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Protecting Greenland: The American Consulate at Godthab, 1940-42

During World War II, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied continental Denmark, leaving the Kingdom’s other two territories, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, exposed to a possible German invasion. The United Kingdom quickly occupied the Faroe Islands and, along with Canada, made plans to occupy parts of Greenland, which would drag the otherwise neutral island into the war. The United States, which at that point had not yet entered the war, rejected these plans and instead made Greenland a de facto protectorate and established formal diplomatic relations with the opening of a consulate.

The United States recognized that Greenland was strategically essential in that much of Europe’s weather patterns originated in the Arctic, so a meteorological station on the island would be a boon for any country fighting a war there. Furthermore, the mine at Ivittuut on the island’s southwestern shore provided the rare mineral cryolite, which was useful in the mass production of aluminum. Therefore, it was critical for the United States that Greenland was kept safe and in friendly hands in a time of all-out war in Europe. Read more

American-Israeli Tensions over the Black Hebrew Community

The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, often referred to as the Black Hebrew Community (BHC), is a religious group that claims to be Jewish descendants of one of the “Ten Lost Tribes” of Israel. According to the group, in 1966, their founder, Ben Ammi Ben-Israel (born Ben Carter, a Chicago metallurgist), had a vision calling for African Americans to return to the “Promised Land” (Israel) and establish the “Kingdom of God.”

In 1967, Ben Ammi led a group of a small group of disciples to Liberia and then on to Israel, where they intended to settle permanently. Upon their arrival in Israel, however, the Israeli rabbinical authorities deemed that Ben Ammi and his followers were not descendants of the lost tribe. Slowly, the Government of Israel attempted to deport the BHC.

Over the next several decades, however, new disciples continued to join the BHC’s unauthorized settlement in Israel. Consequently, the Israeli government stepped up its use of creative tactics to spur the BHC to leave of their own accord and to prevent more members from arriving. When these tactics began to affect African Americans who were not of the BHC as well as the American children of the BHC, the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv had no choice but to get involved. Read more

A New Way of Teaching America’s Frontline Diplomats

The State Department invests significant resources in training its incoming consular officers. They learn through courses taught at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) by senior consular officers using group projects and case studies, as well as field trips to airports to observe how visa holders are processed at the port of U.S. entry. Officers must pass weekly examinations that measure and document their mastery of US immigration law. The training does not stop at FSI; once consular officers have reported to work at their embassies abroad, they are immediately given additional on-the-job training and receive ongoing instruction in consular law application and interpretation throughout their careers. It is a carefully-engineered academic and experiential way of learning to prepare officers to serve at the forefront of U.S. diplomacy and to represent, for many abroad, the face of the United States.

It did not start out that way. In the 1980s, FSI underwent a shift in the way it taught consular courses, from lectures and book learning to scenario-oriented training. John T. Sprott, Deputy Director of FSI from 1981-1993, devoted most of his career to developing diplomatic talent at the Foreign Service Institute. While he was dean of Professional Studies, he argued for the development of “ConGen Rosslyn,” leading the push for experiential learning into the overall FSI curriculum. The highlight of Sprott’s service was the contribution he made to the design, construction and relocation of FSI to its current campus in the fall of 1993. Read more

Diplomacy in Cold Blood: Fatal Encounters Around the World

An American citizen abroad accused of murder: this is a particular nightmare for consular officers. These cases can become public scandals and political quandaries, and it is the job of American Citizen Services to ensure that Americans accused of major crimes beyond U.S. borders receive appropriate treatment in accordance with international law. If an arrested American citizen requests that authorities contact the U.S. Embassy or consulate, they must do so. The consular officer will visit the detained person in jail and contact family, friends or employers with the  prisoner’s consent. The consular officer will also try to make sure the citizen is getting appropriate medical care. What they can’t do is get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas, provide legal advice, serve as official interpreters or pay legal, medical, or other fees. Many Foreign Service personnel have had to deal with murder abroad – by fellow Americans, local despots and other killers – during the course of their careers.

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The Siberian Seven: Escaping Religious Persecution in the U.S.S.R.

From its inception, the Soviet Union became the first state in the world to actively attempt to eliminate religion from society. Religion was viewed by Soviet leadership as counter-intuitive to scientific reason and as a threat to the consolidation and exertion of state power. Correspondingly, under Soviet religious policy, tens of thousands of houses of worship were closed, spiritual leaders were exiled and persecuted, and the faithful were subject to harassment.

