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Justice and Equality: Stories of Progress and Personal Diplomacy in the State Department

As we renew conversations in the United States about what liberty and justice for all truly looks like, we must reflect on our past. At the State Department, these conversations have long been important to our diplomats; they have prompted many to speak up, to create changes that make the agency a more inclusive and diverse space, and to be advocates for equality abroad by challenging structures which impede justice.

Ambassador James W. Wine Talks with President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast (1962) James Wine Ambassadorial Files | JFK Presidential Library
Ambassador James W. Wine Talks with President Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast (1962) James Wine Ambassadorial Files | JFK Presidential Library

There is still work to do. At a time of uncertainty about the future, we turn to the past to draw on the experiences of those who came before us.

The State Department has a history of a lack of diversity. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have been under-represented within the Foreign Service. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 women made up approximately 50 percent of the overall U.S. population. Yet, according to statistics published by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in 2019, only 41.2 percent of Foreign Service generalists were women. Similarly, African Americans (who make up about 13.4 percent of the general population) represented only 5.3 percent of Foreign Service generalists. The statistics for the Senior Foreign Service point to an even greater disparity: just 3 percent of senior-level diplomats are African American and only 5 percent are Latino (who make up approximately 18.3 percent of the overall population), resulting in a diplomatic corps that does not entirely represent the diversity of the American people. Despite these systemic gaps in hiring, records show countless individuals within the State Department taking a stand to report honestly on their experiences and promote positive change. For example, in his oral history, Mr. W. Garth Thorburn shares the challenges he experienced as the first Black professional to serve in the Foreign Agricultural Service; however, he also describes the improvements that he saw in the agency throughout his time there. Similarly, Mr. Leonard Robinson’s oral history recounts the fact that in the early days of the Peace Corps, many Americans perceived it as a “whites only organization.” Through his work as the Director of Minority Recruiting for the Peace Corps, it slowly but surely grew to look more like the United States.

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Leveraging a Unique Perspective in Manila Amid Heightened Tensions

Robert H. Stern’s life as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) took him in many different directions all across the globe. He served in the Philippines at the end of the 1960s, when tensions in the region between Americans and native Asians were escalating due to the war in Vietnam.

The Chancery of the U.S. embassy in Manila, the Philippines. Taken by the US Department of State for the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Chancery of the U.S. embassy in Manila, the Philippines. Taken by the US Department of State for the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As an FSO responsible for issuing visas for immigrants to the United States, Stern had a unique perspective because, while he felt the tensions as an American, he also had throngs of people waiting for miles outside his office to get visas to immigrate to the United States. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Stern describes how he leveraged the circumstances surrounding his diplomatic service to carry out his duties more effectively.

During the late 1960s, legislation setting immigration quotas by country, known as the National Origins Act, was changed to allow more people from countries like the Philippines to immigrate to the United States. This was around the time that Stern began his service in the consular section at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Stern’s FSO experience changed dramatically when he assumed the duties of the Non-Immigrant Visa Chief. He suddenly had to deal with thousands of applicants, including many fraudulent cases, that quickly flooded the embassy. Stern’s tour in Manila also coincided with heightened tensions resulting from the Vietnam War and from the fact that most Filipinos did not see American involvement in the war as just. Stern’s position at the embassy gave him a front row seat to witness how U.S. policy and activity in Vietnam was received in Asia.

Stern also skillfully applied his experience as a student to better inform his work. During his time in Manila, he was enrolled in night classes at the University of Santo Tomas. He recalls talking with and even arguing with his classmates (who were all Filipinos who participated in the resistance movements), taking notes on the issues, and bringing them to the embassy. As a self-described “youth reporter” for the embassy, Stern helped to convey to his colleagues at the embassy and in Washington the perspective of young Filipino protesters at a time when the embassy faced animosity from a large number of Filipino people. He would report these observations in “memcoms” (memorandums of conversation) he wrote while serving in Manila.

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A Not-So-Quiet Arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) must constantly be on alert for security threats, which can sneak up during the most unexpected times. Oftentimes when FSOs arrive at a new post, they may expect to be greeted by friendly faces who are ready to welcome them to their new country.

The 1975 AIA Building Hostage Crisis in Kuala Lumpur (2017) | Huffington Post
The 1975 AIA Building Hostage Crisis in Kuala Lumpur (2017) | Huffington Post

However, even these simple, lively occasions can quickly turn catastrophic.

William (Scott) Butcher arrived to join the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August of 1975. Upon stepping off the plane, he received news that the Japanese Red Army (JRA) had taken over part of the American Insurance Associates (AIA) building in Kuala Lumpur. The building was home to several diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy. Immediately, Scott began closely following negotiations to release those being held hostage and subsequently reporting to Washington about the evolving situation. All the while, he was navigating his own transition into the political section.

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Fighting the War on Drugs with Bus Stops and Law Books: USAID in Bolivia

As the Cold War died down, U.S. assistance to Latin America shifted focus to a new war: the war on drugs. For many, the TV show Narcos, the story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the dramatic showdown that led to his demise, summarizes this new focus of U.S. foreign policy—and emphasizes the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Agency. But Narcos doesn’t tell the whole story.

Coca fields in the highlands in Yungas, Bolivia | Wikimedia Commons
Coca fields in the highlands in Yungas, Bolivia | Wikimedia Commons

Militarized interventions characterized the war on drugs throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the Clinton administration attempted to shift that policy in the early 1990s. Instead of focusing on drug interdiction in the Caribbean basin, the United States would work to reduce coca production and develop anti-drug institutions in source countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, even as military assistance to Latin American countries continued. Reflecting the Clinton administration’s new philosophy, though, the U.S. Agency for International Development played a strong role in promoting the rule of law and encouraging coca growers to plant alternative crops.

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The End of Omar al-Bashir—New Hope for Sudan

Since becoming independent from its former colonizer, the Republic of Sudan has fluctuated between democratically elected governments and severe dictatorships. Problematic civil wars and human rights violations have plagued the country. However, since December 2018 new hope has risen within this northeast African country.

Celebrating Sudanese protesters, (2019) VOA, Wikimedia Commons
Celebrating Sudanese protesters, (2019) VOA, Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of large-scale protests which demanded his removal from power, Omar al-Bashir, the long-time dictator, was ousted by a coup d’état. Witnesses of this Sudanese revolution have claimed it is a Sudanese sequel to the Arab Spring.

When Foreign Service Officer Donald Petterson took up his duties as ambassador to Sudan in 1992, al-Bashir had been in power for less than three years. Early in his tour, Petterson understood that it would not be an easy job, as Sudan already was in a precarious state. In the first year after assuming power in a military coup, al-Bashir wasted no time in moving against potential opponents. Many people were detained, tortured, or executed. Over the years, the al-Bashir government systematically did away with democratic institutions and civil rights.

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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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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