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.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This line from “The New Colossus,” by poet Emma Lazarus, upholds American values of hope and freedom from persecution towards all the downtrodden of the world. Nothing has defined America’s cultural identity more than the concept of the “American Dream,” the long-held belief that those persecuted and oppressed in other nations can find refuge and hope in the United States of America—a land where shared values of democracy, prosperity, and freedom bind people together.
Sylva Etian is someone who believed in the dream and achieved it. She is the descendant of Armenian refugees fleeing from the 1916 Armenian Genocide, when the Ottoman Empire destroyed much of the Armenian population within their borders, triggering an exodus that formed the basis of the Armenian diaspora abroad. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1953 and has largely remained there since. During her time in college, she ran into a Peace Corps recruiter, a moment that would change the rest of her life. After serving in Côte d’Ivoire, Etian continued to work for the Peace Corps and eventually USAID and the Foreign Service. Read more
After nearly fifty-five years of civil war, the Sudanese people are no stranger to immense violence and devastation. The First Sudanese Civil War (1955–1972) and the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005) caused the deaths of approximately 2.5 million people due to violence, famine, and disease. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement promised to grant South Sudan its long awaited independence by 2011, contingent on a successful referendum vote.
The population voted overwhelmingly for independence and to install as president Salva Kiir, who was previously the president of autonomous South Sudan and the leader of the Southern People’s Liberation Army. Reik Machar, who served as vice president during the autonomous period, was voted in officially. An important distinction between the two leaders is that Kiir is ethnically Dinka, whereas Machar is Nuer. With an unstable government and the lack of a unified military, violence again arose predominantly between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, pushing the youngest country in the world, yet again, into a vicious civil war in 2013—precipitating nefarious war crimes.
The religious divide between Muslims and Christians proved to be central to the violence in the First and Second Sudanese Civil Wars. In 1983, President Numeiry violated the Addis Ababa Agreement by enacting Sharia Law on the entire nation, including the non-Muslims living in the south. This violation led to the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War, causing rebels from South Sudan to form the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Over the course of the war, the SPLA was internally a fractionalized group of enemies each aligned by ethnic roots, yet remained unified in order to obtain their goal of southern independence. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the installment of Kiir and Machar, both leaders were supported by ethnic militias. Two years after the independence of South Sudan, political turmoil ignited instability in the country after Kiir began dismissing government officials, who supported Makar. In 2013, Kiir claimed Makar was planning a coup d’état, provoking Makar’s dismissal as vice president and the beginning of civil war. The South Sudanese Civil War was a struggle for political power that was fought along ethnic lines between the two major groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. A lack of an institutionalized military led to the militias in South Sudan organizing themselves into essentially ethnically armed units based on personal loyalty. Read more
Korean Christianity appears to observers as embedded in Korean history and tradition. However, this is not the case, as Korean Christianity is still a minority religion and only entered mainstream South Korean society during the mid-twentieth century, when many American Christian missionaries began evangelizing in South Korea. One of them was a young Methodist Missionary named James T. Laney, who previously served in Korea as a Counterintelligence Officer between 1947–1948. Laney’s fascination with Korean culture and society convinced him to return to South Korea in 1959.
Laney arrived at one of the most politically turbulent eras in South Korean history. In 1960, South Korean students overthrew South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee in the democratic April Revolution. In 1961, South Korean General Park Chung Hee launched a coup d’état against the government and established a military dictatorship. Laney witnessed firsthand the political infighting between the democrats and the militarists that would define more than two decades of Korean history. Through his role as a missionary, Laney was able to connect with the Korean people on a personal level that made him better understand them in ways many Americans couldn’t during the mid-twentieth century. Read more
Foreign Service Officers come from diverse backgrounds, yet share one common interest of promoting American interests abroad. However, how do diplomats utilize their unique experiences while in the field? Cynthia Farrell Johnson built important local connections through her talents as an artist and was coined an “artist diplomat.” While serving in Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Panama, Uruguay, and El Salvador, Johnson sketched and painted unique aspects of a country’s culture.
Johnson’s art was well received by local communities who appreciated a foreigner taking the time to observe, capture, and highlight their country. Art helped facilitate numerous connections for Johnson and furthered her efforts as a public affairs officer.
