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I, Spy?  Diplomatic Adventures during Soviet-American Détente    

Among the challenges of serving as a U.S. diplomat in the USSR during the Cold War years of 1945 to 1991 were the certain knowledge that one’s words and actions were being monitored and reported back to the host – and often hostile – government. Intelligence gathering was carried out by both sides to learn about the other’s intentions, technological advances and military capabilities.  Diplomats served under restrictions in terms of the people they could meet and the places they could go, and U.S. officers knew that wherever they went, agents from the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security) would surely follow.

James E. Taylor and his wife Louise Pfender Taylor were U.S. diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union from 1974-1976. They experienced the KGB’s watchful eyes during their tenure, realized their apartment was bugged and were mistaken as being spies themselves by a grievously disappointed Russian contact.   Read more

A Few Words from Benjamin Franklin

Born in Boston in 1706, Benjamin Franklin helped to draft the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and he negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. His scientific pursuits included investigations into electricity, mathematics and mapmaking.

Franklin was a polymath who published Poor Richard’s Almanack and organized the first successful American lending library. He developed bifocals that could be used for both distance and reading and is credited with inventing the first rocking chair, flexible catheter and American penny.

In 1757 he was appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly to serve as the colony’s agent in England. Franklin sailed to London to negotiate a long-standing dispute with the proprietors of the colony, the Penn family. He spent most of the next two decades in London. 

In 1775, Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and appointed the first postmaster general for the colonies. And in 1776, he was appointed commissioner to Canada and was one of five men to draft the Declaration of Independence. Franklin was later elected commissioner to France and set sail to negotiate a treaty for the country’s military and financial support. 

After almost a decade in France, Franklin returned to the United States in 1785. He was elected in 1787 to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, which drafted and ratified the new U.S. Constitution. The oldest delegate at the age of 81, Franklin initially supported proportional representation in Congress, but he fashioned the Great Compromise that resulted in proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation by state in the Senate. He became ADST’s symbol in 2012. 

The following remarks were delivered by Mr. Franklin at the ADST Gala Dinner on April 26, 2016.

Return to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History 

Return to The Stump


(Taking off sunglasses) These are quite different from the bifocals I devised. I didn’t invent them but I wish I had.

It is good to be back in Virginia after so many years abroad. My time in France as minister was quite fruitful though the passage across the Atlantic can be quite taxing, especially for a man of my age. It is at those times that I am reminded that the word “travel” stems from the Old French word “travail.”

I thank you for inviting me here this evening though I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback by the rather unfamiliar mode of dress of all the gentlemen here. All that black and white is, quite frankly, rather dour and rather reminiscent of my Puritan forebears. Though certainly more lively than is the wont of my colleague, John Adams, who preferred to dress plainly. He was also not overly fond of my dealings with the French but what can be expected of a man from Boston?

I am also pleased to see that my work with electricity has led to this marvelous invention called – what is it again? – Ah, yes, the selfie.

I am honored to be in your presence tonight. I spent much of my life wearing the hats of different trades – printer, scientist, postmaster general. But the endeavor I found to be among the most rewarding was that of diplomat. I am frequently asked what I consider to be my greatest achievement, and my answer is, invariably, The United States of America.

To this end, I spent many years in Britain, defending interests of the Colonies to Parliament, most notably in the wake of the French and Indian War. And then several years more in Paris, negotiating support – both military and political – for our young country. And when you have more time I shall be delighted to share with you more of my experiences.

I therefore understand the rigors and the satisfactions of representing one’s country in the capital of another and feel a great kinship with you all.

Despite its lofty goals, diplomacy is often not well regarded. Even in my day it could be said that “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent abroad – to lie for the good of his country!”

And yet, it is undeniable that what we do as diplomats is quite important. We promote better relations among nations or at the very least, engage in communication with those who may be our enemy. While our efforts may not always bear fruit or are criticized for being less than ideal, I remain convinced that there never was a good war or a bad peace.

I have also become acquainted with your fine Association and am deeply impressed by its work – and not just because of its handsome, distinguished representative. (Puts the sunglasses on briefly and smiles before removing them again)

The goals of your Association are close to my heart for I have contracted, early in life, the habit of preserving my correspondence, drafts of letters, and memoranda of all kinds.

The sheer volume which I accumulated is quite large; I intend to bequeath all my manuscripts and papers to my grandson, William Temple Franklin, upon my passing, because I believe such documentation is important for future generations. Just as it is important to preserve the recollections of your undoubtedly distinguished careers. I commend you for your work and wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

And now, I hope you shall pardon me as I take my leave. Thank you and Bon Appetit!


