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.
 

CORDS: A New Pacification Program for Vietnam

The Vietnam War was one of the most challenging and complex conflicts of the Cold War era. As the conflict wore on, casualties rose and the American public became increasingly opposed to the war. With no end in sight, the U.S. government knew it would need a unique approach to win the war. For this reason, the government created the CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary/Rural Development Support) pacification program in 1967.

           
CORDS personnel with the chief of a hamlet | Defense Technical Information Center
CORDS personnel with the chief of a hamlet | Defense Technical Information Center

Conflict in Vietnam had been brewing for years, as Viet Minh forces waged an anti-colonial war against the French. With the defeat of the French colonial regime, the U.S. became concerned about the potential spread of communism in Southeast Asia. However, after several years of war, the government wanted to develop a new approach that would ultimately allow the U.S. to exit the conflict. The government decided on a program of “Vietnamization” that would prepare South Vietnamese forces to fight the war on their own.

The previous year, the U.S. Army had commissioned a study known as “A Program for Pacification and Long-Term Development in Vietnam.” This study made it clear that in order to turn the tide, the U.S. would need to abandon the strategy of waging a war of attrition, and instead gain the trust of ordinary civilians. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Security Advisor Robert Comer to create CORDS, a comprehensive pacification program that would involve the military and various civilian agencies.

Read more

A Growing Community: The Early Days of EU Enlargement

When people think of the European Union (EU), they think of Brexit. They think of the rise of nationalism and how it will affect the future of Europe. They think of the common currency, the Euro, and the ease of inter-country traveling due to the implementation of the Schengen Area.

But how many are aware of the history of its formation?

The EU has not always resembled its current state.

European Union Flag (2019) arembowski | pixabay.com
European Union Flag (2019) arembowski | pixabay.com

After experiencing two costly world wars, European countries aimed to unite the continent economically and politically. This took the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1950 by Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In 1957, this union evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC), the “Common Market,” through the ratification of the Treaty of Rome. The goal of the EEC was to increase European economic integration through a common market and customs union. The following year, member states founded the European Parliament, which was initially composed of representatives elected by the national parliaments in each country.

Read more

Chad’s Presidential Elections in 2016—“My Husband has Disappeared”

During the 2016 presidential elections in Chad, a number of Chadian military personnel went missing. Chad’s current president, Idriss Déby, was re-elected for a fifth term, having been in power since December 1990 when he led a coup d’état against Chad’s former president, Hissène Habré. President Déby also faced a number of rebellions in the beginning of his rule, after which he took steps towards establishing democracy in Chad.

Chadian woman voting during the 2016 presidential election. Une Tchadienne se fait aider à placer son bulletin dans l'urne à côté d'autres électeurs qui attendent dans un bureau de vote à N'Djamena, Tchad, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia
Chadian woman voting during the 2016 presidential election. Une Tchadienne se fait aider à placer son bulletin dans l'urne à côté d'autres électeurs qui attendent dans un bureau de vote à N'Djamena, Tchad, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Joyce Namde, who lived in Chad with her family in the 1980s and was Deputy Chief of Mission there 2015–2017, gives her insights on democracy and elections in Chad. Having witnessed the very coup that brought Idriss Déby to power and the events surrounding his presidential election in 2016, she emphasizes the significance of free and fair elections for democracies and the lack thereof in Chad. For the 2016 elections, Joyce Namde and the U.S. Embassy set up a monitoring operation in N’Djamena to ensure fairness of the elections. They also supported the opposition’s right to participate in the elections, and helped the detained activists and opposition get out of jail.

One of the most striking events that happened during the 2016 election was the disappearance of military personnel who voted against the current president. Joyce Namde recalls a moment when one of the embassy’s staff members said that her husband had disappeared. After a short while, and as a result of pressure from the U.S. and other embassies, the missing slowly started to return to N’Djamena.

Read more

“Dealing with Ships is a Different World”—Maritime Difficulties in the Azores

The work of a Foreign Service Officer is rarely quiet or uneventful, and often involves navigating tricky relationships between the laws of the country in which one is posted and the interests of the United States. Adding in the rules, both written and unwritten, of the maritime world only complicates matters when an officer gets posted at a coastal site.

