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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 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.
 

A City Torn Apart: Americans in Berlin

A U.S. army tank manned by a defecting soldier crashed straight through a Berlin Wall checkpoint manned by Russian troops. Anxious American and West Germans soldiers hastily acted to contain the situation.

View of the West Berlin side of the wall | Thierry Noir | Selbst fotografiert
View of the West Berlin side of the wall | Thierry Noir | Selbst fotografiert

In situations like these, and throughout the tensions of the Cold War, Americans in Berlin played an important part in the dynamics of Berlin.

On the night of August 13th, 1961, East German soldiers began laying down the first barbed wire and bricks of what would become the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the “Iron Curtain” between the Western allies, West Germany (FRG), and the Soviets in East Germany (GDR) in the midst of the Cold War from 1961 to 1989. Thousands of East Germans attempted to cross at great personal risk, after many were separated from their families and cut off from friends.

Throughout the chaos in Berlin, Americans were caught up in the action. Even before the Wall’s construction, tensions over immigration and control between the Soviet, American, British, and French zones of occupation caused trouble. The following excerpts present astonishing and often perilous stories from U.S. Foreign Service Officers—from missing children passport issues to kidnapping and a plane hijacking. For Americans in Berlin, the consequences of separation were felt deeply.

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Rivalry in the Southeast: Preah Vihear Temple Dispute Between Cambodia and Thailand

Foreign Service Officer Thomas Donohue served in both continental and archipelagic Southeast Asia during a tumultuous period in which countries in the region and other parts of the globe were breaking away from European colonial powers. He witnessed first-hand the complex relations among regional countries.

A group of children visiting Preah Vihear| Helistar Cambodia| (2019)
A group of children visiting Preah Vihear| Helistar Cambodia| (2019)

During his assignment in Cambodia from 1962 to 1964, both Cambodia and Thailand laid claim to the centuries-old Preah Vihear Temple. Although constructed by the Khmer Empire, the temple is located within the Dângrêk Range, a natural land border between Cambodia and Thailand. The geographical location, along with its recognized beauty and mysticism, led to a territorial dispute between the two countries for the ownership of the temple site. Donahue was the duty officer when Embassy Phnom Penh got the news that the International Court of Justice ultimately proclaimed that the Preah Vihear Temple was rightfully in Cambodian territory.

Donahue regularly expressed advocacy for the aspirations of autonomy of multiple countries in the area. He spent the majority of the 1950s back and forth from Sukarno-led Indonesia, which was going through a transition period after being a Dutch colony for over two centuries. In addition, Donohue later served in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam before finally joining the U.S. Department of Commerce as a consultant in 1976. Read more

Origins of the Carter Center’s Election Observation Work

The Carter Center was founded in 1982 just after President Jimmy Carter was defeated in the 1980 U.S. presidential elections. He and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, partnered with Emory University to begin the non-profit.

Election Observation (2010) | The Carter Center
Election Observation (2010) | The Carter Center

Today, the center is known, in part, for its efforts to promote democracy around the world, especially through election observation and support.

This component of the Carter Center’s work has it roots largely in the International Human Rights Law Group (IHRLG), to which Larry Garber belonged before he began working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The group was the only human rights organization at its time involved in election monitoring. Today, while the original group no longer exists, its vision lives on as free and fair elections are widely considered and fought for as a basic human right. Organizations like the Carter Center have been inspired by the legacy of IHRLG and have taken similar work upon themselves—supporting the rights of citizens around the world to freely elect their own governments. In his oral history, Garber commented, “[IHRLG] showed Carter that he could make a difference in the election field, and since then the Carter Center has observed 110 elections in 37 countries around the world.”

Garber began working with IHRGL in 1983, a few years after he finished graduate school at Columbia University. Later in his career, Garber held positions with USAID in Washington D.C., in the West Bank/Gaza, and at the National Defense University.