View All Humorous Foreign Service Articles.

Monkeys and Olives for Dinner: The Glamorous Life of a U.S. Ambassador

Arriving at a new post and setting up your household and office can be quite a challenge, even for a Chief of Mission. For a first-time ambassador at a newly-opened African post, acquiring the fundamentals for survival while preserving diplomatic protocol might seem more like Mission Impossible. Melissa Foelsch Wells recalls her time as Ambassador in Guinea-Bissau (1976–77). She had just come from a tour in Rio de Janiero and had great expectations for her first experience at heading up an embassy and accepting the duties and perquisites of the office.

In the small post-colonial country, she encountered frequent black-outs, a food shortage, cramped quarters and – once her family arrived – a room full of monkeys, yet she survived it all to have a successful tour of duty and a distinguished diplomatic career. Read more

Laying It Between the Lines: Music Diplomacy in Shanghai

“But if I really say it/ the radio won’t play it/ unless I lay it between the lines.”  This song made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary was about rock & roll music, but the same principle was applied in conducting public diplomacy programs in Shanghai at a time of censorship and chilly bilateral relations. China had officials whose job was specifically to guard against “American spiritual pollution,” so overcoming these challenges called for a creative bent.

One way to get around censorship was to convey the message indirectly, by talking about music. Lloyd Neighbors used not only his fluency in Mandarin but also his love of American folk music and jazz to get the message across about U.S. history, society and culture to students eager to listen. Read more

Rich and Eager to Buy – Saudi Arabia in the Oil Boom ‘70s

When oil was discovered in the Arabian Peninsula during the 1930’s and 40’s, the full extent of its impact on Arabian society could not truly be appreciated. It was only during the 1970’s, after OPEC flexed its muscles during the oil embargo, that the countries of the Arabian Gulf truly began to benefit from their massive oil deposits.

However, the influx of huge amounts of petro-dollars was a huge shock to countries such as Saudi Arabia, where Bedouins still roamed the desert and tribal chieftains carried huge political power. Saudi society was overwhelmed by its new wealth, and its booming oil economy quickly ran out of control. Read more

Melissa Wells: From Vegas Showgirl to Chief of Mission

Melissa Foelsch Wells, accomplished diplomat and four-time ambassador, was among the pioneers who paved the way for women to work in the Foreign Service. The daughter of a physicist and a renowned Estonian opera singer and film star, Wells grew up travelling around the United States and Mexico before her family settled in Hollywood. She served as Ambassador to Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau (1976–77), Mozambique (1987–90), The Democratic Republic of Congo (1991–93), and Estonia (1998–2001), as well as long service at the United Nations.

In her oral history, Wells discusses her childhood,  being the first woman to graduate from Georgetown’s Foreign Service School, sexism in the Department of State, how working in the UN is like “trench warfare,” managing an embassy evacuation, and the unexpected benefits of having her ambassadorship delayed. She was interviewed by Ann Miller Morin beginning in March 1984 to May 1995, and by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May 2002. She provided her own statement to ADST in March 2016.

Please follow the links to read about Wells’ account of her first carjacking in Uganda and her challenge of dealing with child soldiers in Mozambique, or to learn more about Africa and the evolving role of women in the Foreign Service.


 “Life didn’t make any sense unless one kept moving around and discovering new worlds and peoples”

I was not born in the U.S., but arrived when I was four years old. Growing up, I heard about Communists (my mother was raised in the Soviet Union) and Nazis before I had learned to read or write, from discussions my parents had with their friends. Traveling was part of my life as a youngster and by the age of nine I was fluent in three languages – German, English and Spanish.

… [As a child, when] we went to Mexico, history all of a sudden became exciting. I mean, pyramids, Aztecs, human sacrifice, conquistadors! Somehow I had not really been turned on by whatever had been served up through the third grade in the U.S. It was pretty dull compared to that. (Wells at age eight at left.)

My mother was very good. She would let me buy any books I wanted. I remember there was a bookstore near one of her friend’s homes. I’d go in there and buy. I was reading Prescott and other historians at the age of nine and ten!

I did my reading in English, which is interesting. For all practical purposes, I lost the spoken use of English because I didn’t speak it at home. We had lessons in English at school, but that was very simple stuff, like “Good morning.”

I kept up my reading in English, looking back now, at a level far beyond my vocabulary… I feel that having traveled with my family as a child, all of these things, life didn’t make any sense in the future unless one kept moving around and discovering new worlds and peoples and so forth.

