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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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The Felix Bloch Affair: An Unsolved Case of Cold War Espionage

In 1989, French counterintelligence agents watched Felix Bloch as he dined in Paris with known Soviet spy “Pierre Bart.” Bloch placed a black bag under the table, which he left behind as he exited the restaurant. Felix Bloch, former Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, was one of the highest ranking Foreign Service Officers ever to be suspected of espionage. He later claimed that the encounter was an innocent exchange of postage stamps between two fellow collectors. The contents of the black bag from the incident were never recovered, and it was therefore impossible to say whether any classified material had changed hands.

The FBI continued surveillance of Bloch while he worked in Berlin until a cryptically worded call from “Bart,” whose real name was Reino Gikman, indicated that the investigation had been blown. It was later revealed that Robert Hanssen, famously convicted spy within the FBI, had alerted the KGB to the investigation. U.S. officials confronted Bloch, but he vehemently denied he had engaged in espionage with a KGB agent and refused to cooperate further. Suddenly, the initially promising case against Bloch faltered without enough conclusive evidence to prove the allegations in court.

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Kwame Nkrumah and the United States — A Tumultuous Relationship

Ghana and the United States have historically boasted a close friendship, partnering together in exchange programs, trade, and development initiatives. However, interactions between U.S. officials and Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, were not always so smooth. Nkrumah, who studied in the United States, was known to be anti-American, and even went so far as to publish his views in a book on neo-colonialism, in which he blamed the United States for many of Africa’s difficulties. This rocky relationship continued until February 1966, when Nkrumah was ousted in a coup while on a trip to China.

In 1949, Kwame Nkrumah formed the Convention People’s Party (CPP) with a vision to secure the independence of the Gold Coast from Britain. The CPP quickly gained legislative representation, and in 1956, passed an independence motion which was subsequently approved by the British Parliament. On March 6th, 1957, Kwame Nkrumah declared the Gold Coast independent from Britain and renamed the country as Ghana. The U.S. has history with Ghana that extends back to before its independence. Yet, it was not until 1957 that the U.S. established official diplomatic relations with the country, elevating the Consulate General at Accra to Embassy status. Unfortunately, Nkrumah’s nationalist and socialist administration had a short honeymoon and a strained relationship with the United States.

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The Last American Diplomat in Medellín—Countering Anti-Americanism in Cartel-Era Colombia

Guns, cocaine, and kidnappings—this was the state of much of Colombia in the early 1980s. Medellín in particular, home to the rising Cartel de Medellín and leftist guerrilla insurgents, was the bedrock of anti-Americanism in the country during these years. Strikingly, Medellín was also home to a U.S. consulate at the time, hosting a total of four Foreign Service officers. Among them was Peter DeShazo, a public affairs officer and consul dedicated to improving the local perception of the United States and of Americans.

Amid the growing insecurity and tense environment, DeShazo’s goal was to retain a high profile as director of the U.S.-Colombian Bi-national Center (BNC). Kidnappings, murders, and violence were the norm in the epicenter of Colombia’s illegal narcotics trade. Yet surprisingly, the left-wing guerrillas were the main concern for Americans in Colombia; organizations such as the FARC and most notably M-19 posed the greatest security threat for DeShazo and his colleagues. Nonetheless, DeShazo confronted the rampant anti-American sentiment as the BNC gradually became a vital cultural institution in Medellín under his directorship. The center effectively disseminated U.S. culture through literature, film, and language programs as well as through visiting cultural attractions. After DeShazo left Colombia, the BNC continued to grow and ultimately became one of Latin America’s most successful centers, despite several attacks conducted by M-19 shortly after DeShazo’s departure. Once DeShazo’s tour in Medellín concluded, the Department of State decided that he would not be replaced as a result of the deteriorating security situation, essentially making Peter DeShazo the last U.S. diplomat in Medellín.

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“A Special Place in My Heart:” Memories of USAID in Vietnam

Images of the U.S. military in Vietnam are part of the American consciousness. But these images are only part of the story.  Often the lives and sacrifices of USAID workers are overlooked. They too made great contributions, joining with military personnel to deliver supplies to locals, promoting development in dangerous areas, and working with hamlet chiefs and ordinary civilians. Some USAID workers even lost their lives. Sidney Chernenkoff’s first overseas assignment with USAID was in Vietnam at the height of the war. His service is an excellent example of the complexity and value of USAID’s contributions to a war that remains controversial long after it has ended.

Chernenkoff initially joined USAID after spotting an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the agency was hiring for service in Vietnam. He was interviewed, scored highly on a language aptitude test, and was sent to Hawaii for six months to learn Vietnamese.  He then boarded a plane in March 1967 and arrived in Vietnam just as the war was entering its most intense phase. Chernenkoff worked as a part of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program in the town of Tuy Phuoc, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

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