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Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Kissinger and Zhou Enlai

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(s) interviewed. The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government nor the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

USAID Helps Sri Lanka Respond to 1996 Bombing of Central Bank–And Avert Financial Chaos

One of the deadliest terror acts in Sri Lanka’s long civil war was the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank, which cost almost 100 lives–and threatened to unleash economic and financial chaos.  USAID was able to move quickly to replace the bank’s computer system, restoring its vital functions, and preventing panic from spreading through the country. Mission Director David Cohen recalls our response in this ADST oral history.

Sri Lanka’s bloody 1983-2009 civil war grew out of longstanding ethnic and religious disputes.  The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) developed into a formidable military and terrorist force, prompting an increasingly violent government response, culminating in the group’s destruction.  While it was active, the LTTE held significant amounts of Sri Lankan territory and carried out multiple high-profile operations, including the assassinations of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.  In the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank, LTTE operatives crashed a truck carrying explosives through the main gate. The attack killed roughly 100 people and injured dozens more. By 2009, LTTE had been reduced to pockets of hard-core fighters. The government’s killing of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran effectively marked an end to the war.  

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Duty and Danger: An American Diplomat’s Service in Iraq on the Eve of 1991 Gulf War

American diplomat Stephen Thibeault watched as an airplane departed Iraq in 1990, carrying Rev. Jesse Jackson and American hostages liberated in the tense days following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — and before the U.S. launched Operation Desert Storm, the United Nations campaign that ultimately routed Saddam Hussein’s forces.  Thibeault was tempted to fly away with the hostages, but chose to remain and help other Americans in danger. “It was the equivalent of being in a fire,” Thibeault recalled in his ADST oral history. “You can quit the fire department when the fire is over; you can quit the Foreign Service when the crisis is over.”

 

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, quickly defeating that country’s military forces. Iraq then annexed Kuwait, claiming that it was a part of Iraq.  The United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned Iraq’s actions and demanded an immediate and unconditional withdrawal. The Council also imposed tough sanctions and other measures, prompting Iraq to detain and hold hostage large numbers of U.S. and western citizens working in the country.  Officers at the U.S. Embassy struggled to keep pace with unfolding events, helping U.S. citizens and others avoid becoming hostages and find ways out of the country. Stephen Thibeault played an important role in those efforts — and in briefing an international press corps hungry for information.

 

After Iraq, Stephen Thibeault served as public affairs officer in Thailand and information officer in Jordan. He also worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Media Reaction Office.

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Witness to the Arab Spring in Tunisia

In December 2010, Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi proved that it can take just a single moment to spark a revolution.

Humiliated and economically desperate, Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest a corrupt and repressive government. That act unleashed a wave of anger that spread first across Tunisia, then much of North Africa and the Middle East. Fueled by social media, the Arab Spring brought protests, riots, government crackdowns, and civil wars from Morocco to Iraq. Years later, it is clear that the Arab Spring brought mixed results. Only Tunisia emerged as a full, parliamentary democracy while others, like Syria and Libya, devolved into anarchy and civil war.

Ambassador Gordon Gray was stationed in Tunis when the Arab Spring broke out. President Ben Ali had held Tunisia’s highest office after an election in 1989 where no opposition parties appeared on the ballot. Twenty-three years later, Ben Ali presided over a nation that ranked poorly for freedom of the press, democracy, and human rights.

Gray, a career foreign service officer, spent his career largely in the Middle East and North Africa and was an expert on the region. He served as ambassador to Tunisia from 2009 to 2012.

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Pakistan, Population, and Development in the Early 1960s

You might never guess that the work of a USAID Program Economist could result in a trip to the Vatican for a personal meeting with the Pope, or to Canada as a chief architect of the Montreal Protocol.  Richard Elliot Benedick, entering USAID fresh out of Harvard Business School, certainly didn’t. And yet, the work he did as a young twenty-something in Pakistan would one day help him do all these things.