The most difficult adjustment period, when I look back, linguistically, was being thrown into what was a nursery school, whatever it was, when we first came [to America] and I couldn’t speak the language. The children around me were making all these strange sounds, but they were children; they didn’t know any better, I figured.

I walked up to the teacher. Apparently, I was there and tears were running out of my eyes, and I made this tremendous speech in German, and she couldn’t understand a word of what I said. Then it was clear to me that she couldn’t understand that I wanted to go home immediately…

Scholastically it was difficult, rejoining the eighth grade after having been in Mexico and not even attending school full time. I learned a lot about Mexican geography and history, but in terms of doing fractions, I was at a total loss. But I don’t say that gave me insecurity. They were sort of jolts, shocks, and eventually I pulled my socks together.

A dream takes shape

During senior year in high school, newspapers were carrying stories about the so-called “pinkos” in the State Department – it was the beginning of the McCarthy era, but I was not focusing on any “pinkness”. I thought these people had wonderful careers, traveling about the world carrying out US foreign policy.

From the local public library I learned about the U.S. Foreign Service and also about a School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. That was for me. I wanted to become a diplomat! Had never met one in my life, but I wanted to travel the world and serve the country I loved. A dream took shape!

But how to do it? Yes, I was smart and had very good grades, but I was extremely shy and suffering from a severe inferiority complex. I had a scholarship to a local college where I majored in economics and took as many courses as I could that paralleled what I would be taking at Georgetown University. I quit after two years and went to work to earn money to get myself to Washington D.C. and Georgetown University.

I had also become a good swimmer, doing competitive and synchronized swimming. Then I learned that a show was being put together that featured water ballet to tour in Europe. I auditioned and was accepted for the AquaParade of 1953. But I found out shortly thereafter that in order to go on to Europe, I would also have to learn to dance and perform as a swimmer and dancer in Las Vegas. Swimming was ok, but dancing in a skimpy outfit on stage in front of all those people was more than I could bear!

But I was determined to go to Europe. The pay was good and the plan was to continue my university education after the European tour at Georgetown University and then join the Foreign Service. So I gritted my teeth and learned to do high kicks in shoes with three-inch heels.

The first few nights in Vegas were awful for me. Thank goodness, because of my height, I was in the back row. It turned out that I was an excellent dancer, held up as an example during rehearsals, but inside I was wrestling with my shyness and timidity. Two shows a night and three on Saturdays for six weeks finally solved the problem.

I remember very clearly the feeling of blossoming self-confidence: I enjoyed the dancing, I enjoyed the music and I started looking at unknown faces in the audience and smiling at them. God! It felt so good to be rid of what was holding me back!

How did I gain this self-confidence? I think it was the determination to go forward with my plans, even though I had to do something I dreaded terribly to get there. Looking back on the experience, it adds up to “determination plus courage equals success” – hardly a novel concept, but in my case, it came about in a rather unusual way.

We then performed in Las Vegas and then went on to Europe…. [We] toured in Torino and Genoa, Rome, then in Germany, then in Switzerland. We were repatriated by the State Department as destitute Americans – not exactly how I had intended to meet the State Department!

I went on with my plans, totally unaware that neither the State Department nor Georgetown University had any interest in female officers or students. Georgetown University only accepted female students in the night school – a decade would be needed to earn a degree! After two night terms and good grades, I managed to get the day school to accept women, and some scholarship aid. I rushed out and I enrolled in the night school and I enrolled in the day school.  The day school didn’t know I was going to the night school; the night school didn’t know I was going to the day school.

I am proud to be the first woman to graduate from the School of Foreign Service.

“It’s not a career suitable for a woman”

By this time I was beginning to realize the barriers that might impede the fulfillment of my dream. During my career I have had many “firsts” as a woman. I succeeded because of determination – just not giving up – and developing interpersonal skills. I must also admit that many men helped me – there just weren’t any women around to help. But there was a jungle of discriminatory rules and regulations in those days.

[On the Foreign Service oral exam] I was called fairly early for my oral and came in[to the Foreign Service] in  1958… Of course in those days all women taking the exam were prepared for the inevitable question, which is never asked nowadays: “Miss X, what are your marriage plans?”

If you say “I would like to get married sometime,” then they say “You can’t combine a career with marriage. Don’t waste our time.”  My ploy was I was going to try to make them laugh and drop the subject and move on to something else.  So about five minutes into the exam: “Miss Foelsch, may I ask, what are your marriage plans?”  I had rehearsed this carefully.  It helps to have been on stage.  “I’m nearly six feet tall and I weigh two pounds more than Sugar Ray Robinson and I just can’t find the right guy.” And they laughed.  It’s a stupid answer.

