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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.
 

Effects of Poverty on Women’s Rights in 1990s Kenya

For women in the 1990s, Kenya was a difficult place to live. For those who came from wealthier families and could afford education, they sometimes had the resources to do great things, from simply living independently to even winning the Nobel Peace Prize as Wangari Mathai did in 2004. Unfortunately, however, poverty, lack of resources, and patriarchal laws and societal structures often prevented many women from becoming educated and achieving their full potential.

Wangari Maathai speaking at the World Social Forum. 27 January, 2007.
Wangari Maathai speaking at the World Social Forum. 27 January, 2007.

Women were expected to marry early to start a family, and families often couldn’t afford to send girls to school. Even for those who were educated, it was difficult to find jobs, and this contributed to violence, robbery, and other crime. In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action and subsequent introduction of feminist thought into Kenya began to improve women’s conditions, but they still had a long way to go. More girls began going to school and women’s education improved, but there was still a huge disparity between the wealthy and poorer classes. Even today, women have few rights to property ownership in Kenya and are often even banned from inheriting their husbands’ assets because of their gender.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Joanne Grady Huskey discusses her experiences volunteering as the head of the American Women’s Association in Kenya from 1996 to 1999 while her husband, a Foreign Service officer, was posted there. From working with Kenyan women to build a hospital and then having it taken away by the government, to even meeting a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Huskey experienced many interesting and diverse things during her time working in Kenya related to poverty and the fight for women’s rights.

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Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Establishment of the United Nations Special Commission

Following the 1990–1991 Gulf War, the United Nations wanted to prevent any further aggression, and feared that Iraq had developed nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The rest of the world could only imagine the level of mass destruction and carnage that would result if Iraq decided to use such weapons.

U.S. Military personnel examine missile, 26 May 1992, https://www.dimoc.mil
U.S. Military personnel examine missile, 26 May 1992, https://www.dimoc.mil

As a result, the United Nations developed a Special Commission (UNSCOM) to inspect Iraq’s arsenal of weapons and to ensure that Iraq complied with the regulations and guidelines pertaining to weapons of mass destruction. The international community largely considered Iraq to be responsible for the start of the Gulf War due to its invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990. As such, UNSCOM required Iraq to recognize Kuwait as an independent country and pay war reparations. It also gave the United Nations extensive insight into and supervision over Iraq’s military structures and production.

During the investigation, the Commission discovered that Iraq had indeed created weapons of mass destruction as early as the 1980s. While Iraq initially complied with the UNSCOM mandates, there was some minor conflict between UNSCOM investigators and the Iraqi military. At one point in 1991, the Iraqi military fired warning shots at the investigators to prevent them from searching vehicles that were believed to contain contraband weapons. Iraq subsequently admitted to developing nuclear weapons for defensive purposes only and complied with the UN’s rules by destroying a large part of its nuclear arsenal in the summer of 1991. Amid suspicions that the United States was using the Commision to spy on the Iraqi military and Saddam Hussein, rather than to actually fulfill its original goals, UNSCOM ended its special investigation in 1998, and was replaced by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Committee (UNMOVIC). Iraq ultimately agreed unconditionally to the searches by UNMOVIC in 2002, and the investigation ended altogether in 2005.

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Fiscal Relief in a Tumultuous Time—The Paris Club in the Nineties

At the end of World War II, Argentina was entrenched in debt and on the verge of defaulting to its creditors in Europe. However, in voicing its concerns to France, Argentina was able to secure a three-day meeting in Paris that would allow its debt to be restructured along a more reasonable timeline; this was the inception of the Paris Club.

Pont de Bercy and the Ministry of Finance in France, 2010, besopha | Wikimedia Commons
Pont de Bercy and the Ministry of Finance in France, 2010, besopha | Wikimedia Commons

The international body has since assisted nations in every part of the world in developing a more sustainable debt plan with their creditors.

Since then, the Paris Club has evolved to provide measures of debt relief and forgive portions of a country’s loan; in 1991 the capacity for a country’s debt cancellation rose to 50 percent, with the poorest countries’ development assistance debt later having the potential to be reduced by up to 90 percent. Countries receiving assistance from the Paris Club are required to have an International Monetary Fund program; and in working closely with the IMF, the Paris Club is able to glean an accurate picture of what challenges a country is facing in repaying its debt.

