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Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Kissinger and Zhou Enlai

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(s) interviewed. The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government nor the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

James Baldwin: The Expatriate Who Fought for His Country

James Baldwin is counted among the greatest and most influential of American authors. He died in 1987 at the age of 65, but his novels and commentary on race, sexuality, class, bigotry, and social activism continue to influence and inform discussions on these issues today. Baldwin moved to France in 1948 at the age of 24. He sought to escape the limitations and danger a young, black, gay man faced in America, and to focus fully on his writing. He would go on to live most of his life as an expatriate, though he later suggested “commuter” was a more accurate description. Despite his years abroad, Baldwin’s connection to the United States and his exploration of American identity not only endured, but strengthened.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” -Baldwin

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Combatting Corruption in Egypt During the Arab Spring: USAID’s Role

The eighteen-day revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 brought a wave of democracy to Egypt—one that was widely supported by the United States and much of the international community. Despite Mubarak’s reluctance to step down and efforts to eliminate Egypt’s internet access during the protests, the mass assembly in Tahrir Square eventually pushed the president of nearly three decades to resign and to hand power over to Egypt’s military. Shortly after, Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party took office as the first democratically-elected president of Egypt. President Morsi had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that played a leading role in the 2011 protests to oust Mubarak. Despite hopes for an open, democratic government, Morsi (with continued strong support from the Muslim Brotherhood) grew increasingly autocratic,  This led to further political instability and a military coup d’état which removed Morsi from power in 2013.

Foreign Service National (FSN) Ali Kamel Ali worked with USAID for 25 years, specializing in agricultural economic development. Kamel was even once referred to as “the most prominent person at USAID” by a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. As an Egyptian-born FSN, Kamel handled heightened responsibility working with the Egyptian government amidst the budget cuts, policy reversals, and increased lack of communication during the chaos and political instability of the Arab Spring and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those who worked with Kamel valued his ability to “bring the two cultures together—the American and Egyptian.”  Ali Kamel was interviewed by Carole Peasley on December 19, 2016.  

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Witness to the Start of Sri Lanka’s Brutal Civil War

The Sri Lankan Civil War was one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent times, claiming the lives of nearly 100,000 people. Foreign Service Officer Dorothy Black was posted in Sri Lanka in the early years of the conflict (1983-86) and recalls a time of constant tension, political intransigence, and death.  Terrorists routinely placed plastic bombs on the underside of vehicles in the capital of Colombo, leading to tight security measures throughout the city.  Areas of Sri Lanka that were strongholds of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were off-limits for just about everyone, including diplomats.  Tourism dried up.  There was even a case where a USAID couple was kidnapped by terrorists and held hostage. Ms. Black also speaks about the intransigence of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran—she notes that he was not ready to negotiate under any circumstance and his ruthless leadership was one of the reasons for the longevity of this civil war. Dorothy Black had a very successful career in the Foreign Service from 1966-1989, serving at posts in Germany, Nigeria, Greece, and finally Sri Lanka.  Black was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stewart Kennedy beginning September 20, 2010.

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General’s Coup Attempt Prompts Evacuation from Guinea-Bissau

At the crack of dawn on June 7, 1998, Ambassador Peggy Blackford woke to sounds of gunfire outside and someone banging on her door. Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, was under siege by army general Ansumane Mane and other dissidents in the national army. Blackford recalls how she and approximately fifty other people, including embassy staff and U.S. citizen tourists and missionaries, sheltered in the U.S. embassy while shells fell around them.

It was a week before the Portuguese Embassy was able to arrange a freighter to get people from Bissau to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The freighter carried about 3000 people of different nationalities to safety. Through extensive coordination with the American defense attache in Dakar and others who were in charge of the rescue mission, all American citizens in Guinea-Bissau were evacuated safely by June 13, leaving only five American diplomats (one of whom was Peggy Blackford). The State Department contracted a river oil tanker to pick up the remaining diplomats on Sunday, June 14, 1998, which transported them to Banjul, the capital of The Gambia. Blackford recalls this successful rescue mission in her oral history. Blackford had a distinguished career in the Foreign Service serving in Kenya, Brazil, Zimbabwe, France, Mali, and finally Guinea-Bissau. The interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on November 28, 2016.

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Keeping Kissinger Current at the Outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War

Ted Feifer wrote daily briefs for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975.  By the time it ended in approximately 1990, the war had claimed the lives of over 120,000 civilians.  Feifer was on his first tour in the Foreign Service, which found him working in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research (INR). As the war intensified, Feifer’s duties expanded.  He was responsible for describing the various sectarian and political militias participating in the fighting, including the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Often coming into work as early as midnight, Feifer would analyze the growing complexities of the war before compressing them into two-page briefs and handing them off to Secretary Kissinger’s assistants at six the following morning. Feifer joined the Foreign Service in 1974; during his career with the Department of State he served in various posts throughout Europe and the Middle East. Feifer also served as Deputy Director of Egyptian Affairs at the Office of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) before retiring from the State Department in 2000. Feifer was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 2015.

