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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.

A Problem in Palau: Negotiating Free Association Status with the Micronesian Islands

In a Hawaiian hotel room sat a U.S. ambassador and officials from Palau, peering over details of a treaty to define the tiny Pacific nation’s relations with the United States. The clock was ticking—if the two delegations were unable to reach an agreement by the end of that year, 1980, the results of the American presidential election could put the entire deal in jeopardy. The treaty in question was the Compact of Free Association, and it would determine not just the future of Palau, but also that of its U.S.-administered neighbors: the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Prospects for a deal grew markedly worse when Palau adopted a constitution containing provisions on nuclear weapons, eminent domain and territorial waters to which the United States strongly objected.  The crisis in Palau threatened to derail a years-long process in which Palau and neighboring U.S.-administered territories sought “free association” with the United States — an international status close to independence, which would give the Micronesian micro-states far greater control over their own affairs. The ambassador representing the United States in these complex negotiations, Peter Rosenblatt, helped engineer a solution that permitted Palau to waive its constitutional provisions in order to achieve the desired compact with the United States.  That saved the deal, despite Jimmy Carter’s loss in the 1980 presidential election and growing political opposition in the United States.

Ambassador Peter R. Rosenblatt recounts in his oral history the steps taken to ensure a successful outcome, benefitting both the Micronesian islands and the United States. Before the Micronesia negotiations, Rosenblatt worked as a White House staff member in the Johnson administration, then served as consul general in Saigon (Vietnam) from 1969-1970.

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Building a Personal Relationship: The U.S. Ambassador and President of Senegal

It was nearing 11 o’clock at night when the phone rang. “How was the speech?” Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas was surprised to hear President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal on the other end, asking her opinion of a speech he had given the night before.  This would not be an isolated occurrence in an unusually close relationship between this American ambassador and an African head of state.

Well before serving as the ambassador to Senegal, Elam-Thomas recognized the importance of creating genuine connections and credible personal relationships–at all levels. As she explains in her oral history, “I make it a practice to give respect and honor to the secretaries of all principals with whom I meet at home and abroad.” As ambassador, Elam-Thomas recognized the importance of personal diplomacy and found ways to connect with her most important interlocutor–the sometimes-prickly President Abdoulaye Wade.  

A highly honored diplomat, Harriet L. Elam-Thomas’s first overseas tour as a foreign service officer was in the same place she finished her career – Senegal. First serving as Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer in the mid-70s, Elam-Thomas would eventually serve as the Counselor and Acting Deputy Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) before returning to Senegal as ambassador in 2000.

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Stirrings of Islamic Militancy in Nigeria: An Ambassador’s Recollections

When Thomas Pickering was Ambassador to Nigeria in 1980-83, he witnessed the stirrings of Islamic militancy and other transformations of the centuries-old practice of Islam in that country.  Fringe fractions were emerging in some regions. The “Maitatsine,” loyal to Mohammed Marwa, whose followers believed him to be prophet, brought major rioting to Kano. Marwa was killed. The Maitatsine and various syncretic groups had a strong hold on social and individual life in some parts of the countryside.  Where they held power, the Maitatsine and other groups strictly enforced their beliefs, taking militant action against those who disagreed.

Following the 1980 events in Kano, riots continued sporadically until 1985 at various locations in northern Nigeria, with the death toll reportedly exceeding 4,000.  Pickering speculates that these developments may have helped lay the groundwork for militant Muslim opposition to anti-polio campaigns and the emergence of the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Pickering also witnessed the early days of the movement in parts of northern Nigeria to adopt Sharia law.  By the end of the 1980s, some form of Sharia law had been adopted in a dozen Nigerian states. Many domestic and international groups objected to these developments, with particular tension arising over the potential application of Sharia law to non-Muslims.  

Thomas Pickering joined the State Department in 1959. Among the most accomplished diplomats of his generation, Pickering was U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, and Russia. While serving as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations The New York Times described him as “arguably the best-ever U.S. representative to that body.” He was Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and ended his federal government career as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (1997-2001). He retired from the Foreign Service in 2001, and has remained active in the international affairs community–including as a frequent commentator on various broadcast networks.

