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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.
 

A Miracle Worker in Vietnam—Saving a Young Boy’s Life

Being a U.S. soldier and fighting for your country overseas is an incredible sacrifice. The extended time away from family, necessity to quickly adapt to new environments, and the witnessing of the tragic repercussions of war are all difficulties that soldiers encounter.

Student protesters marching down Langdon Street (1965) uwdigitalcollections | flickr.com
Student protesters marching down Langdon Street (1965) uwdigitalcollections | flickr.com

While the government appreciates all of these men and women for their service, it honors a few particularly ambitious ones as “heroes of war” by awarding them medals for their courage on the battlefield.

The Vietnam War pitted U.S. ally South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam, and occurred in the midst of the Cold War, when the world was divided into competing ideological camps. It was an extremely contentious issue in the United States, bitterly dividing the population. Many pegged the war to be “unwinnable,” and did not see value in sending their boys to fight in a faraway land. Furthermore, the photos and videos sent home from reporters in the field exposed Americans to the true horrors of war, especially its devastating effects on the civilian population.

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The Times They Are a-Changin’—Labor’s Role in the Foreign Service

The United States underwent great political change following the end of World War II, not only fully abandoning its isolationist tendencies, but also contending for and succeeding in establishing international preeminence against the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War.

Lane Kirkland (2006) Richard Whitney | Wikimedia
Lane Kirkland (2006) Richard Whitney | Wikimedia

During the same time period, the U.S. additionally witnessed political change in its approaches to labor efforts in the Foreign Service. However, the transformation here does not appear to follow a similar positive trend; as Lane Kirkland notes, the value of labor attachés in the Foreign Service significantly decreased, as did the value that officers placed on the labor attaché program in the context of their overarching career.

And yet, in Kirkland’s opinion, neither the Department of Labor nor any labor unions were at fault for this declining presence. On the one hand, he argued that the State Department had actually been a hindering factor to the The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) achieving its full potential by forbidding its incorporation of the labor attaché program. On the other hand, Kirkland noted that Foreign Service personnel did not know the full extent of labor mechanisms that were at their disposal, with the incident involving UN Ambassador Albright’s—admittedly understandable—ignorance of The Tripartite Advisory Panel on International Labor Standards’ (TAPILS) existence highlighting this.

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Egypt Before the Arab Spring: Shifting Tides of Democracy and Westernization

The Arab Spring began in late 2010 as a series of anti-government protests throughout several Middle Eastern countries that permanently altered the political and social climate of the region. The time leading up to, during, and after this event has been full of turmoil and important political change.

 The USIA Experience: Lessons for the Proposed USAID/State Department Merger, June 20, 2017, CSIS Headquarters.
The USIA Experience: Lessons for the Proposed USAID/State Department Merger, June 20, 2017, CSIS Headquarters.

Hilda “Bambi” Arellano served as the USAID Mission Director in Egypt during the years leading up to the Arab Spring, from 2007 to 2010. She saw the changes unfolding as the Egyptian people began to take hold of democratic values and put pressure on their oppressive government, especially in 2009 after President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Cairo, which discussed the relationship between Middle Eastern and Western countries, and highlighted the importance of democratic values. Obama’s speech influenced many Egyptians—who had by then become displeased with their oppressive government—to join the fight for democracy that was building across other parts of the Middle East, and that culminated in the Arab Spring. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Hilda Arellano describes how she sensed the looming changes throughout Egypt that would ultimately mark an important period in history.

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When “All Hell Broke Loose” in Uganda

Under the rule of current President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda has seen a period of relative stability compared to the turbulent unrest that plagued the country in the 1980s. He has rebuilt the economy to be one of the most successful in Africa and has greatly reduced the power of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel organization that once wreaked havoc in the northern region of the country.

5911 16th Street N.W. Washington D.C. Uganda Embassy (October 2011) Slowking4 | wikipedia.org
5911 16th Street N.W. Washington D.C. Uganda Embassy (October 2011) Slowking4 | wikipedia.org

However, prior to Museveni, Uganda experienced dark times, especially under former President Milton Obote (1962–1971, 1980–1986).

