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.
World War II brought great uncertainty in its aftermath. The rise of Anti-Right and Anti-Left wing movements, for example, contributed to the hegemonic battle between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics. These events, in turn, had an effect on labor.
Following the Second World War, the United States launched the European Recovery Program. Better known as The Marshall Plan, this initiative represented the largest aid package received to date by the European nations. It had significant consequences for the economic development of European economics and industries. Much of these industries’ growths would affect scores of labor unions, which would later pose movements across Europe. Regional and international labor organizations rose up to fight for the rights of laborers as well as for the direction in which their party politics would dictate future labor policies.
A desolate landscape and frozen ocean seems like an unlikely place for the scene of major world events and geopolitical confrontation. But as climate change accelerates the thawing of the Arctic polar caps, it welcomes an abundance of natural resources, fisheries, and commercial sea routes.
The countries bordering the Arctic Ocean, including the United States and Russia, all lay claim to areas of exploitable territory from their respective borders—and often with overlapping boundaries. Therefore, the Arctic Council was created in 1996 to resolve territorial disputes and promote cooperation to combat environmental challenges facing the region.
Despite a complicated relationship since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic Council facilitates a successful partnership between the United States and Russia. More recently, a June 2021 Biden-Putin summit recognized the Arctic as an area of peaceful cooperation; the two countries partner in areas of scientific research, search and rescue missions, environmental protection, and more. However, continued cooperation rests on the efficacy of the Council in light of increased military operations in the region and rising geopolitical tensions, especially with the introduction of new actors, such as China.
In 1986 Congress overrode a presidential veto on major foreign policy. During the 1980s, the American public increasingly resented the South African system of apartheid and urged the United States government to take major action. This led to bipartisan Congressional action to override President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act [CAAA] of 1986. This act imposed broad economic sanctions against South Africa to pressure the government to end the system of apartheid.
While the act may have played a role in hurting the South African economy, it included measures to assist victims of apartheid. Wendy Stickel recounts how the CAAA established policies and objectives that guided the early years of United States Agency for International Development [USAID] programs.
In the summer of 1987, Stickel arrived in South Africa as USAID’s Assistant Director. Because the CAAA was seen as the American people’s policy and not the administration’s policy, it gave USAID entry to South African communities that were hesitant to work with the U.S. government. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Stickel establishes the importance of communicating USAID’s genuine commitment to support and fund projects from South African organizations. Stickel made sure to listen to the South African communities on the type of support they needed from USAID, including an education program, community outreach and leadership development, a private enterprise program, labor union training program, and human rights and legal assistance fund. Stickel recognized that the success of these programs was in part due to the Foreign Service Nationals who helped USAID navigate the changing politics of the South African community and connected them to organizations dedicated to the same causes.
The end of the Cold War is sometimes thought about as a dramatic and rapid event marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. While these were notable moments at the end of the Cold War, the reality was much more complicated. Charles O’Mara’s stunning account of his time as trade negotiator for the U.S. government proves just how complex and intricate the end of the Cold War was.
The Cold War’s end occurred in an array of differing nations, which had different ramifications depending on the country and context. The decline of the Soviet Union did not come as a surprise to many, given that the massive military budget it had been running to compete with the United States was simply becoming unsustainable. Steady pressure on the Soviet Union by U.S. President Reagan, British Prime Minister Thatcher, and German Chancellor Kohl also contributed to the historical outcome: ending the Cold War with “a soft landing.”
Robert Reis, a longtime State Department official, is a perfect example of how far one can come from the American Heartland. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, he eventually served in all corners of the globe, including Somalia. Throughout his broad career, he worked in a range of positions dealing with all matters including visas, policy related to banana and animal trade in Somalia, and even whale hunting in Japan! In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Robert Reis’s career displays just how extensive a Foreign Service career can be.
