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An Unconventional Leader—Pope Francis Transforms the Vatican

White smoke billowed from the Vatican, indicating that the College of Cardinals had cast their ballots. Jorge Mario Bergolgio, a Jesuit priest from Buenos Aires, had been elected pope. He selected his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, who venerated nature and poverty. This unique choice reflected Pope Francis’ unconventional background and views. He made history as the first Jesuit pope and the first one from the Americas. He quickly became renowned across the world for his humility and his progressive stances on controversial issues. U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett witnessed Pope Francis shake up the Vatican first-hand. According to Hackett, at a meeting with all the members of the Roman Curia (the administrative institutions of the Holy See), Pope Francis “laid them out straight. He listed 12 diseases [of] the bureaucracy, those people who were trying to climb the ladder to get up, and those people who were loose-lipped… he really ate them alive.” He fought to reduce money laundering and streamline the Vatican bureaucracy, fighting against centuries-old norms.

With over a billion Catholic followers world-wide, Pope Francis’ beliefs were immensely influential. On a visit to Brazil, he convened a staggering three million people. He encouraged European countries to take in migrants, called for peace in war-torn Syria, and advocated for global nonproliferation efforts. Despite Pope Francis’ profound influence, Hackett recalls his humility: “He lived in the guest house, not the apostolic palace. He drove around in a Fiat, not a Mercedes or a limo. He carried his own bag.”

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When a Newly-Elected President Putin Welcomed USAID’s Advice

President Putin once welcomed USAID’s assistance (at least for a time). Carol Peasley served as USAID’s mission director in Moscow from 1999-2003. This tumultuous period witnessed the 

fall of Boris Yeltsin and the emergence of Vladimir Putin as a tough-minded leader frequently at odds with the United States. But it was not always that way. Peasley recalls how a key Putin aide asked USAID to assemble a broad-ranging team of international experts to advise Putin’s new government. Putin met with the experts for several hours, on topics ranging from privatization to pension reform. They were impressed with the new Russian leader and his technocratic expertise. Peaseley also recalls USAID’s productive relationship with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, owner of the Yukos Oil Company — initially a powerful figure in the Putin government, who fell out with the new president and was later famously jailed for fraud. Peasley’s distinguished USAID career lasted from 1970 to 2003, with stops in Nepal, Costa Rica, Thailand and Malawi. Russia was her last foreign post. She also served in multiple senior positions in Washington. This interview was conducted by Kenneth Brown on January 29, 2015.

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The Diplomacy of Tragedy: Burmese Airways Crash Kills 14 Americans in 1987

In the early morning hours of October 11, 1987, a Burmese turboprop plane transporting 49 passengers, including 36 foreign nationals and four crew members, departed from Rangoon (now Yangon) and began its flight towards the popular tourist town of Pagan.  Approaching the airport, the plane’s wing clipped the ridge of a mountain just outside the city, sending it crashing down the ridge. All 49 people aboard the plane were killed.

Among the 49 killed were 14 Americans, seven Swiss, five British, four Australians, three West Germans, two French, and one Thai national. In the wake of this tragedy, the U.S. embassy in Rangoon was faced with the challenge of identifying and returning the bodies and belongings of the American nationals back to their families in the United States. This challenge proved difficult due to different standards of identification, the state of the victims’ bodies, and the looting of the crime scene by local villagers.

Aloysius M. O’Neill was  the Chief Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. O’Neill was the American counterpart on a team of diplomats from various embassies who were responsible for returning the nationals killed in the crash to their home countries. A career Foreign Service Officer, O’Neill served in various posts throughout East and Southeast Asia in addition to Burma (now Myanmar), including Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.  Below is an excerpt of his interview conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2008.

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Russian Interference and the Marshall Plan

Russian Disinformation is Not New, Say Diplomats Who Implemented the Marshall Plan

The obstacles the United States faced in implementing the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s and early 1950s included a vigorous propaganda contest with the USSR and their European communist allies. By the time Secretary of State George Marshall announced the plan at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, the United States was already implementing an ambitious foreign aid program — and working to counter Russian influence. Thomas W. Wilson, an Information Officer in Paris, and U.S. Ambassador William H. Taft III both recall early issues with Marshall Fund implementation. Each was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy. Jacob J. Kaplan Head of Economic Research for the Southern Region of Europe was interviewed by W. Haven North.