In the early nineties, the Paris Club dealt with manifold issues, particularly those regarding the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union—which independent states would assume the USSR’s previous debts? Also in this period, the Paris Club forgave half of Poland’s $33 billion debt, which at the time was regarded as the most generous relief policy the group had ever developed.

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An Unpopular Opinion: Tex Harris and the Yacyretá Dam Project in Argentina

To directly defy orders from one’s superiors undoubtedly takes nerve and, above all, conviction and belief in doing the right thing. In an organization like the Foreign Service, where each individual takes part in representing an entire country, such a dynamic is only amplified.

The Yacyretá Dam (2006), WikiMedia Commons
The Yacyretá Dam (2006), WikiMedia Commons

The bureaucracy of the State Department creates a concrete hierarchy. Yet, the content of life in politics is such that policy decisions made by few directly affect the lives of many.

For F. Allen “Tex” Harris, a posting in Buenos Aires, Argentina marked the beginning of two years of defiance in favor of protecting the innocent people of the country from an insidious regime at a time when the Argentine government routinely organized the “disappearance” of any dissidents. Tex Harris, to the chagrin of his superiors, began in depth investigations into these disappearances and deeper manifestations of corruption and wrong-doing by the Argentine government, putting on the line his own fledgling career in the Foreign Service as a Political Officer.

The tension between Harris and the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires came to a head with the discovery of a file on the planned Yacyretá Dam project, a hydroelectric dam to be constructed between several South American countries with EXIM [Export-Import Bank of the United States] financing for the involvement of an American company. However, Harris quickly noted something unusual about the Argentine manufacturer listed in the file he had borrowed. It had deep connections to the government regime, information that had not been shared with Washington.

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First India, Next the World: Madhumita Gupta’s Story of Determination and Drive

Madhumita Gupta had a long and successful career serving as a Foreign Service National with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Her background and upbringing played a key role in making her the person she became. She grew up in a household that was constantly brimming with knowledge.

Indian Parliament Building Delhi India. Taken by Shahnoor Habib Munmun. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Indian Parliament Building Delhi India. Taken by Shahnoor Habib Munmun. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Her father was proficient in economics and government, which led to the family moving around a lot and thus exposing Gupta to many new and different situations. Gupta’s father also had some high-profile friends, such as Dr. Kenneth Arrow, Dr. Amartya Sen, and Professor Leontief—all of whom are Nobel prize laureates. As a young woman experiencing this during her formative years, Gupta was always learning new things and this segued perfectly into her professional life. As a career Foreign Service National with USAID, she worked in many different sectors and places, with her determination and drive always pushing her towards success. All of this came together to create a unique, successful, and impactful career.

Madhumita Gupta’s father taught her many things, but it was her own discipline and drive that led to her success. She wanted to be an economist, like her father, and she notes that although he was supportive he tried to dissuade her—most likely because “he knew the frustrations of being an economist.” She pursued this interest, studied economics at American University, and received her Masters in Business Administration from George Washington University. However similar their passions, Gupta worked tirelessly and achieved everything she did on her own merit; her father always taught her to be “self-taught and self-made” and did not want his position as a well-known economist to be the reason she was able to get positions. This gave Gupta the ambition to work hard, and stands as a true testament to the idea that working hard can lead to great rewards.

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A Gift from Nixon: A Moon Pebble for Each Head of State

Almost two years ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sold the first ticket to the moon. A few months later, on January 3, 2019, a Chinese spacecraft named Chang’e 4 became the first robotic mission to land on the far side of the moon. Since then, both an Israeli ship and an Indian mission have attempted a lunar landing.

Man in Astronaut Suit (2016) Pixabay | Pexels
Man in Astronaut Suit (2016) Pixabay | Pexels

The United States and Russia have long been competing for the advantage in space technology, and now other nations have joined the so-called Space Race.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” we look back to arguably the most important moment in space exploration. When Apollo 11 finally landed humans on the moon, a sense of euphoria spread across the globe. Neil Armstrong’s now famous words, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” meant that America had achieved something previously thought to be impossible.

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A Failure of American Ideology?—The Spread of Communism in South America and the International Sphere

The United States’ war on Communism has crucially shaped much of our foreign policy today. Since the First Red Scare roughly a century ago, we have passed laws, fought wars, and set up international institutions—all in the name of preventing its proliferation. Whether we succeeded is a different story.

International Labour Organisation Logo | Youth Job Creation
International Labour Organisation Logo | Youth Job Creation

In the context of the Cold War, certain advocates will lionize the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Union as an embodiment of a U.S. ideological victory, which in turn established our country as the leader of—at least until recently—a unipolar international system. However, we cannot deny that the U.S. failed to achieve this goal in other respects, whether it be militarily, politically, or economically.

