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Get While the Getting’s Good: Departing Communist China

The decision to close an embassy and order departure of diplomatic personnel is a signal of last resort that bilateral relations are damaged and unlikely to improve soon. This occurred in China when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party fled the capital and retreated to Taiwan on December 8, 1949 in the wake of Mao Zedong’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The U.S. chose not to establish relations with the Communist PRC and the new government refused to acknowledge American diplomatic status, so the U.S. Embassy and consulates closed their doors and staffs departed. Some Foreign Service personnel had little trouble leaving their posts and were soon heading home, but others were delayed and subjected to what they termed “games,” to their amusement and dismay. Read more

Kyrgyzstan After Independence – An Unfulfilled Promise

After the collapse of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan, despite its isolation and lack of development, was considered to be one of the more promising newly independent states, “the Switzerland of Central Asia” with its mountains, pragmatic president, and relative lack of ethnic tensions or repression. The U.S. and others poured in aid to help establish free markets, promote democracy and human rights, and provide much-needed food and medical aid (cumulative U.S. aid to Kyrgyzstan from 1992-2010 was $1.2 billion; Kyrgyzstan ranks third in such aid per capita among the Soviet successor states).

Some of those projects were less than stellar, such as the contractor who recommended that Kyrgyzstan boost its cheese consumption by eating more fondue. However, perhaps not surprisingly, the dreams of those early days did not pan out, as corruption and authoritarian tendencies took hold.

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“A Box Sealed for 70 years” — Opening U.S. Embassy Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

A mountainous country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan was ceded by China and formally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1876. With the creation of the USSR, it became the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. After the failed August coup in Moscow, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the Soviet Union on August 31, 1991Askar Akayev, a physicist, was elected President unopposed in October 1991. The U.S. formally recognized Kyrgyzstan, as well as the other former Soviet republics, with the dissolution of the USSR on December 26, 1991.

The United States moved to set up embassies in all the new republics, especially in the “Stans” of Central Asia — Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan — in order to support the development of stability and democracy in the post-Soviet world. Thus, the call went out for Russian-speaking Foreign Service Officers who wanted the challenge of being at the forefront of U.S. diplomacy on a new frontier.  Read more

Resolving the Czechoslovak Gold Dispute

As the Third Reich annexed the Sudetenland and Poland and the German war machine pushed through the Eastern Front towards the Soviet Union, millions were left dead, cities were reduced to rubble, and Europe was left destitute and desperate to rebuild. In addition to the immense loss of human life, the Nazis also stole countless pieces of art, jewelry, furniture, and other valuables from individuals and state institutions. In an attempt to protect their treasuries from German seizure, some Eastern European countries entrusted the United States and the United Kingdom to temporarily protect their gold reserves.

In the years following the war, many of these regimes witnessed the return of their national treasures and gold. However, recognizing that political stability in post-war Czechoslovakia was exceptionally fragile, the American and British governments held onto approximately eighteen tons of Czechoslovak gold for safekeeping. Read more

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea — The CIA Mission to Raise a Soviet Sub

In March 1968, a K-129 Soviet nuclear submarine cruising in the Pacific Ocean mysteriously disappeared from Russian radar. Following an unsuccessful search by the USSR, the United States, using sonic triangulation, secretly located the sunken submarine 1500 miles northwest of Hawaii. An operation was proposed to deploy a ship to recover the wreck of the K-129, its nuclear warhead and cryptographic material.

The Forty Committee, consisting of representatives from the White House, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and U.S. intelligence agencies, met to consider the feasibility of recovering the submarine. The Forty Committee had been created in 1970 to provide greater oversight over U.S. covert missions. The State Department was represented by Ronald Spiers and Edward L. Peck, respectively the Director and Deputy Director of INR. The Forty Committee tasked the CIA with developing a salvage operation for the sunken submarine. This was easier said than done. Read more

Bad Blood: The Sino-Soviet Split and the U.S. Normalization with China

In the 1960s, in the depths of the Cold War, the world was viewed in terms of a zero-sum game: wherever the USSR won, the U.S. by definition lost. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), despite its massive size, was considered to be the Soviets’ little brother and thus not a real player. The State Department and others were hesitant to improve relations with China as they believed it was more important to focus on the Soviet Union which, after all, was a nuclear superpower. Cracks in the USSR-China relationship then began appearing, which led President Richard Nixon to pursue improving ties with Beijing, a move which drastically altered the dynamics of the trilateral power game. Read more

When Friends Spy on Friends: The Case of Jonathan Pollard

Former Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard delivered over 800 highly classified documents to the Israeli government over a 17-month period. According to an article by Seymour Hersh published in the New Yorker, Pollard stole and sold militarily sensitive Signals Intelligence information, a year’s worth of memos by intelligence officers in the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet recording  their observations of Soviet planes, ships, and submarines in the Mediterranean Sea, documents on how Navy intelligence was tracking Soviet submarines, and material revealing the capabilities of one of America’s most highly classified photo-reconnaissance satellites.  In a 1998 op-ed published in the Washington Post, four former directors of naval intelligence noted that Pollard “offered classified information to three other countries before working for the Israelis and that he offered his services to a fourth country while he was spying for Israel.”

FBI agents arrested Pollard in Washington on Nov. 21, 1985 after he sought political asylum at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 with a mandatory-parole clause after 30 years. He was released November 20, 2015. Read more

East Germany Builds the Berlin Wall

The summer of 1961 was fraught with tensions between Moscow and Washington. Berlin, which had been a Cold War flash point during the Berlin Airlift, was once again the source of tension. Between 1949 and 1961, some 2.5 million East Germans fled from East to West Germany, most via West Berlin. President John Kennedy in a speech delivered on nationwide television the night of July 25, 1961 reiterated that the United States was not looking for a fight over Berlin and that he recognized the “Soviet Union’s historical concerns about their security in central and eastern Europe.” That was viewed by Moscow as an indication the U.S. would not respond militarily to any move it took regarding East Germany.

And so, on the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers began to install more than 30 miles of barbed wire barrier through the heart of Berlin and blocked East Berlin citizens who tried to travel to West Berlin.  Read more

Jesse Helms: The Senator Who Just Said No

Jesse Alexander Helms, a five-term Republican Senator (1973- 2003) from North Carolina, was known not only for his conservative beliefs but for the lengths he would go in support of them. A proponent of the conservative resurgence movement in the 1970s, Helms cherished his nickname: “Senator No,” granted for his obstructionist tendencies. As a member and later chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms demanded a staunchly anti-communist, anti-leftist foreign policy. He took a special interest in Latin American affairs.

To that end, he obstructed the appointment of dozens of State Department appointments over his three decades in the Senate. Helms’ staff shared their boss’ conservatism and could be as tough to deal with as the Senator himself. Read more

The Extra Special Relationship: Thatcher, Reagan, and the 1980s

The “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom has served to unite the two nations over the past century. Thanks in part to a shared language, historically common enemies and similar political structures, leaders of the two countries have found it easier than most to achieve common objectives around the world. Perhaps no relationship between American and British leaders has been stronger than that of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Heads of their respective conservative political parties, Reagan and Thatcher shared similar views on economics and anti-Communism. In spite of their different approaches to politics, they formed a close bond that allowed them to strengthen the Anglo-American alliance at a time when the international order was undergoing profound change with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. Read more