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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.
 

Phoenix from the Ashes—Reform Efforts on the Foreign Assistance Act

In a world as technologically advanced and reliant as ours, one would expect adaptation to be a staple component of every individual’s mindset. And yet, there are those in the political sphere who have oftentimes demonstrated their desire to subvert various transformative trends, technological or otherwise. One particularly notable trend concerns the reform efforts on the Foreign Assistance Act, a movement to which George Ingram has dedicated a significant portion of his career.

USAID Visual Identity with Logo and Brandmark (2004) U.S. Government | Wikimedia
USAID Visual Identity with Logo and Brandmark (2004) U.S. Government | Wikimedia

In his earlier experiences, Ingram witnessed such attempts stymied to a certain degree at multiple stages of implementation, whether it be from the House of Representatives to the presidential administration. While we should certainly not discredit the achievements made as a result of these initial initiatives, it is hard to deny that these efforts fully achieved the goals they had set out to realize.

And yet, we see in this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history that such obstacles have not stopped Ingram from continually pursuing this ideal of reform. Later on in his career, Ingram became a crucial figure in the creation of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), an organization that strives to ensure efficiency of fund allocation in foreign assistance. Through his work, he not only was successful in drawing political attention to the need for rewriting the Foreign Assistance Act, but he also devoted more energy towards the notion of greater coherence and cooperation on existing fronts. In particular, he has advocated for greater use of the private sector by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in order to maximise the balance of its status between project manager and grant provider. Therefore, in order for efforts in foreign assistance aid to find new life in the modern day, it will be important for policy makers to keep two different approaches in mind: structurally revamping the system, and optimizing the existing infrastructure.

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Fighting Where the “Wango-Wango Bird Couldn’t Get”—U.S. Diplomats and the Ecuador-Peru Boundary Dispute

In 1895, the United States intervened in a long-standing border dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela, forcing its resolution—and forcing Great Britain to implicitly recognize the Monroe Doctrine’s legitimacy. In doing so, the United States inaugurated a more interventionist foreign policy in Latin America, one characterized by Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick.”

The Amazon rainforest at the heart of the disputed territory | Wikimedia Commons
The Amazon rainforest at the heart of the disputed territory | Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the twentieth century, though, the United States has intervened in more than just the Anglo-Venezuelan boundary dispute in Latin America. As former Ambassador to Guyana George Jones put it in his oral history, “I spent a good chunk of my career working on border disputes because Latin America is full of them.” He named the boundary dispute between Ecuador and Peru as one of the most intractable; indeed, it flared up three times (in 1960, 1981, and 1995) after an initial settlement in 1942. The United States played an active diplomatic role in each of the three major disputes, stemming from its role as a guarantor of the status quo in the 1942 settlement.

In this “moment,” U.S. diplomats describe their experiences working with the border dispute in all three major conflicts. John Melby was the desk officer for Ecuador and Peru when the first major conflict sprung up, prompting the 1942 Rio Protocol. In 1960, Ambassador Maurice Bernbaum witnessed the U.S. Embassy in Quito getting stoned when it took the Peruvian side in the long-running dispute. In 1981, Andean Republics Desk Officer Samuel Hart described U.S. efforts to intervene in the Paquisha War, in which the U.S. lost a Huey helicopter and its five crewmen. Finally, James Mack (the Deputy Chief of Mission in Lima) and Peter Romero (the Ambassador in Quito) narrated the 1995 Cenepa War between Ecuador and Peru over the lost territory.

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Kidnapped by Guerillas—The Guatemalan Civil War

Although a career in the Foreign Service is rewarding, it is not without risk. Many career assignments are not a sure bet for safety and can expose an officer to the volatile environment of a politically fragile country.

Such was the case for Sean Holly, who was assigned to Guatemala in 1968 as a labor attaché after working in India.

John Gordon Mein, 1968, Department of State News Letter | Wikimedia Commons
John Gordon Mein, 1968, Department of State News Letter | Wikimedia Commons

Guatemala was in the throes of its civil war between the government and leftist rebels. Within the month Holly arrived, John Gordon Mein—the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala—was shot about a block away from the consulate in a failed kidnapping attempt by Marxist rebels. This would become the first assassination of a serving U.S. Ambassador.

This was a particularly delicate environment for Holly as a labor attaché since many of the guerilla groups were associated with unions and labor movements; in addition, the oligarchic government of Guatemala was vehemently against unionization, and would frequently target the leaders of these groups through kidnapping or assassination.

