gets publicized because they are not new books, or books focused on a particular theme, they are just any old thing.” I said, “Well, let’s do it anyway because if I can show the U.S. that the donation is acknowledged by this country, then maybe I can get you the real books you want.” They went along with it, they wanted connections to Americans, and the Ministry of Information backed it up and said “The donation is going to be covered.” And so it was in the Ethiopian Herald and possibly on the radio. My picture was there, the books were there, everything was there. And that played well in Washington—it had been years since the U.S. was mentioned in the newspapers in a positive way. Then officials from other ministries, the Ministry of Culture, and the film center came to see me and find out whether the U.S. had any films to give them; the mass media education center had come earlier. And the Minister of Information himself went to see my husband and told him he was sick of watching the Soviet Union fight World War II on the eastern front every Saturday night. They wanted American films. So suddenly we had demand, but we didn’t have supply.
I had to press and press and finally got films and books and then I asked for short-term visitor grants for officials in government ministries to visit the U.S. In particular, I wanted the radio director to go to the U.S. and the television director. Neither had been to the U.S. and I believed their veneer of indoctrination was probably thin. But USIA responded that Ethiopia would never let such people out but I argued that I could get them out and so they agreed. Of course, I was walking a tightrope. At the very last minute, the TV Director called me to tell me the Minister said he could not go, although everything had been set up. With the help of the deputy minister I got in to see the Minister. And I told him, “I have to explain to you that if you turn this down we are not going to be able to do more things because Washington was sure you wouldn’t let the director come to begin with and I assured them he could go. Canceling will not be well received and will end everything I am working for.” He said, “You really want him to go?” and I said, “yes,” and he replied, “OK, he can go,” and then he asked for sports films to show on TV that same week. When it came time for the radio director to go, the same charade took place. This time, however, the minister told the director to tell me—after nixing the visit—that I should not come in to try to reverse the decision. So David said no one said he couldn’t go in, so he went and the radio director was then allowed to go.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s Director General began checking into whether David’s wife should be doing this program now that it was becoming more high profile. And USIA wondered about the program being run by someone who knew nothing about the agency or its operations. On one occasion, I showed the film, The Grapes of Wrath at the University and over a thousand people came, which I conveyed to Washington. Well, I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to do that, and got a frantic call from USIA. What they actually said after telling me it was against the rules was, “Keep doing what you’re doing, but don’t tell us about it for heaven’s sake.” Now, if in 1982 and 1983 most of the films on Ethiopian television were East German or Soviet, by 1984 most of the films on television were American. And American donations to the medical school and university and other places began to be reported in the press and over the radio. And at the same time, we were continuing to have the movie shows, got musicians from USIA to come out and they performed at the large Italian cultural center. . . . By the time the U.S. began to give food donations to Ethiopia during the famine, the media was already giving the U.S. some coverage.
Well, Washington liked what I was doing and USIA gave me its Superior Honor Award and offered me a job when I left Ethiopia.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Government, University of Vermont, Barnard College 1956–1960
MA in School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins 1960–1962 Joined the State Department 1978
Washington, D.C.—Bureau of Human Rights, Human Rights Officer 1978–1980
Washington, D.C.—Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Economic & security assistance 1980–1982
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—USIA Public Affairs Program 1982–1985
Washington, D.C.—Refugee Policy Group 1988–1994
About one month before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States officially entered World War II, tensions were already rising between Japanese officials and U.S. Foreign Service Officers serving in Asia. Japan continued its mission of global expansion, hoping to become a more respectable world power, while the United States issued economic sanctions and restrictions against it as a measure of deterrence. Still, in 1941, Japan began to move into Vietnam in its quest for expansion.
Kingsley W. Hamilton served as a consular officer in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon), Vietnam, during November 1941. Hamilton saw the Japanese military police moving into Vietnam, taking control of the airport, and erecting military structures throughout the country, beginning in the north and moving southward. They were generally peaceful towards the U.S. Foreign Service officers, until November 23, when a bomb went off at the U.S. Consulate in Vietnam. No one was killed or injured, but the office was blown to pieces. While there were no eyewitnesses and no true evidence—so the perpetrator was never confirmed—it was generally believed by the Vietnamese, French, and Americans that the Japanese were behind the attack. After the bombing, the diplomatic legation moved to a new location and was able to function relatively normally for the next month. However, on December 8, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, they suddenly took the consular officers in Vietnam into custody and halted all of their operations. For months, Hamilton lived in Japanese custody and his experience as a consular officer changed drastically. After leaving Vietnam in 1942, Hamilton resigned from the State Department.
