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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.

Public Diplomacy in Cyprus: Reaching Across the Green Line

The Green Line (2016) Adam Jones | Wikipedia

The Green Line (2016) Adam Jones | Wikipedia

Marked by broken glass, sand bags, and abandoned buildings, the Green Line dividing Nicosia is a place out of time. One hundred twelve miles across and up to 4.6 miles wide, this barren strip has divided the Greek and Turkish sectors of the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus since 1964, when UN peacekeeping forces helped quell a violent conflict between the two communities. The force remains in Cyprus to this day. Described as “Paradise with a Problem” and graveyard for diplomatic initiatives, the reunification of Cyprus has been the goal of NATO, the EU, the UN, the United States and countless individual diplomats since the establishment of the Green Line in 1964.  

As a public diplomacy officer, Judith Baroody sought to bring the people of the two sectors together through a range of initiatives:  public dialogues, cultural events, and exchange programs bringing young leaders to the United states. She looks back on her time in Cyprus (1996-99) with a mixture of frustration and hope.  The island remains divided—but people-to-people contacts also continue. In a long Foreign Service career, this was Baroody’s favorite assignment.

Judith Baroody joined the old United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1984, and transferred to the State Department when that agency was abolished in 1999.  A self-described “Arabist” who primarily served in the Middle East, Judith’s career took her to Damascus during a period of political stability and relative religious tolerance (1985-86), to Tel Aviv with the formidable Ambassador Thomas Pickering (1986-88), and to Baghdad during wartime (2008-09). Just before retirement, Baroody served as the executive director of the Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training (2015-17). 

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Fighting LGBT Discrimination, and Fighting to Stay in the Foreign Service

Up until the late 1990s, Foreign Service careers were denied to openly gay men under the pretense of security concerns. Jan Krc was one of the men who faced–and overcame–this form of prejudice. After being interrogated about his sexual orientation, Krc was fired from his job at the U.S. Information Agency. Instead of lying down and accepting his fate, Krc became embroiled in a decade-long legal battle. Krc–who came to the United States as a child and a Czechoslavkaian refugee–had a passionate desire to serve his country and work for the Foreign Service. Despite the many obstacles he faced, he never stopped pursuing this goal.  Accepting another position at the State Department, but not in the Foreign Service, Krc ultimately exhausted his legal appeals after ten years of struggle. Seizing on a technicality, he was able to reapply to the Foreign Service and went on to serve for over two decades in Russia, Turkey, and Central Europe as a public diplomacy officer. In his oral history, Krc reflects on the ups and downs of this legal drama from his unique and engaging perspective. He is ultimately optimistic about the progress that America has made and its role in promoting LGBT+ rights across the globe.

Jan Krc graduated from Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1981. He then went on to work in a wide range of locations, including Belgrade, Istanbul, Frankfurt, St. Petersburg, and Vienna. Krc finally retired in 2018, after over 30 years of working in–or fighting to work in–the Foreign Service.

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“I am a Plant:” An Apparent Iraqi Spy Among U.S. Diplomats

Would you be willing to hire a potential foreign intelligence agent if it meant direct access to an antagonistic, elusive foreign government? During his time in Baghdad in the 1970s, Allen Keiswetter had to make this crucial decision. After the Six Day War, Iraq severed diplomatic ties with the United States. Keiswetter and other members of the U.S. Interests Section (USINT) in Iraq had to utilize back channels to communicate with an Iraqi government led behind the scenes by an increasingly powerful Saddam Hussein. When the exceedingly overqualified son of an Iraqi diplomat, Khalid Talia, applied for a job at the USINT, his connections were too good to turn down. Keiswetter’s suspicions about Khalid’s ties with the Iraqi government were confirmed when, several months later, the new employee told Keiswetter, “I am a rose, I am a plant. You understand?”

Khalid’s relationship with the Iraqi elite was a double-edged sword. It gave the USINT access to resources, information, and channels of dialogue that would otherwise be denied. One night under the shroud of darkness, for instance, Khalid showed up outside Keiswetter’s window with an important message: the Iraqis were ready to take significant steps to improve relations with the United States. Was the message real? Or did Khalid have something to gain? Keiswetter never knew. When the Iraqi government moved the UNIST offices to a building without water, electricity, or telephone service, Khalid came to Keiswetter with a solution: obtain a visa for the Iraqi Foreign Minister so he could visit New York. That seemed to work.

Keiswetter had a distinguished and varied career in the Foreign Service. His first post was in Vietnam from 1968-1969, during the height of the war. He then worked for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs from 1972-1975. For the next decade, Keiswetter was employed at various embassies across the world. He worked in Beirut, Khartoum, Sanaa, and Riyadh, in addition to the U.S. Interests Section in Baghdad. Before retiring in 2003, he also worked for NATO and as a professor at the National War College.

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Remembering Bob Hawke, Australia’s Colorful Prime Minister

Bob Hawke was an Australian original. One of the country’s most powerful political figures, he was observed by generations of American diplomats. He started out as a dynamic labor leader in the 1960s before becoming a Labor Party MP in the Australian parliament.  He later led Labor to a overwhelming victory in the 1983 general election. Hawke went on to become the longest serving Labor Party prime minister in Australian history. Hawke was outmaneuvered and lost power in 1991, but remained close to many Americans, including President George H.W. Bush.

The American diplomats’ private observations were candid and not always complimentary. All acknowledged Hawke’s political skill, however, and none would now dispute his positive contribution to U.S.-Australian relations. Hawke died on May 16, 2019. Following are excerpts from the oral histories of American diplomats who knew him.