While the Kremlin targeted all religious organizations, Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Protestantism that had accumulated a small but rapidly expanding base throughout the twentieth century, was considered particularly problematic. Believers were known to receive twenty-year sentences during the gulag period, while many were committed to mental hospitals in the years following the Second World War. Read more

Cannabis and Cabbages: Serving at the Last Stop of the Hippie Trail

In the late sixties – early seventies, the “Hippie Trail” started in Europe, crossed over to Istanbul, ventured into Iran and Afghanistan and, for many adventurous souls, ended in Nepal. It was an era of experimentation, reflection and free love. Sandal-clad hippies with backpacks from throughout the world sought enlightenment amid the fumes of cannabis and charms of Kathmandu. Classic rocker Bob Seger had a 1975 hit song about escaping to kkkkkk-Kathmandu.

The hippies even developed their own vernacular for their newly-adopted city: the ancient Buddhist shrine Swayambhunath was called “The Monkey Temple” and Jhochhen lane, in the heart of the capital city, was known as “Freak Street.” Freak Street was considered hippie heaven, where marijuana and hashish were legal and sold openly in government-licensed shops.

But the higher you get, the harder you may crash, and those serving at the U.S. Embassy were often called on to help Americans who got into trouble in paradise. Read more

Persistence, Vision and Luck: Creating a Center for Diplomatic Training

Can you imagine the bureaucratic struggles involved in persuading the Department of Defense to hand over acres of prime real estate for a State Department training facility and then convincing Congress to authorize the transfer? This impossible dream was accomplished thanks to vision, persistence and a large dose of luck by a small group of individuals; among them, Stephen Low (seen right). The Department of State was founded in 1789, but it took more than another century before the opening of the first school for diplomats, which provided basic tutelage on foreign policy and consular operations. More detailed instruction was given in a school that opened in 1920.

It wasn’t until the Foreign Service Act of 1946 that Congress mandated advanced training for diplomats, and in 1947 the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) opened in the Mayfair Building in Washington, D.C. FSI relocated to two State Department annex buildings in Arlington, Virginia, then to its permanent home at Arlington Hall, previously the Arlington Hall Junior College, and later an Army installation. FSI opened at its new location, the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, in October 1993. Read more

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Evacuating Liberia, 1990

Being caught up in violent political upheaval and forced to evacuate is among the risks of diplomatic service, as at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in 1990 in what the Marines called Operation Sharp Edge. The problems started a decade before when a group led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe staged a military coup in Liberia, toppling the government established over a century before by freed American slaves, and beginning a ten-year rule characterized by corruption, economic mismanagement and repression of political opponents. In 1983, Liberian government official Charles Taylor, charged with embezzlement, fled to the US, was arrested and imprisoned. He escaped, underwent military training and raised an army, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. It surged into Liberia in December 1989.

Taylor’s forces quickly gained control of most of the country, but then other rebel factions entered the conflict, not only because of ideological and ethnic differences but also the desire to control natural resources such as gold and diamonds. Read more

From Russia with Love and Back Again: Rostropovich’s Exile and Return

Mstislav Rostropovich, considered one of the greatest cellists of the twentieth century, was born in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in 1927. Graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, Rostropovich quickly established himself as the preeminent concert cellist in the USSR, collaborating with composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten. In 1955 he married Galina Vishnevskaya, a soprano at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Though he was immensely popular as a musician, Rostropovich’s outspoken political views and support of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents prompted the Soviet government to restrict his foreign travel and performances within the Soviet Union.

In 1974, while in France for a series of performances, Rostropovich requested permission from his government to travel to New York for a concert at Lincoln Center. The musician made the trip west with his family despite his government’s refusal, and his Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978. In 1990, as Mikhail Gorbachev worked to reform the USSR, Rostropovich returned to Moscow as conductor of the U.S. National Symphony Orchestra for a series of performances, and in that year his Soviet citizenship was restored.  He died in Russia in 2007. Read more

Hong Kong Returns to China, Part II

As the formal handover of Hong Kong to China approached, many grew concerned about Beijing’s intentions. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens emigrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s for places like the UK and Vancouver while several came to the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong with claims of American citizenship. The event of the formal handover, which took place on June 30-July 1, 1997, was a glitzy affair. The Prince of Wales read a farewell speech on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II; newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, and the departing Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten also attended.

Richard Boucher served as Consul General in Hong Kong from 1996-1999. He describes the crush of Congressional delegations and the fear mongering in the American media, which he found especially frustrating when he learned that no one read his cables. Read more