Benedick came into USAID and the Foreign Service at a time when it needed more economists.  For his first assignment, from 1959 to 1961, Benedick was assigned to Tehran to work on economic reforms.  From 1962 to 1964 he was responsible for the same type of projects in Pakistan. His primary assignment was to help develop markets through careful long-term planning.  In doing this he realized that, in all their planning, USAID and other entities were failing to take into account the impact of Pakistan’s rapidly growing population. Benedick pushed these issues in Pakistan in the face of much opposition.  Over the course of his career he became a pioneering advocate for addressing population factors, as well as environmental issues, in USAID’s development work.

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Folk Songs in Georgetown With JFK: A Memory from a Different Era

Nicholas Platt was a distinguished American diplomat, who served as ambassador to Zambia, the Philippines, and Pakistan.   In the first days of the Kennedy administration, however, Platt was a young Foreign Service Officer in Washington studying Chinese language — when he and his wife were unexpectedly invited to join the president for a small party at the Georgetown home of columnist Joseph Alsop.

Nick and Sheila Platt were friends of Joseph Alsop through Sheila’s mother.  Their invitation to dinner included a request that they provide musical entertainment.  Nick brought his guitar and the two performed folks songs popular in that era to an audience that included Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the British ambassador, and other Washington notables.  A vignette from a decidedly different era.

Nick Platt’s career also included important service in the administration of Richard Nixon, whom JFK had just defeated in the hard-fought 1960 election.  Platt was one of the self-described “China Boys”—U.S. government officials who helped Nixon and Henry Kissinger open the door to China in the 1970s.

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Duty and Danger: A Diplomatic Spouse Targeted for Assassination in Algeria

When they learned they were marked for assassination, Parvaneh Limbert and her husband John — the political section chief at the U.S. Embassy Algiers — had to act quickly and quietly.  They hurried out of the country, surprising family and friends back home, and stayed in the United States until the would-be killers were arrested in Italy. The assassins reportedly belonged to a group of supporters of Ahmed Ben Bella, the first president of Algeria. Ben Bella led the National Liberation Front, which waged a long and violent war against France to secure Algeria’s independence.

After the war ended in 1962, Ben Bella quickly established a one-party state.  He was deposed by defense minister Houari Boumediene in 1965. Algeria remained under a form of military rule for the next two and a half decades.  In 1988, while the Limberts were posted in Algiers, riots against the one-party system rocked the country. A group of Ben Bella’s underground supporters reportedly decided to assassinate Americans as a method of hurting the government’s credibility.  Luckily, the Limberts were notified of the plot against them and managed to get out of the country in time.

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Preventing and Controlling Floods in Bangladesh: Tackling an Age-Old Problem

A terrible flood struck Bangladesh in 1988, killing over 6,000 people, destroying millions of tons of crops and causing millions of dollars in damages.   This was not Bangladesh’s first flooding disaster, nor its last. As recently as 2017, floods left an estimated one-third of the country under water. The problem of flooding in Bangladeshis age-old; so is the debate about what to do about it.  During the 1988 G-7 Summit, France — with prompting from President Mitterand’s wife Danielle — urged concerted action to help Bangladesh develop better measures to prevent and control flooding.

John D. Pielemeier was USAID’s Director for the Office of South Asia at the time of the disaster, and represented the United States the ensuing multi-donor effort to address the problem.  Differences quickly emerged, however, between those who leaned heavily on flood control measures — like dikes and canals — and those who advocated “adaptive” measures to disperse inevitable floods more effectively and cope better with the consequences.  The debate continues today.

Pielemier supported the implementation of adaptive measures because he believed preventive flood-control measures could not stop the destructive force of the periodic deluges, but would ultimately amplify the damages. Pielemeier recognized that periodic flooding was part of the natural environmental cycle in Bangladesh, and necessary to support the country’s agriculture.

When the Brahmaputra River flooded in 1988, Pielemeier had worked for  USAID for nearly 25 years. He had previously served in Brazil, Africa and South Asia.

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Duty and Danger: A Diplomatic Spouse Recounts Narrow Escapes from Uganda and Cambodia

Louise Keeley waited and worried in neighboring countries when her husband, American diplomat Robert V. “Bob” Keeley, faced the encircling Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the depredations of Idi Amin in Uganda. Waiting for news of a spouse on a dangerous diplomatic assignment can be more stressful than the assignment itself. And when U.S. family members are evacuated to neighboring posts, they have not always received the support they needed. Louise Keeley’s candid oral history captures the pride, dedication and resolve of diplomats and their spouses in two of the most harrowing crises of the 1970s.

