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“Open Space at the Top of the World”—Defending the Thule Air Force Base in Greenland and Denmark

The purview of an ambassador in a U.S. embassy extends beyond the geographical borders of their host nation and into the intricate global network shaped by the country’s history. In some countries, this may involve regional tensions and instabilities.In others, it may entail navigation of long-standing border disputes.

Ambassador Edward Elson | ADST
Ambassador Edward Elson | ADST

For others still, an ambassador takes on the relationship of a nation to its former colonies or current territories.

Ambassador Edward Elson arrived in Denmark in November of 1993 to embrace his long-standing interest in politics more fully—having already held roles in banking, civil rights, publishing, National Public Radio, retail, and education. However, this posting also meant embracing the relationship between the host country and its autonomous territory of Greenland. Greenland had formerly been a Danish colony, dating as far back as the 1700s. Greenland then became fully incorporated with the 1953 Danish constitution. Greenland now has limited autonomy and exists as part of the Kingdom of Denmark. As of June 2020, Greenland’s foreign relations largely operate out of Copenhagen, Denmark. However, on June 11, 2020, the U.S. announced plans to reopen its consulate in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk, where it had not been present since 1953.

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An Honest Broker: Remembering Brent Scowcroft

Brent Scowcroft was an Air Force lieutenant turned two-time United States National Security Advisor who served under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, as well as Deputy National Security Advisor for President Nixon. Later, Scowcroft would serve as chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for President George W. Bush.

Brent Scowcroft with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger  (November 1975) (Charles Tasnadi) | Associated Press
Brent Scowcroft with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger (November 1975) (Charles Tasnadi) | Associated Press

Scowcroft’s career was a memorable one; he helped craft the U.S. response to an array of situations—from the fall of the Soviet Union, to the evacuation of Saigon, to Tiananmen Square. Regardless of the international political developments he faced, he was steadfast in his craft and his leadership. Mr. Scowcroft passed away on August 6, 2020 at the age of ninety-five.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” explore memories of Brent as told through the eyes of his government colleagues. Read about how Brent first established his team at the NSC, and how he advised two administrations through periods of international crisis (while staying out of the spotlight himself). Above all, recall how he was remembered fondly and with admiration by all who had the privilege to work alongside him.

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Diplomacy and Danger—Close Calls in Uganda

In 1971, a Ugandan coup d’état led by General Idi Amin ousted President Milton Obote’s government. After Amin seized power, he began a campaign of brutality against the Ugandan people. This brutality led to the general-turned-dictator’s own overthrow just eight years later in 1979, and Amin soon fled the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

Melissa Foelsch Wells  (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named)| U.S. Department of State
Melissa Foelsch Wells (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named)| U.S. Department of State

In his absence, Uganda had no central authority and competing coalitions began vying for power. It was the perfect storm.

It was in the midst of this storm that Melissa Wells came to Uganda as the United Nations Resident Representative. When Wells arrived, she was immediately met with danger. Even during simple car rides, she faced car-jackings, roadblocks, and ambushes. In those moments, Wells learned how to keep calm, think quickly, and stay safe during life-threatening altercations. What’s more, she was able to reflect on the role that risk plays in the Foreign Service, in addition to considering how Foreign Service Officers work through fear in order to operate as a cohesive, successful team.

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Only the Good Die Young—Attending Bobby Kennedy’s Funeral

Nineteen sixty-eight was one of the most chaotic years in American history. As the unpopular Vietnam War raged on, protests demanding peace and an immediate withdrawal of American forces erupted from coast to coast. At the forefront of these protests stood college students, many of whom distinguished themselves from the older generations by embracing a new “counterculture” based on peace, love, and harmony.

Flag of U.S.A. Standing Near Tomb (July 2, 2018) Sharefaith | pexels
Flag of U.S.A. Standing Near Tomb (July 2, 2018) Sharefaith | pexels

Civil rights demonstrations intensified after the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of that same year under the leadership of groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). These events all played out in the midst of a presidential election which left the country more divided than ever.

After the assasination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy hoped to carry on his brother’s legacy. After initially resisting widespread calls for him to run as a candidate in the 1968 election, Bobby finally announced his candidacy from the Caucus Room of the Old Senate Office building, the same place his late brother made the announcement eight years prior. Bobby Kennedy made alleviating poverty a central focus of his campaign, but his platform also included opposition to the Vietnam War, emphasis on law and order, and devotion to the civil rights cause.

