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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.

George H.W. Bush, American Diplomat

George H.W. Bush was a diplomat before he became the 41st president of the United States.  Bush served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73) and Ambassador to China (1974-75).  In a fascinating C-Span interview in 1999, Brian Lamb asked President Bush what he learned while serving as a diplomat.  Among the future president’s lessons: the value of personal diplomacy, the importance of China in a changing world, and what it was like to be one of the “ten most overrated New Yorkers.”  

We’ve done an informal transcript of portions of this interview.  You can access President Bush’s full C-Span interview HERE

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Conflict, Cooperation, and Corruption: USAID in Kenya in the 1990s

U.S. policy toward Kenya during the long presidency of Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002) fluctuated between a close Cold War embrace, to unusually harsh public criticism, to quiet pressure behind the scenes.  Moi’s tenure was marked by consolidation of power, outbreaks of political violence, and corrupt elections. In the end, however, Moi respected constitutional limits and stepped down, acquiescing in the victory of an opposition presidential candidate.  It was the first democratic and relatively peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in Kenya’s history.

Kiertisak Toh spent over eleven years in Kenya, at times in the middle of a political tug of war. In the early 1990s, USAID Washington asked Toh not to engage directly with the Kenyan government.  New USAID administrator Brian Atwood (1993-1999) was concerned about engaging too closely with the “corrupt Moi government.” This led some locally-employed USAID staff and others to question why Kenya was being singled out amongst equally corrupt neighbors with significant human rights problems.  Meanwhile, a new American Ambassador arrived with a mandate to patch up relations after her predecessor had levelled particularly harsh public criticism of Moi and his government.

On the ground, USAID officials like Kiertisak Toh had to reconcile these conflicting messages and execute long-term, sustainable development programs.  Looking back, Toh is proud that USAID took the long view, and takes satisfaction from the progress Kenya has made toward democracy.

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Thanksgiving: How U.S. Diplomats Celebrate an American Tradition Around the World
Gobble, gobble!  Thanksgiving is a unique American holiday —  one that U.S. embassies, foreign service families, and American expats of all kinds celebrate around the world.  We dipped into our oral history collection for some Thanksgiving memories. At its best, Thanksgiving is a celebration of food, family, friends, and cross-cultural exchange and understanding.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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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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