Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X
ben_cool (2)

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.
 

Reiterating Strong Support for the Democratic Process

The ADST team joins many others in the foreign affairs community in condemning recent attacks on our democracy and welcoming the upcoming peaceful transfer of power. As current or former diplomats, we swore a sacred oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

U.S. Capitol Building
U.S. Capitol Building

This includes respecting the results of free and fair elections whereby the people select who will and who won’t govern. The shameful violence and desecration that broke out on January 6, 2021, in our capital—and the threats to congressional leaders, the vice president, governors and state officials—should never happen again.

American diplomats have experienced many such moments overseas in foreign terrorist and mob attacks such as those on U.S. diplomatic staff and facilities in Iran, Libya, Tanzania, and many others. And, they have witnessed successful and unsuccessful insurrections against fledgling and established democracies. Always, with a sense of commitment and duty, they work hard all over the world to bolster and support democracy and democratic institutions. At this critical time, as we reflect on how to strengthen our democratic traditions and processes, we at ADST have compiled a few “moments” of hope from our archives of U.S. diplomatic history to share with our members and our readership:

Read more

Getting a Global Education as a Foreign Service Family

Having a global education is a unique privilege; however, it may become difficult to balance. Foreign Service Officers often take their families abroad when called to duty. Their spouses either work in the host country or stay behind and take care of their children. The children typically attend American or international schools in the host country, learn what it means to be part of its culture, and grow up as “third culture” kids.

U.S. Embassy New Delhi, 27 April 2011, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. Embassy New Delhi, 27 April 2011, Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Kerr is the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer. As a mother of four, traveling the world served as the greatest form of education, not just for herself, but for her children. She accompanied her husband to four different posts: New Delhi, India; Tokyo, Japan; Tehran, Iran; and Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar). In an interview with ADST, she said that “children were the best entrée to these other cultures you could have, which is why I urged people with children to go into the Foreign Service.” Every country served a purpose, each had a unique education system providing a different outlook on the world.

For her—as it is for many spouses in the Foreign Service—children were a priority. Although life as a Foreign Service spouse offers opportunities to stay abroad, they are not all easy to take. Sometimes “trailing” spouses have to make difficult decisions regarding the future of their children or family, which sometimes conflicts with the career positions the primary FSO has to take. Margaret had to make one of those decisions for herself when her husband was sent abroad again—this time to South Korea—while she remained behind with the children.

Read more

A Fragile Peace: The Aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War

One of the greatest challenges in a diplomat’s career is serving in a country that is trying to rebuild after a brutal conflict. Although it is possible to repair infrastructure, rebuilding trust between communities is a much greater challenge. This was the case when Patricia Butenis arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka as the U.S ambassador.

Members of the Tamil diaspora protest in Paris, France in 2007 | Protests in Paris, 2007 (2007) Nelson Minar | Flickr
Members of the Tamil diaspora protest in Paris, France in 2007 | Protests in Paris, 2007 (2007) Nelson Minar | Flickr

While Butenis had served in other places that were experiencing or recovering from conflicts, she learned that the civil war in Sri Lanka had been massively devastating, and that it would take an enormous amount of work to rebuild the country and heal society.

In the years after Sri Lanka’s independence from the British, ethnic and religious tensions began to foment between the country’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. Many Sinhalese felt that the British colonial administration had unfairly favored the Tamil in the political realm. Later, attempts to make Sinhalese the official language angered the Tamil population. In 1983, the Tamil Tigers insurgent group attacked a Sri Lankan army patrol, triggering anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. The Tamil Tigers began battling the Sri Lankan military, in hopes of creating an independent Tamil state in the country’s north. The war would last 26 years, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people, and the displacement of countless more. The war ended in 2009 after the Sri Lankan army killed the leader of the Tamil Tigers and crushed the insurgency. However, the end of the war came at a devastating human cost, with large numbers of civilians caught in the violent battles that marked the war’s conclusion.

As ambassador, Pat Butenis was responsible for implementing U.S policy in Sri Lanka, which encouraged reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. However, given that the war had shattered intercommunal relationships and trust, this was easier said than done. This contention played out in the controversy over IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps in the country’s north, which were largely populated with Tamil civilians. Although the war had ended, the trauma of the conflict still loomed large in these camps. The Sri Lankan government initially wanted to strictly regulate the camps and prevent freedom of movement for IDPs, while human rights groups advocated for Tamil residents to return to their villages.

Read more

Folk Songs and Fellowship: The Power of Music in the Labor Movement

Organized labor holds power in the histories of countries all across the world, coming to the forefront as a political entity at the turn of the twentieth century. In unifying the working class with a political consciousness, the labor movement quickly gained might and influence—demanding integration into government dealings, as typified by the role of labor officers in the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in the 1950s and 60s.

