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Harriet Elam-Thomas: A Career Well Served

Harriet Elam-Thomas grew up in Boston, the youngest of five children. She graduated from Simmons College and later earned a Master’s Degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. Beginning a four-decade career in the Foreign Service, Elam-Thomas served her first tour in Senegal, worked in public diplomacy in Mali and Cote D’Ivoire, was Cultural Attaché in Athens, Director of the Cultural Center in Istanbul, Counselor of Public Affairs in Brussels, and Counselor of the U.S. Information Agency. In 1999, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be U.S. Ambassador to Senegal; she served in that capacity from 2000-2002. From 2003 to 2005, Elam-Thomas was the Diplomat-in-Residence at the University of Central Florida. She retired at the rank of Career Minister. Read more

You Know a Coup is Coming but No One will Listen: Sudan 1964

Sudan’s long history has been riddled with internal conflict. The United Kingdom and Egypt controlled Sudan for the first half of the twentieth century, then agreed to cede it self-government in 1953. In December 1955, the premier of Sudan declared unilateral independence. The newly independent Republic swiftly fell into a pattern of civil wars, coups d’état, ethnic conflict, and government instability that continues to affect the region today.

The government that formed in 1956 led by Prime Minister Ismail al-Azhari was short-lived, soon to be replaced by a fractious and ineffectual coalition of conservative leaders. In 1958, the forces of Lieutenant General Ibrahim Abboud overthrew the parliamentary regime in a bloodless coup. Abboud worked to improve Sudan’s economy and foreign relations but did not return the country to civilian rule. Resentment over repressive domestic policies began to build, especially among non-Arab ethnic groups in the south and student activists, leading to riots and strikes. Read more

Foreign Service Newly-Weds in 1960s Yemen

Since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen was been a hot spot for unrest in the Middle East. The 1960s saw instability and hostile relations between the socialist South Yemen and the authoritarian Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), also known as North Yemen. The YAR was in the midst of a bloody civil war that would rage for the majority of the decade and would draw Saudi Arabia and Nasser’s Egypt into one of the region’s intractable conflicts. Even today, Yemen continues to be ravaged by internal conflicts with regional partners using the nation as a battlefield to promote their interests in and influence over the Middle East.

The United States recognized the YAR when they deposed King and Imam Muhammad al-Badr who had only risen to the throne the week prior following his father’s death. However, as the fighting continued to tear across the country and the Egyptian military, who at that time were the guarantors of the YAR’s fight against the royalist factions, took increasingly provocative acts against Americans in Yemen, the U.S. Secretary of State made the decision to close its embassy in Sana’a in 1967. The city was captured by republican rebels later that year.

David and Marjorie Ransom were newlywed Foreign Service Officers who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Taiz, Yemen from 1966 until its closure in 1967. David Ransom also served in Tehran, Beirut, Jeddah, the Department of State, Abu Dhabi, the Department of Defense, Damascus, finishing off his thirty two-year career as the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain. Marjorie Ransom served in Amman, Mumbai, Tehran, Beirut,  Abu Dhabi, Damascus, and Cairo over a period of thirty eight years. 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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The Lion King of Swaziland

King Sobhuza II was proclaimed King of Swaziland at the age of four months and would rule for 83 years, becoming the world’s longest-reigning monarch. His grandmother, with help from his uncle, acted as regent of Swaziland until his coronation in December 1921, when his name was changed to Ngwenyama, which means “The Lion.” Sobhuza’s leadership and stature were key to Swaziland’s gaining independence from British administration and in resisting the incorporation of the small landlocked country into the Union of South Africa.

In 1922, Sobhuza challenged the 1907 partition of the Swazi lands by the British High Commissioner, traveling to Britain with a Swazi delegation to meet with King George V and petitioning him to restore the lands to the Swazi people. King George refused, but after 15 years of entreaties agreed to help Sobhuza acquire land from white owners and return it to Swazi occupation. Swaziland remained a Protected State until regaining full sovereignty on September 6, 1968.

