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Tracking China’s Political Change through Dazibao Posters

Chinese “big-character posters,” or dazibao, are handwritten posters mounted on walls and published in papers or pamphlets to communicate protest or launch ideas into public discourse. During the era of Mao Zedong, throughout the Great Leap Forward and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, dazibao were part of mass campaigns directed by the Communist Party. As the Cultural Revolution wore on, the posters began to appear widely, conveying everything from satire to denunciation, sometimes used as weapons of aggressive personal attacks which cost the targets their jobs.

Recognized as an important propaganda tool, these posters attracted the attention of U.S. diplomats, and of journalists who published photos of them as the U.S. and China were normalizing the bilateral relationship. The posters reflected political development in mainland China, including a movement towards democratization. Read more

Escape from Japanese Internment in China

In June of 1937, Beijing became one of the first cities to fall as Japanese forces began their conquest of China. In contrast to the atrocities committed by Imperial forces during their capture of Nanjing in December of that year, residents of Beijing lived relatively peaceful lives after occupation. This included the city’s population of Westerners, who could move freely throughout the city even under Japanese rule.

This all changed after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 (December 8 in China) 1941. With Japan’s entrance into World War II, Westerners from Allied countries living in Beijing were placed in a walled off portion of the city and put under heavy surveillance. On March 25, 1943, these expatriates would be forced into the Weixian internment camp in Shandong Province where they would spend the remainder of the war. (Picture at right by William A. Smith)

Arthur Hummel Jr., at the time a twenty-year-old English teacher, was one of the American civilians imprisoned by Japanese forces in Beijing. After being interned for three years, Hummel was finally able to escape in May of 1944 and would spend the rest of the war aiding a Nationalist guerilla group as it fought both Japanese and Communist armies. Read more

Officially Unofficial – The Opening of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)

On the first day of January 1979, the United States de-

recognized the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan or the ROC) as the official government of China, recognizing the People’s Republic of China (the PRC) instead. While this declaration helped to strengthen the U.S. relationship with the PRC against the Soviet Union, it created chaos in Taiwan. With the closure of the U.S. embassy in Taipei came a widespread financial crisis, the result of a mass exodus of investors from the country.

What may not have been clear was that the U.S. government, under the Carter administration, was not seeking to sever ties with the island. Although the U.S. had officially revoked its recognition of Taiwan as a legitimate political entity, significant U.S. financial and military interests remained on the island. The closing of the U.S. embassy in Taipei presented an obstacle to protecting those interests.  Thus began the search for a solution that would allow the U.S. to conduct diplomatic relations with Taiwan in an unofficial capacity.

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1989 — A Swift Look at an Incredible Year

1989 — A year filled with magic, madness, heaven and sin. Among the defining years of the 20th century, 1989 had a lasting impact on the social, political and economic structures of modern diplomacy. Ruthless dictatorships, which seemed impervious to change, suddenly began falling one after another, so much so that 1989 is commonly referred to as anno mirabilis, the year of wonders.

So grab your passport and a pen, because here are 1989’s greatest hits. And kudos to Fall 2015 intern Sara, who wrote this.


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November 9, 1989:  The Berlin Wall came down, after dividing the city for nearly 30 years. The Wall had acted as a physical barrier between the East and West throughout the Cold War. When German Democratic Republic (GDR) officials announced that free travel to and from the West was permitted, crowds of East Berliners took to the streets and suddenly, there was a blank space where the Wall used to be. The Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the GDR from 1989-1990 J.D. Bindenagel recounts this monumental event.. Even he’ll tell you, it was insane.



The Fall of the Wall and a softer hand from Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow encouraged others in the  Eastern Bloc to fulfill their wildest dreams. Less than two weeks after the fall of Soviet power in the GDR, demonstrations began in the city of Prague, drawing crowds of over 500,000 to protest the Communist government in what was later called “the Velvet Revolution” for its peaceful nature. The government resigned shortly thereafter, paving the way for famous Czech playwright and human rights activist Vaclav Havel to become country’s first democratically elected President.



