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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 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.
 

The Last American Diplomat in Medellín—Countering Anti-Americanism in Cartel-Era Colombia

Guns, cocaine, and kidnappings—this was the state of much of Colombia in the early 1980s. Medellín in particular, home to the rising Cartel de Medellín and leftist guerrilla insurgents, was the bedrock of anti-Americanism in the country during these years. Strikingly, Medellín was also home to a U.S. consulate at the time, hosting a total of four Foreign Service officers. Among them was Peter DeShazo, a public affairs officer and consul dedicated to improving the local perception of the United States and of Americans.

Amid the growing insecurity and tense environment, DeShazo’s goal was to retain a high profile as director of the U.S.-Colombian Bi-national Center (BNC). Kidnappings, murders, and violence were the norm in the epicenter of Colombia’s illegal narcotics trade. Yet surprisingly, the left-wing guerrillas were the main concern for Americans in Colombia; organizations such as the FARC and most notably M-19 posed the greatest security threat for DeShazo and his colleagues. Nonetheless, DeShazo confronted the rampant anti-American sentiment as the BNC gradually became a vital cultural institution in Medellín under his directorship. The center effectively disseminated U.S. culture through literature, film, and language programs as well as through visiting cultural attractions. After DeShazo left Colombia, the BNC continued to grow and ultimately became one of Latin America’s most successful centers, despite several attacks conducted by M-19 shortly after DeShazo’s departure. Once DeShazo’s tour in Medellín concluded, the Department of State decided that he would not be replaced as a result of the deteriorating security situation, essentially making Peter DeShazo the last U.S. diplomat in Medellín.

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“Am I Going to Watch a U.S. Senator Get Shot?”—Observing the Fall of the Marcos Regime in the Philippines

Wikipedia commons
Wikipedia commons

Senator John Kerry bravely pushed aside armed hostile Philippine military personnel and policemen, rushing into the barricaded church in front of him. Inside, a group of Filipino election officials were huddled in fear. Ignoring the chaos outside, Senator Kerry questioned the officials about the Philippine presidential elections that had taken place two days before. Over the course of the interview, it became clear that the corrupt president, Ferdinand Marcos, rigged the elections so he would remain in power. Armed with this information, Senator Kerry (and others) flew back to Washington to convince President Reagan to support Marcos’ opposition.

President Marcos ruled over the Philippines with an iron fist for two decades. Despite his human rights abuses, corruption, and media silencing, Marcos’s regime was buffeted by a military partnership with the United States. This relationship fell apart in 1983, when Marcos was accused of assassinating opposition politician Senator Benigno Aquino. The senator’s death spurred a national opposition movement led by Aquino’s widow, Cory Aquino. The Reagan administration pushed Marcos to hold elections, to which Marcos agreed.

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On Loan to the U.S. Senate—A Change in Perspective

Senator Jacob Javits Wikimedia Commons
Senator Jacob Javits Wikimedia Commons

Among the American general public, the United States Congress is commonly found to have a poor reputation, stereotyped as inefficient and known for perpetual gridlock and dysfunctional legislation. Most of these perceptions are propagated by interest groups and the media, passed along to citizens with little or no first hand experience with daily life on the Hill. Yet, the very structure of the U.S. government—separation into three distinct branches with a system of checks and balances—naturally fuels occasional internal friction. When it comes to foreign policy, this plays out most notably between Congress and agencies in the Executive Branch, such as the State Department.

Even within the federal government, those working outside of Congress may come to see it as “the enemy”—a group of demanding individuals posing frequent obstacles to agency goals. James Fox of USAID spent one year working for Senator Jacob Javits, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His experiences changed his perception of Congress, serving as a great learning experience for his future postings and interactions with the Legislative Branch. During his career, Fox also worked in Costa Rica, Uruguay, Colombia, and other places in Washington D.C.

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“Jesus, now I can really do some business”—Jump starting the Economy of War-Torn Bosnia

Wikipedia commons/Mikhail Evstafiev
Wikipedia commons/Mikhail Evstafiev

Bosnia, 1995: utterly decimated infrastructure, near-universal unemployment, and a state bank straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Such were the conditions when USAID officer Craig Buck arrived in country to put together a reconstruction program in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. Recognizing the severity of the situation, Buck worked at lightning speed to get a sweeping U.S. aid program up and running long before the UN response was even underway. With the resolute backing of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords, Buck leveraged aid to successfully marginalize hardliners within the Republika Srprska and bring about their compliance with the agreement. Meanwhile, Buck’s pursuit of a massive reconstruction program coupled with major reforms enabled the Bosnian economy to recover rapidly.

