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Our web series of over 800 "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 interviewed.  The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government or the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. To read the entire interview, go to our Oral History page.
 

Communist Containment in the Middle East: Emergence of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)

The 1950s can be described as a decade filled with some uncertainties, but many prosperities. The Cold War had just ensued between the United States and the USSR, and in the midst of this geopolitical friction, powers from around the world began forming alliances necessary to contain the threats they feared. One of those alliances was forged through joint efforts facilitated by the United States and the United Kingdom; their mission: degrade a Red Scare in the Middle East.

Iranian PM Hossein Ala, Baghdad Pact (1955) Unknown author | Wikimedia Commons
Iranian PM Hossein Ala, Baghdad Pact (1955) Unknown author | Wikimedia Commons

While the Soviets were continuing to expand their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, one of the regions they were desperate to conquer was the Middle East. This was mainly due to economic reasons. Fearing a potential domino effect in the region, a coalition of Middle Eastern countries—with the help of the United States and the United Kingdom—came up with an intergovernmental alliance aimed to fend off Communist expansionism. This became known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a military alliance that lasted between 1958 to 1979. Originally the Baghdad Pact, the organization was first established in 1956 by Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Their sole purpose was to prevent Soviet influence from expanding in lengths towards the Middle East. However, as Iraq dealt with a violent coup that abolished the constitutional monarchy and installed Arab Socialist Karim Qasim into power, the Baghdad Pact was eventually renamed to the Central Treaty Organization in 1958. CENTO, unlike NATO, didn’t function as a collective security organization but was instrumental in sponsoring various economic projects across the Middle East. The most notable was the Van-Sufian railway, a 362 kilometer railway system that traveled from London to Tehran, via Turkey. The organization, however, was hollowed with failures in between, and many felt that the activities pursued by CENTO weren’t enough to contain the spread of Communism in the Middle East. By 1979, following the Iranian revolution, Iran pulled out of CENTO, and this mutual security alliance was disbanded in its entirety.
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The Unknown Actor in Kosovo: Lawrence Rossin

During 1998 and 1999, Lawrence Rossin found himself working in the disputed region of the Balkans. Having previously worked in Mali, South Africa, Barbados, and Haiti, Rossin had extensive experience in negotiations and regional complexities. Originally brought into the State Department’s Office of South Central European Affairs in the European Bureau following his work in Haiti, Rossin soon had difficulties translating his experiences. But as we see in this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, thanks to cigarettes, contact group diplomacy, and writing skills, Rossin quickly became a key actor in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

Ambassador Lawrence G. Rossin (2000) U.S. Department of State | Wikimedia Commons
Ambassador Lawrence G. Rossin (2000) U.S. Department of State | Wikimedia Commons

Bordered by Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia, Kosovo has become one of the highly disputed autonomous regions in the Balkans. With ethnic groups such as Albanians, Serbs, Bosniaks, Turks, and Roma, Kosovo is also home to many religions. In 1992, the Albanians of Kosovo declared independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Kosova. Fighting broke out between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1998, and ended in 1999 due to NATO intervention, which is where Rossin got involved. Kosovo later declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and is internationally recognized by over 100 countries. Read more

CORDS Alumnus Gives Perspective on U.S. Role in Vietnam

Should the United States ever have gone to war in Vietnam? Nearly fifty years after the last American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the debate still rages. Michael Hauben, who was on the ground in Vietnam as part of the Office of Civil Operations and Support (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support or CORDS), had a first-hand perspective on this debate.

In this handout from the U.S. Air Force, F4 Phantom jets rain bombs on unspecified targets over North Vietnam, Dec. 1965. The photo was made prior to the halt of air strikes on Dec. 24, 1965. (December 1965) | AP Photo/USAF
In this handout from the U.S. Air Force, F4 Phantom jets rain bombs on unspecified targets over North Vietnam, Dec. 1965. The photo was made prior to the halt of air strikes on Dec. 24, 1965. (December 1965) | AP Photo/USAF

In Hauben’s view, the United States actually could have helped South Vietnam win the war if only it had kept up its air support. Political considerations hedged the decision to stay or leave Vietnam; for the presidential party in power (which in this case was the Republicans under Nixon) it was only hurting its electoral chances since public opinion had clearly swung against a military presence in Vietnam.

Hauben also strongly disagreed with the notion that the U.S.’s Vietnamese allies lacked the motivation to fight for themselves. To the contrary, Hauben argued that many South Vietnamese truly wanted independence from the North, in part due to ethnic differences between North, Central, and South Vietnamese. Hauben gives several specific examples of situations in which the Vietnamese held their ground militarily against the communists. Read more

Development in South Asia and Latin America: USAID in the ‘90s

There’s never a dull moment in the life of a USAID social anthropologist! The foreign service can indeed present a variety of unpredictable challenges. By necessity, officers must exhibit poise under pressure, adaptability in unfamiliar terrain, and the ability to deliver under a time crunch. Hugh Sheridan “Sher” Plunkett demonstrated all these qualities and more as a social anthropologist for USAID from 1975 to 2003. From treks through the Kharan desert to murder investigations in Pakistan to emergency orders of milk powder from Nepalese hilltops, Sher’s experiences abroad run the gamut, encouraging all foreign service officers to expect the unexpected.