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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

Raymond Hare: Our Man in Cairo during WWII

Egypt and the Suez Canal became a point of global strategic interest during WWII because of the quick access the waterway could provide to Middle East oil, raw materials from Asia, and– for the British Empire particularly– a connection to its distant territories. Britain, as the first state to launch a completely mechanized military, was particularly dependent upon its shipping routes from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Maintaining Allied control of oil exports from the Middle East was also of strategic importance to the United States even before it entered the war, and it therefore commenced a Lend-Lease program in Egypt to equip the British with necessary materiel.

The United States publicly took a position of neutrality early in the war (the Neutrality Act of 1939), and could not sell weapons to foreign governments. In order to protect the national interest without violating the Act, the Lend-Lease program was devised to permit the non-monetary transfer of materiel “to the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” It was during this period that Raymond A. Hare was appointed Second Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and orchestrated the movement of American materiel to British forces in Egypt and later to Soviet forces via Iran. Read more

Edward Elson: Entrepreneurial Ambassador to Denmark

The fall of the Soviet Union upset long-established power dynamics, leaving East and Central Europe, in particular, in uncharted waters. The creation of the Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8), a regional cooperation consisting of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden, helped the Baltics transition away from Cold War-style self-identification toward a more regionally-focused identity.

President Bill Clinton appointed Edward E. Elson U.S. Ambassador to Denmark. During his tenure from 1994-1998, Elson helped to strengthen the bonds of the Nordic-Baltic region and secure American alliances in the region. Elson came to the job with impressive credentials. An entrepreneur, Elson pioneered retail outlets in airports and hotels, creating a lucrative retail empire among other businesses. Elson’s many interests led him to become a Charter Trustee of Phillips Academy, director of Hampton Investments, Rector of the University of Virginia, First Chairman of National Public Radio and Chairman of the Jewish Publication Society.

Elson discussed his experiences in Denmark, including an attempted assassination, creating a Baltic-Nordic hub in Copenhagen and having a Russian son foist upon him, with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2012 and with Mark Tauber in 2017. Read more

 The Afghan Revolution of 1978: Invitation to Invasion

Afghanistan has had a long history of living under foreign rule. Once a protectorate of the British Empire, Afghanistan became fully independent in 1919, but its vulnerable monarchy led by King Zahir Shah was unable to unite the country’s many ancestral tribes into a central government. This set up the conditions for internal political instability. The monarchy came to an end in 1973 when Zahir Shah’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, led a bloodless coup against the king, declared himself president and foreign minister and established a secular republic.

President Daoud’s own rule came to a violent end on April 27, 1978 in what was known as the Saur Revolution when pro-Communist rebels stormed the palace in Kabul and killed him and his family. The ensuring domestic turmoil encouraged foreign intervention, and the Soviets invaded the following year.

Kenneth Yates, an information officer for the United States Information Agency (USIA), the public affairs branch of the U.S. foreign affairs community, describes the events of the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan. The local offices are referred to as the “United States Information Service” (USIS). Read more

To be Young, Rich and Ambassador to Paris in the ’50s

C. Douglas Dillon was a politician and diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to France in the critical post World War II period, 1953-1957, and later as Under Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary. Son of a wealthy investment banker, Dillon graduated from Groton and Harvard, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, returning to become president of his father’s Wall Street firm. He doubled its investments in six years. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed C. Douglas Dillon to be Ambassador to France.

It was an exciting time to be in Paris. The city was undergoing massive reconstruction following the war. Christian Dior was reestablishing Parisian influence on world fashion, and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus forged new forms of literature. But there was still wide-spread poverty, trauma from the war and pressure from the Soviet Union. During his tenure as ambassador, Ambassador Dillon had to contend with French backlash against the U.S. execution of convicted espionage conspirators Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, antagonism against the U.S. in response to the encroachment of communism, and rising Cold War tensions. Read more

CNN, Tanks, and Glass Walls: The August 1991 Coup

In August of 1991, hard-liners opposed to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a coup attempt to overthrow him. The rebellion occurred in part because of financial strife as the Soviet Union transformed quickly from a statist to a market-based economy. Long lines formed for essential goods including medicine and fuel, and grocery shelves were empty. Inflation rates rocketed upward as the winter approached, leading to factories lacking the funds to pay their employees. The economic crisis reflected badly on Gorbachev’s leadership and encouraged resistance to the regime.

The coup was led by members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). They held Gorbachev at his country home, demanding that he either resign or declare a state of emergency. However, following heavy civil resistance, the coup attempt ended unsuccessfully a few days after it began.

Although the takeover ultimately failed, the attempt signaled an end to the Soviet era and contributed to the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991. It also led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, who played a pivotal role in opposing the coup from Moscow. While the rebellion ended with little bloodshed, it raised anxiety among those who experienced it first-hand, many of whom feared a rise in violence and a return to hard-line Communism.

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