But unfortunately, not all breakups are as gentle as the Czechoslovaks’ — General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife can attest to that. No, they didn’t split, but the Romanian public (and just about anyone else with a conscience) sure had some bad blood from Ceaușescu’s oppressive and brutal  regime. After ordering his security forces to open fire on a group of demonstrators, demonstrations spread throughout the country, starting the Romanian Revolution. Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were captured by armed forces and underwent a swift trial by military tribunal, and were sentenced to public execution. As any witness will tell you, band-aids really don’t fix bullet holes. (Photo: Corbis)


The new era of openness and restructuring — glasnost and perestroika — advocated by Gorbachev were not only felt by the Eastern Bloc. Afghanistan, which the USSR had invaded in 1979, witnessed the withdrawal of Soviet troops in February. The U.S. embassy was also closed, due to a lack of security for diplomats. Some argued, however, all they had to do was stay, as the power vacuum led to the rise of the Taliban. The U.S. eventually reopened its embassy in 2001 after the U.S. invasion.



New York:  Concrete jungle where dreams are made…. Oh wait — we mean, it’s been waiting for you! Anyway, in the heart of downtown Manhattan, the United Nations Headquarters is host to hundreds of diplomatic visitors every day. Much of the UN’s work comes as a result of wanting, or needing something more. In 1989, the UN heard those cries for more, and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This important document establishes the civil, political, economic and social rights of all children around the world and has been signed or ratified by every country in the world — except the United States.



LGBT rights also took a large leap in 1989, when Denmark became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex civil unions. The regulation, which excluded the actual marriage of same-sex couples, was a step towards marriage equality, which became legalized formally in 2012. We guess, for some, that’s how you get the girl.



Good manners never go out of style but sadly matters of protocol between countries can often be a rough and tumble business. Like inviting someone and later purposefully dis-inviting them. That was the case for Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist and dissident known for his involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests. Lizhi’s name on the proposed guest list was undetected at first glance by Chinese officials, who had approved the list for an upcoming Presidential Banquet with President George H.W. Bush. When the Chinese discovered their mistake, they threatened to boycott their own banquet unless Lizhi did not come. The U.S. eventually capitulated, but later accepted him as an asylum seeker in the U.S. embassy, where Lizhi spent the next year. 


While dictatorships were tumbling like dominoes in Eastern Europe, thousands of Chinese, long tired of their repressive government, tried to shake it off during the dramatic protests of Tiananmen Square in June 1989 Hundreds of peaceful civilian protesters were killed, as Chinese tanks were sent in to disseminate the ongoing demonstrations against government corruption. Unfortunately, there has been few improvements on the human rights front from the government, which keeps getting down with the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world.



We all know places where they take their shots, we’re bulletproof — and at year’s end, that place was Panama. Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama under President George H.W. Bush, occurred in December 1989 after  several U.S. military personnel were stopped by the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) and taken into custody. The justification for the invasion was to combat drug trafficking and arrest the notorious dictator Manuel Noriega, who ended up seeking asylum in the Vatican’s Nunciature (embassy) for several days until he was forced out by the military playing loud music, making it a real Hard Rock Hotel Panama.


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

Eyes of the Dragon — Under Surveillance in China

The extent of the surveillance operations of the Soviet KGB is legendary, but the Soviet Union was not the only country to maintain an intelligence service. China established its own version, known as the Ministry of State Security (MSS), to provide for national security, gather foreign intelligence, and coordinate surveillance activities to identify subversive activities against the government. Although the MSS generally keeps a low profile, U.S. diplomats have inevitably come into contact with Chinese security over the years, creating memorable stories along the way. Read more

“Drain Your Glass” — Alcoholism in the Foreign Service

Each and every job has a certain set of requirements and restrictions. Alcohol has played a large role in diplomacy, helping to lubricate relations at state receptions, meetings with heads of state, or just with other diplomats at the end of the day. Unfortunately, for some people, the constant exposure to alcohol and expectation to imbibe may lead to a drinking problem.