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Family First: On the Struggles of Familial Medical Clearances

The barriers to entry to the Foreign Service start off high and do not taper off. Individuals pass through written exams, oral examinations, security clearances, and medical (or MED) clearances. Even once an officer has joined the Foreign Service, the hurdles to the career do not stop. Restrictions apply to an officer’s family as well.

American Sign Language Alphabet (2004), Darren Stone, WikiMedia Commons
American Sign Language Alphabet (2004), Darren Stone, WikiMedia Commons

Namely, each accompanying family member must have the ability to pass medical clearances ensuring that they can suitably live at an overseas posting to be able to travel officially for the U.S. government.

For Margaret Dean, the bureaucratic hurdles of the requirements for overseas posting came to light with the adoption of her daughter, Andrea. Despite a long-standing career in the Foreign Service and the previous birth of her two boys, Dean faced the stressful task of ensuring medical clearance for her whole family, as Foreign Service Officers may only travel with cleared family members—or face going to post unaccompanied. After a long and difficult bout with meningitis as an infant, Andrea lost her hearing and the worldwide medical clearance that would be needed to live overseas for any posting her mother might receive.

Margaret Dean entered her career in the Foreign Service while posted in Tel Aviv, Israel with her then-husband, an officer himself. After her husband’s death, Dean remained in the Foreign Service, working primarily as an Economic Officer and in human resources. She would later go on to lead the redesign of the Foreign Service entrance examination procedures as Staff Director of the Board of Examiners.

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The Foreign Service at War (Part 2): Rice, Roads, and Winning Hearts and Minds

“Winning hearts and minds” is at the very core of diplomacy. Sometimes that takes place in an embassy or a foreign ministry. Very rarely does it take place in the jungle and on the frontline of a warzone. But that is exactly where Kenneth Quinn found himself as a first-tour Foreign Service Officer in South Vietnam.

IR8 Rice. International Rice Research Institute photo archive
IR8 Rice. International Rice Research Institute photo archive

The Vietnam War was a different kind of war. Not only was the Viet Cong insurgency able to appear almost anywhere, they often had the backing of small villages and hamlets scattered throughout South Vietnam. To counter them, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces tried to win back villages with a “hearts and minds” strategy.

For future Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, this meant trudging through the jungle to thatch roofs, deliver IR-8 rice, and lay asphalt. By enabling the Vietnamese people to harvest and then transport more bountiful rice crops, Ambassador Quinn saw first hand the connection between Vietnamese citizens’ wellbeing and the war effort.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn recounts why bags of rice were as valuable as M16s and why the Viet Cong’s biggest enemy just may have been a Nebraskan scientist named Hank Beachell.

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The Foreign Service at War (Part 1): A Diplomat on the Frontline in Vietnam

For U.S. Foreign Service Officers during the Vietnam War, an assignment to South Vietnam was unlike any other. For some, it was seen as a death sentence. For others, it was a chance to make a real, immediate difference in the world. For Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, it was very nearly both of those things.

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn in Vietnam on his first tour as an FSO (1968). Ambassador Kenneth Quinn Photo Archive
Ambassador Kenneth Quinn in Vietnam on his first tour as an FSO (1968). Ambassador Kenneth Quinn Photo Archive

After Viet Cong forces stormed Embassy Saigon during the Tet offensive, new FSOs waited with baited breath to hear if their first assignment would send them into the line of fire. At the end of A-100 (the orientation course for incoming FSOs) in D.C., newly minted Foreign Service Officers are read aloud their first assignments. With every announcement made by the course director in a packed auditorium, FSOs would applaud and cheer each post (“Oslo, Norway!” “Tokyo, Japan!”), but they had nothing but silence or whispers of “I’m so sorry,” to the new officers assigned to South Vietnam.

Kenneth Quinn—who would go on to become U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia—was one such young officer. He said he joined the Foreign Service with dreams of swanning about high ceilinged, chandeliered ballrooms in Vienna. Instead, his first tour of duty was to the jungles of Sa Dec Province, South Vietnam. Over the course of his service in South Vietnam, Kenneth Quinn helped to spearhead the campaign to “win hearts and minds,” led combat missions ranging from midnight ambushes to helicopter rescues, and became the only civilian during the Vietnam War to earn the U.S. Army Air Medal.

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CORDS: A New Pacification Program for Vietnam

The Vietnam War was one of the most challenging and complex conflicts of the Cold War era. As the conflict wore on, casualties rose and the American public became increasingly opposed to the war. With no end in sight, the U.S. government knew a unique approach would be needed to win the war. For this reason, the government created the CORDS pacification program in 1967.