Idi Amin Dada, who styled himself “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Alhaji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE,” ruled Uganda as a dictator from 1971-79 after taking power in a military coup. His administration was characterized by brutal state killings of ethnic minorities and political dissidents, corruption, and nepotism. As the situation worsened, American personnel including Louise Keeley were evacuated to neighboring Kenya. The U.S. Embassy in Kampala closed completely on November 10, 1973, when interim Chargé d’Affaires Bob Keeley shut the doors and flew off—in a tuxedo—to attend Embassy Nairobi’s Marine Ball.

A mere two years later, the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communist guerrilla group, toppled the pro-American government in Phnom Penh. Bob and Louise Keeley were again on the scene in the chaotic weeks leading to the fall of the Cambodian capital in 1975. Once in power, the Khmer Rouge proceeded with violent attempts at social engineering and widespread state-sanctioned murder. Under Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, nearly 25 percent of Cambodia’s population was killed in what is now known as the Cambodian Genocide. To this day, Cambodians still find human bones from Khmer Rouge massacres as they till their fields. Louise Keeley and other American Embassy staff and family members left first, for refuge in nearby Bangkok. Deputy Chief of Mission Bob Keeley and Ambassador John Dean were evacuated on April 12, 1975 in Operation Eagle Pull, a mere five days before the city fell to the Khmer Rouge’s onslaught.

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Frank Carlucci and the Last Days of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo

Long before he was President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci was a young State Department political officer in Kinshasa, Congo (then known as Leopoldville).  He got to know Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and was among the last Americans to see him alive before Lumumba’s 1961 murder.

Multiple theories surround Lumumba’s death, which remains controversial to this day.  In his oral history, Carlucci does not provide exact details on the assassination. But he offers fascinating vignettes of the embattled Congolese politician in his final days.  He also describes the chaos that followed Congo’s abrupt independence, including his house arrest by the breakaway government of Katanga Province and an armed standoff at Leopoldville’s airport when Lumumba was attempting to fly to Stanleyville (Kisangani).

Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo, was a prominent leader in the nationalist movement that achieved independence in 1960.  Within eleven days of independence, Katanga, a southern province rich in mining resources, seceded from Congo. Lumumba called on the international community to help him regain control of the country, accepting help from anyone who would provide it, including the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, this put him squarely at odds with the United States and other western powers.  Lumumba was assassinated in January 1961 under suspect circumstances.

Carlucci went on to a distinguished career in government, including service as Ambassador to Portugal and National Security Adviser.  He retired after two serving as Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan.

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Long Before He Headed the CIA, James Woolsey Challenged Paul Nitze Over the Vietnam War

For a young lieutenant to challenge the number two man in the Department of Defense over Vietnam policy in 1969 took guts. The ensuring argument pitted R. James Woolsey, still in his 20s and later to become Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, against Paul Nitze, Deputy Secretary of Defense and pillar of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  

Woolsey, fresh from Yale Law School, was in the Army, working “figuring out criteria for designing reconnaissance satellites” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  Nitze was ending his tenure as a senior official in the Johnson administration. Nitze concluded that Woolsey “didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” but didn’t hold a grudge.  When the Nixon administration brought Nitze back for the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) talks, Nitze chose Woolsey to be on this team.

Woolsey also did a stint early in his career as General Counsel to the Senate’s Armed Service Committee.  While at Yale Woolsey campaigned for anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. He expected a negative reaction from the committee chair, Mississippi’s conservative Senator John Stennis.  Instead Stennis shared fond memories of McCarthy’s “wonderful sense of humor.”

Woolsey would go on to serve as Under Secretary of Navy under President Carter and Director of the CIA under President Clinton. (Nitze’s career was equally distinguished.  He served as Secretary of the Navy and Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. He also co-founded Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, now named in his honor.) Woolsey’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 24, 2013.

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