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.
Life as a Foreign Service spouse is constantly evolving, particularly for Foreign Service wives. While the State Department is now having active conversations about how to best support women and families, in earlier days, women’s needs were not always considered a priority. Wives of ambassadors especially bore the brunt of this unfortunate reality.
They were expected to leave behind their careers, enter a new post with their husbands, and focus on matters such as entertaining guests or keeping up their residences (in addition to decoding the written and unwritten rules of social life). This transition was made more difficult due to the lack of clear information provided to wives by the State Department.
Alice McIlvaine is one such Foreign Service spouse who entered this new world with little to no formal guidance from the State Department. Upon joining her husband Robinson McIlvaine in the Foreign Service in 1961 and heading to Dahomey (now Benin), Alice immediately began to navigate her role as an ambassador’s wife. She was aided by other wives who took her under their wing, and learned new lessons constantly throughout her journey. Read more
Life can sometimes be unpredictable in the Foreign Service. Serving as a development officer may perhaps be even more unpredictable, since one often confronts unique challenges in distinct parts of the world. Many who are called to public service have a passion for change and improvement; they embark on a path unlike any other.
The United States sends men and women across the world to serve in diplomacy, trade, humanitarian aid, and development projects. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States invested more resources in Latin America; Central America was a prime example—Honduras, Belize, and Guatemala. Much of this investment was dedicated to infrastructure development for national governments, and its success depended on the efforts of dedicated public servants.
Henry “Hank” Weiss was one such person—a man of faith and service. He defines his life in five words: “Coincidence is God acting anonymously.” Life brings strange consequences to situations unimaginable. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Hank Weiss learned from his many years overseas—from Latin America to Africa to Eastern Europe—that it absolutely takes a village to raise a child. Weiss, with strong faith and the support of friends, worked with USAID, the Peace Corps, and the Department of State, and sought to make a lasting contribution in the countries where he served.
A sense of misunderstanding is what undoubtedly lies at the heart of conflict, especially between nations who apparently strive for what is best for their peoples. But as time moves on, so too do the Turkish and Greek Cypriots who first began their detachment from their respective governments’ political impasse in the early 1990s. Marcelle Wahba, a USIS public affairs officer at the time, subsequently bridged both the physical and social divide between the north and south sides of the island of Cyprus through a form of expression limited to no bounds: art.
In 1974, the growing international dispute over Cyprus between Greece and Turkey ultimately culminated in a Greek coup d’état of the local government that was swiftly answered by a Turkish military invasion of the island. As political gridlock ensued with no resolution in sight, thousands of civilians found themselves displaced from their homes. Turkish Cypriots therefore settled in the North while Greek Cypriots lived in the South. The UN established a Buffer Zone, also known as the “Green Zone,” which prevented citizens of both nationalities from crossing. The violent conflict that resulted from the previous engagements ultimately left psychological wounds amongst Cypriots that lasted for years.
A lack of due process, serious disorganization, and inadequate representation. This was the state of affairs of Foreign Service labor management in the late 1960s, when officers who served abroad could not rely upon a personnel system that was sorely outdated and lacked the means to sufficiently take care of its people. These circumstances would culminate in the tragic suicide of Charles Thomas in 1971 after being wrongfully selected out of the Foreign Service.
FSO Tex Harris, who had already been in the midst of resolving due process issues within the State Department, then became personally convicted by Thomas’ death and set out to accomplish what many colleagues would remember him for: establishing a grievance system that epitomized his unwavering morality and sincere care for all of his fellow FSOs.
Tex Harris first joined the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in 1968 as a junior officer, citing his initial aims to combat what were then simply due process issues. He joined the board as part of the “Young Turk” movement within the Foreign Service that sought to revolutionize the personnel system’s standards, ensuring that the work conditions and voices of all FSOs would be heard loud and clear. As a result, Tex Harris and the rest of the board effectively unionized AFSA with the intent of creating a more suitable personnel system based on merit and a legislative enactment of a grievance system long overdue.
This “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history conveys how Tex Harris strived to embody the values of justice he held so dear and the passion with which he would inspire both peers and mentors to take action wherever he went. His work here would serve as a foundation for a long career that started with scrutiny faced alone, in places like the bureaucracy and the Dirty War in Argentina, and ended with commemorations as president of AFSA surrounded by admirers of a man who never seemed to stop fighting the good fight.
Working with nuclear materials is, by its very nature, volatile. Carrying out diplomacy over nuclear materials is even more so. The 1990s posed a particularly fragile moment as the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving nuclear successor states in its wake. In particular, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan emerged onto the global scene equipped with weapons and the infrastructure to produce more nuclear devices.
