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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.
 

Jakarta on Fire: The May 1998 Riots and Indonesian Revolution

Suharto Resigns (21 May 1998) Office of the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia, B. J. Habibie: 72 Days as Vice President | Wikimedia Commons
Suharto Resigns (21 May 1998) Office of the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia, B. J. Habibie: 72 Days as Vice President | Wikimedia Commons

Shawn Dorman watched as Jakarta descended into violent chaos and destruction overtook the city. At the conclusion of the May 1998 riots, thousands had been burned or beaten to death, over a hundred ethnically Chinese women had been raped, and a large part of the city had been destroyed. Dorman’s family and all non-essential U.S. personnel were evacuated. As the unrest continued, Dorman met with students as they occupied the parliament building in a series of protests that brought about the resignation of then-President Suharto.

The people of Indonesia had been suffering from the Asian Financial Crisis. Suharto’s regime “The New Order,” which had remained strong for 30 years, was severely damaged by rampant corruption and its inability to maintain economic stability. Nationwide student demonstrations in support of democracy called “Reformasi” (reform) spread rapidly. On May 12, the death of four protesters at Trisakti University provoked mass rioting and looting targeted at ethnically Chinese individuals and businesses. Allegedly instigated by the Indonesian military, this violence was largely separate from the student movement that resulted in Suharto’s resignation a week later. The Indonesian Revolution was a success, but Suharto’s successor Vice President B.J. Habibie was not the reformer the protesters had wished for and violence against the Chinese left a lasting legacy of pain.

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Construction Equipment in the Middle of the Jordan River—Blacklisting Threats, an Ultimatum, and Diplomatic Activity after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War

Israeli armored unit stands in the Negev Government Press Office of Israel | Wikimedia Commons
Israeli armored unit stands in the Negev Government Press Office of Israel | Wikimedia Commons

As a first-tour USAID loan officer in Amman, Jordan, Anthony Schwarzwalder observed first-hand the economic aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Following Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem, a U.S. contractor’s construction equipment, valued at $1 million, sat stranded and in limbo at the Jerusalem airport. Recovering the equipment would require a creative effort, as the contractor faced threats of blacklisting from other Arab countries for dealing directly with the Israelis. The U.S. government stepped in diplomatically, issued an ultimatum against Israel, and the abandoned machinery ultimately inspired the first real communication between Israel and Jordan since the West Bank changed hands. With the Jordan River as the new boundary and scene of the exchange, the U.S. government and Schwarzwalder facilitated this remarkable interaction.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria lasted just six days but the devastating effects could be seen decades later. Aggravated by tensions over shipping through the Straits of Tiran, Israel launched a surprise preemptive attack against Egypt’s airfields. This high-stakes gamble paid off. Israel was able to cripple the militaries of its opponents, cause heavy casualties, and seize large stretches of land in just a few days. Ongoing economic activity in the new Israeli occupied territory of the West Bank halted as the displacement of large numbers of the Arab population led to chaos and uncertainty.

Anthony Schwarzwalder’s first assignment was Amman, Jordan. He went on to serve as director of the Office of Relief and Rehabilitation in Pakistan where he dealt with issues such as the 1970 Bangladesh Cyclone. From 1979 to 1984 he served as USAID mission director in the Philippines. After his retirement in 1984, Schwarzwalder worked extensively with a variety of nonprofits.

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Building Trust and Supporting Human Rights in Apartheid South Africa

Apartheid sign | Dewet | Wikimedia Commons
Apartheid sign | Dewet | Wikimedia Commons

In 1988, a formidable coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAA) over President Reagan’s veto. Months later, USAID sent Timothy Bork to South Africa to implement this highly controversial legislation. During Bork’s tour, Nelson Mandela and other leaders remained imprisoned as violent confrontations erupted in townships across South Africa. At every step, he encountered resistance because neither Black activists, nor the White government, or U.S. activists fully trusted his motives.

To accomplish his mission, Bork had to constantly forge and rebuild relationships. He drew heavily from his experience as a young law student working with Black-led community organizations in Georgia. In both places, he learned the importance of stepping back and letting local communities and leaders design and implement the programs meant to help them. He devised “ten commandments” for his staff and every commandment was the same: “Listen, don’t speak.” Setbacks were common, but with patience and tenacity, Bork and his team helped empower Black leaders and lay the groundwork for future programs.

Timothy Bork worked for nineteen years tackling the legal challenges that USAID faced in Africa. He spent most of his career in Washington, D.C., and served as a Mission Director, General Counsel, Director of the Office of the Sahel and West Africa, and Deputy Assistant Administrator. With an eye for detail and a passion for protecting human rights, Bork began his career as a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, and went on to work for the Ford Foundation after he retired from USAID.

