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Who Let the Dogs Out? – A Pet Evacuation from Kinshasa

Dear Fido,

If you’re reading this, we’ve been evacuated (and you learned how to read!…). But don’t worry ol’ pal! I’ll send for you as soon as I can. I left one of each sock behind, so it’ll be like nothing changed. Food is in the pantry and water’s in the toilet. Call for Lassie if you need anything. See you again real soon, buddy!

In 1991, Ambassador Melissa F. Wells was faced with overseeing the kind of operation not normally covered during training — a full-scale evacuation of diplomatic pets from Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).   Read more

Patt Derian, A Straight Shooter on Human Rights

Patricia “Patt” M. Derian was one of the key proponents of integrating human rights in U.S. foreign policy at a time when such a concept was regarded with skepticism, if not outright hostility, by most State Department principals who were more accustomed to the Realpolitik of recently departed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Born in New York City on August 12, 1929, Derian dedicated her life to demanding justice for all people.

In the 1960s, she created an organization in Mississippi to support public school integration and then fought to get an integrated state delegation to represent Mississippi at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. She then served as President of the Southern Regional Council and was a member of the Executive Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union.

After Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, he nominated Derian to be Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs—a post later elevated to Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (HA, which later became the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, DRL). In 1979, Derian headed an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate reports of widespread human rights abuses in Argentina. She continued this work in dozens of other countries around the world, establishing herself as an advocate for humanity and a crusader for justice.

Patt Derian describes her early life, where she moved from Virginia to California, and then to Mississippi, which forced her to confront the appalling reality of racism and poverty, as well as how she came to be the leading advocate of human rights at the State Department. Patt Derian passed away on May 20, 2016. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning March 1996.

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“The strongest teaching of racism comes in those subtleties that children cannot intuit at the moment”

DERIAN: I was born in 1929, August 12. I was not told until I was about 14 that I was not fully Virginian. I was born in New York City, a real scandal. What happened was my mother obviously knew she was pregnant and I’m supposed to be born in early October, somewhere in that time. So they went to New York for the previews. They used to preview the new season’s plays in August.

During an interval my mother went into labor, which was a great shock and then got to the hospital and had identical twin daughters, which was an absolutely astonishing shock. Unfortunately, the other baby died of a diarrhea epidemic….

The only thing of real interest, how you happen to wind up living the life you do as an adult, is that I was this Catholic child in this pretty much Baptist town. There was one other teenager, a boy my same age and we were the only two kids in our little parish. I think that little parish was the only one, unless there was a black church, which we certainly didn’t know anything about.

I started high school in Danville (pictured). One day when I went into Latin class a young woman, whose name I think was Mable Tanner, was the teacher and I had already had almost seven years of Latin by then, said, “Are there any Catholics in the room?”

So we raised our hands and she said, “You might as well leave, I don’t pass Catholics.”

So I, joyfully, got up and left. That class was just before lunch. A great chunk of family assembled at lunchtime for the adults’ main meal and so I went home and took my place at the table and didn’t say anything.

Finally, someone said, “Aren’t you in school?”

I said, “I’m not going back anymore.” After a while I told them what had happened, whereas they rose in a body and in four automobiles convoyed themselves down to the high school where we had a wonderful principal named Mr. Christopher.

So they finally all came back and said I could go back to Latin class. I said, “No, no, I’m not going back to Latin class” and had a little confrontation, briefly. So it was decided that I would go back but I wouldn’t take Latin, which was just wonderful joy.

Then Miss Tanner, as it turned out, was forced to come and apologize to me, which was extremely humiliating for both of us. Oh, I hated that and never wanted to see her again.….

It was just one of those things that occur to you, that every time there was someone black, a black man, maybe, obviously someone they didn’t know since everybody knew everybody else’s people who worked around there. As soon as that person would go, then we could go back on the porch [after being called inside while they passed]. That’s all there was, nothing said.

I think that’s the strongest teaching of racism comes in those subtleties that children cannot intuit at the moment…. Nobody ever told us that we shouldn’t talk to black people or that we should be rude but it was absolutely rigid.

I was an only child until I was 12 and I really think that only children grow up in an entirely different way. Particularly because I had very glamorous, party-going, party-giving parents who were almost totally absorbed in their own lives.