Obote was a prominent figure in Ugandan politics for decades, first serving as prime minister for four years following the country’s declaration of independence from the British in 1962. He then occupied the presidency until 1971, only to return to the role in 1980 after brief interlude of four other men, the most notorious being Idi Amin.

However, not everyone welcomed his return to power. Following claims of electoral fraud, Yoweri Museveni publicly challenged the results of the 1980 election and embarked on a campaign of armed resistance against the government. The resulting “Bush War” pitted Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) against the government’s Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). The conflict raged for five years, from 1981 to 1986.

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A Diplomat’s Wife in Showa Japan

1930s Japan—a time of emperors, tension in the Pacific, and mysterious unspoken social rules of the Showa Era. When Dorothy Emmerson moved to Japan, she was the young, practical wife of Ambassador John Emmerson, whom she accompanied to Tokyo where he served his first tour in the Foreign Service.

TMPD Building in Pre-War Showa Era (Pre-war Showa Era)| Metropolitan Police Department
TMPD Building in Pre-War Showa Era (Pre-war Showa Era)| Metropolitan Police Department

Dorthy soon found herself immersed in the culture, gaining up-close and personal experiences in Japanese customs as an embassy wife. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we explore various aspects of life as a “trailing spouse” as experienced by Dorthy Emmerson.

At her first post in Tokyo, Emmerson began training for the position of language officer, or “language wife,” learning Japanese and all the many proper protocols and manners that came with the position: protocols for gift-giving, learning the ranking system, knowing the order of guests at embassy parties, and much more. This training paid off, especially on visits to Emperor Hirohito’s palace. Emmerson recalls palace protocols being the most stringent in the country; these included taking a certain number of steps in front of the imperial family and even removing her coat in the emperor’s presence despite the weather of the day. For example, following the death of King George V, the Diplomatic Corps in Japan were expected to wear all black as a sign of mourning. Emmerson was caught wearing dark brown at an embassy function, resulting in the senior wife telling her to go home and stay home until she owned a black dress.

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The Interest Trap—Diplomacy before the Cyprus Dispute

The majority of society dismisses Classical literature and history as irrelevant to tangible success in a world that has become as technologically, politically, and socially advanced as ours today. However, this perception fails to adequately acknowledge the presence of banes and boons that have withstood the test of time.

A Cypriot demonstration in the 1930s in favor of enosis (1930s) | Wikimedia
A Cypriot demonstration in the 1930s in favor of enosis (1930s) | Wikimedia

The Cyprus Dispute of 1974 is perhaps a perfect example of this: what were once the Greco-Persian wars of the fifth century B.C. have now arguably morphed into a perilous tango between Greece and Turkey over the island’s territorial status. Although this particular dispute has since ended, its consequential tensions and effects continue to affect Cyprus to this very day.

And yet, what is equally noteworthy is the nature of diplomatic efforts that predate the conflict itself. During his tour from 1967 to 1970, Ambassador Thomas D. Boyatt witnessed firsthand a conflict of interests regarding Cyprus on the parts of Greece, Turkey, and even the U.S., all of which ultimately coalesced into the absence of a lasting solution. At the macro level, the American government was increasingly eager to prevent any collision between two NATO allies, while neither the Greek nor the Turkish government seemingly cared enough to establish a lasting solution, preferring to move past the issues as quickly as possible and focus on the “bigger fish.” Furthermore, the U.S. perspective of this conflict was perhaps far from objective; with the Department of Defense’s and CIA’s interests in Greece at play, America’s role as an intermediary body certainly became even more complicated.

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At the Negotiating Table for SALT

U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War were marked by increasing tension. Emerging from WWII as the two strongest countries, competition between the two states was inevitable. This competition ranged from the space race, the ability to exert ideological influence on other nations, and perhaps most deadly of all, the arms race.