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Saving Political Prisoners in the Aftermath of the 1985 Presidential Election in Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2015) U.S. Institute of Peace | Flickr
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2015) U.S. Institute of Peace | Flickr

On November 12, 1985, exiled General Thomas Quiwonkpa invaded Liberia through Sierra Leone to launch a coup against President Doe. Across the country, Liberians celebrated Quiwonkpa’s challenge to the fraudulent results of the 1985 Presidential Election. Hours later, those hopes were crushed as soldiers in the Armed Force of Liberia (AFL) captured Quiwonkpa and defeated his forces. People watched in horror as members of the AFL dismembered Quiwonkpa’s genitals in front of the USAID building and paraded them around the streets of Monrovia.

After the failed coup, Doe imprisoned many opposition leaders, including future president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Ambassador Moses Hopkins was determined to prevent the continuation of ritual cannibalistic killing of political prisoners. He directed every Foreign Service Officer, including USAID officer Mary Kilgour, to pass along a message to their contacts in the Liberian government. They stated that the United States would respond to any attempt on the prisoners’ lives. Although she describes those months in Liberia as “scary,” Kilgour admired the Liberians for being long suffering with a good sense of humor.

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One City, Two Countries: Manning the Mexican-U.S. Border in Nuevo Laredo

Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr
Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr

Bustling with commerce, illegal border crossings, and cocaine trafficking, in 2000, Nuevo Laredo was the third busiest visa post in the world. Consulate staff had to balance encouraging commerce between the two countries, managing visa traffic, and preventing the movement of deadly narcotics. During his time as Consul General, Thomas Armbruster quickly learned this was a difficult balance to strike. Despite facing internal corruption, rampant narcotics violence, and death threats in pre-9/11 Nuevo Laredo, Armbruster believes that the good mostly outweighed the bad. After 9/11, the relationship between Mexico and the United States changed dramatically. Americans and Mexicans alike had to adapt to a “new normal.”

Thomas Armbruster entered the Foreign Service as a management officer in 1988 and spent much of his career working on environmental issues. He began in Helsinki as Deputy of the Soviet Support Office and went on to do tours in Havana during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arctic during the creation of the Arctic Council. Before he retired, President Obama nominated him as Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, giving him the opportunity to combine his lifelong passions for field work and environmental issues.
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The Fall of South Vietnam and Operation Babylift

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The fall of Saigon and the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy is one of the most infamous episodes in American diplomatic history. For Mary Lee Garrison, it was also part of her first job. At age 22, Garrison arrived in Saigon in June 1974 to an internal political consensus that the conflict was winding down and South Vietnam was finally on secure footing. The enormous multi-decade American campaign had culminated in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, enabling the withdrawal of the vast majority of U.S. forces. However, just months after arriving, Garrison began to notice some ominous signs. Applications for student visas were surging, and members of the well-connected Chinese business community rapidly began making arrangements to leave. By the following March, the country was in full-blown panic, and enormous mobs of Vietnamese started gathering outside the embassy trying to secure visas. As the military situation further north started to deteriorate, it became increasingly clear that U.S. officials did not appreciate the severity of the situation.

In a riveting interview, Garrison recounts the chaos that was unleashed as she and her colleagues worked to evacuate as many American and allied South Vietnamese personnel as possible as the capital fell to North Vietnamese forces. Simultaneously, Garrison was involved in the scramble to locate and evacuate thousands of Vietnamese family members of U.S. soldiers still in-country, as well as Operation Babylift—a last-minute effort to evacuate two thousand South Vietnamese orphans. Before long, the disastrous crash of a Babylift cargo plane and the disabling bombardment of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport by approaching North Vietnamese troops forced a harrowing fallback evacuation directly from the embassy via helicopter.

As Saigon descended into total anarchy, Garrison and her colleagues worked desperately to destroy the enormous trove of sensitive documents in the building and facilitate the helicopter evacuation before the ambassador finally ordered them to evacuate on April 29, 1975.

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“Encouraging” Soviet Workmen in 1984—Vodka, Cigarettes, and Snow Plowing in Soviet Russia

Source: Ammodramus / Wikimedia Commons
Source: Ammodramus / Wikimedia Commons

The currency of Soviet Russia was the ruble—or was it? When General Services Officer Robert Weisberg was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1984, he found out first-hand that things sometimes get done a little faster with a few cartons of cigarettes and bottles of vodka.

In a winter with heavy snowfall, it fell on Weisberg to put the embassy in top shape, which meant finding ways to get the snow cleared daily. When workmen didn’t complete the job, he learned quickly how things really got done in Moscow—making deals to overcome the inefficiency that often plagued the USSR at the time. By exchanging vodka and cigarettes that he purchased on his own for the snow-clearing labor the embassy needed, Weisberg was able to leverage the Soviet system to accomplish the mission.