It was only when I got to Washington, started working for my employer there, who knew a lot of people in the State Department, that I met my first Foreign Service officers, not a woman, not women.  They all encouraged me and then they said, “Well, look, there are very few women and if you do get in, expect it to be very difficult to be promoted because the Service is not ready for women.”  And some of them were speaking exactly what they felt, saying it is not a career suitable for a woman.

 “They were keeping me from a very interesting aspect of my job”

Early on [there was sexism on the job]. For example, the first assignment I had was in what we call Intelligence and Research, INR, as an analyst. We used to have duty that would rotate. The most junior officers of the incoming class would take on the early morning briefing, which meant getting to the Department by six o’clock in the morning or something like that, reading the cables, and then having it all battened down to give a briefing at eight o’clock, eight-thirty. This meant, of course, being out on the streets by five-thirty, five-fifteen or so!

Unbeknownst to me, my male colleagues of the same rank got together and said, “Let’s spare Melissa this job.” They wanted that I need not get up and take the risk of–they knew I didn’t have a car–getting to the Department by six o’clock. So they said, “We’ll just rotate. We’ll spare Melissa this.” But at the same time, they were keeping me from a very interesting aspect of my job!

But you see, I cannot in any way say that it was anything but well-intended. I found out about this, because two or three rounds went by and I said, “Hello? When’s my turn?”

They said, “Look, we talked to the boss.”

“No way!” Then I had to pull my way into this thing.

In terms of sexism, yes, there was one incident, and I just handled it. It was a running thing with a supervisor. I felt that everything was being dumped on me. I was the deputy. A lot of those remarks. I don’t mind a couple of them here, and I’ll throw them back, but this was too steady.

I indicated that I didn’t like it, and he should have known better at the time. Then I made a big fuss about it, and he gave me a very bad efficiency report, and I blasted him in the report. Eventually, the Department said, “Somebody’s lying.”

I must say it was to their credit, because I left and got myself another assignment. An inspector came around eventually and got my side of the story, and I must say I think it worked out well, because I was on the next promotion list…

[When I got married] I didn’t want to leave. I discussed this with my supervisor at the time, saying it would be nice if I could stay on, and it all worked out that way. I was never pressured on this issue… I was prepared. I wasn’t sure that if they came around that I wouldn’t say, “Where does it say so?” because I was making inquiries at the time, being very quiet about it.

…I found that out, that it didn’t say so anywhere [the practice of women resigning from the Foreign Service after marriage] –but discreetly. I couldn’t just walk into the personnel office and ask them, “Where is it written that this is the case?” I was trying to find out, “Where does it say that you have to resign?” The collective wisdom that I garnered was that the assumption was one wanted to be with one’s husband and that the husband is the breadwinner, so the woman goes out.

“The drunk is standing in front, over the radiator. He’s like this with his AK47

[When I joined the Foreign Service] I was already interested in Africa. It’s a combination of strange factors, I mean, everything from adventure stories that you hear when you’re young, the films, the movies. As you grow up, you have this sense of exotic almost entirely produced by films and so forth, and you start learning more about it.

It became quite clear that this enormous area of the world, all still under colonial administration – really, at the time I’m talking about – was going to become important. There were indications already that colonial empires might not be around that long. It seemed to be the least developed, most backward area, which it certainly is. That appealed to me…

[In Uganda, after President Idi Amin had been overthrown], it was very chaotic. It was what you call true anarchy, which is the most frightening of all situations. …You had a Liberation Army which had been recruited along the way. You had the Tanzanian Army there that, of course, was the spearhead in terms of removing Amin from power. But then there was no institutional framework with which to support an army, you see. You have to feed it, house it, clothe it, pay it!

So you had the Tanzanian Army and you had the Uganda Liberation Army without any institutional framework to support it. What happened was that it generated into soldiers who had weapons just helping themselves, unfortunately, to the local population. You had certain areas, certain units – it depended on commanders and so forth – who disciplined the soldiers, but actually there were quite few.

You had a very chaotic situation, really, which is one of the most frightening things. Even if you don’t agree with the atrocious policies that somebody may be carrying out, that means that somebody is in charge, and at least you can go and talk to somebody if you’re being killed, and civilians are being murdered for transistor radios, for chickens, for wristwatches. So that’s where we’re talking about.

