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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.

The Felix Bloch Affair: An Unsolved Case of Cold War Espionage


Stamp Collection | Pixabay

Stamp Collection | Pixabay

In 1989, French counterintelligence agents watched Felix Bloch as he dined in Paris with known Soviet spy “Pierre Bart.” Bloch placed a black bag under the table, which he left behind as he exited the restaurant. Felix Bloch, former Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, was one of the highest ranking Foreign Service Officers ever to be suspected of espionage. He later claimed that the encounter was an innocent exchange of postage stamps between two fellow collectors. The contents of the black bag from the incident were never recovered, and it was therefore impossible to say whether any classified material had changed hands.

The FBI continued surveillance of Bloch while he worked in Berlin until a cryptically worded call from “Bart,” whose real name was Reino Gikman, indicated that the investigation had been blown. It was later revealed that Robert Hanssen, famously convicted spy within the FBI, had alerted the KGB to the investigation. U.S. officials confronted Bloch, but he vehemently denied he had engaged in espionage with a KGB agent and refused to cooperate further. Suddenly, the initially promising case against Bloch faltered without enough conclusive evidence to prove the allegations in court.

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Kwame Nkrumah and the United States — A Tumultuous Relationship


(2014) | Wikimedia Commons

(2014) | Wikimedia Commons

Ghana and the United States have historically boasted a close friendship, partnering together in exchange programs, trade, and development initiatives. However, interactions between U.S. officials and Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, were not always so smooth. Nkrumah, who studied in the United States, was known to be anti-American, and even went so far as to publish his views in a book on neo-colonialism, in which he blamed the United States for many of Africa’s difficulties. This rocky relationship continued until February 1966, when Nkrumah was ousted in a coup while on a trip to China.

In 1949, Kwame Nkrumah formed the Convention People’s Party (CPP) with a vision to secure the independence of the Gold Coast from Britain. The CPP quickly gained legislative representation, and in 1956, passed an independence motion which was subsequently approved by the British Parliament. On March 6th, 1957, Kwame Nkrumah declared the Gold Coast independent from Britain and renamed the country as Ghana. The U.S. has history with Ghana that extends back to before its independence. Yet, it was not until 1957 that the U.S. established official diplomatic relations with the country, elevating the Consulate General at Accra to Embassy status. Unfortunately, Nkrumah’s nationalist and socialist administration had a short honeymoon and a strained relationship with the United States.

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Rough Landing: Controlled Aircraft Crash in Honduras


U.S. Army C-12 Huron (2008) Cory Watts | Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Army C-12 Huron (2008) Cory Watts | Wikimedia Commons

Towards the end of his posting in Honduras, Ambassador Frank Almaguer received multiple requests from other countries’ ambassadors for transportation to an event in what they deemed the “safer” method of flight—a U.S. military C-12 aircraft. Due to a lack of room, Ambassador Almaguer turned down the requests. Little did he know his plane would have to perform an emergency “controlled crash” landing.

As Ambassador Almaguer and the seven other Americans on the plane made their descent, groups of people on the tarmac began to wave at them frantically, warning them not to land. What would they do? Would everything turn out okay? In his oral history, Almaguer recounts those tense moments in the air. Read his recollection from the ground in the excerpts below.

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The Last American Diplomat in Medellín—Countering Anti-Americanism in Cartel-Era Colombia


FARC guerrillas marching in formation during the Caguan peace talks (1998) DEA Public Affairs | Wikipedia

FARC guerrillas marching in formation during the Caguan peace talks (1998) DEA Public Affairs | Wikipedia

Guns, cocaine, and kidnappings—this was the state of much of Colombia in the early 1980s. Medellín in particular, home to the rising Cartel de Medellín and leftist guerrilla insurgents, was the bedrock of anti-Americanism in the country during these years. Strikingly, Medellín was also home to a U.S. consulate at the time, hosting a total of four Foreign Service officers. Among them was Peter DeShazo, a public affairs officer and consul dedicated to improving the local perception of the United States and of Americans.