These excerpts deal with the issue of alcoholism in the workplace and how the Foreign Service dealt with it, beginning in the 1960s, when people did not know quite what to do, to later years when more and more people began to view alcoholism as a disease.    Read more

A Dissident for Dinner — George H.W. Bush’s Ill-Fated Banquet in China

An essential part of being an ambassador is knowing how to push the envelope when it comes to dealing with repressive regimes and opening up to human rights, while also ensuring that these efforts do not cross the line and detrimentally impact the relations between the two countries. Succeeding in such policies requires a delicate touch, especially so when it comes to a nation as tough on dissent and free speech as China.

Winston Lord had to walk this tightrope as Ambassador to China, when Embassy Beijing was preparing for President George H.W. Bush’s state visit. The Embassy had proposed inviting several people to the February 26, 1989 state dinner, including renowned scientist and dissident Fang Lizhi. Although the Chinese had given their approval for the guest list, they reneged just a few days before the start of the visit. Read more

A Giant of the Kennedy Era: John Kenneth Galbraith

With his impressive intellect, polarizing personality, close ties to the Kennedy White House and imposing stature, Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith was a larger-than-life figure in American diplomacy.  Born in the Canadian town of Iona Station, Ontario in 1908, Ambassador Galbraith began his education at the Ontario Agricultural College, graduating with a degree in Agricultural Economics.

He later made his way to the United States, where he continued his studies in Agricultural Economics, eventually obtaining a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1934. He became a professor at Harvard University after graduating.

Ambassador Galbraith was known to be a close friend of President John F. Kennedy, who valued his intellect as well as his clarity of communication. In 1961 Kennedy appointed him ambassador to India and he remained there until 1963.

During his time in India, he formed a close relationship with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and remained a staunch supporter of the country after leaving his post in 1963. Ambassador Galbraith’s connection with the Kennedy family also meant that he had a direct line to the White House, often bypassing the State Department at the President’s request. At his suggestion, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy visited India in 1962.

Ambassador Galbraith was a prolific writer and became known as an influential economist and intellectual, but he was also known for his outsize ego and intolerance for those he did not get along with. These accounts, taken from six ADST interviews, are evidence of the lasting impressions—positive and negative—that he left on those who interacted with him.

Eugene Rosenfeld, reporter for International Press Service, discussed his experiences with Galbraith with Jack O’Brien in November 1989.  Lindsey Grant, Economic Officer in New Delhi was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in January 1990, and Kennedy also interviewed Kathryn Clark-Bourne, Political Officer in Bombay in August 1995.  Ray Ewing interviewed Jonathan Rickert, Consular Officer in London in December 2002.  Carleton S. Coon, Jr. was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1989.  Howard B. Schaffer was interviewed by Thomas Stern in March 1997.

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“He was fun to work with, stimulating, but he had absolutely no tolerance for people that he decided he didn’t like…”

Eugene Rosenfeld, reporter, International Press Service  

ROSENFELD: I think [the situation in India] deserves a little bit of attention in that it refers to an ambassador who was not particularly helpful in dealing with his staff. This was John Kenneth Galbraith, a highly intellectual man, a great economist, although economists say he is a great journalist and journalists say he is a great economist. I think he is both. I think he writes extremely well and I think he has a very good mind.

He was fun to work with, stimulating, but he had absolutely no tolerance for people that he decided he didn’t like or were not doing what he wanted them to do, by his lights. I think that in his first year there [the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi] he fired six counselors, embassy, just got rid of them, and he also got rid of a couple of USIA [United States Information Agency] guys who were good officers; he just did not want to have anything more to do with them.