The question for diplomacy (amidst the familiar pressures and excitement of establishing relationships with newly independent, nascent states) was how to steer the moments that would follow—a world where the number of nuclear-armed states had suddenly multiplied. Without carefully proceeding, the moment could turn sour, leading to further proliferation and heightened risk.
For over forty years, the Soviet Union and the United States had been locked in a nuclear escalation in the Cold War, generating the vast majority of the world’s supply of nuclear weapons and warheads. In the Soviet Union, this peaked at a stockpile of approximately 68,000 warheads just a year before its fall. After December 26, 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, those warheads were now split between the resulting new republics it left in its wake.
For Janet Bogue, a move to Kazakhstan as a Foreign Service officer in 1994, less than three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, meant an entrée into careful negotiations around the new Republic’s nuclear stockpile. Luckily for Bogue, Kazakhstan proved flexible, eager to de-arm and to negotiate with the United States. In this particular case, the obstacle proved to be the United States itself, much to the consternation of the Foreign Service officers posted in Almaty.
The end of World War II brought about the beginning of the Cold War, whose influence played a significant role in U.S. policy, and consequently the handling of labor union movements and how they were perceived. The fear of communism and the dominating presence of Cold War politics only added to the obstacles confronting labor unions that advocated for work and human rights.
Jack Sheinkman was a New Yorker from the Bronx who, thanks to his service in the Navy and the help of the G.I. Bill, attended the Labor Relations School at Cornell. His interest in trade unions had already begun as a student in the Workmen Circle Schools and socialist youth groups such as the Red Falcons. He has been a dedicated leader and advocate for labor unions, strongly believing that “labor rights…are part of democratic rights.” Throughout his lifetime, he’s been involved in striking, collective bargaining, and legal and organizing aspects of labor rights and unions.
While policies suppressing labor unions in places like Latin America have often been presented as part of the anti-communist war, this fails to acknowledge the important role social uprisings and unions play in maintaining democracy and achieving peace. To labor union leader Sheinkman, it seemed the Cold War pushed everything else to the backseat, including undercutting America’s own economic and national interests, stating that in some instances, the United States even made deals with undemocratic countries simply because they were anti-communist.
One reform to fix them all. What could be more ideal than this? Unfortunately, such a dream will forever lie beyond the reach of policymakers. The potential reality of the matter is that each problem is the unique culmination of various challenges and difficulties, which in turn requires an equally unique solution for true resolution.
In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that this is particularly evident in the case of South Africa towards the end of the twentieth century, an area that Robert S. Brent worked on very closely during the early stages of his career with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Even on the matter of apartheid, Brent witnessed the dissonances of domestic opinions tear Assistant Secretary Chester Crocker apart as his policy of constructivist engagement was repeatedly challenged on both sides of the political spectrum.
On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, were the perceptions of policy when it came to subsequent economic reform. Indeed, although Brent spent a significant amount of time reflecting on the applicability of the East Asian model of economic reform, the closest that USAID ever got was encouraging private sector development; even though such policy worked well in Korea, Taiwan, and Japan before, there was resistance from South Africa. Not only because the host country officials did not want to follow such a route, but also—as Brent describes in detail—the prerequisite conditions did not necessarily match such an approach well enough to be truly effective. At one point, Brent finds himself asking, “What is the role of foreign aid?” But based on his experiences, perhaps we should be asking ourselves a different question: “Does our infrastructure have ample flexibility to successfully address any dilemma?”
Prior to joining USAID in 1986, Brent served in the U.S. Navy for six years. He has additionally worked in Egypt as a USAID Human Resources Associate Mission Director, as well as in the United States as the Director of the Center for Development Information and Evaluation at USAID. Following his retirement from the organization, Brent has taken up a position as a Professor at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. teaching Chinese Economics.
The Dayton Accords peace agreement represents one of the most pivotal of its time. Signed on November 21, 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the accords brought a negotiated end to years of brutal conflict. But just as the road to the Dayton Accords had been filled with stumbling blocks, the subsequent implementation would also be filled with challenges, as evidenced by the experiences of Ambassador Robert M. Beecroft.
In 1996, Beecroft arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina as one of the many members of the international community responsible for aiding in post-conflict reconstruction in the region. The lessons he learned in Bosnia would stay with him for his entire career.
