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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.
 

Putin in the Making—A Sour First Impression?

Who exactly is Vladimir Putin and how was his experience with U.S. high-level officials as a Russian deputy mayor? To understand Putin today, we must also understand him in the past. The president of Russia was not always the leader of his country. Like many leaders, he was once a government employee, following someone else’s orders, and reporting to a higher ranking official.

Official Portrait of Vladimir Putin (2013) Presidential Press and Information Office www.kremlin.ru | Wikimedia
Official Portrait of Vladimir Putin (2013) Presidential Press and Information Office www.kremlin.ru | Wikimedia

Putin’s current role as president likely overshadows his previous days as a KGB foreign intelligence officer and later as deputy mayor of Moscow. However, this excerpt by Commercial Service Officer Karen Zens shows otherwise, as she recounts one of Deputy Mayor Putin’s first interactions with the United States following the fall of the Soviet Union. This exclusive story gives us some insight on how Putin’s earlier interactions with the United States paved the way for his future foreign relations.

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No More Kicking Balloons, Bags, or Rags—Building Goodwill in Guinea

Ever since the Kennedy administration, the United States has increasingly felt a sense of responsibility for people in Africa. As a result, the United States has had numerous Peace Corps missions and USAID projects spread throughout the continent. In Guinea,

Ahmed Sékou Touré (1962) Unknown author | Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau
Ahmed Sékou Touré (1962) Unknown author | Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau

however, by 1975 the Peace Corps had been in and out of the small country twice, and the United States had virtually no aid projects on the ground.

When career Foreign Service Officer William C. “Bill” Harrop arrived in Africa to take up his duties as ambassador, Guinea was going through a rough patch. President Sékou Touré, leader of the radical pan-Africanist movement, had been in office for over twelve years. Guinea, a country that had been relatively prosperous, was stricken by poverty as a result of Touré’s socialist leadership. While the Soviets and the Chinese operated from a strong position, by comparison the United States had a relatively modest presence in the small nation.

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“The Times They Are a-Changin”—Working in the Context of Social Revolution

While U.S. State Department employees regularly serve in the midst of pivotal international agreements and turmoil, the events going on surrounding their personal lives are often equally fascinating. Social change, and in some cases rebellion, characterized the formative years of many senior U.S. diplomats.

Draft Card Burning NYC (15 April 1967) Universal News| Internet Archive
Draft Card Burning NYC (15 April 1967) Universal News| Internet Archive

From the 1963 March on Washington to the Bureau of Indian Affairs take-over in 1972, this era was packed with previously unheard voices. While such voices did eventually affect change even in the venerable institution of the State Department, their currents were not unfelt by young up-and-coming members of the time.

Attending school at Texas A&M and Berkeley in the late 60s, USAID officer Craig Buck experienced first-hand the ripples caused by these events. With fears of being drafted to Vietnam shadowing thoughts of graduation, and notable political assassinations dominating the news, caprice and uncertainty were the themes of the time. Keep reading to find out about Craig Buck’s brushes with South American rebels, affiliation with Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, and other social stirrings.

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Ending South African Apartheid: Guiding U.S. Policy Towards South Africa with Secret Knowledge

In a one-on-one meeting in 1989, the future president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, gave Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. “Hank” Cohen a preview of a plan that potentially would redefine the nation’s identity and help start it down the path of reconciliation. De Klerk promised that if elected he would end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela!

Frederik Willem de Klerk | Wikimedia Commons
Frederik Willem de Klerk | Wikimedia Commons

However, Hank Cohen would have to navigate several policy challenges in order to help steer U.S. foreign policy on South Africa towards achieving this plan. De Klerk was not yet elected, and it would be a six-month wait until the elections. To complicate matters, U.S. Congress was calling for more and tougher sanctions on South Africa. Cohen would have to keep de Klerk’s plan a secret and buy enough time to stave off more sanctions before the South African elections.

In 1989, the United States and South Africa had a contentious relationship. South Africa was punished with various economic sanctions as a result of its apartheid policies and the harsh treatment of its largely black population. Since 1949, the white Afrikaner minority had kept control of political power in the government through this systematic discrimination and segregation of non-whites. Apartheid’s ingrained racism and inequality brought social instability and violence. The South African government banned the African National Congress [ANC]—the largest black political party—to suppress black political power; Nelson Mandela’s subsequent arrest as a political prisoner further fueled internal dissent. South Africa became the target of frequent international criticism, economic sanctions, and arms bans, which pushed it into relative isolation from the international community for about forty years.

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Wikileaks: The Revelation That Shook U.S. Diplomacy

As the hearings of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange continue, the question of whether he will be extradited to the United States remains uncertain. New scandals continue to pop up as Assange contends that former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said that President Trump would give him a pardon in exchange for disclosing the source of the Hillary Clinton emails.

Wikileaks Logo (2008) Wikileaks | Wikimedia Commons
Wikileaks Logo (2008) Wikileaks | Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, the impact of Assange and Wikileaks starts far before the 2016 election and his current trials that brought him further notoriety.

Wikileaks first reached international prominence at the beginning of 2010 with the release of U.S. military and diplomatic documents. The quarter of a million diplomatic cables Wikileaks published became known as Cablegate and were published by news organizations around the world. These cables are often credited as serving as a catalyst for the Arab Spring by revealing the corruption in numerous governments around the world, especially the Middle East.