…In terms of what I thought was my closest call was a roadblock just outside of a place called Atiak, north on the road to Nimule towards the Sudan border. I was with some Swedish disaster relief people who had come to help us on the West Nile Project. It was early in the morning, and we were trying to get to Moyo. It was the usual roadblock, and we stopped.

We could see that this guy was really tanked up–drunk–and he was very aggressive, incredibly aggressive. He didn’t want to see any papers. He was lurching like this.

I can’t understand the language he’s talking to the driver. I could see the driver sort of becoming paralyzed. I’m in the front seat. The driver’s here. The Swedes are in back. Then his buddy comes out and pushes him aside, and they start conversing. He looks at the papers.

Apparently everything is okay, except then we look, and the drunk is standing in front, over the radiator. He’s like this with his AK47. He takes the safety catch off and he’s trying to frighten us, and I can assure you, he is. I just looked and said, “Here it is.” I dropped to the bottom of the floor. I had been through other experiences. “This is it.”

Willingly or not, he’s not in charge, he’s got his finger right there, he’s taken off the safety catch. The car is silent!

The Swedes stopped saying, “We’re trying to help you. We’re trying to help you.” They’d stopped. They were collecting their thoughts for the next world at this point, too. I just remember going like this [head in hands], thinking about my loved ones.

By the time I looked up, nothing happened. The buddy had quietly gotten the drunk out and taken him away. Anyway, what this means, being shot at, yes. We were caught between two trucks which were carrying Ugandan soldiers. We were trying to pass, and we got caught in the gunfire.

…There was one other time we were on the road trying to get to the border to go to Kenya, and we just turned a corner and there was a Tanzanian soldier, and he had the gun like this.


And there was a man bleeding by the side of the road. We stopped the car. Then gunfire started. The soldier jumped into the front seat–I’m sitting here–with his weapon, closed the door, and then shouted at the driver, and the driver immediately turned around and pulled away, and they were shooting at us. There had been an ambush there, and we just happened to arrive at that point, and he wanted to get out of there.

“You know that because of what you did, people got something to eat”

What happens is, after the first time or two–what you have to do is realize, “What am I doing here?” (Wells is seen at left in Uganda in 1979.)

Because I have to explain this to my family. I figured it out that it was necessary because of the relief operations we had. Once I had seen bodies, dead bodies, from the slow violence of starvation, about which you can do something… You can’t do all that much about the atrocities… There is no way that I can just turn my back and write a report and hope for the best that somebody else will lead.

I know this sounds very heroic and all that, but I’ve lived it. I have put my life on the line in several cases. The wonderful thing is that others do it, too. Then you become a unit.

But the beauty of Uganda was that we got a job done. They said we didn’t solve all that many problems, but it’s very easy when you’re sitting back in a capital writing papers and whatever it is. But when you know that because of what you did people got something to eat, it’s as simple and basic as that. They may have been killed the next day because of something else.

We used to have philosophical arguments about this. If we do this, somebody else will do that. Well, you have to live with your own conscience. But we developed a group ethic, almost, and we discussed a lot of things and took tremendous risks to get the job done. I’m so proud of having been a part of that, and I’d like to think I did lead the operation with the example that I used to go out, so other people would go out.

 “I regard my experience at the U.N. as the only assignment I’ve ever had in trench warfare”

[In multilateral diplomacy] objectives are quite different. In a bilateral program, you are working with a government. You have policy objectives in that country. You are targeted on specific objectives.

They are specific, also, in the case of the international organizations, but let me explain. The end product in a bilateral relationship could be anything from a treaty to a ship visit to a trade agreement to a consular agreement, that sort of thing.

I’ve had two assignments in multilateral work, and one was the OECD [The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], which was rather highly specific, targeted in strictly economic terms of developed countries, and then the U.N. experience, which was far, far broader.

…I regard my experience at the U.N. as the only assignment I’ve ever had in trench warfare. Somebody’s always shooting at you. Then you think you’ve got the perfect apple or whatever it is, and political issues start coming on board. (Wells at right in 1978.)

Certainly, in the atmosphere of the United Nations, the issues come up so fast and they are so numerous, it’s impossible to tackle all of them satisfactorily. They gain a momentum of their own. They become a signal as opposed to actual work. When I think what we did there with that consensus was actual work, and there are people who are benefiting from our “yak-yak” and paper.

So much of what goes on–and I support the U.N. system fully–is signaling, which is valid and has a purpose, but you have to draw the line at some point. And I think that’s one of the great problems today, that the public–certainly in this country–perceives the United Nations as just a big talking shop.