“I leaned against the door frame and I said, ‘I’m 13, I smoke and I’m not going to curtsy anymore!’”

I was more of an ornament because none of their friends had children. When my sister Michael was born, they were just beginning to have children. She has a lot of contemporaries among my mother’s and father’s old friends but I have none. So everyone kind of doted on me and I was alone a lot and very self-sufficient….

I spent a huge part of my childhood in Glover Park neighborhood, all by myself, climbing trees, building huts. So a big chunk of myself requires being outside a lot. In a way, I raised myself. What was transmitted to me, my father’s lifetime message to me was “You live your life so that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell!” I got a profound message from that.

Those aren’t the fighting words I grew up with kind of thing, that isn’t the effect they had on me, but it did make me weigh choices that I made, would I be proud of myself for doing this, is this a good thing to do?…

We were at one of these lunches at Del’s house and the room where you ate lunch at that house had its bathrooms upstairs. I was up there smoking and blowing smoke out the window and they kept calling me for lunch and I kept saying, “Oh, I’ll be there in a minute!” waving a towel and all of that. So I went down and I stood in the door, I must have been still 13. I leaned against the door frame and I said, “I’m 13, I smoke and I’m not going to curtsy anymore!”

There’s this long silence and I can remember that feeling of dread that I’d just cut a lot of ties. And they all burst into laughter, being people of a wild turn and they were very pleased because I pack cigarettes and they couldn’t. That was their story….

I lived [in Orinda] a while and then my father was transferred to San Pedro, to Fort MacArthur….When I moved down there I had not finished high school yet. They said that I would have to go another year before I could graduate in California.

So I came home and I said, “I’m not going. If you want me to go to college, just tell me how I should do that and I’ll do it, but I’m not going to high school anymore.”…

When the family finally got back together again, we had a serious discussion about my education. They said I could go anywhere I wanted to except to an all boys’ school and that the only thing I couldn’t do was go to nursing school. So the next morning I called the University Of Virginia School of Nursing and said, “I may not be qualified by your standards but I would like to come to nursing school there.”…


Our graduation was in September [1952] and I got married in March before I graduated, but I stayed on. My husband [Dr. Derian] was a resident in orthopedics. He was not a Southerner, and he was not from an old, old American family.

Everything about him was different. I always said I wouldn’t marry a Southern boy, their mothers had ruined them. Turned out, having married one the second time, they improve with age….

From there we went to Wilmington, Delaware, where I had my first child…. Then we went back to Charlottesville, where I had another child. Then we moved to Marion, Ohio…. And now I have another baby….

“You just have to decide how much you’re going to tolerate. It turned out my tolerance was very low.”

The medical school was in Jackson. The University of Mississippi is in Oxford [where Derian was offered a teaching position], which is a small town on the other side of the state. So that’s how I got to Mississippi.

We were there and life changed dramatically because here I was with three children and they were going to have to go to school. When we moved there in 1959, even though Brooke was only a year old and the little boys weren’t even in grammar school, yet the Citizen’s Council was pressing hard to shut down the public schools….

It had just reached the point, these men had just come back from the war and everything they’d been told about what they’d been fighting for was definitely a lie. People getting lynched. It was an astonishing place to be.

Anyway, my friend Winifred Green and I, she didn’t have any children but she’d been brought up the same way I had. We started talking about what we would do. We felt an obligation to do something….

So we formed an organization called Mississippians for Public Education. The aim of it was to keep the public schools open as well as integrated. In the early Sixties, yes.

You just have to decide how much you’re going to tolerate. It turned out my tolerance was very low, because it seemed to me, here I am facing my children, what will I say to them when they’re adults? And what will I think of myself? I was acting in a large and interesting number of things in a very hard time….

But the time came when I realized that if we were going to advance the place that we lived, we would have to step forward.

Part of my inv

olvement was in response to when Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Democrats [organized by African Americans and whites from Mississippi to challenge the legitimacy of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party, which allowed participation only by whites, when African Americans made up 40% of the state population] went to Atlantic City and were turned away at the 1964 Democratic Party convention.