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The United States and South Africa: The Binational Commission in the Years Following Apartheid

Directly following the election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1994, the U.S. government began to work closely with the new South African leadership to facilitate development efforts. Before Mandela’s election, South Africa’s apartheid system and U.S. laws hindered U.S. aid. However, after the election of President Mandela, the binational “Gore-Mbeki Commission” (after Vice President Al Gore and South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki) was formed to help increase development efforts within South Africa. William Elliott, a USAID employee and Development Officer for the Office of Southern African affairs, participated in this commission. From the beginning of Mandela’s tenure as President of South Africa, Elliott was active in the various efforts by USAID and, to a lesser extent, by various other operating agencies in South Africa and the United States. Elliott was interviewed by John Pielemeier in January 2017.

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Reopening the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam: Conflicting Emotions

Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1995 to reopen the U.S. Embassy just after three weeks of President Bill Clinton announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. “All of the Americans were emotional,” recalled pioneering State Department official Joan Spero, then serving as Clinton’s Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment. Spero accompanied Christopher on the trip. The Vietnamese ensured that their itinerary took them past the site of Sen. John McCain’s plane crash and the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Despite this messaging, Spero found the Vietnamese less emotional about the visit than the American delegation. “They wanted trade. They wanted investment,” Spero recalled. “I think part of it was that they won the war.” The embassy reopened on August 5, 1995.  Spero was a Columbia University scholar and professor before joining the State Department as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Economic and Social Affairs. After a stint at senior corporate positions at American Express, Spero returned to serve as Under Secretary in the first Clinton administration. Joan Spero was interviewed by Mark Tauber in 2016.

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Being the Security Agent-in-Command During the 1985 Visit of Prince Charles and Princess Diana to America

When Prince Charles and Princess Diana of the United Kingdom came to visit the United States in 1985, Dennis Williams of the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) volunteered to be Agent-in-Command (AIC) of the British Royals’ security detail.  Ahead of the two-week visit, Williams faced a challenge convincing State Department management that he needed a full complement of 35 security agents. In the end, Williams prevailed — and during the visit he found the heir-apparent to the British monarchy “an easy guy and fun to work with.”  Williams, who was hired by Diplomatic Security in 1974, served in several notable positions throughout his tenure with the Department of State. His career included stints as Director of Physical Security Programs, and as Director of DS’s Office of Professional Development. He was a driving force behind the creation of the Diplomatic Security Training Center in 1988. Williams was interviewed by Peter Eicher in August 2007.

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1200 Monkeys Was the Least of It: a Case of Kickbacks and Sexual Harassment at USAID

Ann Van Dusen’s long and successful career USAID brought many challenges, including the case of a contractor implicated in kickbacks, sexual harassment and and the irregular importation of 1200 monkeys to the United States.  Her conclusion from the sorry 1980s episode? “It is important to find ways to make it safe for whistleblowers to speak up.” Van Dusen’s moral compass was set early. She was deeply influenced by a grandmother who was a suffragette, anti-war and civil rights activist.   Van Dusen went on to serve in multiple senior positions at USAID, and helped design the agency’s child survival strategy. After retirement, she was a founding director of Georgetown’s Masters Program for Global Human Development and served on multiple boards. Van Dusen was interviewed by Alex Shakow in October 2017.

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A “Very Japanese” Arrangement to Dismantle a Soviet MIG-25

On September 6, 1976 a MIG-25 (foxbat), the most advanced Soviet fighter jet at the time, landed at Hokadote Airport in Hokkaido, Japan. Pilot Viktor Belenko emerged waving a pistol in the air and requested asylum in the United States.  Washington promptly approved Belenko’s asylum request and asked young diplomat Nicholas Platt to handle his transfer. Washington also wanted to analyze the MIG-25. Platt and colleagues at the Japanese Foreign Ministry came up a plan to tell the Soviet Union that the landing gear on the MIG was damaged.  The aircraft needed to be transferred to the Chitose Air Base, they explained, for dismantling and shipment back to Russia. The airbase happened to be jointly operated with the United States. U.S. Air Force personnel meticulously examined and repackaged the parts of the aircraft before shipping it back. The United States got the intelligence it wanted, and the three nations avoided a more serious diplomatic standoff.

Nicholas Platt went on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, culminating in service as Ambassador to Zambia, the Philippines and Pakistan.  He is perhaps best known as a China expert, however, and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is proud to have supported publication of Platt’s memoir China Boys: How U.S. Relations with the PRC Began and Grew (2009).  Platt’s interview with David E. Reuther began on March 7, 2005. continue reading »