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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.
 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Surviving the Storm—Turkey’s Labor Movements Under a Junta

In the late 1970s, Turkey faced intense political fragmentation as its parties each struggled for a majority; due to lack of consensus in the more civil channels of politics, the country’s tensions erupted into violence. With engagements between extreme leftists and ultranationalists culminating in a bloodbath, the military orchestrated a coup and instituted martial law under the pretext of restoring social order.

Turkish parliament after failed coup attempt in 2016 (2016) Yildiz Yazicioglu  | Wikimedia Commons
Turkish parliament after failed coup attempt in 2016 (2016) Yildiz Yazicioglu | Wikimedia Commons

Immediately after the takeover, the junta suspended the constitution and banned all political parties—including labor unions; this drew the attention of the international community, particularly in the context of the global Cold War. As a crucial ally of the West, Turkey faced pressure to democratize and transition away from martial law.

William Meagher, who had previously worked in Turkey with the Agency for International Development, was recruited into the Foreign Service as the labor attaché to Ankara. With strong language skills and a labor management background, Meagher arrived some months after the coup to face the mandated freeze on labor movements by the government.

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Let There be Productivity—U.S. Aid Efforts in Europe and India

The world bore witness to an unprecedented degree of violence and destruction in the wake of the Second World War. The United States notably suffered far less than its allies on account of both its delayed entry into the conflict and its geographical isolation from the war front.

U.S. Marshall Plan Aid Logo (c. 1948-1953), U.S. Government | Wikimedia
U.S. Marshall Plan Aid Logo (c. 1948-1953), U.S. Government | Wikimedia

However, this initial detachment from the action did not reflect in its subsequent endeavours. On the contrary, the U.S. quickly became a crucial Western entity in the rebuilding of the post-war world. Among its more significant projects was the Marshall Plan, a scheme designed to finance rebuilding efforts in Europe. And as amazing as this may at first seem, it certainly met a multitude of difficulties in its formation and implementation from those it sought to aid.

James Silberman encountered such resistance first hand in his career whilst working on the Marshall Plan. The battles that he waged were primarily on two fronts. On the one hand, Britain and France had their separate problems with the U.S. approach, with the former recalcitrant against the acceptance of modernisation and the latter seemingly wary of an American takeover. On the other hand, a communist influence was sweeping over a slew of countries across the continent, such as Austria, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. While occasionally successful in installing productivity centers in these countries, Silberman also met resistance and found his efforts obstructed by such ideological lines.
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Expecting the Unexpected in the Philippines: Confronting a Killer

When one thinks of life in the Foreign Service, they imagine living overseas, experiencing different cultures, and trying exotic foods. They picture adventure. While Foreign Service Officers surely do have their fair share of adventure, it is not always merry and light-hearted. FSOs can come face-to-face with terrorists, hostile foreign leaders, and in the case of FSO David L’Heureux, chef-turned-killers.

(March 2016) Pexels | pixabay.com
(March 2016) Pexels | pixabay.com

L’Heureux arrived in Manila in the Philippines in December 1956 to start the next chapter of his career in the Foreign Service as a Consular Officer. During his three years serving in Manila, he worked in the Special Consular Services and the Passport and Citizenship sections. However, his duties were not limited to these two areas.

One day, L’Heureux received a call from a steamship representative claiming that assistance was needed on one of the ships that had just arrived in port. L’Heureux was accustomed to dealing with everyday problems common in consular work, such as issuing visas or helping Americans who may be in trouble.

That day, however, L’Heureux stumbled into a life or death situation, with his life at the mercy of a chef who had gone mad.

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Pinochet’s Trip to London: How the Arrest of the Chilean Dictator Inspired Unprecedented Global Transparency

In October 1998, the British government arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet at the London Bridge hospital, where he was recovering from minor back surgery. The British government planned to extradite Pinochet to Spain, where the Spanish government would then prosecute him for crimes against humanity committed during his reign from 1973 to 1990.

London Bridge Hospital, the Site of Pinochet’s Arrest (2017) James Petts | WikiMedia
London Bridge Hospital, the Site of Pinochet’s Arrest (2017) James Petts | WikiMedia

Although the U.S. government was not strictly involved in the process, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) advocated fiercely for the extradition, inspired by the leadership of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her well-known commitment to universal human rights.

A legal technicality ultimately allowed Pinochet to return to Chile a free man; however, the incident inspired Secretary Albright and DRL to launch a project that would send a message to dictators around the world that they would not enjoy impunity for their crimes. Robert Ward, a Foreign Service Officer who served in DRL in the late 1990s, describes in his oral history his work with the Office of Freedom of Information Act Services to declassify and release more than 10,000 State Department documents relating to the Pinochet era, a project which ultimately represented a huge stride forward in the advancement of human rights.

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