           
Joe Glazer (1981), George Tames | New York Times
Joe Glazer (1981), George Tames | New York Times

Yet, the labor movement shares deep roots with folk music, songs shared orally that comment on national cultures. In the mid-twentieth century, a revival of the folk tradition carried powerful political messages through a populace, often commenting on the state of labor workers and unions, as exemplified in songs like “Union Burying Ground” by preeminent folk artist Woody Guthrie. Many such folk musicians reached fame supporting union efforts at rallies and gatherings nationwide, integrating music into the fabric of the labor movement irrevocably.

Joe Glazer, a long-standing labor officer and advisor, exemplified the role of labor in international dealings, finding his start in the Rebel Workers Union in Akron, Ohio in the early 1950s before developing a decades-long career in the federal government. Upon entering USIA in 1961, Glazer moved to Mexico City, where his love for music played a key role in developing cultural diplomacy.

Read more

Gas Masks and Sealed Rooms: Serving in Israel During the Gulf War

The First Gulf War. The Persian Gulf War. Desert Storm and Desert Shield. All of these titles and operation names are associated with the same war, the first major U.S. military action since the Vietnam War.

During the 1980s, while at war with Iran, the Iraqi government borrowed heavily from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to fund the nation’s growing army.

U.S. Troops in the Persian Gulf War (1991) U.S. DOD | commons.wikimedia.org
U.S. Troops in the Persian Gulf War (1991) U.S. DOD | commons.wikimedia.org

As a result of the devastating eight-year conflict in which no side claimed clear victory, Iraq emerged with the fourth-largest army in the world.

Iraq’s newfound military prowess and resentment towards Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (after the two nations refused to forgive $30 million of Iraqi debt) worried the United States and its allies about the actions that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, was willing to take.

Their concerns would prove to be justified.

On August 2, 1990, Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait; and Iraqi troops immediately started to occupy the small oil-rich country.

The international community was quick to react. The following day, on August 3, the United Nations Security Council called for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. After the Iraqi government’s failure to do so, the council implemented a worldwide trade ban with the country.

Read more

“The Good Coup” of 1999—the Very First Coup in Côte d’Ivoire

In December 1999, Côte d’Ivoire experienced its first ever coup d’état after years of stability and economic growth—a coup that brought hopes for a better political situation, but then shattered them in an outbreak of violence and fear for the fate of the country.

Ivory Coast (2010) Sanofi Pasteur / Norbert Domy | Flickr
Ivory Coast (2010) Sanofi Pasteur / Norbert Domy | Flickr

Côte d’Ivoire’s was one of the strongest economies in Africa, with the country prospering for forty years. However, the political situation was not ideal: the opposition often found itself suppressed or prosecuted, ethnic tensions were growing, and the situation only deteriorated under President Henri Bédié. The first military coup in Côte d’Ivoire began on December 24, 1999, and resulted in the overthrow of the government. The coup’s organizer, General Robert Guéï, announced the ouster of President Bédié himself. Many believed it was a “good coup” and hoped that it would bring about change in the political environment.

A good first step toward ensuring free and fair elections involved allowing former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara [and the current president of Côte d’Ivoire since 2010] to run for office, since he was denied that opportunity in 1995. These hopes quickly disappeared in 2000 when Outtara was once again barred from participating in the presidential election. The one opposition candidate allowed to run, Laurent Gbagbo, received more votes, but Guéï refused to recognize the result and falsely announced his victory. Ivorians took to the streets to protest, which ultimately brought Gbagbo to power. Ouattara’s supporters, however, were outraged at his exclusion from the election and attempted protests that were violently suppressed. The human rights situation deteriorated, and the country was bloodied by fear, violence, and growing instability, which contributed to the outbreak of the First Ivorian Civil War in 2002. The unrest continued for many years after.

Read more

A Whole New World: Life as a New Foreign Service Spouse

Life as a Foreign Service spouse is constantly evolving, particularly for Foreign Service wives. While the State Department is now having active conversations about how to best support women and families, in earlier days, women’s needs were not always considered a priority. Wives of ambassadors especially bore the brunt of this unfortunate reality.

Dancing at festival in Benin (January 2013) (images.lebenin.info)  | mondoblog.org
Dancing at festival in Benin (January 2013) (images.lebenin.info) | mondoblog.org

They were expected to leave behind their careers, enter a new post with their husbands, and focus on matters such as entertaining guests or keeping up their residences (in addition to decoding the written and unwritten rules of social life). This transition was made more difficult due to the lack of clear information provided to wives by the State Department.
Alice McIlvaine is one such Foreign Service spouse who entered this new world with little to no formal guidance from the State Department. Upon joining her husband Robinson McIlvaine in the Foreign Service in 1961 and heading to Dahomey (now Benin), Alice immediately began to navigate her role as an ambassador’s wife. She was aided by other wives who took her under their wing, and learned new lessons constantly throughout her journey.
Read more

“Coincidence is God Acting Anonymously!”—Faith in Service

Life can sometimes be unpredictable in the Foreign Service. Serving as a development officer may perhaps be even more unpredictable, since one often confronts unique challenges in distinct parts of the world. Many who are called to public service have a passion for change and improvement; they embark on a path unlike any other.