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader's visit to the U.S. (2011) Robert L. Knudsen | commons.wikimedia.org
Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader's visit to the U.S. (2011) Robert L. Knudsen | commons.wikimedia.org

People all over the world feared the repercussions that could ensue from this cold war turning “hot” with the deployment of nuclear weapons with unprecedented lethal capabilities.

However, a point must come when enough is enough.

On May 26, 1972, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement. The agreement capped the maximum number of anti-ballistic missile sites each country could possess at two. Furthermore, the agreements also established that the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles was to be frozen at current levels, and further construction of these missiles was prohibited. These treaties were the most far-reaching agreed upon attempts to control nuclear weapon production during the Cold War.

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A Precursor to the Downfall: Living Through Soviet Perestroika and Glasnost

The international community hoped great changes would come to the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 and demonstrated his willingness to distinguish himself from the previous Soviet leaders. Gorbachev reversed the precedent of invariably praising the Soviet system when he criticized the inefficient Soviet economy in a speech delivered in St. Petersburg.

Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland (November 1985) White House Photo Office | commons.wikimedia.org
Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland (November 1985) White House Photo Office | commons.wikimedia.org

The following year, in a speech to the Communist Party Congress, he called for a great systemic reform encompassing the principles of political and economic restructuring (perestroika) and the beginning of governmental transparency and openness (glasnost).

Gorbachev proceeded to introduce historic changes to several aspects of the Soviet system. He started by reforming a principal component of the Soviet communist economic policy. He loosened the central government’s control of many industries by allowing farmers and manufacturers to decide for themselves the organization of their production process. This gave them the liberty to determine the type and amount of goods produced and to set the prices for each product. Furthermore, he allowed for the creation of limited cooperative businesses, the first time since 1922 that aspects of free-market capitalism had been instituted in the Soviet Union.

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“Open Space at the Top of the World”—Defending the Thule Air Force Base in Greenland and Denmark

The purview of an ambassador in a U.S. embassy extends beyond the geographical borders of their host nation and into the intricate global network shaped by the country’s history. In some countries, this may involve regional tensions and instabilities.In others, it may entail navigation of long-standing border disputes.

Ambassador Edward Elson | ADST
Ambassador Edward Elson | ADST

For others still, an ambassador takes on the relationship of a nation to its former colonies or current territories.

Ambassador Edward Elson arrived in Denmark in November of 1993 to embrace his long-standing interest in politics more fully—having already held roles in banking, civil rights, publishing, National Public Radio, retail, and education. However, this posting also meant embracing the relationship between the host country and its autonomous territory of Greenland. Greenland had formerly been a Danish colony, dating as far back as the 1700s. Greenland then became fully incorporated with the 1953 Danish constitution. Greenland now has limited autonomy and exists as part of the Kingdom of Denmark. As of June 2020, Greenland’s foreign relations largely operate out of Copenhagen, Denmark. However, on June 11, 2020, the U.S. announced plans to reopen its consulate in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk, where it had not been present since 1953.

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An Honest Broker: Remembering Brent Scowcroft

Brent Scowcroft was an Air Force lieutenant turned two-time United States National Security Advisor who served under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, as well as Deputy National Security Advisor for President Nixon. Later, Scowcroft would serve as chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for President George W. Bush.

Brent Scowcroft with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger  (November 1975) (Charles Tasnadi) | Associated Press
Brent Scowcroft with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger (November 1975) (Charles Tasnadi) | Associated Press

Scowcroft’s career was a memorable one; he helped craft the U.S. response to an array of situations—from the fall of the Soviet Union, to the evacuation of Saigon, to Tiananmen Square. Regardless of the international political developments he faced, he was steadfast in his craft and his leadership. Mr. Scowcroft passed away on August 6, 2020 at the age of ninety-five.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” explore memories of Brent as told through the eyes of his government colleagues. Read about how Brent first established his team at the NSC, and how he advised two administrations through periods of international crisis (while staying out of the spotlight himself). Above all, recall how he was remembered fondly and with admiration by all who had the privilege to work alongside him.

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