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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.
 

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

U.S.-Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s

This moment is one of four in a series about Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. relations in a world of post-Ukrainian independence. The series, “From 1991 to 2022: Russia, U.S., and Ukraine Relations,” explores how the post-Soviet Union era presented unique challenges to each nation’s foreign policy. The reignited tensions between Russia and Ukraine pose important questions about how the nations’ histories inform the conflict today. The four moments in the series— U.S.-Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s, Russia-Ukraine Tensions, Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era, and Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship —seek to shed light on the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine by examining its history.

Reagan and Dubinin at the Soviet Embassy, 1998, Pete Souza | The White House
Reagan and Dubinin at the Soviet Embassy, 1998, Pete Souza | The White House

Recent events in Ukraine have made it more than obvious that Russia is changing its foreign policy footing, seeking expansion and world influence once again. However, first-person oral history evidence indicates that this is a process that began almost as soon as the collapse of the Soviet Union. From 1993 to 1998, William Green Miller was the United States Ambassador to Ukraine, serving through numerous challenges, including nuclear disarmament, after a long and storied career. In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we see U.S., Russian, and Ukrainian grand strategy collide even as Ambassador Miller walks the tightrope of keeping close personal relationships with geopolitical adversaries. Read more

Russia–Ukraine Tensions

This moment is one of four in a series about Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. relations in a world of post-Ukrainian independence. The series, “From 1991 to 2022: Russia, U.S., and Ukraine Relations,” explores how the post-Soviet Union era presented unique challenges to each nation’s foreign policy.

Leonid Kravchuk, The First President of Ukraine | Wikimedia
Leonid Kravchuk, The First President of Ukraine | Wikimedia

The reignited tensions between Russia and Ukraine pose important questions about how the nations’ histories inform the conflict today. The four moments in the series— U.S.-Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s, Russia-Ukraine Tensions, Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era, and Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship—seek to shed light on the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine by examining its history.

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine might appear relatively sudden and confusing. The unprovoked Russian aggression certainly brings about more questions than answers, but disagreements between the two nations have been setting the stage for decades. National identity, territorial integrity, Soviet-era legacies—each of these themes presented a unique challenge for Ukraine-Russia relations in the aftermath of Ukrainian independence. Read more

Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship

This “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” is one of four in a series about Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. relations in a world of post-Ukrainian independence. The series, “From 1991 to 2022: Russia, U.S., and Ukraine Relations,” explores how the post-Soviet Union era presented unique challenges to each nation’s foreign policy. The reignited tensions between Russia and Ukraine pose important questions about how the nations’ histories inform the conflict today. The four moments in the series— U.S.–Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s, Russia-Ukraine Tensions, Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era, and Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship—seek to shed light on the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine by examining its history.

Protest against war in Ukraine  | Depositphotos
Protest against war in Ukraine | Depositphotos

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, various voices have called for the United States to support Ukraine against Russia. The U.S. has imposed sanctions and limited trade with Russia while providing weapons and security assistance to Ukraine. However, some believe the U.S. needs to do more. The U.S. has maintained its position, however, of not intervening militarily except to protect NATO allies. These events and decisions reflect the complex relationship between the United States and Ukraine. Evidence from ADST’s oral history collection suggests this has been true since the onset of the relationship when Ukraine gained its independence following the fall of the Soviet Union. Read more

Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era

This “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” is one of four in a series about Russia, Ukraine, and U.S. relations in a world of post-Ukrainian independence. The series, “From 1991 to 2022: Russia, U.S., and Ukraine Relations,” explores how the post-Soviet Union era presented unique challenges to each nation’s foreign policy. The reignited tensions between Russia and Ukraine pose important questions about how the nations’ histories inform the conflict today. The four moments in the series—U.S.–Russia Competition in Ukraine in the ‘90s, Russia-Ukraine Tensions, Ukrainian Nationalism in an Independence Era, and Beginning a U.S.-Ukraine Relationship—seek to shed light on the 2022 conflict between Russia and Ukraine by examining its history.

Taras Shevchenko Memorial in Washington, DC | Wikimedia
Taras Shevchenko Memorial in Washington, DC | Wikimedia

After breaking away from the Soviet Union, Ukraine had to assert its national identity as separate and strong enough to sustain a new nation. Between Russian frustration at Ukrainian independence, an uncertain post-Cold War era, and skepticism of potential allies, Ukrainian leaders had a plethora of concerns to factor into their new foreign policy strategy. To be successful as an independent nation, Ukrainians needed to affirm their collective historical, cultural, and national identities—both on the ground and in their policy. Read more

The passing of former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright

Madeleine Albright

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training mourns the passing of former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

We send heartfelt condolences to her family and many friends and colleagues around the world. Hers was a remarkable life, marked by many “firsts” and decades of commitment to diplomacy. We were honored to have her as an honorary director. She will be missed.

Combating Terrorism in Iraq and Syria: Stephen Kontos and the Counter-ISIS Coalition

In the midst of war, terrorism, and instability, Stephen Kontos was tasked with uniting a coalition to combat one of the Middle East’s greatest terrorist threats—The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. Through their work, Kontos and his team turned a cramped conference room of a dozen people into a dedicated coalition of over 70 countries collaborating on counterterrorism in Iraq and Syria.

The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at a conference in Washington, DC, 2019 | U.S. Embassy in Syria
The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at a conference in Washington, DC, 2019 | U.S. Embassy in Syria

The Syrian Civil War, with civilians and rebels fighting against what they deemed an oppressive regime under Bashar al-Assad, provided a perfect storm of chaos for ISIS to spread its influence. While Kontos had been working with the U.S. Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations [CSO] since 2012 to provide non-lethal aid to Syrian opposition movements, ISIS’s capture of Mosul in July 2014 signaled an alternative rising threat. ISIS gained territory and power in the region, prompting the United States to focus its attention from aiding Syrian opposition to solely addressing the terrorist group. In 2014, Kontos was tasked with coordinating the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ Global Coalition to Counter ISIS to eliminate the threat once and for all. With numerous actors invested in the Syrian civil war and Middle East counterterrorism, the U.S. Coalition saw the importance of banding efforts to bring about the greatest chance of defeating the terrorist group.
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Fighting for Peace: Serving During the Sri Lankan Civil War

As a USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) officer serving in Vietnam during the firefights and bombings of the Tet Offensive, David J. Garms experienced violence and conflict innumerable times The memories of this experience stayed with him throughout his career, even in subsequent foreign service postings, which were calmer in comparison. However, as we see in this “moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” his Sri Lanka assignment in 1986 served as a reminder of his past experience serving in countries affected by violence.

I took the picture in 2004, it shows a LTTE bike platoon north of Kilinochi (2004) Qz10, en.wiki
I took the picture in 2004, it shows a LTTE bike platoon north of Kilinochi (2004) Qz10, en.wiki

1980s Sri Lanka suffered from widespread violent, ethnic-based conflict involving the Velupillai Prabhakaran-led Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, Tamil Tigers) and the Sinhalese-run Sri Lankan government. Although the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 was expected to create an end to the conflict, it continued until 2009. An estimated 100,000 people died as a result of this 25-year-long conflict. Amidst a violent setting, Garms played a role in helping rally financial support for peace and development in Sri Lanka.

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