John T. Fishburn is one particular individual who witnessed firsthand the challenges and insufficiencies of American efforts on this ideological front. Throughout his time in South America, communist leaders always seemed to be present to stymie his efforts of extending U.S. relations. During his first assignment abroad to Argentina as a Labor Officer, the 1943 coup and Juan Perón’s subsequent appointment as Labor Minister restricted explicitly free democracy, in turn precipitating his transfer to Montevideo, Uruguay. Similarly in Brazil many years later, Fishburn found his role as a Labor Attaché frustrated by governmental collaborations with the communist party.

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Out with the Old, in with the New—Celebrating Georgian Independence

Every American is familiar with the excitement and patriotism that sweeps across the nation on the Fourth of July. Many spend the day with family and friends, eating BBQ, and watching the fireworks explode in the night sky. Around the world, different peoples celebrate traditions for their own national holidays, which are shaped by unique cultures and histories.

Georgian flag | publicdomainpictures.net
Georgian flag | publicdomainpictures.net

Georgia waited seventy years for its turn to celebrate its independence from the Soviet Union, and the patriotic festivities did not disappoint. However, declaring independence proved to be easier than actually living it. On May 26, 1918, following the chaos surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution, Georgian government officials signed the Act of Independence, which declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Georgia from the dying Russian Empire. Much to the Georgians’ dismay, this newfound freedom was short-lived. In early 1921, the Red Army invaded the country and annexed it into the Soviet Union. Under six decades of Soviet oppression, Georgians were unable to openly celebrate their independence until May 26, 1989, just a month after the infamous April 9 tragedy which left twenty-one Georgians dead at the hands of the Soviet government. Georgia officially seceded from the Soviet Union on April 9, 1991, just months before the final lowering of the Soviet hammer and sickle flag over the Kremlin on Christmas day.
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From the Ground Up: USAID in Post-Soviet Russia

Six months after the fall of the Soviet Union, James (Jim) Norris became the USAID mission director in Russia. Not long before he set foot on Russian soil, though, the hammer and sickle flag was still flying over the Kremlin and Mikhail Gorbachev was still in office.

Fall of the Soviet Union  (2011) Wikimedia Commons | Foreign Policy
Fall of the Soviet Union (2011) Wikimedia Commons | Foreign Policy

However, the Soviet Union fell just as quickly as it had risen sixty-nine years prior, and with its dissolution came a great deal of local and regional transformations. Boris Yeltsin assumed the presidency, Russia grappled with its new identity in the post-Soviet space, and former Republics embarked on the path to regain independence. Jim arrived just as these transformations—and more—were underway, allowing America to be right there on the ground in the midst of it all.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Russia, USAID was ready to hit the ground running. Program officers, led by Jim as their mission director, began strategizing about how to promote long-term political and economic development in Russia. That said, the team ran into a considerable number of roadblocks—everything from bureaucratic red tape to finding viable office space.

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Atomic Age Uncertainty—Tension Between the United States and the Soviet Union

One of the most defining moments of the twentieth century was the detonation of an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Not only did it hasten the end of the Second World War, but also ushered in a new era for international conflict, fraught with uncertainty and the recognition of a latent rivalry between two superpowers.

A photo of Hiroshima prepared by U.S. Air Intelligence for analytical work on destructiveness of atomic weapons (1945) U.S. National Archives, RG 77-AEC
A photo of Hiroshima prepared by U.S. Air Intelligence for analytical work on destructiveness of atomic weapons (1945) U.S. National Archives, RG 77-AEC

However, for many of us, this shift in history is not particularly personal—we hear about these events long after their occurrence, which differs from the perspective gained through living during their unfolding.

Edward L. Rowny was a lieutenant general who served in World War II and witnessed firsthand the changes that the atomic era brought in. He was involved in planning the invasion of Japan that never happened, and he worked to restructure the military to meet the demands of the developing Cold War. He experienced the effect that a weapon of mass destruction had on war planning; particularly the strategy of its use and how to respond militarily in the event of a nuclear attack. If already the future seemed uncertain with the drastic increase in the magnitude of warfare, it was compounded by the realization of an emerging ideological struggle. Rowny also witnessed the rising salience of the Soviet Union and its designation as the United States’ foremost enemy.

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