It’s really heavy duty. It’s very intensive. In a bilateral relationship, I think it’s easier to master your field in a certain amount of time; you make your contacts, you know what your goals are. You win some, you lose some. The multilateral, particularly on the U.N. side, you have to keep sight of where you’re trying to go, and very often it’s just such a free-for-all and you try to maintain your dignity and discipline and keep on going. It is difficult, as you say. You’re likely to burn out faster.

“The Melissa Wells factor”

[In 1986, N.C. Senator Jesse Helms, who was trying to force the State Department to change its policy of the Mozambique government, held up Wells’ ambassadorial nomination. After eleven months and two days, the longest delay in U.S. diplomatic history at that point, Wells was finally confirmed.  At left, Secretary Shultz is swearing her in and congratulating her].

I don’t want to sound like the typical Pollyanna, but I really, truly believe that everything happens for a purpose. There is no doubt in my mind that the delay in my confirmation made me a heroine by the time I arrived [in Mozambique.]

I mean, this is like Joan of Arc! Children were being named after me! The first little “Melissa” was born the day that the Senate voted.

The next Melissa was born the day that I presented credentials. I kept getting pictures about little Melissas up and down Mozambique. I know of about four. Then I really didn’t answer them all. I wanted to discourage this, because there are just so many little dresses that I could buy at this point.

But to get back to the point, had it not been for that, I would have been, I won’t say just like any ambassador, because the U.S. ambassador has a special place, certainly, in most places of the world, someone to be recognized and to be dealt with.

All I was doing was upholding the administration’s policy; I was not doing anything else, but [the delay] turned me into a heroine and opened doors for me that — well, I have a lot of confidence; I think I would have opened them eventually anyway — but, boy, did I get off to a running start!

“It was a wonderful exercise in political expression which the country had never, ever experienced”

When I arrived [in The Democratic Republic of Congo] in early June ’91, the main challenge was to take advantage of the opening in the political scene… President Mobutu had decided that political pluralism be introduced; in other words, there could be a number of parties. At first he had decided there should be only three parties. Everybody objected and then we started getting parties by the dozens. Everybody and their dog and three cats decided to form a party.

But in terms of major parties, and when I arrived and started making my contacts and finding out what they were hoping to do and how this political pluralism towards democracy is supposed to evolve, I was confronted time and again with the same issue. That was: “You, the United States, put him, Mobutu, there. You get him out of here.” I just confronted it head on. This is June ’91.

I said, “L

ook, let me make one thing very clear to you. The 82nd Airborne will never, ever be seen in Zaire. General Schwarzkopf [former commander of United States Central Command and leader of Operation Desert Storm] has retired. Now what are we going to do next?”

“You liberated Europe from Hitler, etc.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “that was 1940s. This is 1991.”

“We need a peacekeeping force.” I’m sort of generalizing; there were a number of these encounters.

I said, “You Zaireans have to develop a transition plan which includes President Mobutu. Nobody is going to take him out. I’m not going to carry him out. He’s a bit overweight.  [Come up with] a transition plan which includes President Mobutu and we will support you.”

I finally had to shake a few of these people and said, “Do you realize what you’re doing? You’re so dependent on the outside world. When are you going to grow up and wear long pants?” In many ways I think it’s only a woman who can talk that way.

But it was roughing them up, and then, by gum, they did it. I developed very good contacts with Monsignor [Laurent] Monsengwo, who’s still one of my dearest friends, who was the archbishop of what is now called Kisangani. He was elected president of what was called the National Conference, which went on for months on end.

Everyone was criticizing this National Conference, but it was the first time that the Zairean people had a chance to express themselves in an open forum that was televised most of the time. Sometimes there were literally technical difficulties when it broke down, and other times President Mobutu decided that the criticism was unacceptable and so forth and closed it down, but eventually it reopened. It was a wonderful exercise in political expression which the country had never, ever experienced.

Embassy Evacuation

I’ll get to the evacuation….Now, going back to the troubles of September ’91, what happened was that with all the economic problems in Zaire, the army was very irregularly paid. They were late in being paid or only some of them were paid, but early one morning we heard that a unit had mutinied out by the airport and that they had ransacked the international airport at Kinshasa, and that they were moving down the main road towards Kinshasa and of course the population was just joining them and looting everything in sight and burning cars and so forth.

The long and short of this is that over a period of five to seven days we evacuated almost 3,000 Americans, including missionaries from the interior and so forth. Over 20,000 expatriates left Zaire, most of whom have never come back.