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Finding Resilience in the Bombing of the Al Rasheed: Beth Payne in Iraq

Life in the Foreign Service extends far beyond the office, following its officers into all realms of existence abroad, at times for the worse. In 2003, after a military invasion, the United States had just begun its occupation of Iraq. A betrayal by Iraqi dissident Ahmed Chalabi thwarted U.S. efforts to set up an Iraqi president that would be accepted by the Iraqi populace.

Baghdad’s Green Zone (2008) Robert Smith, WikiMedia Commons
Baghdad’s Green Zone (2008) Robert Smith, WikiMedia Commons

For the Foreign Service Officers posted to Iraq at this time, this meant arriving in a host country with no established embassy, no consulate, and no country team.

When Beth Payne arrived in Baghdad, she quickly discovered that she and her co-workers would be taking up residence in the Al Rasheed hotel, initially sharing rooms that failed even to lock, following the theft of the building’s doorknobs. In her first few months, as she established an Office of the U.S. Consul, Payne also adapted to shootings outside of her hotel, the prevalence of weapons in the hotel bar, and the harassment of women at the hotel pool. Already, her service as a Consular Officer felt marked by a sense of fear she had not felt in her earlier postings in Kuwait, Israel, or Rwanda. Yet, this aura of danger proved merely a precursor to the events that would follow that very October.

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“The Times They Are a-Changin”—Working in the Context of Social Revolution

While U.S. State Department employees regularly serve in the midst of pivotal international agreements and turmoil, the events going on surrounding their personal lives are often equally fascinating. Social change, and in some cases rebellion, characterized the formative years of many senior U.S. diplomats.

Draft Card Burning NYC (15 April 1967) Universal News| Internet Archive
Draft Card Burning NYC (15 April 1967) Universal News| Internet Archive

From the 1963 March on Washington to the Bureau of Indian Affairs take-over in 1972, this era was packed with previously unheard voices. While such voices did eventually affect change even in the venerable institution of the State Department, their currents were not unfelt by young up-and-coming members of the time.

Attending school at Texas A&M and Berkeley in the late 60s, USAID officer Craig Buck experienced first-hand the ripples caused by these events. With fears of being drafted to Vietnam shadowing thoughts of graduation, and notable political assassinations dominating the news, caprice and uncertainty were the themes of the time. Keep reading to find out about Craig Buck’s brushes with South American rebels, affiliation with Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, and other social stirrings.

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Ethic Tensions Boil Over in Malaysia’s 13 May 1969 Incident

A single election can have many impacts, but one in particular unmasked a deep, controversial issue based on ethnic tensions. The 1969 general election in Malaysia sparked a horrific outbreak of violent rioting and brutal conflict between two struggling forces. What came to be known as the “13 May Incident” resulted in at least 196 civilian deaths in Kuala Lumpur.

Governmental Office at Kuala Lumpur in Selangor (circa 1900) Lambert & Co., G. R. / Singapore | Wikimedia
Governmental Office at Kuala Lumpur in Selangor (circa 1900) Lambert & Co., G. R. / Singapore | Wikimedia

Former Foreign Service Officers David Brown and Alphonse La Porta both served as political officers in Kuala Lumpur and provided first-hand accounts of the environment leading up to, during, and after this pivotal election.

The 1969 election resulted in a shift of representational power within the Malaysian Parliament. The Alliance Party, representing the majority Malay population, lost seats to the newly established opposition Chinese parties, the Democratic Action Party, and the Parti Gerakan. While the Chinese are a minority in Malaysia, they hold substantial socio-economic power, and as a result have steadily increased their influence both economically and politically. The political victories of these Chinese political parties sparked race riots based on deep-seated ethnic tension dating back to Malaysia’s British colonial rule.

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Castro’s Cuba – The Early Days

On January 1, 1959, after a sustained armed revolt led by Fidel Castro and others took control over most of the country, Fulgencio Batista fled Havana, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. With the departure of the despised dictator, there was initially hope that life in Cuba would improve. William Lenderking, arriving in Havana in March 1959, witnessed how optimism quickly gave way to fear and repression as the new government began indoctrinating youth and instituting widespread control over libraries, newspapers, and magazines. Lenderking concludes that Castro was never truly interested in good relations with the United States. Read more