During King Sobhuza’s reign, Swaziland was an African success story, a model of political and economic stability. He supported foreign investment and management of the mineral-rich country, hoping that such economic development would benefit his own people, most of whom were living in rural poverty. Read more

The Rough Road to Moscow for Malcolm Toon  

Malcolm Toon was a fluent Russian speaker and one of the State Department’s top experts on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He was ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Israel, and the Soviet Union. Toon was characterized in The New York Times in 1978 as “one of the most influential of the postwar ambassadors in shaping the policy of the United States toward the Soviet Union.”  On May 1, 2017 The New York Times published an article referencing Toon’s death in 2009, titled “Malcolm Toon Made Waves as a Diplomat, but His Death Went Largely Unreported.”

Outspoken and opinionated, while serving as an ambassador Toon had direct access to several Secretaries of State and met with the President. According to Toon, Henry Kissinger asked him to serve in Tel Aviv because he wanted “a tough-minded S.O.B.” in Israel as ambassador in order to put the Israelis in their place.

The son of Scottish immigrants, Toon grew up in Scotland and the United States, graduated from Tufts, and was accepted into the Foreign Service but delayed joining the State Department to enlist in the Navy where he captained a PT Boat during WWII in the South Pacific. Read more

When  One of “The Murrow Boys” Became a Foreign Service Wife

Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson was the only female member of the original generation of CBS Radio war correspondents known as “The Murrow Boys.” A photojournalist and cinematographer, she studied French, German, Italian, and modern history at Vassar College. While there, she also helped found the National Student Federation of America, and in that way met Edward R. Murrow.

Travelling to Europe in 1939 on photojournalism assignments, Breckinridge was in Switzerland when the Nazis invaded Poland, starting World War II. She traveled to London to photograph the evacuation of English children, one of only four American photographers in England for the first months of the war. In November, Edward R. Murrow invited Breckinridge to join him in a CBS radio broadcast about the changes the war had brought to English villages, and then others. Urging her to speak in a deep voice while broadcasting, he hired her as the first female news broadcaster for the CBS World News Roundup to report from Europe.

She ended up broadcasting 50 reports from seven countries and became part of The Murrow Boys, a group of scholarly correspondents that Murrow assembled before and during the war. Only eleven were in the group, including legendary reporters Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, and Howard K. Smith, as well as Breckinridge.

While working in Berlin, she married Foreign Service Officer Jefferson Patterson. She resigned from CBS, hoping to resume her career in photojournalism, but the State Department would not waive its regulation censoring anything a diplomat’s spouse offered for publication. The couple was posted in Peru, Belgium, Egypt, the Balkans and Uruguay. Read more

Warming to the New Administration at the State Department, 1980-1981

Administration transitions, during which power over the federal executive branch is transferred from the sitting president to the president-elect, can be stressful for federal personnel. During the weeks between Election Day and inauguration day, there can be changes in policy, staff and budgets, and the new administration needs to learn about the work of the executive branch. The transition from former President Jimmy Carter to incoming President Ronald Reagan in 1981 was jarring for some in the State Department as Carter’s strong prioritization of human rights gave way to his successor’s return to Cold War realpolitik in foreign policy.

Among those who witnessed the changes from within the State Department was Marc Grossman. After joining the Foreign Service in March 1976, his first overseas assignment was in Islamabad. He then returned to the Department, where he became the Special Assistant to the Special Advisor for Jewish Affairs in the White House.  When President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, Grossman was selected to be Liaison Officer to the Reagan Transition Team. Read more

Unexploded Ordnance, Spam and Moonshine–Life as Ambassador to Micronesia

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), sometimes known simply as Micronesia, consists of four states — Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae – spread across the Western Pacific Ocean. They are north of Australia, south of Guam, west of the Marshall Islands and almost 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Together, the states comprise 607 islands spread across a distance of almost 1,700 miles. The capital is Palikir, located on Pohnpei Island. The first Micronesians settled on the islands 4,000 years ago. 

The FSM was formerly a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, (TTPI), a United Nations Trust Territory under U.S. administration, but it formed its own constitutional government on May 10, 1979.  FSM became a sovereign state after independence was attained on November 3, 1986 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States. Read more