Amid the growing insecurity and tense environment, DeShazo’s goal was to retain a high profile as director of the U.S.-Colombian Bi-national Center (BNC). Kidnappings, murders, and violence were the norm in the epicenter of Colombia’s illegal narcotics trade. Yet surprisingly, the left-wing guerrillas were the main concern for Americans in Colombia; organizations such as the FARC and most notably M-19 posed the greatest security threat for DeShazo and his colleagues. Nonetheless, DeShazo confronted the rampant anti-American sentiment as the BNC gradually became a vital cultural institution in Medellín under his directorship. The center effectively disseminated U.S. culture through literature, film, and language programs as well as through visiting cultural attractions. After DeShazo left Colombia, the BNC continued to grow and ultimately became one of Latin America’s most successful centers, despite several attacks conducted by M-19 shortly after DeShazo’s departure. Once DeShazo’s tour in Medellín concluded, the Department of State decided that he would not be replaced as a result of the deteriorating security situation, essentially making Peter DeShazo the last U.S. diplomat in Medellín.

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“Am I Going to Watch a U.S. Senator Get Shot?”—Observing the Fall of the Marcos Regime in the Philippines


Wikipedia commons

Wikipedia commons

Senator John Kerry bravely pushed aside armed hostile Philippine military personnel and policemen, rushing into the barricaded church in front of him. Inside, a group of Filipino election officials were huddled in fear. Ignoring the chaos outside, Senator Kerry questioned the officials about the Philippine presidential elections that had taken place two days before. Over the course of the interview, it became clear that the corrupt president, Ferdinand Marcos, rigged the elections so he would remain in power. Armed with this information, Senator Kerry (and others) flew back to Washington to convince President Reagan to support Marcos’ opposition.

President Marcos ruled over the Philippines with an iron fist for two decades. Despite his human rights abuses, corruption, and media silencing, Marcos’s regime was buffeted by a military partnership with the United States. This relationship fell apart in 1983, when Marcos was accused of assassinating opposition politician Senator Benigno Aquino. The senator’s death spurred a national opposition movement led by Aquino’s widow, Cory Aquino. The Reagan administration pushed Marcos to hold elections, to which Marcos agreed.

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On Loan to the U.S. Senate—A Change in Perspective


Senator Jacob Javits Wikimedia Commons

Senator Jacob Javits Wikimedia Commons

Among the American general public, the United States Congress is commonly found to have a poor reputation, stereotyped as inefficient and known for perpetual gridlock and dysfunctional legislation. Most of these perceptions are propagated by interest groups and the media, passed along to citizens with little or no first hand experience with daily life on the Hill. Yet, the very structure of the U.S. government—separation into three distinct branches with a system of checks and balances—naturally fuels occasional internal friction. When it comes to foreign policy, this plays out most notably between Congress and agencies in the Executive Branch, such as the State Department.

Even within the federal government, those working outside of Congress may come to see it as “the enemy”—a group of demanding individuals posing frequent obstacles to agency goals. James Fox of USAID spent one year working for Senator Jacob Javits, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His experiences changed his perception of Congress, serving as a great learning experience for his future postings and interactions with the Legislative Branch. During his career, Fox also worked in Costa Rica, Uruguay, Colombia, and other places in Washington D.C.

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“Jesus, now I can really do some business”—Jump starting the Economy of War-Torn Bosnia


Wikipedia commons/Mikhail Evstafiev

Wikipedia commons/Mikhail Evstafiev

Bosnia, 1995: utterly decimated infrastructure, near-universal unemployment, and a state bank straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Such were the conditions when USAID officer Craig Buck arrived in country to put together a reconstruction program in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. Recognizing the severity of the situation, Buck worked at lightning speed to get a sweeping U.S. aid program up and running long before the UN response was even underway. With the resolute backing of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords, Buck leveraged aid to successfully marginalize hardliners within the Republika Srprska and bring about their compliance with the agreement. Meanwhile, Buck’s pursuit of a massive reconstruction program coupled with major reforms enabled the Bosnian economy to recover rapidly.

