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Picturing the “War of Ideas”: Wartime Film-Making in Korea

Throughout the Cold War, democratic and communist nations waged a “war of ideas.” The United States, seeking to expose the disadvantages of communism and to encourage democracy, engaged in numerous media campaigns targeted at influencing peoples in zones of Cold War conflict. The U.S. State Department, along with branches of the American military and other government agencies, published leaflets, newsreels, films, articles, and cartoons in numerous languages around the world.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), this use of soft power was intended, in the words of Public Affairs Officer James L. Stewart, “to create democratic-minded people in Korea friendly to the United States.” For much of the war, the State Department’s domestic film-making campaign in Korea was headed by a single American, William G. Ridgeway, and staffed by dozens of South Koreans who had reinvented themselves as film industry workers.

Ridgeway played a key role in sharing American ideas and shifting South Korean sentiment against communists as the Motion Picture Officer in Korea from 1950-1958. It was far from an easy task; he contended with an evacuation from Seoul, a severe dearth of equipment, and local cultural norms. Read more

Mission Unspeakable: When North Koreans Tried to Kill the President of South Korea

On October 9, 1983, while South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan was on a visit to Rangoon, Burma to lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Mausoleum of Swedagon Pagoda, a bomb concealed in the roof exploded, killing 21 people including four senior South Korean officials. President Chun was spared because his car had been delayed in traffic and he was not at the site at the time of the detonation.

Chun had seized power in South Korea in December 1979. His tenure as president was characterized as poor on human rights and strong on economic growth and harshly enforced domestic stability. He was on a diplomatic tour in Rangoon when would-be assassins believed to have received explosives from a North Korean diplomatic facility targeted him. It was during Chun’s administration that South Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, in which North Korea refused to participate. As a result of the Rangoon bombing, Burma suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea and Chinese officials refused to meet or talk with North Korean officials for several months. Read more

Crisis Management: Occupation of USIS in South Korea, 1985

On May 25, 1985, seventy-three South Korean students barged into the United States Information Services (USIS) library in Seoul and began a three-day occupation. The students’ primary demand was an apology from the U.S. Ambassador, Richard L. “Dixie” Walker, as the representative of the American government, for the United States’ alleged role and complicity in the 1980 “Kwangju incident,” a massacre of hundreds of protesters in Kwangju, South Korea on the orders of President Chun Doo-Hwan.

Though the United States had no involvement in the Kwangju incident and was distancing itself from the repressive Chun regime, lingering resentment toward the U.S. and misunderstandings about Kwangju persisted through the end of the twentieth century. After three long, tense days, the students, having shared their concerns with the Americans and with the larger South Korean public, peacefully left the library. The resolution of the occupation of the U.S. Embassy’s library was seen as a case study in successful crisis management. Read more

Rooted in the Good Earth: White, Protestant “China Brats” in the Foreign Service

A confluence of two rising movements in the early 1800s, Western outreach to China and reinvigorated Christian evangelism, led to a surge in missionaries going to China from the U.S., the UK and Europe. The Protestant and Catholic missionaries were initially restricted to living in an area now known as Guangzhou and Macau. They were later allowed to settle in five coastal cities, and then permitted to work throughout the country. The number of missionaries in China grew from 50 in 1860 to 2,500 in 1900. Missionary activity reached its highest point in the 1920s; by 1953, the communist government of China expelled them.

Living and working in China was a challenge because of health problems, linguistic barriers, spartan living conditions, and a low success rate in converting Chinese citizens to Christianity. Among the most famous children of missionary families in China was Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, whose Southern Presbyterian missionary parents took her to China as a baby. She recalled in her memoir that she lived in “several worlds,” one a “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and the other the “big, loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world,” and there was no communication between them. Writing about the life of Chinese peasants in her Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” she also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Read more

Diplomacy in Cold Blood: Fatal Encounters Around the World

An American citizen abroad accused of murder: this is a particular nightmare for consular officers. These cases can become public scandals and political quandaries, and it is the job of American Citizen Services to ensure that Americans accused of major crimes beyond U.S. borders receive appropriate treatment in accordance with international law. If an arrested American citizen requests that authorities contact the U.S. Embassy or consulate, they must do so. The consular officer will visit the detained person in jail and contact family, friends or employers with the  prisoner’s consent. The consular officer will also try to make sure the citizen is getting appropriate medical care. What they can’t do is get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas, provide legal advice, serve as official interpreters or pay legal, medical, or other fees. Many Foreign Service personnel have had to deal with murder abroad – by fellow Americans, local despots and other killers – during the course of their careers.

