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.
At the beginning of the 1960s, U.S. foreign policy had two bugbears: the Soviet Union and Cuba. Fidel Castro had come to power in 1959, and the United States wished to prevent another Cuban Revolution with policies like the Alliance for Progress, designed to forestall revolutionary tendencies by encouraging moderate reforms.
But the United States was nonetheless worried about potential leftist revolutions springing up across the region. That certainly played out in Ecuador.
When Ambassador Maurice Bernbaum arrived in the country to replace the previous appointee (who had died four days into the job), perennial president Jose María Velasco Ibarra was in office. However, the military soon deposed him, and Ecuador elected his vice president, Carlos Arosemena, the new president. However, as Bernbaum soon found out, Arosemena, a committed leftist, did not always support U.S. policies or interests. Matters came to a head when Arosemena drunkenly insulted the United States at a banquet, an event the military used as an excuse to overthrow Arosemena.
Bernbaum, who had previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Ecuador, continued as Ambassador to Ecuador until 1965. He subsequently became Ambassador to Venezuela until 1969, when he retired.
For policymakers to make the right decisions, it is crucial that they first have the right information. With this in mind, career U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officer Terrence Brown used his position as the USAID Mission Director in Guatemala to correct discrepancies in diplomatic reporting on the Guatemalan political economy in the early 1990s.
Thanks to his leadership, USAID provided policymakers in Foggy Bottom with a more accurate picture of Guatemala’s economic reforms in the midst of a 36-year-long civil war.
In June of 1990, the Guatemalan military killed Michael DeVine, a U.S. citizen living and working in Northern Guatemala. In response to DeVine’s death—as well as other human rights violations—the U.S. government suspended Foreign Military Funds to Guatemala in December of 1990. Five years later, however, the New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency was continuing to surreptitiously fund the Guatemalan military in an effort to support the army’s crucial role in the war on drugs.
In 1966, well into the Vietnam War and three years into Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Charles Graham Boyd took his eighty-eighth mission into Hanoi to search and destroy anti-aircraft missiles. It was during this mission that Boyd was shot down by Vietnamese artillery and landed in the unfortunate location of an enemy rice paddy.
He was promptly captured afterward and taken to Hoa Lo Prison where he was interrogated and tortured by a man nicknamed “The Rabbit” for his buck teeth. After giving his captors false information, Boyd was put in a cell called the “Heartbreak Hotel,” then brought out days later for a prisoner march through a local town.
For about the next seven years, Boyd endured the hardships of Vietnamese POW (Prisoner of War) camps as he resisted interrogation, torture, and harsh living conditions. Though a terrible experience to live through, his memories are now preserved in the form of oral history, leaving behind an inspiring memoir of survival. In this “Moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” Boyd recounts his time as a POW, including communicating with his fellow prisoners through taps on the wall and learning about his neighbor’s lives and families without ever seeing them face to face. This also became a mental exercise by which the prisoners could spread knowledge. Boyd learned Spanish through this system and by the end of his time in Vietnam, he learned 2,700 Spanish vocabulary words, 700 verbs, and advanced grammar.
As we renew conversations in the United States about what liberty and justice for all truly looks like, we must reflect on our past. At the State Department, these conversations have long been important to our diplomats; they have prompted many to speak up, to create changes that make the agency a more inclusive and diverse space, and to be advocates for equality abroad by challenging structures which impede justice.
There is still work to do. At a time of uncertainty about the future, we turn to the past to draw on the experiences of those who came before us.
The State Department has a history of a lack of diversity. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have been under-represented within the Foreign Service. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 women made up approximately 50 percent of the overall U.S. population. Yet, according to statistics published by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in 2019, only 41.2 percent of Foreign Service generalists were women. Similarly, African Americans (who make up about 13.4 percent of the general population) represented only 5.3 percent of Foreign Service generalists. The statistics for the Senior Foreign Service point to an even greater disparity: just 3 percent of senior-level diplomats are African American and only 5 percent are Latino (who make up approximately 18.3 percent of the overall population), resulting in a diplomatic corps that does not entirely represent the diversity of the American people. Despite these systemic gaps in hiring, records show countless individuals within the State Department taking a stand to report honestly on their experiences and promote positive change. For example, in his oral history, Mr. W. Garth Thorburn shares the challenges he experienced as the first Black professional to serve in the Foreign Agricultural Service; however, he also describes the improvements that he saw in the agency throughout his time there. Similarly, Mr. Leonard Robinson’s oral history recounts the fact that in the early days of the Peace Corps, many Americans perceived it as a “whites only organization.” Through his work as the Director of Minority Recruiting for the Peace Corps, it slowly but surely grew to look more like the United States.
Robert H. Stern’s life as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) took him in many different directions all across the globe. He served in the Philippines at the end of the 1960s, when tensions in the region between Americans and native Asians were escalating due to the war in Vietnam.
As an FSO responsible for issuing visas for immigrants to the United States, Stern had a unique perspective because, while he felt the tensions as an American, he also had throngs of people waiting for miles outside his office to get visas to immigrate to the United States. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Stern describes how he leveraged the circumstances surrounding his diplomatic service to carry out his duties more effectively.