One of the challenges of bringing peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina was the complicated nature of the conflict that had emerged there. Following the collapse of communism in Europe, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was beset with myriad economic and political ills. Rising nationalism in the republics led to secessions in 1991 and 1992. The splintering began when two of its republics, Slovenia and Croatia, declared their independence. In 1992, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence. Ultimately, only the republics of Serbia and Montenegro remained, forming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Tragically, the dismantling of Yugoslavia would give rise to one of Europe’s most devastating conflicts.
Within Bosnia, the three main ethnic and religious groups were Orthodox Serbs, Bosniak Muslims, and Croat Catholics, with Bosniaks being the largest group. In 1992, Bosnia held a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia, which was highly unpopular with the republic’s Serbian population. In response, the Bosnian Serbs declared their own republic within Bosnia and began to take over territory. The Bosnian Croats also declared a republic. As Bosnian Serb forces attacked the capital of Sarajevo and majority-Bosniak towns, they ethnically cleansed Bosniak civilians, subjecting women to a campaign of mass rape. In July 1995, Serb forces attacked the city of Srebrenica, which had been designated as a safe haven by the United Nations. UN peacekeepers failed to stop them from storming the city, where they massacred over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. The Srebrenica genocide and other atrocities shocked the international community, and NATO intervened with airstrikes. With the fighting subdued by NATO and a ceasefire in place, the international community moved ahead with a plan for peace. But by the time of the intervention, over 100,000 people had been killed, and about two million—about half the population—had been displaced.
The inauspicious rise of Joseph McCarthy began in 1950, when the Wisconsin senator was asked to give a speech at the Ohio County Republican Women’s Club. Until then McCarthy had had a mediocre political career. But that day, despite the humble venue, he managed to give a speech that would catapult him to new heights of political influence. In his speech, McCarthy alleged that he had a list of 205 State Department employees who were known members of the Communist Party yet were still working for the Department.
McCarthy’s accusation, though baseless and fictitious, stirred up deeply-held fears of many Americans in the Cold War era. The idea that communists were “shaping the policy of the State Department,” as McCarthy claimed, terrified Americans who had been conditioned to be constantly weary of the threat of Soviet expansionism.
In the years before the rise of McCarthy, President Truman had created the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, which investigated potentially disloyal government employees. The Republican-led House Un-American Activities Committee had already been involved in many highly publicized cases against well-known entertainers who supposedly harbored communist sympathies. But McCarthy’s constant baseless accusations created a chaotic witch hunt that made many government employees, particularly Foreign Service officers, feel constantly threatened.
By the early 1950s, the public mood towards diplomats had soured. Some Foreign Service officers felt they were being punished whenever they reported events that politicians did not want to hear. Things worsened in 1952, when McCarthy became head of the Committee of Government Operations, allowing him to create constant bogus investigations. McCarthy even targeted high-level statesmen who had long been respected in the world of foreign policy, like George Marshall (the architect of the Marshall Plan), and Dean Acheson, the secretary of State, who he accused of having failed to prevent China from becoming communist. To make things worse, McCarthy also began pushing LGBT+ employees out of their positions, accusing them of being subversive and susceptible to blackmail. It seemed like no one was safe. Although McCarthy never unearthed any actual instances of disloyalty, his accusations destroyed the careers of many FSOs. He held such sway over American politics that even President Eisenhower was fearful of contradicting him. In 1954, McCarthy began targeting the U.S Army. These attacks would ultimately result in his fall from grace, causing him to lose the support of many Americans. Still, the damage had been done. Despite only having been in power for a few short years, McCarthy caused irreparable damage to the careers and lives of many Foreign Service Officers.
Benedict Arnold. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Mir Jafar. All of these individuals have something in common: they all betrayed their countries. Even with the passage of time, an air of notoriety still clings to their names.
Defection occurs in all countries and is fueled by the desire for money, power, or fame. Defection can also be the result of ideological opposition to the national government and its policies.
The KGB—the foreign intelligence and domestic security service of the Soviet Union, and the precursor to the modern-day FSB—found a number of defectors among its ranks. Deepening ideological disagreements with the Soviet system coupled with the growing curiosity of the prospect of starting a life elsewhere caused some agents to start working for the West.
In this “Moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that Yuri Nosenko was one of these individuals. In 1962, he approached FSO David E. Mark, who did a temporary assignment for the CIA a few years prior. In addition to offering confidential Soviet information, Nosenko also claimed to be able to provide useful intelligence about Lee Harvey Oswald, who lived in the Soviet Union prior to assassinating President John F. Kennedy in 1963.