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The Thai-tanic: Responding to the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997

Asian countries took a financial hit in 1997, resulting in a crisis that reverberated throughout the world. It began on July 2, when the central Bank of Thailand allowed the baht to float against the U.S. dollar for the first time in 14 years. The baht plunged between 15-20 percent in overseas currencies. The collapse of the baht resulted in a huge loss of foreign exchange reserves and plunged the country into financial panic. The “Thai-tanic” rippled throughout the rest of Asia, the Americas and Europe.

Although there had been signs of an impending slump, few policy makers expected the magnitude of the devastation that would follow. Crony banking, reliance on foreign savings, heavy borrowing and risky lending practices fueled the economic spike that preceded the fall of the baht. The devaluation presented political challenges for U.S. diplomats in Thailand, who had to respond to pleas for aid from an important long-time ally. Read more

Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship: The 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan

The San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed by 48 nations on September 8, 1951, officially ended Japan’s position as an imperial power, provided compensation to those who had suffered in Japan during the Second World War, and terminated the Allied post-war occupation of Japan. The treaty’s seven chapters and preamble marked the end of hostilities between the signatories and provided the foundation for the strong U.S.-Japan political alliance and important bilateral military relationship still in place today. The treaty required Japan to give up all special rights and privileges in China and accept the decisions of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE). Japan relinquished claim to Korea, Formosa and other territories and gave the U.S. control of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa).

The agreement also provided for the revival of commercial treaties, including granting the Allied powers most-favored-nation (MFN) status. Other chapters regulated property claims, reparations and compensation, referred unresolved disputes to the International Court of Justice and defined the ratification process. Seven months after the signing of the treaty, Japan formally regained its sovereignty. Read more

Get While the Getting’s Good: Departing Communist China

The decision to close an embassy and order departure of diplomatic personnel is a signal of last resort that bilateral relations are damaged and unlikely to improve soon. This occurred in China when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party fled the capital and retreated to Taiwan on December 8, 1949 in the wake of Mao Zedong’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The U.S. chose not to establish relations with the Communist PRC and the new government refused to acknowledge American diplomatic status, so the U.S. Embassy and consulates closed their doors and staffs departed. Some Foreign Service personnel had little trouble leaving their posts and were soon heading home, but others were delayed and subjected to what they termed “games,” to their amusement and dismay. Read more

The Charismatic Dalai Lama

Born into a humble farming family on July 6, 1935, Lhamo Dhondup (Tenzin Gyatso), had subtle beginnings before he became the leader of an entire people. After the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s passing, the high lamas searched for his next reincarnation among the Tibetan people. Tibetan Buddhists monks journeyed to a small village and found a boy about the age of two who, after passing numerous trials, was determined to be the next Dalai Lama. He commenced his training in the study of Tibetan culture and philosophy soon after his trials.

The Dalai Lamas are considered to be the protectors of Tibet and the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Living in a time of turmoil for the Tibetan people, Tenzin Gyatso assumed political power in 1950 as Chinese troops invaded Tibet and brought it under its control. In 1959, thousands of Tibetans revolted against Chinese rule, but were quickly suppressed. Some 15,000 were killed. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India with thousands of followers, creating a Tibetan diaspora near Dharamsala, where they have remained for the past half century. Read more

China’s Fight for Tiny Islands — The Taiwan Straits Crises, 1954-58

Recent disagreements over Beijing’s claim to the South China Seas (in which a tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a non-binding decision in July 2016 in favor of the Philippines) in many ways is reminiscent of the potentially far more serious clashes over the Taiwan Straits, the first of which occurred shortly after the Korean War broke out.

Following the Chinese Civil War, tensions remained high between the Republic of China (ROC) and the Chinese Communist Party. In 1950 with the Communists victorious, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was created and established in mainland China. The ROC was forced to relocate to Taiwan and the outlying islands of Penghu, Quemoy, and Matsu. However, no armistice or peace treaty has ever been signed, thus the civil war never formally ended. People have used this for justification of the PRC’s attack and capture of islands under the ROC’s jurisdiction.

In early 1950, President Harry Truman stated that the United States would remain neutral in matters regarding the Taiwan Strait. However, the outbreak of the Korea War in mid-1950 complicated matters. Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait became a high priority to the United States, as PRC occupation of Taiwan would pose a threat to the security of the region and U.S. forces fighting in Korea. Read more