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The Emperor’s New Year’s Day Party

With brightly colored clothes and impeccable attention to protocol, Foreign Service spouse Hilda Lewis hoped to impress at the Japanese Emperor’s 1955 New Year’s reception at the Imperial Palace. As she felt her hat slowly slipping off her head while she bowed to the empress, Lewis knew everything wasn’t going quite according to plan.

Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako greet guests to the imperial palace (1946) Agence France-Presse | Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako greet guests to the imperial palace (1946) Agence France-Presse | Wikimedia Commons

Despite a few mishaps, Lewis was dazzled by the food, dancing, and spectacle of the event.

The New Year is the most important national holiday in Japan, and it is full of special traditions. It is a chance for families and visitors to reflect on the past year and their dreams for the future as they celebrate the New Year’s Day feast. It is also one of only two days in which the main area of the Imperial Palace is open to the public. In recent years, on January 2nd the Emperor and the royal family have made a brief and rare public appearance in an inner courtyard for a greeting and speech.

Lewis was in Japan from 1954 to 1956 while her husband, Harrison Lewis, was stationed in Japan as a commercial attaché. During their visit to the Imperial Palace, Japanese Emperor Hirohito was on the throne (he would retire in 1989) and Empress Kōjun was empress consort (kōgō). Kōjun served as empress consort from 25 December 1926 to 7 January 1989, the longest in Japanese history.

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Drowning in a Strawberry Ice Cream Soda: Life as a Diplomat in the Philippines

World powers, including the United States, have long considered the Philippines to be of strategic importance. The entire landmass of the Philippines is comprised of over 7,000 islands.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy and the Marcoses view turnover ceremonies at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines (14 March 1979) Al Ramones & Domie Quiazon | National Archives and Records Administration
U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy and the Marcoses view turnover ceremonies at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines (14 March 1979) Al Ramones & Domie Quiazon | National Archives and Records Administration

It is one of the largest archipelagos in the world. In the 16th century, Imperial Spain attempted to conquer the Philippines numerous times. They finally succeeded in 1571, creating the modern-day capital of Manila and forcibly establishing a feudal system with a tiny population of Spanish elites who owned vast estates worked by vast swathes of the native Filipino population.

The Filipino revolutionaries rebelled many times, finally declaring independence in the late 1890s—the same time that the United States, the victor of the Spanish-American War, claimed the Philippines as a territory. Controversially, the revolution was brutally crushed by U.S. troops and the Philippines endured another 50 years of colonialism. In 1946, spurred by the renewed public consciousness of World War II, the U.S. granted the Philippines independence and fostered the improvement of the public school system, healthcare institutions, and infrastructure.

During the Cold War years from 1947–1991, the United States worked very hard to maintain access to two strategically vital military bases by encouraging robust diplomatic ties with the Filipino dictatorship led by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

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Disposition in Diplomacy

Bureaucracies are often considered dry and difficult to navigate. However, every organization is only as good as the people who comprise it, and the U.S. Foreign Service is widely respected and admired because of the incredible individuals who form and lead it.

Cameroon Highlands (17 February 2006) Visions of Domino | Flickr
Cameroon Highlands (17 February 2006) Visions of Domino | Flickr

The humorous anecdotes below, narrated by several diplomats about their superiors, relay some of the most important qualities of leadership: losing gracefully, learning from one’s mistakes, and self-discipline.

Drafted by Sairah Aslam

Excerpts:

Richard Murphy
Manila, Philippines—Ambassador 1978–1981

Richard Murphy was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 6, 2017.
Read Richard Murphy’s full oral history HERE.
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“Dining is the Soul of Diplomacy”

(2016) Guilhem Vellut | Flickr
(2016) Guilhem Vellut | Flickr

Lord Palmerston, a former British prime minister and three time foreign minister, once famously noted, “Dining is the soul of diplomacy.” Countless diplomatic discussions have occurred over good food and drink, centered at well-dressed dining tables in embassies and diplomatic residences. Food brings people together, and the dining table makes for an excellent setting to develop cordial and productive relationships with others.