Ponta Delgada (2003) | Feliciano Guimarães, WikiMedia Commons
Ponta Delgada (2003) | Feliciano Guimarães, WikiMedia Commons

James McGunnigle arrived in the Portuguese-held autonomous territory of the Azores islands in 1966 as a newly-minted Foreign Service Officer. As he navigated his new career, the ports of Ponta Delgada brought unexpected challenges to his daily work. Along the coast, any number of ships from any number of countries could stop by to refuel, dock, or seek assistance. With each new arrival, the specifics could vary wildly, leaving those in the consulate to manage new issues in their wake.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” McGunnigle recounts a few of his more memorable experiences with the ships that marked the coastline of his very first posting abroad. He discusses covert oil spills from docking ships and the implications of the laws of the sea with a death onboard a vessel.

Read more

Backchannels at Home: The Relationship Between Congress and the Foreign Service

In 1979 Congress did something both bold and unusual. That year, President Carter was attempting to build a stronger relationship with mainland China to create a united front in East Asia. To do this, he planned on ending America’s defense agreement with Taiwan. However, in a total reversal, Congress took the reins on U.S. foreign policy by passing its own legislation on Taiwan and scuttled President Carter’s plan.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Session. National Museum of American Diplomacy. Photographer Unknown
Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Session. National Museum of American Diplomacy. Photographer Unknown

The Taiwan Relations Act strengthened America’s ties to Taiwan and fostered the relationship we continue to share today. It also displayed the immense power Congress has to set American foreign policy that lasts longer than any presidential terms. When Congress decides to take action, it is in the best interests of the Foreign Service to be part of that conversation.

Though Congress has had the ability to set foreign policy for decades, only the Executive Branch has the bureaucracy, the intelligence capabilities, and the information chains working around the clock to implement its own notions of foreign affairs. Instead of a bureaucracy, members of Congress have to rely on their own overburdened staffers or drawn out hearings to get the information they need. These congressional staffers often have high turnover rates, multiple issue areas to work on, and little to no field experience in foreign policy. This, combined with the need for consensus and compromise, makes Congress the underdog when it comes to formulating foreign policy. It also makes them eager consumers of information—information that, very often, the Foreign Service has at its disposal.

Read more

Barranquilla Nights—Braving a Difficult Time in Colombia

Annie Pforzheimer entered the U.S. Foreign Service when she was twenty-four years old and was immediately whisked away to Barranquilla, Colombia, which at the time (1989) was a two-person post that was known for bearing witness to tremendous amounts of violence. Pforzheimer lived and worked at a time where there was extensive political turmoil as well as the ever present “drug wars” between different Colombian drug lords, both of which contributed greatly to her experience as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in Colombia.

Barranquilla, Colombia. Taken on March 27, 2007 by F3rn4nd0. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Barranquilla, Colombia. Taken on March 27, 2007 by F3rn4nd0. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Working as a Vice Consul issuing visas to Colombians looking to work/live in the United States, Pforzheimer’s story is an eyewitness account of Colombia during this time of unrest.

While in Barranquilla, Pforzheimer saw firsthand the effects of the “drug war” that was occurring at the time. It was deemed dangerous enough that she commuted to and from work in armored cars accompanied by armed bodyguards. She lived in a building that required more than eight different security measures to get into her apartment. She feared being kidnapped (something with which the woman whom she replaced at the Consulate had been threatened) and had to use judgement and exercise extreme caution when deciding to go out and about in the city. In fact, her protection and survival depended on such security measures because the Colombian government was fighting drug cartels and drug lords all over the country, including in Barranquilla. During Pforzheimer’s tour, the 1990 Colombian presidential election took place in the context of a long history of the tumultuous political environment of Colombia. A number of politically motivated assassinations occurred in the run up to the election, which coincided with Pforzheimer’s arrival in Barranquilla as an entry-level officer, thus introducing her to the dangers of political violence very early on in her career.

Read more

An Exchange Program Between Japan and Michigan

Following the Allied victory in World War II and a period of U.S. occupation, the United States and Japan put relations on equal footing starting in 1952. Armed with fluent Japanese skills and in-depth knowledge in industrial relations, Professor Solomon B. Levine travelled back and forth from the United States and Japan and became a pioneer in the study of Japanese industrial and labor relations.

Ford Escorts on an Assembly Line, 1970s | Wikimedia Commons
Ford Escorts on an Assembly Line, 1970s | Wikimedia Commons

Levine made a total of twenty-seven trips to Japan with the help of government grants and funds. Interestingly, instead of a collaboration between the Japanese government and the U.S. government on a federal level, Levine was part of a state-level labor exchange program between the Shiga prefecture and Michigan.

The Shiga government wanted U.S. investment and hoped that it would come from big corporations. The “Big Three”—General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles—were all nestled in Michigan, which provided a great environment for Shiga to satisfy its long-term interests. The program was advertised as an opportunity for young people in Michigan to learn Japanese and the nation’s culture. Moreover, it was a way to pull funds and U.S. talent to boost Japanese-U.S. business ties.