That caused the Democratic Party to institute a number of reforms and when the next go-around came, which was 1968, we went through the motions of trying to implement those reforms in the Democratic Party in Mississippi. And they just didn’t do it.

So we formed a party that was called the Democratic Party of the State of Mississippi because we would follow the national party’s regulations. We had precinct, county, regional, state, went through the whole procedure and elected a delegation to the Chicago convention, half black, half white, half male, half female.

Charles Evers [Medgar Evers’ brother] was the National Committeeman. I was the National Committeewoman. Hodding Carter, [now] my husband, not then, and Aaron Henry were the cochairmen and we went to Chicago and challenged the regulars. It was the first time a traditional delegation had been denied and we were seated.

“There is really no one more impressive on the one-to-one basis than Jimmy Carter”

So, I was already working on a regional level with the Southern Regional Council, I may have been president of it then, I can’t remember. Anyway, Bob Strauss became Chairman of the Democratic Party. I talked to him in Washington one time and said, “You know, George Wallace is really not a Democrat. He’s a racist and we really shouldn’t have him in our party. We should really drum him out.”

And he said, “Okay, but I can’t do it til the midterm elections.”

So the midterm elections came and went and I waited a couple of weeks. I said, “Okay, are you ready to move?”

He said, “Oh, darling, I can’t do that! He’s the most popular Democrat in the South.”

I said, “No, he isn’t.”

He said, “You won’t be able to beat him.”

I said, “Yes, we can.”

So then I was looking for somebody to support who could beat Wallace in Mississippi. Hamilton Jordan and Frank Moore, two people who were working for Jimmy Carter, came to see me. I had only met Carter at the midterm conference, as a matter of fact. I didn’t know anything about him.

I said, “Well, if he isn’t a racist and a sexist or a crook, I’ll support him in Mississippi.” I said, “But I can’t do it til I meet him. I’ve got to determine.”

They said, “Oh, no, he’s not any of those things.”

I said, “Well, I have to determine that myself.”…

Anyway, I went to Atlanta. Had an appointment to meet him at the VIP lounge in the Atlanta airport at seven o’clock the next morning. We stayed up most of the night meeting. So when I woke up at quarter til seven I called the airport.

There is really no one more impressive on the one-to-one basis than Jimmy Carter. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it in Mississippi.” I wrote all the rules and went out and tried to get everybody to participate, old regulars and all the white groups and the hate groups. It was really very interesting. And we did, we left Wallace in the dust….

Four women and something like 52 men. That’s how I started operating at the national level. I really had no foreign policy experience at all, except we’d traveled. It didn’t really come up except in the second meeting of the Democratic Policy Council.

“Someone from the State Department called me and said they had two jobs: protocol and something called human rights”

So after Mississippi, Carter asked me if I would become part of his campaign staff and be a deputy director and I said that I would. During that 1976 campaign my portfolio there was liberals, intellectuals, editorial boards, university types. Sort of a fireman.

Then when it was over and Carter won the presidency, I went back to Mississippi and had only been home a short time when I was asked to come up and be part of the new administration’s transition team. So I did.

I had a funny job there. I had organizations and systems of HEW [Department of Health, Education and Welfare]….I interviewed a number of former HEW secretaries.

When I went to talk to the real systems fellow at the place, one of those folks who had really been in that department from the beginning, was serious about it and able, and he said, “Look, here’s the way it works. We’ve had some phenomenal number of secretaries and nobody ever stayed more than 18 months I think.” He said, “By the time a directive reaches the field, where it first causes some kind of activity, there is not just a new one but there’s the second new one.”

So I ran into Jimmy Carter somewhere and he said, “What do you want to do in my administration?”

I said, “I’m really not looking for a job but there’s one thing I don’t want to do. I do not want to be associated with HEW in any possible way.”

So then someone from the State Department called me and asked me if I would come over. So I went, not knowing why. I assumed that they wanted to ask me about something. So they said that they’d like me to come and work there and they had two jobs: they had the protocol job and something called human rights.

I said, “Well, if I did it, I can’t tap dance. So, human rights sounds more like something I’d be more interested in.” I had worked on that. Also, I had been on the Executive Committee of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] for a long time….