Craig Buck was born in Jackson, Mississippi and grew up in Carthage, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University from 1962-1966, where he majored in Government. He then took a year-long research scholarship in Bolivia, followed by another year attending graduate school at Stanford, before joining USAID in 1969.

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A Georgian Spring Amidst Autumn: The Rose Revolution from a U.S. Perspective


Eric Draper (2005) | Wikimedia Commons

Eric Draper (2005) | Wikimedia Commons

Revolutions are always exciting times for U.S. Foreign Service personnel, and the November 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia was no different. Denny Robertson served as a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) election observer. When President Shevardnadze’s government allegedly rigged a parliamentary election, Robertson saw first-hand how Georgians took to the streets and protested in mass. Active resistance from two of Georgia’s political parties even prevented Shevardnadze from opening the Georgian Parliament. Stymied by the opposition and loss of political support, Shevardnadze resigned. Georgia immediately held a presidential election, and Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of one of the major opposition parties, emerged victorious.

USAID personnel such as Denny Robertson played an important role in Georgia. As election monitors, they witnessed the blatant fraud that Shevardnadze’s government perpetrated. Later, they also advised the newly elected government under Saakashvili and provided aid to the Georgian people.

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The Aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in Indonesia


Jakarta Riot (1998) | Office of the Vice President of The Republic of Indonesia | Wikipedia

Jakarta Riot (1998) | Office of the Vice President of The Republic of Indonesia | Wikipedia

During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, confidence in the Indonesian government plummeted. Foreign investment fled the country as the value of the rupiah fell to historic lows. Confronted with the loss of their bright futures, thousands of students poured out of the classroom to protest President Suharto’s crony capitalism. In the streets, rival factions of the army grappled for power. When military instigators screamed ethnic slurs into the crowd, tensions boiled over into a full blown riot against the “wealthy minority” population of Chinese-Indonesians.

Amid student protests and the destruction of Chinese-Indonesian communities, Suharto projected a façade of normalcy to the international community. After leaving the country for a non-essential meeting of the G-15, he returned only when armed forces shot and killed four protesting students at Trisakti University. Hundreds of Americans left Indonesia to escape the violence. Three days after Ambassador Roy ordered the evacuation of all non-essential personnel from the Jakarta embassy, the president’s cabinet refused to serve any longer, and Suharto stepped down. After being ousted, he enjoyed a comfortable retirement at home as his vice president B. J. Habibie acceded to the presidency.

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Stephen Thuransky’s 1947 Escape from Hungarian Political Police


Soviet Army in Hungary (1947) | Bauer Sándor | Wikimedia Commons

Soviet Army in Hungary (1947) | Bauer Sándor | Wikimedia Commons

Stephen T. Thuransky was arrested for calling the president of Hungary an obscene name. Communist Hungary in 1947 was a dangerous place to talk candidly, especially about politics. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, Thuransky and his family sought help from Harrison Lewis, the temporary head of the American Legation. Lewis confronted the Communist authorities and demanded Thuransky’s swift release. Injured and still handcuffed, Thuransky daringly escaped from jail in the back of Lewis’s car. He made it to safety and ultimately returned to the United States with his family.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union sought to spread its influence over Eastern Europe and establish control over Hungary. The Thuransky incident was just the start of a crackdown against free speech and anti-Communist sentiments. In the following years, the Security Police began purging political officials and arresting, torturing, and executing thousands of citizens. Angry Hungarian citizens rebelled against the Soviet Union’s communist satellite government in October 1956. This spontaneous national uprising was quickly and brutally crushed by Soviet forces. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed.

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