Craig Buck was born in Jackson, Mississippi and grew up in Carthage, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University from 1962-1966, where he majored in Government. He then took a year-long research scholarship in Bolivia, followed by another year attending graduate school at Stanford, before joining USAID in 1969.

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A Georgian Spring Amidst Autumn: The Rose Revolution from a U.S. Perspective

Eric Draper (2005) | Wikimedia Commons
Eric Draper (2005) | Wikimedia Commons

Revolutions are always exciting times for U.S. Foreign Service personnel, and the November 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia was no different. Denny Robertson served as a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) election observer. When President Shevardnadze’s government allegedly rigged a parliamentary election, Robertson saw first-hand how Georgians took to the streets and protested in mass. Active resistance from two of Georgia’s political parties even prevented Shevardnadze from opening the Georgian Parliament. Stymied by the opposition and loss of political support, Shevardnadze resigned. Georgia immediately held a presidential election, and Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of one of the major opposition parties, emerged victorious.

USAID personnel such as Denny Robertson played an important role in Georgia. As election monitors, they witnessed the blatant fraud that Shevardnadze’s government perpetrated. Later, they also advised the newly elected government under Saakashvili and provided aid to the Georgian people.

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The Aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in Indonesia

Jakarta Riot (1998) | Office of the Vice President of The Republic of Indonesia | Wikipedia
Jakarta Riot (1998) | Office of the Vice President of The Republic of Indonesia | Wikipedia

During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, confidence in the Indonesian government plummeted. Foreign investment fled the country as the value of the rupiah fell to historic lows. Confronted with the loss of their bright futures, thousands of students poured out of the classroom to protest President Suharto’s crony capitalism. In the streets, rival factions of the army grappled for power. When military instigators screamed ethnic slurs into the crowd, tensions boiled over into a full blown riot against the “wealthy minority” population of Chinese-Indonesians.

Amid student protests and the destruction of Chinese-Indonesian communities, Suharto projected a façade of normalcy to the international community. After leaving the country for a non-essential meeting of the G-15, he returned only when armed forces shot and killed four protesting students at Trisakti University. Hundreds of Americans left Indonesia to escape the violence. Three days after Ambassador Roy ordered the evacuation of all non-essential personnel from the Jakarta embassy, the president’s cabinet refused to serve any longer, and Suharto stepped down. After being ousted, he enjoyed a comfortable retirement at home as his vice president B. J. Habibie acceded to the presidency.

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Stephen Thuransky’s 1947 Escape from Hungarian Political Police

Soviet Army in Hungary (1947) | Bauer Sándor | Wikimedia Commons
Soviet Army in Hungary (1947) | Bauer Sándor | Wikimedia Commons

Stephen T. Thuransky was arrested for calling the president of Hungary an obscene name. Communist Hungary in 1947 was a dangerous place to talk candidly, especially about politics. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, Thuransky and his family sought help from Harrison Lewis, the temporary head of the American Legation. Lewis confronted the Communist authorities and demanded Thuransky’s swift release. Injured and still handcuffed, Thuransky daringly escaped from jail in the back of Lewis’s car. He made it to safety and ultimately returned to the United States with his family.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union sought to spread its influence over Eastern Europe and establish control over Hungary. The Thuransky incident was just the start of a crackdown against free speech and anti-Communist sentiments. In the following years, the Security Police began purging political officials and arresting, torturing, and executing thousands of citizens. Angry Hungarian citizens rebelled against the Soviet Union’s communist satellite government in October 1956. This spontaneous national uprising was quickly and brutally crushed by Soviet forces. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed.