I didn’t like the idea of being somebody who worked in the campaign and then got a job; there was something about it that didn’t seem right. But I talked to someone I knew who worked there and said that this was a job that really had never been done. That’s the kind of thing I’m usually interested in.

You can’t take a job like that without a very clear idea of what you’re going for. I didn’t just wander in off the street and sit down. I had a clear idea. I spent my entire adult life working on civil rights and civil liberties. I worked all day every day….

You really have to refine your thinking. You have to be very clear about the basis on which you have made your decision, starting with the law and the stated policy of your Administration….

I don’t see how anybody can walk in off the street and not do a good job if they use what’s at the State Department. Even people who are opposed to what you’re doing are often extremely helpful, sometimes inadvertently. By and large, most of the time, it’s not so much personal with these people; they don’t want anything to screw up. A lot of them don’t want the Congress looking down their throat.

Q: What was seen as background for the human rights job?

DERIAN: When I went there, you see the Congress created that job over Kissinger’s objection. [The position of Coordinator had been established in 1975 and placed in the Office of the Deputy Secretary, Roger Ingersoll.] The way the legislation was written supplied a loophole, which said there would be a Coordinator of Human Rights at the level of Assistant Secretary….

The first day I was there, sitting at a desk, someone walked in with a stack of paper about 14 inches high and said, “The Secretary wants you to read this.” So I started reading and I thought, “You know, I don’t really have a big interest in this!”

So I read the whole Law of the Sea plan, which is enormously big, and marked it all up, made my comments in the thing. When I got through, I walked into [pictured, Deputy Secretary of State Warren] Christopher’s office and I said, “I don’t think this belongs to me. I think it belongs to you….”

After a while, after I’d got the hang of things, I was doing intensive studying. In fact, in the first month sometime the Amnesty International yearbook came out and so I was sitting up in bed reading about awful torture with electrodes on the gums.

About 3:30 or four in the morning I cut out the light and I went to sleep. I woke up having this terrible nightmare and I ran my tongue over my teeth and they felt like they were all broken and fractured. I knew that it was a dream but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I put on the light and had to go in the bathroom and look in the mirror to see. So I decided I was going to have to read that stuff in the morning. It was really total immersion in all the horrors of the world.

“I don’t want to come here if you want a magnolia to make it look good. I’m not going to come here if I’m going to lose these bureaucratic fights every time.”

Q: While you were settling into your job, had President Carter or White House staffers like Hamilton Jordan, or anyone talked to you about what they wanted you to do or was it sort of, here’s a job, go ahead and do it?

DERIAN: No, when I called Hamilton to tell him I was going to take this job he said, “We don’t want you to take this job. We have something much better we want you to do.”

And I said, “Well, I’m sorry, I’ve given my word and this is very interesting to me.” Before I took the job, I had a long talk with Christopher, the Deputy Secretary of State, and it was an odd talk.

He asked me about the civil rights work and essentially the methods of it. I was in a peculiar position because I was a member of the community and not somebody from another place. There weren’t a lot of white people doing it then. So civil rights work was not a wildly popular job for a long time.

But in any case, he explained certain steps in the outline of the issues that were involved in the human rights aspects of it. I said, “You know, I don’t want to come here if you want a magnolia to make it look good, you’ve got a sweet person doing the human rights job, I think you’ve got the wrong person and you need to know it. I’m not going to come here if I’m going to lose these bureaucratic fights every time.”

He said, “Well, do you have to win them all?”

And I said, “No, of course not but I have to win most of them.” So that’s essentially the time when I decided to take the job….

I was sworn in at the White House, which I was a little bit sorry about, in the Rose Garden, with [DC delegate] Eleanor Holmes Norton and somebody else and the President presiding.

At first that worried me a lot because seemed to me that was a terrific boost in a way I was not ready for. But his people came to me and said, “He wants to emphasize the fact that he’s appointing women to high positions.”

But, anyhow, here’s what I decided after I’d gotten there and sort of gotten the drift of what it was going to be like. Which was adversarial and interesting and hard and important.

I decided that if human rights was the policy of the United States and not just this president, and it was, because there was a body of legislation, then I had to do my best to insert it all over the Department.