The coming of age of a Foreign Service officer is not always linear by any means. Robert Reis spent a year at the Department of Labor and a private corporation, Graybar Electric, before joining the Foreign Service. Reis’s nonlinear path to joining the Foreign Service occurred during a pivotal time for U.S. foreign policy: the end of the colonial era, which was accelerated by the end of World War II as the British and French empires fell. The start of Reis’s career marked the early years after the decolonization moment hit full force, and the path of his assignments took him to the recently independent countries of Somalia, Malaysia, and Zambia. While in Somalia, Reis enjoyed many memorable experiences, such as camping on the beach in his Volkswagen Van. These memories were juxtaposed with images of Somalian police walking around with old British rifles, a remnant of the only recently gone colonial era. Most of Reis’s days, however, were not spent on the beach; instead, he focused on expanding agricultural capacity through collaboration with U.S. university programs in Somalia. Reis also served in Zambia, Washington D.C., and eventually, Tokyo, Japan. He retired after his last assignment as Deputy Chief of Mission in Malaysia in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis.
During the 1990s, there were many international agreements created to limit nuclear weapons and the potential consequential effects of deploying these weapons. This began with the signing of the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-2) in 1993, continued with the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995, and the creation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. Notwithstanding the views of major regional actors, Southeast Asia also reached an agreement to restrict the buildup of nuclear weapons in the region.
In 1996 and 1997, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) worked diligently to create a nuclear weapon-free zone. The issue was that these nations demanded that this zone be extended two hundred miles from land, which was to the outer limits of their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This would become known as the Treaty of Bangkok. The treaty, however, created issues for the two major powers in the region: China and the United States. China objected as this would interfere with their claims to the Spratly Islands and areas of the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy was unsatisfied as the treaty would mean that U.S. ships, submarines, and airplanes would have problems transiting the area with nuclear weapons on board. The other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P-5) also supported the United States on this matter in solidarity. Read more
China’s economic transformation launched its economy to new heights during the 1990s, allowing it to have a stronger international presence. A country with a rapidly developing economy and an enormous population made China an extremely appealing market for American companies to invest in. However, there were still issues that needed to be addressed. This resulted in negotiations taking place regarding various issues ranging from Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) to space launches. As head of the external side of the economic section, Ambassador William Monroe would play an imperative role in these negotiations.
Before Ambassador Monroe’s involvement in negotiations with China on numerous issues, China was reforming its economic policies. Beginning in 1978, Deng Xiaoping initiated reform and “openness” policies that allowed foreign investment and capital to permeate society for the first time in China’s history. This drastically improved the living conditions for many Chinese citizens and provided many with new opportunities. Although foreign investment and collaboration would hit a speed bump with the events that occurred at Tiananmen Square, by 1998, per capita income was fourteen times higher than it was in 1980.
Notwithstanding the reforms made to facilitate foreign investment in China, the United States wanted to address issues affecting American companies. These issues included violations of intellectual property rights and restrictions on foreign companies’ competitiveness. Therefore, Ambassador Monroe’s main responsibility was to negotiate on the expressed concerns of the United States. He helped further discussions to have American companies enter and compete fairly in Chinese markets, as well as to protect their private properties. Read more
Whether being assigned to a new post, taking on a new position, or learning a new language, the careers of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are continually evolving. However, they are often not alone on their diplomatic journeys. Many Foreign Service Officers carry out their duties overseas alongside their spouses. While there are certain responsibilities that traditionally fall on the shoulders of these spouses, changes made by the State Department over the last fifty years have provided the freedom for some partners of Foreign Service Officers to pursue their own passions and goals in their various postings. One Foreign Service spouse who took advantage of her international travels during her husband’s assignments was Bonnie Miller.