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Duty and Danger: Escaping the Burning U.S. Embassy in 1979 Libya

Libya 1979 Int Seminar of the Green Book (Col Gaddafi) | Libyan Jamahiria's Government | Wikimedia Commons
Libya 1979 Int Seminar of the Green Book (Col Gaddafi) | Libyan Jamahiria's Government | Wikimedia Commons

On December 2nd, 1979, thousands of anti-American demonstrators attacked the U.S. Embassy; protesters broke down the door and set fires that damaged the lower floors. Political Officer James Hooper and other American officials inside the embassy hurriedly attempted to shred sensitive information before sneaking out past an angry mob, one by one, through a back entrance and onto the streets.

In the wake of the attack earlier that year on the U.S. Embassy in Iran and hostage crisis, relations between the United States and Libya had become increasingly strained by the continuing radicalization of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Those at the American Legation in 1979 feared that there were Libyans, either within Gaddafi’s government or among the general populace, who would attempt to replicate the events of the Iranian hostage crisis. The situation quickly unraveled when rumors began circulating that the United States was involved in an attack on the Great Mosque of Mecca. Within hours, the demonstration in front of the American Legation spiraled out of control and led to the burning of the embassy. The U.S. had already withdrawn the ambassador to Libya in 1972. Following the attack, all remaining U.S. government personnel departed. The embassy remained closed until 2004, when a diplomatic U.S. presence was resumed.

James R. Hooper served as a political officer at the embassy and observed the political tensions that had built up before the attack. He had attempted to improve the security of the legation to prepare for what he saw as an inevitable confrontation with the Libyan population. In order to ensure the safety of the embassy and its staff, Hooper acted against the orders of his superior officer who refused to acknowledge the danger of the situation. Thankfully, the attack resulted in no fatalities or hostages. Hooper went on to serve in the United Kingdom, Kuwait, and Poland.

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Presidents, Russians, and Diplomatic Wives: Anecdotes from a Voice of America Newsman

President Harry S. Truman addressing Congress (12 March 1947) | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum | Wikimedia Commons
President Harry S. Truman addressing Congress (12 March 1947) | Harry S. Truman Library & Museum | Wikimedia Commons

Journalist Euguene F. Karst knew the importance of words. He personally witnessed how communication could highlight the opinions of little known Russian farmers but also lead to embarrassing misunderstandings for the President of the United States. Through the Office of War Information, Voice of America, and other reporting, Karst worked to spread the principles and spirit of America to audiences in the U.S. and abroad. His recollections provide a candid behind the scenes look at diplomacy and the news.

Voice of America (VOA) originated as part of the Office of War Information. VOA began airing in 1942 to combat Nazi propoganda and continues to produce programming on U.S. ways of life, culture, economics, and politics to countries around the world. It has played an important role in influencing public opinion abroad regarding U.S. policy, although some view it as a source of American propaganda. Karst experienced the difficulties of transmitting VOA programs to an audience in the Soviet Union. This long-standing problem was intensified in 2017 when Russia’s Justice Ministry labeled Voice of America as a foreign agent.

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The Question of Puerto Rico: The U.S. Faces International Criticism in the Late 20th Century

Flag of Puerto Rico | Wikimedia Commons
Flag of Puerto Rico | Wikimedia Commons

As decolonization was embraced on the world stage, the U.S. government and its diplomats had to decide, “How do we deal with the question of Puerto Rico?”

The island had been an “organized but unincorporated” American territory since the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. After negotiations between Puerto Rican political leaders and the U.S. Congress, Puerto Rico held a referendum in 1952 that established itself as a Free Associated State (Estado Libre Asociado), known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

While Puerto Rico was granted this local autonomy, the ambiguous language associated with the “commonwealth” status has since continued to spark political debates amongst both Puerto Rican leaders and members of the international community. The Puerto Rican nationalist movement continued during the 1960s—a time of radical political change, in which 32 countries in Africa gained independence from their European colonial rulers. These newly-independent African nations and some Latin American countries, including Cuba, attempted to support the Puerto Rican nationalist movement in world fora, to the chagrin of the U.S. government. Amidst the decolonization movement, the United States faced criticism for its continued retention of territories in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. During the latter half of the 20th century, amidst much discussion at the UN, Puerto Rico was officially declared a colony of the United States in 1978 by the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. Amongst other critiques, members of the committee—who consider the people of Puerto Rico to have their own national identity of a Caribbean nation—have referred to Puerto Rico as a “nation” in their reports.

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