To get it in the machinery in every possible way so that when I left, I didn’t want it to be Patt Derian’s policy. I didn’t want it to be, you know, a lot of time people have a great idea and they do a good job and then they leave and that’s the end of it.

It seemed to me that this had nothing to do with me personally. It had to do with the duty to the country and to upholding the law. So that meant that we had to get a lot of people around who had human rights as part of their portfolio. So had to work on personnel who at least while they might report through somebody else would also be reporting to us. That was one of the main things, to just get it in there and institutionalize it.

Funny, along about halfway through it, I guess, I ran into the President somewhere and I said, “You know, I really need to talk to you.”

And he said, “Well just come on over.”

I said, “No, no, I’ve got to put a request through. I don’t ever want it to be back door.” He would always say, “Just call me up if you need anything” and I never would because I wanted the bureaucracy to always be enfolded in the thing.

About two years into it, I had seen him and I said, “I’m going to do it.” And I sent a request for an appointment through and had a little trouble from the State Department Secretariat but it got through and then the meeting came. [Vice President Walter] Mondale was there. The Secretary of State was there. [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski was there….

So we were talking along and I said, “One of the things that concerns me is that when I send something over for your night reading, I don’t think you have good information on the human rights issues. One of the things that concerns me is that when I send some things over for your overnight reading, it doesn’t always get to you. In fact, rarely does it get to you.”

And he said, “Well, you send it to me directly.”

I said, “What do I do, put it in a brown paper wrapper?”

And he said, “Sure!”

I said, “No, I’m not going to do that. I want to send it through this whole system. I want the system to work.” So things did get better, for a while after that….

One of the other things I decided when I went there was I could never leak to the press. I called our group together and I said, “I don’t know what your custom is. All I know is, when I read the paper I see a lot of leaks out of a lot of bureaus. Here’s what I want to tell you. The only thing we’ve got here is integrity and we’re going to be straight shooters, we are going to play by the rules. We’re not going to knife anybody in the back. We’re just going to go straight ahead. When we take a position we’re going to stick with it til we’re proven wrong or another decision is made.”

And I really believe that. If you cannot go along with a policy then you ought to get another job….

It was clear one of the [Bureau of European Affairs (EUR)] officers wrote on the margins of the memo [regarding a naturalized American man who had been a Jewish refugee from Germany, who claimed he had been treated unfairly] saying, “Who does this babe think she is? What does she know about this?” Just a really nasty thing. I thought, “Oh, I need one of these!”

So I called up and I said, “I’d like you to come to my office.”

And he said, “I can’t come.”

I said, “Well I can come down there and talk to you or you can come here RIGHT NOW!”

He said, “I’m coming.”…

I said, “Don’t sit down.” I stood up to him and said, “What is this?” And he just turned purple. I said, “Who do you think you are? You wanted to know who I think I am? I think that I’m running this office and I asked you a question and I need for you to answer it. I need for you to go back to your desk and write it down and clear it and if there’s anything else you can think of you might do, you better do that, too.”

So he said, “What are you talking about?”

I said, “You can’t figure it out, that’s your problem.”

And so he called up and said, “It’s going to take me a couple of days.” I said, “Gene, you already used up your couple of days. It’s now or never.” So he rushed around, got everything and then called up and said, “Is that everything you want?”

I said, “It’s everything I need but you need something more.”

He said, “Well why won’t you tell me? I don’t like riddles and jokes.” He’s sort of half afraid and half aggressive.

I said, “I think you’ll think of it. You just put your mind to it.”

So in about two days I came back from lunch one day. I had an envelope with an apology. I know it wasn’t heartfelt but at least his mother taught him the right stuff to do. But that was helpful because the note was publicly known in EUR. If you write something nasty like that and everybody in your office sees it and of course I see all the people whose initials are scratched through.

So after we’d had enough of those little markers around, I called a meeting in the Deputy’s conference room, which was not so grand and fancy as it is now. In any case, I told them that I’d been there whatever length of time it was, and that I wanted them to understand what I thought I was going to do and how I might interact with them and what they could expect from me.

You could already see everybody’s embarrassed. Everybody’s sitting kind of like this [crossed arms] because they know. It was really a sweet setup.