Kacchi Canal: Mega Pakistani Irrigation Project (2018) Mohammed Arifeen | Pakistan & Gulf Economist
Kacchi Canal: Mega Pakistani Irrigation Project (2018) Mohammed Arifeen | Pakistan & Gulf Economist

Not only did Sher endure many obstacles in Mother Nature and beyond, but he became adept at maneuvering through USAID’s occasionally stifling bureaucratic maze. His creative problem solving and unconventional approach to paperwork boosted productivity, thereby cutting down wait time for necessary signatures and approvals. In one case, he even managed to get technical assistance advisors on the ground in Belize fewer than ten days after the mission’s formal request.

Increasing productivity and promoting USAID’s positive reputation was especially important in Sher’s time. His experience of USAID was as a declining organization in the late 1990s. The small agency functioned on the whims of influential congressmen, its primary focus shifting from issue to issue with every new presidential administration. USAID’s overall purpose became lost in a whirlwind of central goals, each worthy and necessary but pursued without organizational cohesion. The agency might tackle poverty alleviation for a few years, then development of the private sector before honing in on democracy promotion after Reagan’s establishment of the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. Read more

Making the Most of Adversity: Managing the Consular Section in Guangzhou, China

Adversity can often bring out the best in those who are willing to rise to the challenges it throws at them. This principle holds especially true for foreign service officers. Elizabeth “Liz” Raspolic encountered one of the more challenging posts of her foreign service career in Guangzhou, China from 1983 to 1986, where she served as chief of the consular section.

Guangzhou - Chancery Office Building - 1979 (1979) Department of State. Office of the Undersecretary for Management. Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. (2001) | Wikimedia Commons
Guangzhou - Chancery Office Building - 1979 (1979) Department of State. Office of the Undersecretary for Management. Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. (2001) | Wikimedia Commons

There, she would have to adapt not only to uncomfortable conditions at her workplace, but also to the task of effectively managing the junior officers (JOs) and helping them organize their responsibilities. In addition, Raspolic had to address a particularly unusual American Citizens Services (ACS) case, for which she and the other foreign service officers in Guangzhou would have to “think outside the box” to arrive at a solution.

Throughout Raspolic’s service in Guangzhou, she encountered unpleasant workplace conditions that had the potential to prompt foreign service officers to “feel sorry for themselves.” The Dong Fang Hotel, in which the consular section’s office was located during Raspolic’s first two years in Guangzhou, offered a number of unwelcome surprises for Raspolic—a lack of security and natural light, a significant amount of noise from nearby foot traffic, rats and cats that roamed the ceiling, and cockroaches and waterbugs in the facilities. Moreover, the carpeting contained fleas, for which Raspolic and her team had to call in exterminators. Raspolic not only had to manage these unideal workplace conditions, but she also had the responsibility of managing the large number of JOs in the consular section, whom she would need to integrate effectively into the section while providing them opportunities to gain valuable experience that would serve them well throughout their foreign service careers. If those circumstances were not challenging enough, Raspolic and her team faced the difficult American Citizens Services [ACS] case of making arrangements to send an American citizen with “a history of psychiatric problems” out of China and back to her family in London.

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A Science Pioneer in South Africa

Passionate about science and research from an early age, Shirley Motaung’s thirst for knowledge drove her to overcome language barriers and racial inequalities. In 2006, after years as a lecturer at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to come to the University of California, Davis and study under Dr. Hari Reddi, the distinguished Professor of Bone Morphogenetic Proteins (BMPs), which cause new bone growth.

Prof Shirley Motaung driving a point at the 4th International Women's Day Summit (9 March 2020) | TUT
Prof Shirley Motaung driving a point at the 4th International Women's Day Summit (9 March 2020) | TUT

The Fulbright program, a U.S. Department of State-sponsored cultural exchange program launched in 1946, helps graduate students, young professionals, and artists abroad to study and conduct research in the United States. To date, the Fulbright Scholarship Program has partnered with more than 160 countries around the world.

Motaung grew up in South Africa during an historical era in which Afrikaners, the white minority, dominated the majority black population. From 1948 to the 1990s, South Africa’s more than half a century of apartheid led to severe oppression and restrictions on the freedom of movement and political, social, and economic rights of non-whites, depriving black Africans of their rights. In 1994, the African National Congress, headed by Nelson Mandela, won the first free and fair national elections (the first in which citizens of all races were allowed to take part, and therefore also the first held with universal suffrage) in South Africa. This officially heralded the end of apartheid.

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Advancing Unity in the Aftermath of War – Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Mid-1990s

Foreign service officers typically must demonstrate adaptability and proactivity to accomplish their missions smoothly and effectively, but sometimes they find themselves thrust into circumstances where they must take their capacity to adapt and develop innovative, proactive solutions to the next level.