From as young as she can remember, Johnson has always had a deep-seated love for drawing and painting and has carried it with her throughout her career. After deciding a career as an art teacher was not right for her, Johnson explored a career as a librarian. While working at the Sojourner Truth Library in the World Studies Center at the State University of New York in New Paltz, Johnson developed a love and fascination for world cultures. After earning her masters in library science, Johnson worked at the Brooklyn Public Library and applied for the Foreign Service. Following her acceptance and initial training, Johnson embarked on her first tour to Côte d’Ivoire as an assistant cultural affairs officer. As a first tour officer Johnson held an art exhibit at the cultural center in Abidjan. Throughout her career Johnson was able to nurture her passion for art, hold art exhibitions at all of her posts, and advance public diplomacy efforts through local connections. Read more
The roles of embassies and their staff vary greatly by countries and regions, though few can claim themselves to be as unique in their responsibilities as the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War. In Saigon, the embassy went beyond serving as a representative of the U.S. diplomatic mission and as a haven for U.S. citizens, and even functioned as part of a parallel government with management responsibilities that ranged from local Vietnamese employees to military affairs.
As the embassy transitioned, so too did its personnel who increasingly saw their duties expanded greatly to ensure the smooth functioning of the embassy and mission.
By 1966, the Vietnam War was in full force. Just a year earlier in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson had authorized American boots on the ground, landing 3,500 marines in South Vietnam—a number that would rapidly increase to over 200,000 by the end of the year. Attacks on U.S. government installations, military and otherwise, were also increasing, and the need for American intervention on behalf of South Vietnam became ever more apparent. Over the years coups, military juntas, and corruption took its toll on the South Vietnamese government, which couldn’t stabilize, and weakened it as time passed. In the midst of all this chaos and transformation, the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam began to function as a hub providing broad support for the Saigon government, encompassing military and other matters in its daily functions. Read more
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been a source of pride for the United States, but it was especially strong during the Cold War. This sense of pride culminated on July 20, 1969, when the United States landed a man on the moon and essentially won the space race against the Soviet Union. Prior to that historic moment, when the world officially recognized the United States as presumptive leader in space, the U.S. government saw a need to promote NASA’s viability and its importance to the rest of the world. This took different forms; in Northern Africa, many people gained an appreciation of the American space program through Glenn Cella’s efforts.
In 1967, Glenn Cella took an usual Foreign Service detail assignment with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to NASA to leverage his scientific background and Arabic and French language speaking skills. This allowed him to learn the details of traveling to space and all that encompasses it. Cella witnessed a Delta Launch, met real astronauts, and learned everything he needed to create a presentation for the people of Northern Africa. He joined the Space Mobile Program, which allowed him to visit different regions to give his presentations.
Glenn Cella went to Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco at a time when these predominately Muslim countries were particularly high-strung, as the Six-Day War had ended a few weeks prior. The Space Mobile Program not only provided the perfect opportunity to promote the space program, but allowed him to improve relations between these countries and the United States. Cella would go to these countries and give presentations at military academies, universities, secondary schools, general audience groups, and on national television. His language skills were good enough that locals often didn’t believe he was American. This allowed him to communicate with local and high ranking officials who were sometimes beyond the traditional reach of other FSOs who preceded him. Moreover, he gained enough intrigue in the media to become a mini celebrity. Read more
Prior to a long career at USAID, Frank Almaguer first gained experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in British Honduras (Belize). But he continued to work with the Peace Corps even as a Foreign Service Officer, returning to British Honduras and then neighboring Honduras as a staff member in charge of training volunteers. His years at USAID and extensive development work in Honduras set him up for one of the highest honors––serving as ambassador to Honduras in 1999.
That’s not to say Almaguer’s appointment as ambassador was in any way over-determined; it’s relatively rare for career Foreign Service Officers outside the State Department to become ambassadors. So it was fortunate that the position of U.S. ambassador, which held considerable sway in a country like Honduras, went to someone like Almaguer who had such a deep knowledge of the country. His extensive experience at USAID also made him the kind of ambassador Honduras needed at the time, as the country was still reeling from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Mitch as Ambassador Almaguer arrived.
This “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” the second in a series of Moments commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps and the enduring connection between the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service, highlights the career trajectory of Frank Almaguer, and includes excerpts where Ambassador Almaguer recounts he and his wife’s return to Belize as part of the Peace Corps staff in 1974, his continued work with the Peace Corps in Honduras, his relations with the government of Honduras as ambassador, and his reflections on the Peace Corps––which he proudly describes as “one of the best investments the U.S. has ever made.”