           
CORDS personnel with the chief of a hamlet | Defense Technical Information Center
CORDS personnel with the chief of a hamlet | Defense Technical Information Center

Conflict in Vietnam had been brewing for years, as Viet Minh forces waged an anti-colonial war against the French. With the defeat of the French colonial regime, the U.S. became concerned about the potential spread of communism in South-East Asia. However, after several years of war, the government wanted to develop a new approach that would ultimately allow the U.S. to exit the conflict. The government decided that a program of “Vietnamization” that would prepare South Vietnamese forces to fight the war on their own would be necessary.

The previous year, the U.S. Army had commissioned a study known as “A Program for Pacification and Long-Term Development in Vietnam”. This study made it clear that in order to achieve victory, the U.S. would need to abandon the strategy of waging a war of attrition, and instead gain the trust of ordinary civilians. President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Security Advisor Robert Komer to create CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary/Rural Development Support), a comprehensive pacification program that would involve the military and various civilian agencies.

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A Growing Community: The Early Days of EU Enlargement

When people think of the European Union (EU), they think of Brexit. They think of the rise of nationalism and how it will affect the future of Europe. They think of the common currency, the Euro, and the ease of inter-country traveling due to the implementation of the Schengen Area.

But how many are aware of the history of its formation?

The EU has not always resembled its current state.

European Union Flag (2019) arembowski | pixabay.com
European Union Flag (2019) arembowski | pixabay.com

After experiencing two costly world wars, European countries aimed to unite the continent economically and politically. This took the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1950 by Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In 1957, this union evolved into the European Economic Community (EEC), the “Common Market,” through the ratification of the Treaty of Rome. The goal of the EEC was to increase European economic integration through a common market and customs union. The following year, member states founded the European Parliament, which was initially composed of representatives elected by the national parliaments in each country.

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Chad’s Presidential Elections in 2016—“My Husband has Disappeared”

During the 2016 presidential elections in Chad, a number of Chadian military personnel went missing. Chad’s current president, Idriss Déby, was re-elected for a fifth term, having been in power since December 1990 when he led a coup d’état against Chad’s former president, Hissène Habré. President Déby also faced a number of rebellions in the beginning of his rule, after which he took steps towards establishing democracy in Chad.

Chadian woman voting during the 2016 presidential election. Une Tchadienne se fait aider à placer son bulletin dans l'urne à côté d'autres électeurs qui attendent dans un bureau de vote à N'Djamena, Tchad, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia
Chadian woman voting during the 2016 presidential election. Une Tchadienne se fait aider à placer son bulletin dans l'urne à côté d'autres électeurs qui attendent dans un bureau de vote à N'Djamena, Tchad, 10 avril 2016 (2016) Bagassi Koura (VOA) | Wikimedia

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Joyce Namde, who lived in Chad with her family in the 1980s and was Deputy Chief of Mission there 2015–2017, gives her insights on democracy and elections in Chad. Having witnessed the very coup that brought Idriss Déby to power and the events surrounding his presidential election in 2016, she emphasizes the significance of free and fair elections for democracies and the lack thereof in Chad. For the 2016 elections, Joyce Namde and the U.S. Embassy set up a monitoring operation in N’Djamena to ensure fairness of the elections. They also supported the opposition’s right to participate in the elections, and helped the detained activists and opposition get out of jail.

One of the most striking events that happened during the 2016 election was the disappearance of military personnel who voted against the current president. Joyce Namde recalls a moment when one of the embassy’s staff members said that her husband had disappeared. After a short while, and as a result of pressure from the U.S. and other embassies, the missing slowly started to return to N’Djamena.

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“Dealing with Ships is a Different World”—Maritime Difficulties in the Azores

The work of a Foreign Service Officer is rarely quiet or uneventful, and often involves navigating tricky relationships between the laws of the country in which one is posted and the interests of the United States. Adding in the rules, both written and unwritten, of the maritime world only complicates matters when an officer gets posted at a coastal site.

Ponta Delgada (2003) | Feliciano Guimarães, WikiMedia Commons
Ponta Delgada (2003) | Feliciano Guimarães, WikiMedia Commons

James McGunnigle arrived in the Portuguese-held autonomous territory of the Azores islands in 1966 as a newly-minted Foreign Service Officer. As he navigated his new career, the ports of Ponta Delgada brought unexpected challenges to his daily work. Along the coast, any number of ships from any number of countries could stop by to refuel, dock, or seek assistance. With each new arrival, the specifics could vary wildly, leaving those in the consulate to manage new issues in their wake.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” McGunnigle recounts a few of his more memorable experiences with the ships that marked the coastline of his very first posting abroad. He discusses covert oil spills from docking ships and the implications of the laws of the sea with a death onboard a vessel.

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