However, just as not all of our own dining experiences merit a generous tip, not all diplomatic dinners go as smoothly as planned. The following excerpts present a collection of amusing stories from U.S. Foreign Service Officers depicting the unexpected circumstances and mishaps that attended their own dinner parties.

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Reflections on a Career: Health and Population in East Africa

Victor Masbayi was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1951; he lived there with his family throughout his undergraduate college education at the University of Nairobi. While working for the African Medical and Research Foundation, Masbayi was sponsored to complete a Master’s Degree in Public Health at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

2015 | Wikimedia Commons
2015 | Wikimedia Commons

After receiving his degree, he secured a job with USAID/Kenya, where he worked on a variety of different projects relating to health, population, and development. Later in his career, Masbayi had the opportunity to work again in Kenya with USAID’s Regional Program for East Africa.

Having now concluded his career with USAID, Masbayi offers in his oral history a series of thoughtful reflections on his career. These include what he is most proud of, what challenged USAID in East Africa, and what USAID was successful at there. Additionally, he shares what advice he would offer to future employees, and what recommendations he would make for USAID to improve its work.
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The Last Ones Left: Inside the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971

With a simple “good luck” from President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Joseph Farland set out to Pakistan, unsure of what to expect. Having previously worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during World War II, Ambassador Farland was always cautious of those around him.

2015 | Wikimedia Commons
2015 | Wikimedia Commons

Thus, when he entered this post, he had been preparing for the worst. And the worst is what he got. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 erupted while he was stationed in Islamabad. As all other foreign diplomats left the country, those in the U.S. Embassy stayed put, many not realizing that their ambassador had devised an escape route from the country for all of them, in case the situation became too dangerous.

The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 started in early December with air strikes on Indian air stations. At that time, Pakistan controlled two different territories: East Pakistan and West Pakistan (now Bangladesh and modern-day Pakistan, respectively). The preemptive air strikes led to greater hostilities between West Pakistan and India, leading the latter to support the Liberation War for Bangladesh. Militarily, India planned on splitting West Pakistan in two, breaking Islamabad and Karachi away from each other, thus weakening the power of West Pakistan. With West Pakistan weakened, it would be harder to fight the insurgency in East Pakistan. Despite what the leaders of West Pakistan believed, they did in fact start the war, and they were not going to win it.

The war only lasted 13 days, ending in the middle of December of 1971 with the fall of Dacca and the establishment of Bangladesh. The main goal of this specific war was to achieve East Pakistani independence. While other wars between Pakistan and India have followed, no other ambassador since Farland has had to devise a secret escape route from Pakistan or been “the only one left.”

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Food for Thought: A Woman in African Agricultural Development

In 2003, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated up to $650 million worth of food aid to meet urgent food needs in Ethiopia. However, during the same time period, it only provided six million dollars in agricultural assistance, even though more than 70 percent of all Ethiopian households relied upon farming for both food and income.

A farmer at work in Kenya's Mount Kenya region (2010) | Neil Palmer (CIAT) | Wikimedia Commons
A farmer at work in Kenya's Mount Kenya region (2010) | Neil Palmer (CIAT) | Wikimedia Commons

This experience showed, consequently, that providing food aid without enabling people to better their agricultural production efforts can adversely affect the relationship between agricultural development and developing nations.

With the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world, African farming communities stand to gain the most from increased agricultural development. Despite the importance of rural African women participating in agricultural ventures, most U.S.-based research had ignored the major contribution of women in the rural economy. By shifting focus toward household dynamics and the processing of farming commodities, agricultural research has grown to acknowledge the input and successes of rural women in Africa.

Growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, Emmy B. Simmons learned the importance of farming in rural communities. This upbringing, along with her work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, led to more than thirty years of experience in international agriculture and economic development, with a particular focus on the role of women in an agricultural economy. While working for USAID, Simmons sought to combat the issues facing agricultural development in Mali and Kenya, and she held a number of agriculture, research, and nutrition positions in Nigeria and Liberia.
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