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Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Kissinger and Zhou Enlai

Our web series of over 700 "Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History" captures key historical events -- and humorous aspects of diplomatic life, using our extensive collection of oral histories.

Note: These oral histories contain the personal recollections and opinions of the individual(s) interviewed. The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government nor the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Fundraising for Presidential Campaigns — and Serving as U.S. Ambassador to Spain

Approximately a third of U.S. ambassadors have been politically appointees over the last 50 years, including some of our very best.  Alan Solomont’s oral history provides a candid account of his work as a fundraiser for both successful and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates.  Solomont’s engagement at the highest levels of American politics led to his service as President Obama’s ambassador to Spain 2009-2013.

Solomont worked for candidate Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign as a fundraiser.  After that election, he ran the fundraising Business Leadership Forum for the Democratic National Committee. The Democrats suffered dramatic losses in the 1994 midterm elections, and President Clinton’s prospects for reelection were clearly in doubt:  Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, some of Clinton’s signature initiatives had sputtered, and growing personal controversies clouded the President’s image. Solomont helped raise $50 million to bolster the Democrats and counter the Republican “Contract With America”.  Clinton went on to reelection in 1996.

After 16 years of association with both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Solomont surprised many of his friends in 2007 when he joined the campaign of a young Illinois senator — Barack Obama. Solomont was ultimately responsible for fundraising in New England, where his committee raised more money per capita than any other region. Following the 2008 election, he went to Washington to help President-elect Obama’s transition team.  Solomont wasn’t expecting to be offered an ambassadorial appointment — but was delighted when he was asked to go to Madrid.

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Spy vs. Spy: The Yin-he Incident and U.S.-China Intelligence Rivalry

Was the intelligence correct? Was the U.S. being set up? These were questions facing John Tkacik when the United States picked up evidence in 1993 that a Chinese cargo ship, the Yin-he, was shipping chemical weapons precursor to Iran. Tkacik was a China specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and the supposedly “solid gold” intelligence went straight to the President.  A global saga diplomacy, spycraft and public diplomacy ensued — and ended with U.S., and Saudi Arabian officials assembled at the port of Dammam on the Persian Gulf for the dramatic opening of the suspect container. Its contents: “toys, ballpoint pens, and a lot of anodyne stuff.”

China enjoyed a propaganda coup.  But Tkacik points out that China’s record on proliferation issues in the early 1990s was still highly problematic.

John Tkacik got his bachelor’s  degree in International Relations from Georgetown University in 1971. He joined the foreign service that same year.  His first posting was as a consular officer in Reykjavik, Iceland. He had a great interest in China and went on to serve in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.  He also served as the lead China analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

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Rich in Oil and Rich in Corruption — Nigeria in the Early 1970s

Oil boomed. Revenue skyrocketed. So did political corruption, economic dependency, and environmental degradation. The dramatic spike in oil production in the Niger Delta in the early 1970s had social, political, economic and environmental consequences in Nigeria that few imagined at the time.  Many of these consequences were negative. The so-called “oil curse” had descended upon Nigeria.

The American ambassador at the time, John Reinhardt, saw the impact.  Oil production and revenue absorbed almost all the government’s attention.  Economic diversification was neglected, as was infrastructure, agriculture and multiple other key sectors.  This neglect, in turn, exacerbated Nigeria’s economic dependence on oil. While oil brought profits for the elite, little consideration was given to improving the standard of living or distributing wealth and benefits to the broader population. Mosts development partners cut off aid, and oil became a source of conflict among ethnic groups.  Most of all corruption mushroomed in Nigeria, on a scale rarely seen in Africa or the world.

John Reinhardt was the first African American ambassador to Nigeria.  Appointed in 1971, he served in Lagos until 1975. A World War II veteran, Reinhardt’s Foreign Service career began in the Philippines and later took him to Japan and Iran. President Jimmy Carter named Reinhardt director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1977. Reinhardt later taught at several universities.