Fortunately there was relatively little loss of life because when this began, while I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, certainly I felt that Washington felt, ‘Oh my God, here comes another Congo crisis of the sixties.’

But it was not. Yes, there was loss of life, but the people were not targeting human beings- they were targeting goods. It was as if they had taken the economic mismanagement of decades into their own hands…

Almost a month later it was the same thing. The army was not paid in the south, in the province of Shaba, the capital there, Lubumbashi, and the army went on a rampage and did the same thing, looted the whole place. We evacuated and closed the consulate general there.

Then you had sporadic incidents all over the country. But with the fear that we might be heading towards another Congo crisis-type situation of the sixties, thousands of people left.

I must say that within a few months, certainly within six months, many of the missionaries came back. Some of them never left because they don’t leave. They just feel that their mission is to be there and I must say that, in terms of the American missionaries — I want put this on the record — I was so impressed.

Our own embassy staff, we had been the largest post in Africa when I arrived, and I had instructions from the Under Secretary for Management to reduce the size of the post. Well, with the help of the mutinous Zairean army, within 48 hours we were down to 35 people.

We had over, including AID, State and all the various elements, we had over 300 people. And then full of dependents and contractors and so forth. Then we were left with a tremendous problem because we still owned houses.

The beautiful buildings with furniture and everything in them and my whole staff disappeared out from under me and I kept asking for more staff in order to consolidate the government properties. First the belongings of those who had been evacuated, then the belongings of the US government, and then try to figure out what to do with all the properties we owned.

…Lubumbashi, the former Elizabethville, which is the heart of the copper belt and the cobalt belt, is so sad now, particularly after the looting. I’d gone down after the looting, after we’d closed the consulate, although I stayed in the residence there. The office of the consulate had been totally burned down. The mines weren’t functioning, the smelters, and the copper processing plants weren’t functioning and, if anything, they were literally being taken apart by the employees and sold as scrap across the border in Zambia.

 “Once I realized that this was going on, I played to it; I took advantage of it”

Let me tell you about one thing that I treasured very much about my experience in Zaire and that is… I must give credit to President Mobutu (seen right) and the government at that time. They gave me full access on television. I mean, I was interviewed always after I met with him. I was interviewed when I met with ministers and so forth. And rarely – on some occasions they did – but rarely did they cut it, censor it, edit it. Once I realized that this was going on, I played to it; I took advantage of it, because I didn’t know how long it would last.

As a result, I spoke out very frankly, and I acquired a wonderful nickname, a sobriquet which I shall treasure for the rest of my life. “Tantine”- Auntie. Now at first I said, “Tantine? Is this because of Uncle Sam and I’m a woman, is this Auntie Sam or what does this mean?”

“Tantine may or may not be related to you by blood as an aunt should be. A tantine is a senior woman in the family to whom you come and tell your troubles to and get good advice.”

One of the most wonderful moments of my entire career was when this National Conference had reopened. It had been closed by Mobutu for some time and the US had applied an enormous amount of pressure and I made damn sure that everybody knew that we were doing this. And then the National Conference was reopening and the diplomatic corps was asked to attend and they had a special section down there at the front.

As usual, I’m late. I pull up in the official car with all the flags flying. I could see all the other ambassadors and their flags and their drivers are sitting over there and I go running up the stairs and I’m trying to figure out which door to go in.

“Where is the diplomatic section?”

“That way, that way, madam.”

I start walking, running almost, walking fast down this aisle to get to the front. And then I hear applause and I said, “Oh dear God, Monsengwo is coming and I’m in front of him.”

I start looking around and there’s no Monsengwo and I see people looking at me and clapping “Tantine, Tantine, Tantine.” Well, it didn’t take me long to stop running down the aisle and to absorb fully for the US government and for Melissa Wells in person. I acquired a very regal step coming down the aisle.

The Melissa Wells Effect:  “Make a commitment to a dream”

Commitment to your dream is so important. Dreams are what stir the energy in us to do something – to rise above mediocrity.  There will be ups and downs in any career and in the case of the Foreign Service, these downers may be more trying because of a difficult environment or separation from loved ones.

In my 43-year career (including secondments to the UN), I ran two evacuations which then remained unaccompanied posts for the rest of my tour. It is in these situations that one’s values and skills are truly tested – thinking first and foremost of the well-being and morale of your staff.