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Spies and Prostitutes: Memories of a Visa Officer in Post-WWII Greece

In post-World War II Greece, U.S. consular officers met all kinds of people—from suspected spies to prostitutes.  Don Gelber was on his first diplomatic assignment. When a wealthy young American married a young Greek woman and sought to bring her to the United States, Geber did a routine background check — only to learn that the woman had once claimed to have seduced a U.S. cryptographic clerk.  She then went on to seduce the U.S. psychiatrist brought in to evaluate her mental stability. In another case, the visa applicant claimed not to remember multiple arrests for solicitation, beginning on the day the British liberated Athens in 1944. Her U.S. husband, who was apparently once employed by the C.I.A., told the consular officer “I’m no spring chicken. How do you think we got together?”

Gelber went on to a long and fulfilling career in the foreign service. After his service as vice consul in Athens, political officer in Pakistan and Turkey, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Nigeria.  He ended his foreign service career as the U.S. ambassador to Mali in 1990-93. He also worked as a political advisor to NATO at the Supreme Headquarters in Belgium from 1986 to 1990, and at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City between 1993 and 1995.

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Freezing in the Dark: the First Years of the USAID Mission in Ukraine

Using candles for light, huddling into the warmest room, tapping into government telephone lines to make calls—these were the conditions USAID officers faced when trying to set up a regional mission in newly-independent Ukraine.  Food was scarce in the winter of 1994-95, and temperatures were among the lowest on record. Then politics in both Ukraine and the United States made the situation worse. The Minister of Industry cut off the electricity and telephone to USAID’s temporary office in 1995 following a murky dispute within Ukraine’s leadership.  And the U.S. government shut down over budget disputes that severely impacted USAID’s ability to carry out its development program.

USAID’s new mission in Kiev was one of many U.S. government efforts to engage with the newly-independent countries of Eastern Europe in the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse.  USAID Program Officer Anne Aarnes and her team worked against all these challenges, and persevered in their development work, not only in Ukraine, but in Moldova and Belarus as well.

Anne Aarnes holds a degree in Political Science from George Washington University and had extensive experience with USAID’s Asia Bureau. She would go on to become Deputy Mission Director for USAID in Bangladesh and Egypt, Mission Director in Jordan and Pakistan, and Central Asia Regional Mission Director in Kazakhstan.

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USAID and American “Whole-of-Government” Efforts in Afghanistan, 2004-2005

USAID had to cooperate closely with the U.S. military and others in a “whole-of-government” effort to stabilize and develop Afghanistan in 2004-05.  That meant managing a $1 billion budget, working 16 hours days, and asking majors and lieutenant colonels to help plan and execute civilian projects.  For USAID mission director Patrick Fine, that also meant outfitting an “Afghan room” within the mission, raffling sheep, and fasting during Ramadan.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 aimed to dismantle al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power, but it quickly expanded to include civilian and developmental components.  This effort focused on helping stabilize the country and establish the legitimacy of the Afghan government. When Patrick Fine arrived on the scene in 2004, he found that a majority of Afghans welcomed and supported the U.S. development role.  But he found big problems as well, including insurgencies launched by the Taliban and other groups, and destabilization inspired by Pakistan.

In organizing unprecedented interagency collaboration, Fine was able to bridge the gap between the military and civilian perspectives on these difficult challenges. He also affirmed his respect for the local culture by fostering positive relationships founded on mutual respect and understanding.

Patrick Fine was a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland after graduating from the University of Missouri, and before earning a master’s at the University of Massachusetts.  He joined USAID in 1988 and began by working on education in Swaziland, Uganda, and South Africa. Fine later was the deputy USAID mission director in Senegal before serving as mission director in Afghanistan.