I think this simply reflected the Kennedy attitude, the Kennedy style, which was basically that the bureaucracy — the State Department particularly they labeled a fudge factory — that they really did not understand it. They considered FSOs and bureaucrats as mealy-mouthed who always knuckled under, did not have any ideas of their own, just faceless types following a line that was set up for them and who did not have any original thoughts. Such was the Kennedy approach — in my view.

I realized that Galbraith was not easy to work for, so the first thing I tried to do was to straighten him out from my point of view, which was, you know, disagree with him at the first opportunity.

One thing that happened — this, again, is something that might be useful all around — at the time of this Chinese thing [Sino-India War of 1962] he would have a press briefing primarily with the American press to try to explain what was going on.

At this point a very top-level USG group had come in to “assess” the India-China situation — General Paul Adam, head of Strike Command, Paul Nitze, Averell Harriman (who headed the mission). It was top government action. It was the elite and they were in there talking about how they could provide support, with the British, to stop the Chinese from coming in any further [into territory disputed with India.]

So at one press backgrounder, which Galbraith gave almost every day, somebody said, “We hear that the Chinese are prepared to accept a cease-fire. What are you going to recommend to the Indians, that they accept it or they not accept it?”Galbraith said, “The Indians are big boys. They can make up their own minds about this.” They said, “Come on, you know this story. What is American policy? Do we want to have a cease-fire or do we want to keep just plugging in there? What is the story?”

Galbraith put on a bit of a show and he started yelling at whomever it was; I think it was Phil Potter of the Baltimore Sun. He said, “Don’t you cross examine me.”

Then he answered some more questions and finally wound up. He and Lane Timmons, the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], and I got together and so he said to me, “What did you think? How did it go?”

I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t like it.”

Timmons said, “What do you mean? He was absolutely right to tell these guys where to get off.”

I said, “No, you don’t tell these guys where to get off in front of their peers. If you want to take them aside and let them have it, okay, but don’t do it in front of everybody else. Don’t try to put on a show. It is just not good for you. All it does is create more anguish.”

So the next day, at the group’s airport departure, I see him talking to Potter and he is sort of apologizing to Potter, but I couldn’t go up to him and say, “Look, the American ambassador doesn’t apologize. You did what you did. You stick with it.”

Anyway, this is something — how you deal with an ambassador who thinks he is the smartest guy in the world is a problem every PAO [Public Affairs Officer] is going to have. I can’t give them any great advice except to be straightforward and don’t knuckle under.

“He was just dying to come down on the Indian side of this whole argument”

Lindsey Grant, Economic Officer in New Delhi, 1965-1968

Q: T

he Chinese were giving the Indians a bloody nose. Were you having problems selling the idea of a limited punitive engagement in India to others within the State Department or the Government?

GRANT: …What we had there was rather interesting. Galbraith, who was ambassador in India at the time, this is about the only time I’m aware of that he actually used his old White House connection effectively at all, but he was just dying to come down on the Indian side of this whole argument. He managed to force through a US Government position endorsing the Indian view of the border, whereas our view–and I think the India desk rather shared it–was that this was none of our business, that we should have left that whole question of borders for much longer resolution between them. So in that sense, even though Galbraith was associated with Kennedy and with this whole new school, his instinctive view–I guess it was probably “localitis”–he simply wanted to take the Indians’ position. He wasn’t about ready to give a nickel to the Chinese.

“My problem was that Galbraith was almost seven feet tall and the bunks on ships were short”

Kathryn Clark-Bourne, Political Officer in Bombay, 1962-1967

CLARK-BOURNE: [Previous U.S. ambassador to India] Chester Bowles was really liked by the Indians. He had two different tours there. Galbraith was something else. I remember, as consular officer, I was always the control officer for ship visits.