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A Problem in Palau: Negotiating Free Association Status with the Micronesian Islands

In a Hawaiian hotel room sat a U.S. ambassador and officials from Palau, peering over details of a treaty to define the tiny Pacific nation’s relations with the United States. The clock was ticking—if the two delegations were unable to reach an agreement by the end of that year, 1980, the results of the American presidential election could put the entire deal in jeopardy. The treaty in question was the Compact of Free Association, and it would determine not just the future of Palau, but also that of its U.S.-administered neighbors: the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Prospects for a deal grew markedly worse when Palau adopted a constitution containing provisions on nuclear weapons, eminent domain and territorial waters to which the United States strongly objected.  The crisis in Palau threatened to derail a years-long process in which Palau and neighboring U.S.-administered territories sought “free association” with the United States — an international status close to independence, which would give the Micronesian micro-states far greater control over their own affairs. The ambassador representing the United States in these complex negotiations, Peter Rosenblatt, helped engineer a solution that permitted Palau to waive its constitutional provisions in order to achieve the desired compact with the United States.  That saved the deal, despite Jimmy Carter’s loss in the 1980 presidential election and growing political opposition in the United States.

Ambassador Peter R. Rosenblatt recounts in his oral history the steps taken to ensure a successful outcome, benefitting both the Micronesian islands and the United States. Before the Micronesia negotiations, Rosenblatt worked as a White House staff member in the Johnson administration, then served as consul general in Saigon (Vietnam) from 1969-1970.

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Building a Personal Relationship: The U.S. Ambassador and President of Senegal

It was nearing 11 o’clock at night when the phone rang. “How was the speech?” Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas was surprised to hear President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal on the other end, asking her opinion of a speech he had given the night before.  This would not be an isolated occurrence in an unusually close relationship between this American ambassador and an African head of state.

Well before serving as the ambassador to Senegal, Elam-Thomas recognized the importance of creating genuine connections and credible personal relationships–at all levels. As she explains in her oral history, “I make it a practice to give respect and honor to the secretaries of all principals with whom I meet at home and abroad.” As ambassador, Elam-Thomas recognized the importance of personal diplomacy and found ways to connect with her most important interlocutor–the sometimes-prickly President Abdoulaye Wade.  

A highly honored diplomat, Harriet L. Elam-Thomas’s first overseas tour as a foreign service officer was in the same place she finished her career – Senegal. First serving as Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer in the mid-70s, Elam-Thomas would eventually serve as the Counselor and Acting Deputy Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) before returning to Senegal as ambassador in 2000.

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Stirrings of Islamic Militancy in Nigeria: An Ambassador’s Recollections

When Thomas Pickering was Ambassador to Nigeria in 1980-83, he witnessed the stirrings of Islamic militancy and other transformations of the centuries-old practice of Islam in that country.  Fringe fractions were emerging in some regions. The “Maitatsine,” loyal to Mohammed Marwa, whose followers believed him to be prophet, brought major rioting to Kano. Marwa was killed. The Maitatsine and various syncretic groups had a strong hold on social and individual life in some parts of the countryside.  Where they held power, the Maitatsine and other groups strictly enforced their beliefs, taking militant action against those who disagreed.

Following the 1980 events in Kano, riots continued sporadically until 1985 at various locations in northern Nigeria, with the death toll reportedly exceeding 4,000.  Pickering speculates that these developments may have helped lay the groundwork for militant Muslim opposition to anti-polio campaigns and the emergence of the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Pickering also witnessed the early days of the movement in parts of northern Nigeria to adopt Sharia law.  By the end of the 1980s, some form of Sharia law had been adopted in a dozen Nigerian states. Many domestic and international groups objected to these developments, with particular tension arising over the potential application of Sharia law to non-Muslims.  

Thomas Pickering joined the State Department in 1959. Among the most accomplished diplomats of his generation, Pickering was U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, and Russia. While serving as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations The New York Times described him as “arguably the best-ever U.S. representative to that body.” He was Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and ended his federal government career as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (1997-2001). He retired from the Foreign Service in 2001, and has remained active in the international affairs community–including as a frequent commentator on various broadcast networks.

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Spies and Prostitutes: Memories of a Visa Officer in Post-WWII Greece

In post-World War II Greece, U.S. consular officers met all kinds of people—from suspected spies to prostitutes.  Don Gelber was on his first diplomatic assignment. When a wealthy young American married a young Greek woman and sought to bring her to the United States, Geber did a routine background check — only to learn that the woman had once claimed to have seduced a U.S. cryptographic clerk.  She then went on to seduce the U.S. psychiatrist brought in to evaluate her mental stability. In another case, the visa applicant claimed not to remember multiple arrests for solicitation, beginning on the day the British liberated Athens in 1944. Her U.S. husband, who was apparently once employed by the C.I.A., told the consular officer “I’m no spring chicken. How do you think we got together?”