People have such varied reactions to danger and the ambassador must be flexible to accommodate the different reactions and instill optimism and morale. It is important to try to maintain a sense of humor and build a personal bond with every member of your staff and realize that danger has made the whole of the staff and you greater than the sum of its parts.

In Uganda, with UNDP, during the chaos right after Amin’s collapse when two of my staff were murdered, one for a wrist watch and another for a transistor radio, in person or on the radio, we always signed off with “May the Force be with you!”

My advice to young FSOs is to make a commitment to a dream – and believe me, it takes lots of energy to commit to a dream – of being an official representative of the USA traveling the world and expressing our nation’s values. These values are not always contained in policy, which must be carried out.

But there are many opportunities for projects – especially in developing countries – that with imagination and garnering of support and funds from officialdom can make a difference in the quality of life of those affected.

In Mozambique, I was able in 1988 to establish the first project in the world dealing with child soldiers, children kidnapped and then trained to fire weapons.  This practice, unfortunately, has today become a more widespread problem. With funding from Washington we were able to set up a hostel for the child soldiers and brought down a well-known child psychologist from the US. The idea was to set up a training model to train local people as there was not one trained psychologist in all of Mozambique.

In addition to therapy, we faced the problem of reuniting the children with their families, if they could be found. By the time I left Mozambique, we had reunited 2,000 children – in a country at war, where people can’t read, where people have never even seen the photograph of a loved one. The whole embassy in Maputo supported the project.

So to conclude, don’t go through a career doing what is safe and not allowing the emotional commitment to a dream. It takes courage – a lot of courage – to keep on renewing your commitment to a dream. Based on my own life experience, I can say honestly that dreams do come true – if you believe in them and work to achieve them.

What Goes on Behind the Scenes When POTUS Comes to Town

One of the most daunting and stressful tasks a Foreign Service Officer abroad can face is supporting a visit by POTUS, the President of the United States. Concerns about security, cultural sensitivities, press coverage and political effectiveness turn such events into an all-encompassing, embassy-wide obsession from the day the idea of the visit is floated until “Wheels Up” when Air Force One departs. There’s plenty of drama, bruised egos, hurry-up-and-wait, and silliness in the planning and implementation of such a visit. The outcome can make or break a career.

A mark of a great FSO is the ability to support a presidential visit while maintaining a sense of courtesy and good humor, especially when demands from everyone from the pre-advance team to the press pool verge on the ridiculous.  Lloyd Neighbors showed his mettle when he was in charge of press arrangements for President George W. Bush’s October 18-21 visit to Shanghai for the APEC conference in 2001. Read more

Brother, Can you Spare me some Stew?: Hot, Hungry, and Abandoned in Vietnam

Speaking a foreign language is critical in the Foreign Service and can sometimes rescue you from the diciest situations. Case in point:  Political officer Ken Landon, who had been sent to Hanoi in the immediate aftermath of World War II and found himself abandoned by the French group with which he was traveling. Stuck some 30 miles from his destination with no food, Landon was forced to get creative. Luckily, he had spent the 1930s working as a missionary in Asia and had picked up — as gifted polyglots often do — Swatow Chinese, a dialect spoken by many of the Chinese soldiers stationed in Vietnam following the surrender of Japan. Read more

A Blind Eye — Fighting Terrorism in the 1980s

The U.S. focus on terrorism began to intensify in the late 1970s and 80s. However, it was often difficult to get actionable intelligence on many groups, given how hard it was to infiltrate them. And in those cases  where the U.S. was able to track a major terrorist figure down, that person was often able to elude capture.

L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) in 1986, discusses the many difficulties the U.S. encountered in infiltrating groups, dealing with countries like Greece, which often turned a blind eye to terrorist groups, and his experience with Delta Force.  He also describes how they were able to capture one terrorist by inviting him to a party on a yacht with women in bikinis. Needless to say, he was surprised to discover those women were FBI agents. Read more

Trust In Me

Living abroad often comes with an array of challenges and frightening encounters. In the 1930s before joining the Foreign Service, Ken Landon served as a missionary in Thailand with his family, where his run-in with a king cobra would prove to be one of his most vivid experiences during his time in Asia. The king cobra is not only extremely venomous, but it is also much larger than other cobra species and a bold predator. Inhabiting many parts of Southeast Asia, king cobras, although posing an obvious threat to humans, are often depicted as protectors in Buddhism, making these snakes culturally significant figures in Thailand.

Soon after moving to Nakhon Si Thammarat province on the Malay Peninsula, Landon was walking home from church one Sunday when he came face to face with a king cobra as it encircled his newborn daughter near their home. Read more