And COMIDEASTFOR, Commander of the Middle East Forces, [who was stationed in Bahrain], would drop by quite often. I remember Galbraith coming down once by train. I think he took over seven cars on the train for all of his friends and relatives. He arrived in Bombay and the COMIDEASTFOR had come down on his flagship. Then there was a destroyer…

Galbraith announced that he and his wife were going to stay on the captain’s ship during the visit. In that day, a woman staying overnight on a ship was practically unknown. The captain wasn’t very happy, but felt that he had to acquiesce to the Ambassador.

My problem was that Galbraith was almost seven feet tall and the bunks on ships were short. I remember sending a junior officer down to the bazaar to find big cushions to pile up at the end of a bunk so that he could sleep on it.

But he absolutely insisted. That’s the kind of person he was. And yet, he wrote magnificently. We loved to read his cables and his telegrams. We’d look forward to them. He really was very talented. But there were two sides to the character.

Jonathan Rickert, Consular Officer in London, 1965-1966

RICKERT: … I was sent out to the airport to meet John Kenneth Galbraith, who was passing through [London] on his way back to Boston. He was no longer Ambassador to India by that time but he had been sent when Prime Minister Shastri died unexpectedly. Galbraith headed the American delegation. He had a stack of exams with him that he had been grading and he left them with me to pouch back because – I don’t remember why – but he couldn’t take them with him. That was the easiest meet-and-greet I’ve ever done because he’s about 6’10…

“As an individual I find him enchanting. But this was a colossal error on his part.”

Carleton S. Coon, Jr., assigned to the India, Nepal, Ceylon Desk, 1965-1968

Q: Communist China had attacked India up in the Himalayas, and had defeated them rather soundly and we [the U.S. Government] were organized in an emergency arms aid program to them. Had this helped things with us with the Indians?

COON: It helped enormously for a little while. But John Kenneth Galbraith made one of the great classical misperceptions of South Asia. I don’t suppose you’ll get this coming out of him, but certainly it was my perception, from where I sat, and I think a detailed study of his policy messages to Washington would bear out that his basic approach was that, “We have built up capital with the Indians by arming them against China. We have built up capital previously with the Pakistanis by arming them against Russia. Now is the time for us to cash in our chips, and get a Kashmir settlement that once and for all will get rid of this animus between India and Pakistan.”

Well, you can see the magnitude of the misconception. The animus not being based solely on Kashmir — Kashmir being as much a symptom as a cause — and the sheer arrogance to think that we had enough chips to effect something this basic. But Kenji [refers to Galbraith – “Ken” plus the Indian affectionate honorific “ji”] for all his brilliance, and he is a brilliant man, and he’s a very likeable man, is a very articulate, and humorous guy. As an individual I find him enchanting.

But this was a colossal error on his part. And he has enough of an ego so he would not suffer being told that it was a colossal error. He somehow saw the Kashmir problem as a kind of fiendishly complicated jigsaw puzzle, which only he had the intelligence to solve.

So he sat there with maps, and charts, and generals, and statesmen, and so forth, and he snookered the British High Commissioner into joining his camp. And he cozied the Indians and the Pak[istani]s up to a certain point …

Nehru went along with this for quite a while just to keep Kenji happy and to keep the arms coming from America because he needed them badly at that point. But as soon as Nehru saw that Kenji was getting into a position where he could do something affecting Indian interests, basic interests, as India perceived them, Nehru wasn’t there anymore.

He pulled the rug out from under leaving Kenji spinning. And the dispute simmers on. The goodwill that we gained from arming India was very rapidly dissipated.

The other thing Kenji did, he did manage to ram this through to a successful conclusion, an air defense agreement between India and the United States where we could come to India’s defense. It was almost but not quite a treaty alliance, or a security treaty alliance relationship.

It wasn’t quite that because the Indians, even in their moment of maximum desperation, were not about to sign up as military allies of the United States. But it was a lot closer than they were comfortable with but Ken managed to get them to sign that…

…They had a top Indian general who was there talking to the National War College and the students gave all the pre-programmed questions. Then I asked him about the air defense agreement. He was totally startled, totally lost his composure, and he pretended he couldn’t remember it.