USAID; U.S. Embassy & Consulate
USAID; U.S. Embassy & Consulate

The United States sends men and women across the world to serve in diplomacy, trade, humanitarian aid, and development projects. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States invested more resources in Latin America; Central America was a prime example—Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala. Much of this investment was dedicated to infrastructure development for national governments, and its success depended on the efforts of dedicated public servants.

Henry “Hank” Weiss was one such person—a man of faith and service. He defines his life in five words: “Coincidence is God acting anonymously.” Life brings strange consequences to situations unimaginable. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Hank Weiss learned from his many years overseas—from Latin America to Africa to Eastern Europe—that it absolutely takes a village to raise a child. Weiss, with strong faith and the support of friends, worked with USAID, the Peace Corps, and the Department of State, and sought to make a lasting contribution in the countries where he served.

Read more

Art as the Universal Language: Cultural Expression Serves as the Bridge for the Separated People of Cyprus

A sense of misunderstanding is what undoubtedly lies at the heart of conflict, especially between nations who apparently strive for what is best for their peoples. But as time moves on, so too do the Turkish and Greek Cypriots who first began their detachment from their respective governments’ political impasse in the early 1990s. Marcelle Wahba, a USIS public affairs officer at the time, subsequently bridged both the physical and social divide between the north and south sides of the island of Cyprus through a form of expression limited to no bounds: art.

A tent city near Dhekelia for Greek-Cypriot refugees and displaced persons from the battles in and around the resort of Famagusta where Turkish amphibious forces had landed on the sandy beaches and occupied the city (2009) Brian Harrington Spier  | Wikimedia Commons
A tent city near Dhekelia for Greek-Cypriot refugees and displaced persons from the battles in and around the resort of Famagusta where Turkish amphibious forces had landed on the sandy beaches and occupied the city (2009) Brian Harrington Spier | Wikimedia Commons

In 1974, the growing international dispute over Cyprus between Greece and Turkey ultimately culminated in a Greek coup d’état of the local government that was swiftly answered by a Turkish military invasion of the island. As political gridlock ensued with no resolution in sight, thousands of civilians found themselves displaced from their homes. Turkish Cypriots therefore settled in the North while Greek Cypriots lived in the South. The UN established a Buffer Zone, also known as the “Green Zone,” which prevented citizens of both nationalities from crossing. The violent conflict that resulted from the previous engagements ultimately left psychological wounds amongst Cypriots that lasted for years.

Read more

Tex Harris: Representing at Home the Officers who Serve Abroad

A lack of due process, serious disorganization, and inadequate representation. This was the state of affairs of Foreign Service labor management in the late 1960s, when officers who served abroad could not rely upon a personnel system that was sorely outdated and lacked the means to sufficiently take care of its people. These circumstances would culminate in the tragic suicide of Charles Thomas in 1971 after being wrongfully selected out of the Foreign Service.

AFSA President Eric Ruben presents F. Allen “Tex” Harris with the AFSA Achievement and Contributions to the Association Award (2019) Joaquin Sosa | American Foreign Service Association
AFSA President Eric Ruben presents F. Allen “Tex” Harris with the AFSA Achievement and Contributions to the Association Award (2019) Joaquin Sosa | American Foreign Service Association

FSO Tex Harris, who had already been in the midst of resolving due process issues within the State Department, then became personally convicted by Thomas’ death and set out to accomplish what many colleagues would remember him for: establishing a grievance system that epitomized his unwavering morality and sincere care for all of his fellow FSOs.

Tex Harris first joined the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in 1968 as a junior officer, citing his initial aims to combat what were then simply due process issues. He joined the board as part of the “Young Turk” movement within the Foreign Service that sought to revolutionize the personnel system’s standards, ensuring that the work conditions and voices of all FSOs would be heard loud and clear. As a result, Tex Harris and the rest of the board effectively unionized AFSA with the intent of creating a more suitable personnel system based on merit and a legislative enactment of a grievance system long overdue.

This “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history conveys how Tex Harris strived to embody the values of justice he held so dear and the passion with which he would inspire both peers and mentors to take action wherever he went. His work here would serve as a foundation for a long career that started with scrutiny faced alone, in places like the bureaucracy and the Dirty War in Argentina, and ended with commemorations as president of AFSA surrounded by admirers of a man who never seemed to stop fighting the good fight.

Read more