During the late 1960s, legislation setting immigration quotas by country, known as the National Origins Act, was changed to allow more people from countries like the Philippines to immigrate to the United States. This was around the time that Stern began his service in the consular section at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Stern’s FSO experience changed dramatically when he assumed the duties of the Non-Immigrant Visa Chief. He suddenly had to deal with thousands of applicants, including many fraudulent cases, that quickly flooded the embassy. Stern’s tour in Manila also coincided with heightened tensions resulting from the Vietnam War and from the fact that most Filipinos did not see American involvement in the war as just. Stern’s position at the embassy gave him a front row seat to witness how U.S. policy and activity in Vietnam was received in Asia.
Stern also skillfully applied his experience as a student to better inform his work. During his time in Manila, he was enrolled in night classes at the University of Santo Tomas. He recalls talking with and even arguing with his classmates (who were all Filipinos who participated in the resistance movements), taking notes on the issues, and bringing them to the embassy. As a self-described “youth reporter” for the embassy, Stern helped to convey to his colleagues at the embassy and in Washington the perspective of young Filipino protesters at a time when the embassy faced animosity from a large number of Filipino people. He would report these observations in “memcoms” (memorandums of conversation) he wrote while serving in Manila.
Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) must constantly be on alert for security threats, which can sneak up during the most unexpected times. Oftentimes when FSOs arrive at a new post, they may expect to be greeted by friendly faces who are ready to welcome them to their new country.
However, even these simple, lively occasions can quickly turn catastrophic.
William (Scott) Butcher arrived to join the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August of 1975. Upon stepping off the plane, he received news that the Japanese Red Army (JRA) had taken over part of the American Insurance Associates (AIA) building in Kuala Lumpur. The building was home to several diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy. Immediately, Scott began closely following negotiations to release those being held hostage and subsequently reporting to Washington about the evolving situation. All the while, he was navigating his own transition into the political section.
As the Cold War died down, U.S. assistance to Latin America shifted focus to a new war: the war on drugs. For many, the TV show Narcos, the story of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the dramatic showdown that led to his demise, summarizes this new focus of U.S. foreign policy—and emphasizes the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Agency. But Narcos doesn’t tell the whole story.
Militarized interventions characterized the war on drugs throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the Clinton administration attempted to shift that policy in the early 1990s. Instead of focusing on drug interdiction in the Caribbean basin, the United States would work to reduce coca production and develop anti-drug institutions in source countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, even as military assistance to Latin American countries continued. Reflecting the Clinton administration’s new philosophy, though, the U.S. Agency for International Development played a strong role in promoting the rule of law and encouraging coca growers to plant alternative crops.
The checkered history between Russia and the United States was arguably the most transformational relationship for world events in the second half of the twentieth century. The ideological struggle between communism and capitalism waged under the dark cloud of potential nuclear annihilation led to the development of several arms control agreements like the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaties.
These treaties were meant to better report, monitor, and sometimes limit the amount or types of nuclear weapons that the countries could possess. The Open Skies Treaty is another example of an arms control treaty oriented more towards the control and transparency of both nuclear and conventional forces in Europe, Russia, and the United States.
The use of dated camera technology became a hot button issue that could potentially derail this important arms control treaty that allows all nations to view the positions of military forces and facilities. During this time, Greg Delawie served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance at the State Department. He was in charge of making sure the United States and other signatories to the treaties upheld their commitments. To do this, Delawie had to navigate unfamiliar technology and continuously defend the treaty both from those within the U.S. government that believed the treaty should no longer exist as well as from Russian threats to pull out of the agreement. Here is his story . . . .
The African continent is often seen as a land of paradoxes. Although it possesses many natural resources and extremely fertile land, many of its citizens remain underfed. Multiple Western development initiatives have tried to take on this challenge, but a majority of the African population still lives in poverty.
Because of this, a rising sentiment within the African populace has risen against Western development aid. China has been able to exploit such anti-Western leanings by implementing its own development project called “the belt and road initiative,” proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2014.
However, the growing Chinese presence in Africa is very controversial, and the real objectives of the belt and road initiative are increasingly being questioned. Some U.S. policymakers and others in academia even see the possibility of Chinese neocolonialism budding in Africa. Yet, the discussion on the role of China in Africa is not new. During the Cold War, U.S. agencies were already closely following Chinese activities in Africa, a region long considered to be strategically important to U.S. interests. It’s therefore interesting to examine how U.S. foreign policy toward China has been in the past, and how possible U.S. inaction may have led to the growing Chinese influence on the African continent.
The 1990s were a decade marked with intensive peace negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Although many efforts stalled, there was one exception: in 1994, Jordan’s King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a treaty that ended the state of war between both countries.
After years of fighting, Hussein’s life-long dream became reality and the survival of Jordan as a sovereign country was secured.
Three years later, after Jamal Al Jibiri had taken up a position at the U.S. Embassy as a Foreign Service National in the Economic Growth Office in Jordan, he learned that, as part of the peace process, the U.S. government had set aside $100 million for USAID in Jordan. He—as well as Economic Growth Director Jon Lindborg—had to rethink all of the economic growth engagement in the country. First up was a project called “Access to Micro Financing Implementation and Policy Reform.” Other projects soon followed.