The exchange program did not come to fruition without controversy. The government of Shiga had built two buildings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which were then gifted to the state to be the Michigan Center for Japanese Studies. The Michigan government also took part of its state budget and scholarship money to pay for the institute. This collaboration quickly became a hot button issue during a time when Americans saw Japan as a rising industrial threat. As a result, the program’s budget was cut in half and was sidelined by the creation of a private foundation.

Read more

One for All and All for One: The Conception and Early Development of NATO

During his opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that “[I]n many ways, NATO is the ultimate expression of the ‘West.’” Born out of the ashes of World War II, this organization strives to champion the values of freedom, democracy, and peace, in turn functioning as a beacon of hope for the Western world.

Flag of NATO (1953) | Wikimedia
Flag of NATO (1953) | Wikimedia

However, the pursuit of such ideals is rarely without its challenges, and NATO is no exception to this trend; in its early days, NATO faced a slew of internal and external difficulties—difficulties that in certain cases have subsided and in others have only perhaps become further exacerbated.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Ambassador Theodore Achilles identified two particular challenges in his experience of establishing and developing NATO. The first concerns the fear of a spreading communist influence. The U.S. standing their ground against the Soviet request for France and China to be absent from the initial peace treaties provided proof for one critical concept: the Soviet Union was not going to reasonably cooperate with the West anytime soon. It therefore appeared crucial to certain officials that NATO in turn had to develop an agenda aimed at preventing the rise of Communism throughout the world, not only within Eastern Europe but also within Western countries such as France and Italy.

Read more

The Royal Family of Swaziland Raises Awareness About AIDS

In 1995 the Apartheid era came to an end in South Africa, yet many still found themselves shouldering Apartheid’s tragic legacy. Their escape was Swaziland. The landlocked country within South Africa became a destination for South Africans, both Black and White, to unwind and seek a different perspective on South Africa’s remaining tensions. However, Swaziland was not without its own hardships.

An AIDS/HIV Awareness Billboard in Swaziland (2007) | HEARD
An AIDS/HIV Awareness Billboard in Swaziland (2007) | HEARD

At the time, approximately 22 percent of Swaziland was infected with HIV/AIDS—a daunting number that almost went unrecognized. People traveling back and forth from South Africa to Swaziland would carry and spread the disease, not knowing if they were infected or not. The infection rate was later estimated to be around 25 or 30 percent, giving it the highest prevalence of infection out of any nation in the world. Swaziland’s marginalized and criminalized groups, such as sex workers, were estimated to have the world’s highest prevalence at 60.8 percent. With the stigma surrounding the disease and the lack of public knowledge about its transmission, the silent epidemic ravaged the nation; hospitals were overwhelmed with an excess of patients disguised as TB (tuberculosis) diagnoses.

Read more

The Road to Reunification: Remembering the Reintegration of East and West Germany

The road to German reunification was long, turbulent, and beset with political obstacles. Despite the challenges, German reunification represents a major event that ultimately heralded the end of the Cold War. As the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union itself unwound, U.S. diplomats in Germany carefully monitored the situation in hopes that reunification was imminent. One such diplomat was Ralph Ruedy, who witnessed the end of the Cold War in Bonn, Germany.

Pro-reunification demonstrations in the city of Leipzig in 1989. Source: (1989) Wikimedia Commons
Pro-reunification demonstrations in the city of Leipzig in 1989. Source: (1989) Wikimedia Commons

Ruedy began to feel that the “handwriting was on the wall” for the end of the German Democratic Republic when, in 1989, Hungary dismantled its border fence with Austria. At this point, thousands of East Germans drove to Hungary so that they could cross the border into the West. Throughout that year, people continued to defect to the West by the thousands, and weekly demonstrations calling for freedom of movement for East Germans began.

In the wake of the mass defections, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in East Germany to meet with Erich Honecker, the notoriously authoritarian East German leader. Privately, some in the U.S diplomatic community in Germany were concerned that his proposed reforms would placate the population enough to stop pushing for reunification. As it turned out, they didn’t need to worry. In line with his track record of reform, Gorbachev encouraged Honecker to ease his restrictive regime, but Honecker refused. Before long, Honecker was ousted, and the East German government scrambled to find his replacement. As it turned out, Honecker’s ousture spelled the end of the East German state. On November 9, 1989, massive demonstrations forced the opening of the Berlin Wall, effectively bringing an end to the divide between the two Germanies.

Read more