Married in 1969, Bonnie met her husband, Thomas Miller, during their high school years over a decade before Thomas joined the Foreign Service. They both attended the University of Michigan where Bonnie earned degrees in psychology and social work. While Thomas’s work for the State Department began in 1976, it did not mean the end to Bonnie’s focus on her areas of study. Whether it was in Bosnia or Thailand, Miller kept up her passion for psychology and social work by teaching at various international universities, working as a mental health coordinator in the local communities, and executing numerous workshops and conferences on topics such as parenting and education. However, some of Miller’s most notable initiatives include her anti-trafficking work in Athens, Greece.
Miller’s work in human trafficking began during her husband’s service in Sarajevo, Bosnia after visiting shelters run by the International Organization on Migration for women who had been victims of trafficking. Coming in as mental health professional, Miller took the time to listen to their stories and would further educate herself on human trafficking issues by visiting dozens of women in Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and Thailand to listen to their experiences and raise awareness regarding this global issue. Through her work in these various locations, Bonnie was able to successfully continue her mission against human trafficking when she and her husband moved to Greece for Thomas’s ambassadorship. Read more
After thirteen months of combating the novel coronavirus pandemic through periods of quarantine, mask mandates, and social distancing, all adults in the United States are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine that continues to become more widely available with each passing day. Whether it be Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson, vaccines have been a hot topic of conversation; and getting them into the arms of Americans has proved to be a positive turning point in the return to normalcy and curbing the devastation of the pandemic. However, the COVID-19 vaccine is not the only vaccine that has recently made headlines.
A new malaria vaccine has shown promise in preliminary trials that proved to be 77 percent effective in a group of 450 children. While the research and trials must continue on to further stages, this breakthrough is monumental in the fight against malaria, a disease that kills 400,000 people a year, mostly children.
Although it seems that we are just now experiencing signs of promise regarding malaria and the production of an effective vaccine, the United States has spent decades providing resources for research and malaria control for struggling communities and nations, especially in Africa where nearly 95 percent of malaria deaths occur. According to USAID [United States Agency for International Development], American leadership has helped prevent more than 1.5 billion malaria cases and saved the lives of over 7.5 million individuals since 2000. However, USAID’s efforts in the fight to curtail malaria are by no means a novelty of the last two decades. USAID deployed various methods to fight malaria as early as the 1950s, including contributions and funding for a potential vaccine that, unfortunately, did not prove successful, but led to key findings and developments.
A pioneer in international health programs, Dr. Julius S. Prince had firsthand experience with the disease gripping Africa and the early initiatives USAID had underway to help these people in developing countries. Acting as the chief of the Public Health Division, Prince served as the leader to USAID’s [International Cooperation Administration at the time] Ethiopia Mission. In this “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Prince describes the malaria epidemic that brought devastation to Ethiopia in 1958 and the public health programs, projects, and evaluations undertaken by USAID in collaboration with the Gondar Public Health College and Training Center in the early fight against the disease. Read more
Following the Allied victory in World War II, Germany faced a long road to reconstruction. The war took the lives of about 7 million Germans and destroyed much of the country’s physical infrastructure. The Allies’ occupation of Germany also disrupted German life even further. Factories were destroyed, some civilians were enslaved, and other people were forced to migrate to new areas as reparations for the immense damage the German Nazis had caused during the war.
The four Allied Powers (the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union) split the country into areas that each one would occupy, though the ultimate goal remained for the country to be reunified eventually. However, the separate areas led to the division between East Germany and West Germany, which contributed to and lasted throughout the Cold War. Reunification ultimately did not take place until 1990.
The United States played a large role in the postwar occupation of Germany. During this period, tensions heightened between the United States and the Soviet Union as the camaraderie steadily faded following World War II. During his time in postwar Germany, Victor Skiles experienced firsthand much of the tension and destruction that occurred. However, Skiles felt that he was there to help rebuild Germany and to stop the destruction. He focused on agriculture and imports, trying to ensure that all Germans were able to eat sufficient rations even throughout the chaos and uncertainty of the occupation and reconstruction of Germany. This “Moment” in diplomatic history highlights Skiles’s experiences working in postwar Germany amid ongoing struggles and increasing tensions. Read more