When it comes to determining the world’s greatest films, we may focus on Italian giants of neorealism like Bicycle Thieves or moody, existential dramas from France. But what truly makes a film great? Is it a measure of perfect cinematography and sound? Or a matter of generational context and the perspective that time provides? We reevaluate these standards every time we watch a Friday movie or tune in to the Oscars. Film, like many other forms of art, exists as a medium for both entertainment and introspection. In diplomacy, film is used for even greater purposes. For USIA [United States Information Agency] Policy Officer McKinney Russell, the impact of cinema expanded far beyond yearly contests for awards and debates of style over substance.
During his service in the African area of USIA, namely in the Congo, Russell was granted about three million dollars to fund documentary films about Africa. The ongoing Civil Rights Movement at the time garnered interest in African affairs, and films about the continent were created to satiate the demand. These films showcased a nuanced perspective of Africa that relished in the talents of its vast people and cultures. One film that Russell noted as particularly spectacular was a piece directed by William Greaves, documenting the First Festival of Negro Arts held in Senegal in 1966. Greaves, an African-American filmmaker from Harlem, became a close friend of Russell’s throughout and long after his service. Another film about the Second Festival of Negro Arts, this time held in Nigeria, was commissioned and produced in late 1967. The Peace Corps in Niger was also featured in several films to showcase international assistance in the region.
However, films funded by USIA were not only made to highlight artistry and humanitarian work within Africa. Other works, such as a series of programs called “Century III,” were ordered to inform Kenyans about American history and culture. These projects were ultimately made to provide Americans with a better understanding of Africa as well as to provide Africans with insightful knowledge of America. In this “moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” we can appreciate through Russell’s service in Africa the greatness of film’s ability to inform, educate, and inspire. Read more
The 1960s in Indonesia proved to be a tumultuous period that saw territorial tensions, political strife, and the genocide of communist supporters and others between 1965 and 1966. This anger came to a boiling point when the 30 September Movement, also known as Gerakan Satu Oktober, attempted a coup that resulted in the assasination of six army generals and forced president Sukarno into protective custody. In the end, the attempted coup failed, and the Communist Party of Indonesia took the blame. This idea was pushed by the army, especially military leader Suharto, which then resulted in anti-communist purges. Such purges led to an estimated five hundred thousand to one million deaths.
During this time the U.S. was not particularly liked by Indonesia. For instance, in 1964, President Sukarno made a speech publicly denouncing the United States. Following the denunciation of America, an anti-American campaign ensued in which companies were threatened, movies were banned, the flag was burned, and buildings were attacked. Moreover, evidence suggesting that the U.S. supported these purges, received updates on the executions, and offered to help suppress media coverage of the events further contributed to the poor state of relations between the two countries.
All these factors made it difficult to conduct business and normal operations in Indonesia. This is where Robert Walkinshaw’s role came in: he started the process of returning bilateral relations to an amicable place. Walkinshaw had begun his assignment at the embassy scarcely one month before it was firebombed, at the peak of the turmoil. Hence, there was very little interaction between Indonesians and official U.S. government representatives. That was the case until Walkinshaw took the initiative to reach out to the host country community. Through Walkinshaw’s efforts, he was able to form a relationship with the Indonesian trade minister that opened the door for others in the embassy. Additionally, he introduced Indonesian labor leaders to trade ministers. In this “Moment” we see that Robert Walkinshaw proved integral to not only reviving the American-Indonesian trade relationship, but also the overall diplomatic relationship.
The 1925 Geneva Protocol put in place a worldwide ban on chemical weapons, but the necessity and handling of such weapons continue to be a hotly debated issue, and accusations of illegal use have been aimed at various nations. One example is the controversy surrounding “Yellow Rain,” with investigations and discussion regarding its use in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan continuing for decades.
In 1981, the United States accused Russia of supplying T-2 mycotoxin, a toxic fungus naturally found in cold climates, to communist states in Southeast Asia for use as a weapon. While Russia denied the accusations and the United Nations found them to be false, the U.S. government has never rescinded the claims, which were made based on physical data and victim accounts. One prominent voice on the issue is Dr. Matthew Meselson of Harvard University, who says that the notorious yellow spots found on plant life in the area were actually honey bee droppings. There are those, however, who continue to insist that the spots are not the result of bees, but are just one piece of the evidence proving mycotoxin usage. With no clear scientific conclusion, discussion becomes not just political, but personal. Read more