Capturing, preserving, and sharing the experiences of America’s diplomats. ADST’s maxim perfectly encapsulates the diverse nature of a Foreign Service career that arguably makes every officer’s professional journey unique. And yet, underlying the idiosyncratic nature of these experiences are undoubtedly core values and challenges that unite most—if not all—individuals in this particular field. This is not to say that there is a uniform set of reactions towards them, but it should nevertheless be considered paramount for us to acknowledge this base uniformity in order to truly understand the fundamental roots of a given matter and properly address it.
Robert Kinney is one particular individual whose career demonstrates the constancy of certain values and challenges. For instance, the hostility that he faced when initially transitioning into the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs is merely one example of the bias that certain labor attachés have historically experienced while in the Foreign Service. Furthermore, although he himself did not have any issues on this front, his discussion of the topic reveals just how crucial the influence of family can be on the decisions and life of a Foreign Service officer. It is worth noting that Kinney retired in 1973, a few years before the Foreign Service Act of 1980 addressed some of these very issues. However, that is not to say that these dilemmas have simply dissipated since then; if anything, the essence of his words continues to bear significance today: we should appreciate more the differing views and backgrounds of each individual to gain a balanced and informed opinion on any given issue.
Kinney spent the majority of his Foreign Service career in South East Asia, dividing his time between Manila, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur as a labor attaché. Furthermore, apart from his tour in Lagos, Kinney additionally spent time throughout his career in Washington, D.C., whether as a Special Assistant to the Labor Advisor of the Economic Cooperation Administration, or as the Labor Advisor at the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1973.
Ever since the Foreign Service’s infancy, Foreign Service spouses have traveled with their partners to all corners of the world, helping to represent America and her interests overseas. Many of these spouses were former Foreign Service Officers themselves. Helen Brady Lane is one such individual, who entered the Foreign Service in 1957 and left after just a few years to follow her husband, Larry, for his own career in the State Department. Together, Helen and Larry went to countries as close as Mexico and as far as Germany.
It was in the heat of the Cold War that Helen and Larry were sent to Hamburg, Germany. Upon arriving, Helen immediately noticed the tremendous influences of both the Cold War and World War II on local life. Helen closely observed this, all while navigating her own role in Germany as a new mother and Foreign Service spouse. Read more in this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” about how a Foreign Service couple adapted to life in a divided Germany, and all they learned along the way.
In the wake of the Cold War, dictatorial regimes sprang up throughout the world, capturing international attention with news of authoritarianism and human rights violations. One such regime was the dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the Philippines. The regime was guilty of countless abuses, but Imelda Marcos worked ceaselessly to shift the focus onto herself. Imelda attempted to portray herself as a style icon, hobnobbing with the international elite and showing off her expensive wardrobe. Her footwear collection, containing an alleged 3,000 pairs of shoes, was legendary. Despite Imelda’s insistence that she was a caring leader, her lifestyle was funded by around ten billion dollars she and Ferdinand had stolen from the state. In 1986, she and Ferdinand were forced out by a popular uprising and fled to Hawaii.
While working in the Philippines as chargé d’affaires, Philip Kaplan had a number of run-ins with Imelda. For a diplomat, interacting with such a polarizing figure is always a challenge. It was made all the more complicated by U.S. political ambivalence on how to handle the Marcos dictatorship, and the shifting moods of Imelda herself. Kaplan remembers Imelda as alternating between sociability and suspicion, at one point feeding him steak despite her apparent belief that he was part of a threat to the regime. On the U.S. government’s end, Ronald and Nancy Reagan had enjoyed the Marcos’ company, although there was an increasing need for regime change. Ultimately, Kaplan served in the Philippines long enough to witness the fall of the Marcos regime. The new president, Corazon Aquino, ordered investigations of the Marcos’ theft. Unfortunately, the massive robbery would continue to have serious economic consequences for the Philippines. Although Imelda used luxury and material possessions to construct a prestigious image of herself, her vast collection will forever be synonymous with blatant corruption and greed.
The work of the U.S. Foreign Service encompasses more than just advancing U.S. interests abroad. A critical part of it remains the mission of development support to the host country. In many instances, this mission is achieved through not only diplomatic meetings and negotiation, but also through music. After the song We Are the World was composed to support Africa during a difficult time of famine, Robert Berg was one of the four people who worked on taking it to the next crucial step: to allocate the funds to help end hunger.
Ever since his first visit to Nigeria on a development mission in 1965, Robert Berg has served during his career in various capacities in Africa—think tanks, non-profit, and private sector—all with a common vision of advancing development. However, this crucial task—both for the host country and the world—does not come easy. On his very first USAID trip to Nigeria, Berg encountered the internal turmoil of the country. As Berg believes, there should be two independent voices: a political one telling a country often what it wants to hear, and a development voice telling them sometimes the hard truth. In less than a year on duty in his initial assignment, Berg became convinced that the onset of a civil war was imminent. He returned to Washington D.C. to report the hard truth that was facing the future of the Nigerian people.