It became a dead letter, in other words, almost while the ink was still wet. So those were Kenji’s two achievements, and the way he blew the credit we got. It was by an unsuccessful attempt to ram a Kashmir solution down the throats of the unwilling Indians and Pakistanis, and through the conclusion of an air defense agreement that was dead the moment it was signed.

“He must have seemed to the Indians to be very close to Mrs. Kennedy and, hence, to the President”

Howard B. Schaffer, Economic Officer in New Delhi, 1961-1967

SCHAFFER: …I might at this point just interject a comment about Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit, which took place while Galbraith was still ambassador. It was a very interesting operation. According to reports that I believe are correct, Ambassador Galbraith had been one of the principal promoters of the visit, which (inevitably in those days) included Pakistan as well.

I believe he did this not only because he enjoyed these occasions – he loved being in the company of great people or their spouses — but I’m convinced that he also saw the visit, and his role in masterminding it, as evidence of his close ties to the Kennedy White House that would impress the Indians.

Since he was seen to be choreographing the visit of the First Lady, he must have seemed to the Indians to be very close to Mrs. Kennedy and hence to the president. Much of this staging was designed to show the Indians that he was a person to be reckoned with because he had full and meaningful access to the Oval Office.

The visit went off very well. The important aspect, from our point of view, was that the preparation for the visit became first priority for all embassy staff. Other work just had to take second place for months.

Officers were sent to various parts of the country. Some very remote indeed — to check out accommodations, scout sites that the First Lady might wish to see, and look for places appropriate for public relations purposes…

When Mrs. Kennedy came, I was still pretty much of a fledgling. But like everyone else in the embassy, I was drawn into the preparations. I was much impressed by the attention that was devoted to every detail by Galbraith. He even ran a rehearsal dinner designed to ensure that all would go smoothly at the official dinner, which was loaded with VIPs from Prime Minister Nehru on down. This visit was taken as seriously as a presidential visit. It was a very glamorous occasion…

It is important to note that during the Kennedy presidency, many Indians viewed the White House with great admiration. The Indians have a love of pomp and circumstance, for royalty. I think they saw in the Kennedys their image of a young, vigorous royal couple.

I use the words “young and vigorous’ quite advisedly because I do feel that part of the attraction the Kennedys had for Indians was their youthful beauty and exuberance. Indians compared this with the tired and aging leadership of Nehru and the other chieftains of the Congress Party.

The visit was obviously a public relations success. Mrs. Kennedy was photographed everywhere. But it was all fluff; there were no serious discussions. She sat with Nehru on the embassy stairs after dinner, but the visit had no lasting impact.

It did show the U.S. in a very favorable light and I think one can say that Indian public opinion moved in our favor–and it was wonderfully good for Galbraith in terms of his standing both with the White House and the Indian leadership.

Yet soon after Mrs. Kennedy’s departure, Indian-U.S. relations sagged once again.


Trouble in the Mountains: The Sino-Indian War, 1962

When two powerful countries cannot agree on the location of their shared borders, there is trouble. Such was the case with China and India in October 1962. China and India had long disputed ownership of the Aksai Chin, a mountain pass that connects Tibet to China’s Xinjiang province on the western side.  On the eastern border, China and India battled over the territory of the North East Frontier Area (NEFA).

China’s incursions into these disputed areas, including the construction of a highway in Aksai Chin, led Indian President Jawaharlal Nehru to increase the number of troops patrolling the region. Indian troops soon advanced beyond the disputed borders, creating outposts in Chinese territory.

Chinese response was swift. On October 20, 1962, Chinese forces invaded Aksai Chin, a part of Kashmir, and the NEFA simultaneously, capturing both regions and driving back Indian ground forces. This action marked the beginning of the Sino-Indian War, fought at an altitude of 14,000 feet.

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