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Development and Defoliation During the Vietnam War: A USAID Officer’s Tale

How do you reconcile the goals of the U.S. military, USAID development workers and State Department diplomats in the midst of an active conflict?  USAID Officer George Laudato faced that dilemma in a particularly challenging way when U.S. military officials shared plans to defoliate a village in Vietnam where USAID had been working for over a year to achieve long-term, sustainable development goals.  

Laudato worked with USAID’s Civilian Office for Rural Development Support (CORDS) in Vietnam from 1967-70.  In his oral history, Laudato reflects on the difficulty of achieving coherent U.S. foreign policy on the ground in the midst of war.

George Laudato was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama before joining USAID.  His first USAID assignment was in Vietnam in the midst of the war. Later in his career, Laudato served in Washington, the Philippines and Egypt (twice). He retired from USAID after 33 years of service, but was brought back to serve as USAID’s director for the Middle East. He retired from the agency for the final time in 2011.  Laudato has since served as chair of the Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations, and as an advisor to Arizona State University..

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South Korea’s 1987 “Tear Gas Festival:” The Path to Democratic Elections

South Korea was in a haze in 1987—both literally and figuratively. After years of de facto military dictatorship, the populace was demanding greater political freedom.  The path to more democracy was marked by massive protests and the pervasive haze of tear gas. For weeks, police clashed each night with up to three million people crowding the streets of Seoul.  A key demand: direct and democratic presidential elections.

Ruling party candidate and designated successor Roh Tae-woo triumphed in the presidential election in December, 1987 after the opposition split.  Two months later the opposition united and won critical legislative elections. The results surprised even the opposition, which initially repeated familiar critiques of government corruption and unfairness–rather than celebrate their own victory.

David C. Pierce arrived in Seoul in 1983 as a economic officer, and quickly recognized the close connection between the changing economy and the country’s volatile politics.  As the situation grew more tense, Pierce was asked to serve as a political/military officer. In that capacity, he covered the critical period of protests and transformation that embassy officers came to call the “tear gas festival.”

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Guatemala in the 1960s: Vigilantes or Government Operatives?

Young political officer William Newlin arrived in Guatemala in early 1966 amidst worsening political and social chaos.  As the civil war raged, thousands of people began disappearing from universities, churches, and media institutions. The Guatemalan government claimed that a right-wing insurgency group was orchestrating the disappearancesthe Mano Blanca (White Hand).  An official, top-secret U.S. government report supported these claims.   Newlin knew that was wrong. His sources led him to believe that Mano Blanca did not exist independently; it was a front for a Guatemalan government operationone that was killing its own people.

Newlin refused to let senior U.S. officials in Washington be misled by a deeply flawed report.  So he decided to address it head-on. With support from Ambassador John Gordon Mein, Newlin drafted a paper to send to Washington describing the Guatemalan government role in the campaign of disappearances.  One key message was blunt: by supporting the Guatemalan government, Newlin said, the United States was complicit.

The Guatemalan civil war spanned over three decades (1960-1996) and twelve dictatorial leaders.  It cost an estimated 200,000 lives. The United States had special involvement from the startbeginning when the CIA aided the army’s overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, and ending with millions of dollars in aid sent by the United States to the Guatemalan military in the 1980s.

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A Foe in Need: Famine in North Korea

A disastrous famine struck the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1997.  Dubbed “The March of Suffering” by the North Korean government, hundreds of thousands of people in the countryside starved. The famine arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s former patron, and was exacerbated by a series of floods.  It also came in the midst of efforts to implement and verify a 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang on steps toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

With little background in North Korea, USAID was asked to assess the famine and help coordinate a U.S. response.  Leonard Rogers headed USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Response at the time. He traveled to North Korea and helped organize a coordinated international program of famine assistance.  And along the way, he and the agency had to make some tough calls. How to avoid humanitarian assistance being used, or seen, as a political tool? Some of the most struggling states are also the most tyrannical.  How can we ensure that humanitarian assistance does not shore up a tyrannical regime that continues to violate the human rights of their own citizens? In his oral history, Rogers describes how he tackled these issues.

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