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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.
 

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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Not so Sudan-ly—Six Years for Independence

(2016) Jason Patinkin | Wikimedia Commons
(2016) Jason Patinkin | Wikimedia Commons

Allan Reed’s extraordinary relationship with Sudan can be traced all the way back to the late 1960s, when he joined the Peace Corps as a twenty-something university graduate. Volunteering for three years along Ethiopia’s western border to assist Sudanese refugees fleeing the conflict of their homeland, Reed became highly invested in the country and its people. Following this service, he walked over 3,000 miles through Sudan with the people of the Anyanya Movement and Dr. John Garang. He worked with both the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the World Council of Churches to film and research the conditions he observed.

Soon thereafter, Reed joined the Foreign Service, taking postings in Mauritania, Swaziland, Guinea, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Senegal, before finally making his way back to Sudan. There, he worked closely with Dr. John Garang and witnessed the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the Second Sudanese Civil War, and the eventual Referendum for Self-Determination, by which South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.

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Promoting International Tennis Diplomacy in Bahrain

George Bush & Chris Evert playing tennis at Camp David (1990) US federal Government | Wikimedia Commons
George Bush & Chris Evert playing tennis at Camp David (1990) US federal Government | Wikimedia Commons

In the heat of the Iran-Iraq War, paranoia and uncertainty engulfed the region, with many American allies looking to the United States for support and assurance. Fearful that the seemingly dominant Iran would assert its historical claims over the island of Bahrain, Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa grew increasingly concerned. U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Donald Leidel facilitated dialogue with the Bahraini government amidst the unfolding chaos while also preparing for one of many high-profile visits to his embassy at the time: Vice President George Bush would be addressing these issues in person with Bahrain’s Emir.

In order to begin the visit on a positive note, Ambassador Leidel organized a diplomatic tennis match between Vice President Bush and the Bahraini foreign and interior ministers, with whom the ambassador played with frequently. Although being known as an accomplished athlete and avid tennis player, Vice President Bush surprised everyone when he won four games with different partners each time. Ambassador Leidel even attributed the success of the

Vice President’s visit to the friendly match.
Throughout his time as Ambassador to Bahrain, Donald Leidel hosted a plethora of other prominent guests and sought to make their visits unique and interesting. This included desert tours with the late American astronaut Ronald E. McNair and heated exchanges with Donald Rumsfeld.

Ambassador Leidel graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1949 and continued to study law at the University of Wisconsin Law School until 1951. He went on to serve in the Central Intelligence Agency for ten years before joining the Foreign Service and ultimately becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain.

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Brief Portraits of the Ghanaian People—A Collection of FSO Personal Perceptions

(2007) Fogster | Wikimedia Commons
(2007) Fogster | Wikimedia Commons

With a rich history, beautiful landscape, and friendly people, Ghana is one of the most welcoming countries in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the buildings at the Kotoka International Airport in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, even has the word “Akwaaba,” meaning “Welcome!” spelled in giant letters across its side, reflecting the well-known hospitality of the Ghanaian people.

Foreign Service Officers lucky enough to work at the U.S. Embassy in Accra are quickly surrounded by the Ghanaian character, and many, while recounting their oral histories to ADST, have shared their fond impressions of the country’s residents. This “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History” provides a collection of such impressions—stories and comments from diplomats and ambassadors throughout the years.

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60 Minutes in Central America: The Politicization of Development During the Cold War

Managua Earthquake (1972) USGS | Wikipedia
Managua Earthquake (1972) USGS | Wikipedia

Complex geopolitical realities, poor leadership, and economic dysfunction characterized the Cold War in Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. USAID (United States Agency for International Development) played a crucial role in strengthening the political and economic institutions of these countries. Its ability to work and achieve success in Cold War conditions was nothing short of extraordinary. However, the melding of national security and development objectives created an easy target for American media outlets, particularly CBS’ 60 Minutes.

60 Minutes had a noticeable influence on political discourse of domestic and foreign policy issues. Media became an important tool in the hands of politicians who leveraged 60 Minutes to attack sitting presidents, campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize, and stoke economic anxiety. In his oral history, John Sanbrailo recounts three times that 60 Minutes discredited important USAID programs. 60 Minutes lowered the morale of USAID employees abroad and created a negative perception of development projects at home.

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FLOTUS For a Night—USAID Employee Stands in at First Ladies Conference

Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China (5 September 1995) Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office | Wikimedia Commons
Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China (5 September 1995) Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office | Wikimedia Commons

When USAID employee Judith Gilmore was asked to play First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), it wasn’t because a president had asked for her hand in marriage—it was because her boss had asked her to fill in for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the real FLOTUS, who was running behind and couldn’t make the opening ceremony of the Vital Voices First Ladies Conference in 1998. As the most senior woman in the USAID bureau assisting with the conference, Judith Gilmore stepped up that night in a ceremonial capacity and later contributed as she returned to her staff role during the conference.

Established by First Lady Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright following the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, the Vital Voices Global Partnership was designed to prioritize the advancement of women as a U.S. foreign policy goal. Together with the Summit for Americas, the First Ladies Conferences created forums where leaders could discuss common policy issues, affirm shared values, and commit to action at the national and regional level.

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Guns and Underwear: Burma in the 1990s

Kyat Bank Note (2012) Isriya Paireepairit | Flickr
Kyat Bank Note (2012) Isriya Paireepairit | Flickr

A U.S. Embassy’s General Service Officer (GSO) has wide ranging responsibilities. Stanley Jakubowski, who was stationed in Burma (Myanmar) from 1990 to 1992, learned this first-hand. In one instance, he persuaded the State Department and the Department of the Treasury to recognize the unofficial exchange rate in Burma—roughly 100 kyat to the dollar, as opposed to the official rate of six kyat per dollar. This change lowered the cost of gasoline to only six cents a gallon and gave local staff a salary increase of 1,566 percent. The U.S. Treasury Department also considered the new rate a success because it facilitated its efforts to disperse reserves of 10 million kyat in only eighteen months, instead of the ten years it had initially predicted.

Jakubowski did more than simply write cables about the exchange rate. As GSO, his varied duties ranged from guarding the embassy’s currency window, shotgun in hand, to easing the passage of official Americans through the airport in Yangon, which he discovered could be sped up by distributing much coveted Victoria’s Secret catalogs to customs officials. His oral history describes the career of a management-coned officer in the Foreign Service.

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