Dayton Agreement, 24 November 1995 : (Bosnia and Herzegovina). (1995) United States Central Intelligence Agency | Library of Congress Geography and Map Division
Dayton Agreement, 24 November 1995 : (Bosnia and Herzegovina). (1995) United States Central Intelligence Agency | Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

Razvigor Bazala found himself in such circumstances during his service as Public Affairs Officer (PAO) with the United States Information Agency (USIA) in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the mid-1990s, after four years of armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. There, he would face the challenging task of advancing Bosnian national unity in the deeply divided country following the Dayton Accords, the negotiations that had arranged for the end of the armed hostilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

One of the initial challenges confronting Bazala during his service in Sarajevo was the need to work with Bosnians to help mitigate the interethnic strife that had sparked immense violence following Yugoslavia’s breakup, with the object of helping Bosnian civil society institutions begin to regain stability and vibrancy. Bosnian teachers looked to Bazala for assistance in developing a fresh civic education program to teach high school students about the rule of law and norms of governance in a democratic society. Bazala also worked with Bosnian media outlets to promote independent journalism that would strive for objectivity. Helping Bosnian media with its transition into the post-communist environment would require cooperation among reporters, media editors, and broadcasters throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a significant degree of patience, determination, and mutual understanding.
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The Secret ‘Backbone’ of the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, India

Historically, Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs) have been working behind the scenes and supporting foreign service personnel who often serve in public-facing roles. They are therefore commonly called the “backbone” of the embassies, and their in-country expertise and continuity serve as valuable contributions to American diplomacy.

Second Group of FS Employees Visit Washington, Department of State Newsletter
Second Group of FS Employees Visit Washington, Department of State Newsletter

In the first decade after World War II, the U.S. Embassy in Delhi hired P.K.V. Krishnan as an FSN. Later, he was heavily involved in the development of U.S.-India labor programs abroad. Unlike FSOs (Foreign Service Officers) who work and travel in different countries, Krishnan, like other FSNs, spent his entire career working locally in the labor section to build experience, deal with complex issues, and solve problems.

During World War II, India remained a British colonial possession and officially declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939. Around the same time, the U.S. government appointed its first local labor employees in Delhi, India to help formulate administrative goals and duties in the labor field. Read more

Working as a Woman in Intelligence: Alice Shurcliff

Unlike many women’s stories that highlight the immense challenges women face, Alice Shurcliff highlights in her oral history advantages she enjoyed as a female working in intelligence. Shurcliff began working for military intelligence while still in college in the 1930s. She learned that due to the approaching war, military intelligence favored hiring women over men (because men were preparing for the war and would be leaving).

It’s A Woman’s War Too! Poster, 1942 | Library of Congress
It’s A Woman’s War Too! Poster, 1942 | Library of Congress

These jobs were more than the typical clerical, traditionally female supportive roles. Instead, Shurcliff exercised a large amount of responsibility. She was initially put in charge of covering the entire British Empire. Women were in charge of many divisions, and Shurcliff suggests in her oral history that the only requirement seemed to be having a masters degree and being ladylike. The war provided women like Shurcliff with an avenue to a career in military intelligence.

Sometimes, having family acquaintances and connections helps. For example, Shurcliff grew up in an “upper-middle-class family” in a home where labor organizing—and indeed the origins of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—was the norm. She recounts that a personal friend of hers who worked in Turkey helped her when she initially sought a position with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She applied and was accepted. However, because the hiring had not been cleared with the chief of mission, who was hesitant to hire a woman in a predominately Muslim country, she was not permitted to stay in that position. Again, Shurcliff’s friend advocated for her, and she subsequently landed a position with the State Planning Organization in Çukurova. Read more

Senegal’s Locust Plague in the late 1980s

The year is 1986. A Senegalese farmer walks out in his field a short while after the drought season has ended and the rains have come. As he enters his crops, the field yields before him, bending as in the wind. But there is no wind. Instead, there are countless locusts that part before him like the Red Sea, but not after leaving his only source of income devastated.

A swarm of locusts, not unlike those that tear across Senegal and other regions of Africa, in Tel-Aviv, Israel in 2004. | Niv Singer | Wikimedia Commons
A swarm of locusts, not unlike those that tear across Senegal and other regions of Africa, in Tel-Aviv, Israel in 2004. | Niv Singer | Wikimedia Commons

This disaster occurs frequently in West Africa, and a USAID [United States Agency for International Development] Deputy Director George Carner was tasked with solving this locust infestation in Senegal.

Swarms of locusts are relatively common occurrences in many parts of Africa. The effects of locusts in Senegal can be better understood if examined on a ten year cycle. During the drought periods of about seven years, the locust eggs lie dormant underground. But as the few years of rain return, the larvae emerge, consume everything in sight, and lay eggs for the next generation, perpetuating the cycle. When George Carner arrived in Senegal in the summer of 1986, so did the wet season and the accompanying locusts. After rapid responses from entomologists and disaster relief experts, Carner concluded this was an issue that must be addressed immediately. In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see that in just two short years, Carner did so by successfully coordinating government contractors to spray much of Senegal with pesticides while balancing the political, religious, and health consequences of such a plan. What’s more impressive, this plan still proved effective in the face of tragedy for his team and the contractors. Read more