So I gave them a brief outline of what the laws were that I was going to be trying to do my part on and that I intended to go to countries and visit and talk with the leaders….

And I said, “I want to tell you why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because I’ve spent my whole life working on these issues. We teach our children we’re certain kind of people. So, we need to give expression to our democracy.”


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

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.

A Bum Rap for April Glaspie — Saddam and the Start of the Iraq War

In the summer of 1990, concerns were growing that Saddam Hussein, who was massing troops near the border with Kuwait, was preparing an all-out invasion. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie met with Saddam Hussein on July 25, 1990 to convey the United States’ position. While she did not have a demarche from Washington, she reiterated U.S. policy that border disputes should be resolved peacefully. However, her meeting did not forestall an Iraqi invasion; Saddam invaded just a few days later, on August 2.

Soon thereafter and several years since the end of the Gulf War, Ambassador Glaspie was widely blamed for allowing or even encouraging an Iraqi invasion. The New York Times on September 23, 1990 quotes Glaspie as saying, “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait. Read more


As in so many other professions, integrity is the hallmark of a good diplomat. In most cases. As Henry Wooton famously said way back in 1604, “An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” (or, for you classics students, “Legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum rei publicae causa”).

And while the examples provided below do not deal with lying, they do show diplomats using untoward language in the heat of the moment. (And if you didn’t guess already, yes, they do contain some raw, Not-Safe-For-Work language, so you have herewith been forewarned.)

Check out NSFW FSOs, Part I and then read Ten Things You Learn from a Hostage Situation

Return to Inside Foggy Bottom

Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Kissinger Sizes Up a New Colleague

Henry Kissinger is widely regarded as a brilliant thinker and foreign policy tactician. Nurturing, warm and fuzzy — not so much. When Mark Palmer first met Super K, looking for a job as one of his speechwriters, Palmer earnestly told him, “I’ve read all of your books. I’ve virtually memorized them. I am certain that I can write in your style. And I am a Foreign Service officer and we (meaning the Foreign Service) have a right to be considered for any position and you’ve got to give me an opportunity to write one speech for you.”

Not surprisingly, Kissinger looked at an aide and dismissively said this.



Assistant Secretary Toria Nuland Offers Her Frank Assessment of the EU

Toria Nuland is known as an “undiplomatic diplomat” for her honest, upfront way of dealing with other diplomats. Which many people find refreshing. Unless you happen to be someone or something that displeases her. In 2014, Ukraine had just experienced massive protests against the Russian-backed government and was on the verge of losing Crimea to a de facto Russian invasion. Nuland’s European colleagues did not stand up to Moscow as they should have, which led her to utter these immortal words (for which she had to apologize later).



William Watts tells Al Haig and Henry Kissinger he’s quitting

William Watts, who at the time had been promoted to the position of White House Staff Secretary for the National Security Council under President Richard Nixon in 1969, worked closely with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Watts became increasingly disillusioned with the administration’s policy in Vietnam and the planning for an invasion of Cambodia.

Despite his opposition, Watts discovered he was going to be the person overseeing the operation. He then decided to resign and had a fiery confrontation with Kissinger, who told him “Your views represent the cowardice of the Eastern Establishment.” That’s when Watt came up out of his chair and tried to hit him. Haig then looked at him and said, “You have had an order from your Commander-in-Chief and you can’t refuse.” Watts looked at him and said this.

Ambassador Urges Air Force Pilot to Move It — Now!

In 1996, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961 was hijacked by three men who wanted the pilot to fly to Australia. Although the plane was nearly out of fuel, the hijackers ignored the captain’s warnings. Out of options, the captain was forced to ditch the plane. Only 50 passengers survived. Ambassador to Mauritius Harry Geisel coordinated efforts to get the deceased Americans returned to the United States. This was no small feat given the incompetence of local authorities, the lack of facilities, and the obstinance of one particular NSC official, which caused the Ambassador to react in a less-than-diplomatic manner.


Ambassador Robert Ford Criticizes White House on Syria

In October 2011, Robert Ford, a career Foreign Service Officer and widely respected Arabist, was recalled from Syria due to what the State Department called “credible threats” to his safety. Although he was reportedly in line as the next U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, he left the Foreign Service a few months afterward to protest the Obama administration’s inaction in the face of growing atrocities by the Assad regime in Syria.