Wikileaks operations continue to remain controversial as some claim that the public has a right to know the information, while others contend that Assange is nothing more than a common criminal. However, no matter one’s stance on the Wikileaks revelations, their influence on U.S. diplomacy cannot be understated. U.S. diplomats were applauded for their hard-hitting and accurate reports, but their revelation and exposure greatly hurt the trust of their contacts abroad and put some of them in danger.
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“I Heard Something Ticking Away”—Diplomats Dealing With Explosives

Managing personal security is an important part of a Foreign Service Officer’s training. Weapons of mass destruction, sexual assault, cyberattacks, hostage situations, and especially bomb threats are just some of the terrible threats they face. Although awareness and training for diplomatic personnel has improved over the years, the menace has not necessarily decreased.

USAF EOD explosion (2009) Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal | Wikimedia
USAF EOD explosion (2009) Senior Airman Christopher Hubenthal | Wikimedia

Serving abroad comes with a high risk, especially for people representing the United States.

Political Officer Ernest Siracusa was in Buenos Aires, Argentina when the Argentine Navy and Air Force bombed Plaza de Mayo square, targeting a large crowd expressing support for President Juan Perón. It is to this day the largest aerial bombing on the Argentine mainland. Siracusa was so close he could see the bombing from his window.

So what should personnel do if faced with a bomb threat? The established protocol for dealing with a suspicious object is not to touch it. Personnel are instead advised to evacuate the area and notify authorities. But what should they do if authorities show up late? What if there are no experts in the area? In this “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, read about diplomats dealing with bomb threats in different (and sometimes rather unconventional) ways.

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Building a Country from Scratch—The South Sudanese Transition to Independence (2005-2011)

Creating a country ex nihilo is never an easy feat. How does one construct functional government institutions from scratch in a land that has been in conflict for decades? Ethnic tensions and former colonial administrations make this uphill battle even steeper. South Sudan faced this very situation

South Sudan independence celebration (2011) USAID | Wikimedia
South Sudan independence celebration (2011) USAID | Wikimedia

after signing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Through the CPA, the governing National Congress Party of the North made peace with the South, which was controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) led by John Garang.

The conflict had been sparked by the Arab dominated North imposing direct control and Sharia law over the predominantly Christian and traditional South. Southern leaders created the SPLA/M and rose up in revolt to fight for Southern autonomy. By 2004, twenty-one years of continuous armed conflict led to widespread destruction, the deaths of millions, and the displacement of millions more. The 2005 CPA established power sharing between North and South, created an autonomous regional government, and established a six-year transition period during which a referendum on independence would be held. This meant a government would have to be created—including new ministries and government institutions built from the ground up—and governance would have to be established.

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“Till Death Do Us Part”—Relationships for Women in the Foreign Service

Women have come a long way in fighting for equality within the workforce. This has inevitably shaped relationships for women throughout all careers. Within the Foreign Service, a woman’s career, both formal and informal, has not only been vital to promoting American diplomacy, but also has seen a dramatic change when it comes to women’s social and romantic relationships.

During the early days of the Foreign Service, women mostly served in an unofficial capacity as wives of their Foreign Service Officer husbands, though they often figured into their husband’s official performance evaluations. Over time, as more women joined the Foreign Service, they faced sexism and institutionalized discrimination in hiring, pay, promotion, and a requirement for female FSOs to resign when they get married. Although the women’s movement and legal victories have helped women advance in the workforce, women still make important sacrifices to manage relationships and marriage in the Foreign Service—whether as a single person, a “trailing spouse,” or as a part of a tandem couple.

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Ethic Tensions Boil Over in Malaysia’s 13 May 1969 Incident

A single election can have many impacts, but one in particular unmasked a deep, controversial issue based on ethnic tensions. The 1969 general election in Malaysia sparked a horrific outbreak of violent rioting and brutal conflict between two struggling forces. What came to be known as the “13 May Incident” resulted in at least 196 civilian deaths in Kuala Lumpur.

Governmental Office at Kuala Lumpur in Selangor (circa 1900) Lambert & Co., G. R. / Singapore | Wikimedia
Governmental Office at Kuala Lumpur in Selangor (circa 1900) Lambert & Co., G. R. / Singapore | Wikimedia

Former Foreign Service Officers David Brown and Alphonse La Porta both served as political officers in Kuala Lumpur and provided first-hand accounts of the environment leading up to, during, and after this pivotal election.

The 1969 election resulted in a shift of representational power within the Malaysian Parliament. The Alliance Party, representing the majority Malay population, lost seats to the newly established opposition Chinese parties, the Democratic Action Party, and the Parti Gerakan. While the Chinese are a minority in Malaysia, they hold substantial socio-economic power, and as a result have steadily increased their influence both economically and politically. The political victories of these Chinese political parties sparked race riots based on deep-seated ethnic tension dating back to Malaysia’s British colonial rule.

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George W. Bush and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief

Forty million total cases. Three million deaths. One year. This was not the casualty of a bloody global conflict, but the state of the HIV/AIDS Crisis in 2003 when President George W. Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). Since the beginning of this program it has provided over $80 billion dollars for AIDS funding and saved an estimated 17 million lives.

PEPFAR Logo (2007) US Government | Wikimedia Commons
PEPFAR Logo (2007) US Government | Wikimedia Commons

In doing so, it also represented a rarity in today’s highly polarized environment: a bipartisan agreement from policymakers that the U.S. had a responsibility to help those in need.

Yet, while the results of PEPFAR seem indisputable, during its early years, many people doubted the efficacy of the program. Implementation problems on the ground, interagency conflicts, and public perception of the program were some of many issues the new initiative faced as it attempted to tackle the global AIDS crisis. In its first five years, the program focused on working directly with fifteen so-called “focus countries” that were considered to have both the highest rates of AIDS and the fewest resources to deal with the disease. After this initial five-year period expired, PEPFAR was reauthorized with a focus on developing long term partnerships with countries that would work to shift the leadership of the fight towards the partner nations.

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