Gelber went on to a long and fulfilling career in the foreign service. After his service as vice consul in Athens, political officer in Pakistan and Turkey, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Nigeria.  He ended his foreign service career as the U.S. ambassador to Mali in 1990-93. He also worked as a political advisor to NATO at the Supreme Headquarters in Belgium from 1986 to 1990, and at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City between 1993 and 1995.

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Freezing in the Dark: the First Years of the USAID Mission in Ukraine

Using candles for light, huddling into the warmest room, tapping into government telephone lines to make calls—these were the conditions USAID officers faced when trying to set up a regional mission in newly-independent Ukraine.  Food was scarce in the winter of 1994-95, and temperatures were among the lowest on record. Then politics in both Ukraine and the United States made the situation worse. The Minister of Industry cut off the electricity and telephone to USAID’s temporary office in 1995 following a murky dispute within Ukraine’s leadership.  And the U.S. government shut down over budget disputes that severely impacted USAID’s ability to carry out its development program.

USAID’s new mission in Kiev was one of many U.S. government efforts to engage with the newly-independent countries of Eastern Europe in the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse.  USAID Program Officer Anne Aarnes and her team worked against all these challenges, and persevered in their development work, not only in Ukraine, but in Moldova and Belarus as well.

Anne Aarnes holds a degree in Political Science from George Washington University and had extensive experience with USAID’s Asia Bureau. She would go on to become Deputy Mission Director for USAID in Bangladesh and Egypt, Mission Director in Jordan and Pakistan, and Central Asia Regional Mission Director in Kazakhstan.

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USAID and American “Whole-of-Government” Efforts in Afghanistan, 2004-2005

USAID had to cooperate closely with the U.S. military and others in a “whole-of-government” effort to stabilize and develop Afghanistan in 2004-05.  That meant managing a $1 billion budget, working 16 hours days, and asking majors and lieutenant colonels to help plan and execute civilian projects.  For USAID mission director Patrick Fine, that also meant outfitting an “Afghan room” within the mission, raffling sheep, and fasting during Ramadan.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 aimed to dismantle al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power, but it quickly expanded to include civilian and developmental components.  This effort focused on helping stabilize the country and establish the legitimacy of the Afghan government. When Patrick Fine arrived on the scene in 2004, he found that a majority of Afghans welcomed and supported the U.S. development role.  But he found big problems as well, including insurgencies launched by the Taliban and other groups, and destabilization inspired by Pakistan.

In organizing unprecedented interagency collaboration, Fine was able to bridge the gap between the military and civilian perspectives on these difficult challenges. He also affirmed his respect for the local culture by fostering positive relationships founded on mutual respect and understanding.

Patrick Fine was a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland after graduating from the University of Missouri, and before earning a master’s at the University of Massachusetts.  He joined USAID in 1988 and began by working on education in Swaziland, Uganda, and South Africa. Fine later was the deputy USAID mission director in Senegal before serving as mission director in Afghanistan.

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Development and Defoliation During the Vietnam War: A USAID Officer’s Tale

How do you reconcile the goals of the U.S. military, USAID development workers and State Department diplomats in the midst of an active conflict?  USAID Officer George Laudato faced that dilemma in a particularly challenging way when U.S. military officials shared plans to defoliate a village in Vietnam where USAID had been working for over a year to achieve long-term, sustainable development goals.  

Laudato worked with USAID’s Civilian Office for Rural Development Support (CORDS) in Vietnam from 1967-70.  In his oral history, Laudato reflects on the difficulty of achieving coherent U.S. foreign policy on the ground in the midst of war.

George Laudato was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama before joining USAID.  His first USAID assignment was in Vietnam in the midst of the war. Later in his career, Laudato served in Washington, the Philippines and Egypt (twice). He retired from USAID after 33 years of service, but was brought back to serve as USAID’s director for the Middle East. He retired from the agency for the final time in 2011.  Laudato has since served as chair of the Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations, and as an advisor to Arizona State University..

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