When his critics asserted there was no such thing as an Arab moderate, Ford offered an equally undiplomatic response.




An Exasperated FSO Tells Off His Ambassador 

Beauveau B. Nalle served for 30 years in the Foreign Service. After years of serving in Africa, he finally got a nice, cushy assignment at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, with his own staff, a large budget, and a fancy title. It should’ve been a dream job. Except his boss was a former used tire salesman who despised the UN and hated the Foreign Service. And because this was his last assignment and there was no real chance for promotion, he didn’t feel at all constrained in letting his feelings be known, as undiplomatic as they may be.

So when the Ambassador insisted Nalle bypass regulations, because “nobody has to know about this.” That’s when he lost his temper, stood up and uttered those words that many frustrated office workers wish they could say to their incompetent boss.



Brunei: The Richest Little Country You’ve Never Heard Of

Brunei, situated on the northern shore of the island of Borneo in the South China Sea, is one of the smallest yet richest states in the world. With a population of less than 500,000, its socialist society is arguably the closest any nation has gotten to a total welfare state:  the Sultan’s government pays for education, healthcare, and most other living expenses of its citizens, financed through Brunei’s massive oil and natural gas wealth, thus the nickname “Shellfare.” The Sultan is one of the richest men in the world and he flaunts his wealth shamelessly. (At right, the Sultan’s (in)famous gold Rolls Royce.)

The tiny nation, covering only 2200 square miles, has been ruled by the same family for the past 600 years. Due to its long history of monarchal rule, relatively small territory, and fabulous wealth, the nation has a variety of culture and governmental quirks that American diplomats encountered during their time there.  Read more

Julia Chang Bloch’s Whole-of-Mission Approach in Nepal

In 1990, Nepal’s centuries-long history of monarchical rule and more recent autocratic substitutes were finally brought to an end in what may consider to be one of the most notable non-violent revolutions of the twentieth century. With the death of King Mahendra in 1972, the future of Nepal’s government was uncertain. His son, King Birendra, ascended to the throne and implemented amendments to the ancient panchayat system that allotted virtually unlimited power to the monarchy.

All promises of democratic reform were abandoned by the throne, and the Nepalese people began to call for change. The Nepali Congress, a pro-democratic party formally banned by the monarchy, and the United Left Front, a coalition of socialist and Maoist political parties, agreed to campaign together in order to restore the kind of multiparty democracy Nepal possessed in the 1950s, so long as both parties could hold seats in the new Congress after the revolution was over. Read more

The Canadian Caper, Argo, and Escape from Iran

The years leading up to the autumn of 1979 in Iran proved to be turbulent, resulting in a radical transformation of the nation. The U.S had backed the semi-absolutist monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, even when the increasing popularity of Islamic fundamentalism, Iranian Nationalism, and opposition to western influence exploded, culminating in protests against the Shah in 1977. The Shah used increasingly brutal tactics to suppress rebellion; his actions only further inflamed the revolutionary fervor of the populace.

Organized armed resistance began in 1977. The Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979, leaving a provisional government in power. Meanwhile, the fundamentalist leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who had lead opposition movements before his exile, returned and resumed leadership over the revolution. Khomeini rallied his forces and disposed of both residual royalist troops and the provisional government that ruled in the Shah’s name, thus formally establishing himself as Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic. Rival factions were subverted, and Revolutionary Guards roamed the country to ensure the preservation of the new order.

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Sue McCourt Cobb: Ambassador and Summiteer of Mt. Everest

Climbing Mount Everest has long been the epitome of physical and mental endurance. Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit on May 29, 1953, only some 4000 have been able to duplicate the feat; another 200 have died in the attempt.

Ambassador Sue McCourt Cobb learned first-hand how dangerous and grueling a climb up Mount Everest can be when she set out in 1988 to become the first woman from the United States to reach its summit. She traveled through China and Tibet and approached the mountain from the little traveled north side. Her ascent was made without Sherpas and without the use of oxygen. (All photos from Sue Cobb) Read more