Under the USSR’s communist economic system, high-demand consumer goods were difficult to secure. Soviet central planning was endemic with false reporting, which led to underproduction and severe shortages of some consumer goods. Out of necessity, unofficial barter and exchange systems developed to fill in the gaps. Commodities, like cigarettes, could be valuable tools in the network of favors that operated outside of the parameters of the official economy—so Moscow’s workmen were eager to trade.

Robert Weisberg experienced a dramatic change going from Bombay, India (his first post) to Moscow. A career member of the Foreign Service, he went on to serve abroad in Italy, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan, Norway, Poland, Venezuela, Indonesia, and Finland. Ultimately, Weisberg served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Congo before retiring in 2008 with the rank of Minister Counselor.

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“She’s Not a Woman, She’s a Diplomat”—Navigating Saudi Arabia in the 1980s

 Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress
Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress

A car full of armed guards trailed after Janice Bay as she defiantly walked down the gate-lined road away from the car and driver who had refused to take her any further. She had an appointment with the military general in charge of civil aviation, and they were not going to stop her from meeting him. As the first female economic officer in Saudi Arabia, Janice Bay successfully negotiated the business world and disproved those who were skeptical that a woman could do her job. Relying on men for transportation was sometimes tricky, but with persistence, Bay was able to gain access to important and powerful people. 

Other women in Saudi Arabia at the time worked out exceptions to driving rules which allowed them to tackle typically male tasks. The ban on driving during the 1980s was very strict but enforcement was not yet as harsh as it would become later. Bedouin women and expatriates were some of the groups that were able to assert a limited amount of independence. As of June 2018, all Saudi Arabian women were officially given the right to drive through an order issued by the aging King Salman. But he also kept in prison some of the women activists who had pressed for this change.

Janice Bay first entered the Foreign Service in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam war. She was one of an unusually high number of women—eight in total—that were part of the 80th Foreign Service Class. She went on to serve in a variety of interesting locations over the next decade before serving in Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1984. Bay continued her career with assignments in Egypt, France, Germany, and Washington, D.C. In 2003 she retired from the Foreign Service. 

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The 1964 Murder of Noted Composer Marc Blitzstein in Martinique

Marc Blitzstein Unknown | Library of Congress
Marc Blitzstein Unknown | Library of Congress

In 1964 on the French island of Martinique, well-known American composer Marc Blitzstein was found on the street badly injured and shouting for help. Blitzstein had been brutally attacked and robbed by three sailors after attempting to pick them up in a bar. The U.S. consular officer in Martinique, William B. Milam, rushed to check on Blitzstein in the hospital after the assault. Milam went on to a distinguished diplomatic career, serving as U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Blitzstein, tragically, died from a ruptured liver caused by the severe beating.

Blitzstein was best known for “The Cradle Will Rock,” a 1937 musical addressing corruption, union organizing, prostitution and other sensitive issues in a steel town. The Works Progress Administration famously shut down the show just before its opening night on Broadway. Blitzstein, director Orson Welles, and the rest of the cast marched uptown to another theatre. With Blitzstein at a battered piano and actors singing from their seats in the audience, the show opened and became a musical theatre legend. 

Blitzstein was also gay, and his murderers almost went free because of the stigma attached to homosexuality at the time. Initially Blitzstein told Milam that his injuries were the result of a car accident and asked that this be passed along to his relatives. Although openly gay, Blitzstein had kept his homosexuality private from his family and had briefly been married to Eva Goldbeck before she died at the age of 35. His ultimate decision to report the attack and identify his attackers resulted in the conviction of his three assailants of involuntary homicide and theft in 1965. Milam helped Blitzstein secure a translator and a medical examination for the police report.

Martinique was William B. Milam’s first foreign service post in a long career. Joining the Foreign Service in 1962, Milam went on to multiple postings in Washington, D.C. and abroad working on economic issues. From 1990 to 1993 he was ambassador to Bangladesh. He then served in Islamabad as ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2001, dealing with such questions as nuclear proliferation and the rise of the Taliban.

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“A Special Place in My Heart:” Memories of USAID in Vietnam

Images of the U.S. military in Vietnam are part of the American consciousness. But these images are only part of the story.  Often the lives and sacrifices of USAID workers are overlooked. They too made great contributions, joining with military personnel to deliver supplies to locals, promoting development in dangerous areas, and working with hamlet chiefs and ordinary civilians. Some USAID workers even lost their lives. Sidney Chernenkoff’s first overseas assignment with USAID was in Vietnam at the height of the war. His service is an excellent example of the complexity and value of USAID’s contributions to a war that remains controversial long after it has ended.

Chernenkoff initially joined USAID after spotting an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the agency was hiring for service in Vietnam. He was interviewed, scored highly on a language aptitude test, and was sent to Hawaii for six months to learn Vietnamese.  He then boarded a plane in March 1967 and arrived in Vietnam just as the war was entering its most intense phase. Chernenkoff worked as a part of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program in the town of Tuy Phuoc, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

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