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“Not Treated as Beyond the Pale:” Cold War Nuclear Options to Respond to a Soviet Bloc Invasion

The mid-nineteen seventies are often considered a time of détente (the easing of tensions) between the United States and the Soviet Union. Arms control treaties and agreements were signed limiting the kinds of weapons of mass destruction that could be used in war. For the first time in many years, the possibility of global nuclear war between the superpowers appeared to recede. For NATO’s strategic planners, however, the threat was still very real.

The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE, was deeply concerned with the military strength of the Warsaw Pact and believed that an invasion of Western Europe by the Eastern Bloc was still possible. As a result, SHAPE prepared plans and exercises for possible military action. Most worryingly, according to many projections, the Warsaw Pact outnumbered NATO in men and material. Because of this possibility, many of these plans involved Western use of tactical nuclear weapons to make up for the disparity in relative resources and numbers.

Tactical nuclear weapons, smaller and less powerful than their more famous strategic cousins, are designed for direct use on the battlefield. Though tactical nuclear weapons are not meant for targeting cities and civilian infrastructure, enormous collateral damage was highly likely if such weapons were used. Worse, planners realized, the use of tactical nuclear weapons could escalate into the deployment of strategic nuclear arms and global nuclear war.

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George H.W. Bush, American Diplomat

George H.W. Bush was a diplomat before he became the 41st president of the United States.  Bush served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73) and Ambassador to China (1974-75).  In a fascinating C-Span interview in 1999, Brian Lamb asked President Bush what he learned while serving as a diplomat.  Among the future president’s lessons: the value of personal diplomacy, the importance of China in a changing world, and what it was like to be one of the “ten most overrated New Yorkers.”  

We’ve done an informal transcript of portions of this interview.  You can access President Bush’s full C-Span interview HERE

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Conflict, Cooperation, and Corruption: USAID in Kenya in the 1990s

U.S. policy toward Kenya during the long presidency of Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002) fluctuated between a close Cold War embrace, to unusually harsh public criticism, to quiet pressure behind the scenes.  Moi’s tenure was marked by consolidation of power, outbreaks of political violence, and corrupt elections. In the end, however, Moi respected constitutional limits and stepped down, acquiescing in the victory of an opposition presidential candidate.  It was the first democratic and relatively peaceful transfer of power to an opposition party in Kenya’s history.

Kiertisak Toh spent over eleven years in Kenya, at times in the middle of a political tug of war. In the early 1990s, USAID Washington asked Toh not to engage directly with the Kenyan government.  New USAID administrator Brian Atwood (1993-1999) was concerned about engaging too closely with the “corrupt Moi government.” This led some locally-employed USAID staff and others to question why Kenya was being singled out amongst equally corrupt neighbors with significant human rights problems.  Meanwhile, a new American Ambassador arrived with a mandate to patch up relations after her predecessor had levelled particularly harsh public criticism of Moi and his government.

On the ground, USAID officials like Kiertisak Toh had to reconcile these conflicting messages and execute long-term, sustainable development programs.  Looking back, Toh is proud that USAID took the long view, and takes satisfaction from the progress Kenya has made toward democracy.

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Thanksgiving: How U.S. Diplomats Celebrate an American Tradition Around the World
Gobble, gobble!  Thanksgiving is a unique American holiday —  one that U.S. embassies, foreign service families, and American expats of all kinds celebrate around the world.  We dipped into our oral history collection for some Thanksgiving memories. At its best, Thanksgiving is a celebration of food, family, friends, and cross-cultural exchange and understanding.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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Fundraising for Presidential Campaigns — and Serving as U.S. Ambassador to Spain

Approximately a third of U.S. ambassadors have been politically appointees over the last 50 years, including some of our very best.  Alan Solomont’s oral history provides a candid account of his work as a fundraiser for both successful and unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates.  Solomont’s engagement at the highest levels of American politics led to his service as President Obama’s ambassador to Spain 2009-2013.

Solomont worked for candidate Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign as a fundraiser.  After that election, he ran the fundraising Business Leadership Forum for the Democratic National Committee. The Democrats suffered dramatic losses in the 1994 midterm elections, and President Clinton’s prospects for reelection were clearly in doubt:  Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, some of Clinton’s signature initiatives had sputtered, and growing personal controversies clouded the President’s image. Solomont helped raise $50 million to bolster the Democrats and counter the Republican “Contract With America”.  Clinton went on to reelection in 1996.

After 16 years of association with both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Solomont surprised many of his friends in 2007 when he joined the campaign of a young Illinois senator — Barack Obama. Solomont was ultimately responsible for fundraising in New England, where his committee raised more money per capita than any other region. Following the 2008 election, he went to Washington to help President-elect Obama’s transition team.  Solomont wasn’t expecting to be offered an ambassadorial appointment — but was delighted when he was asked to go to Madrid.

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Spy vs. Spy: The Yin-he Incident and U.S.-China Intelligence Rivalry

Was the intelligence correct? Was the U.S. being set up? These were questions facing John Tkacik when the United States picked up evidence in 1993 that a Chinese cargo ship, the Yin-he, was shipping chemical weapons precursor to Iran. Tkacik was a China specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and the supposedly “solid gold” intelligence went straight to the President.  A global saga diplomacy, spycraft and public diplomacy ensued — and ended with U.S., and Saudi Arabian officials assembled at the port of Dammam on the Persian Gulf for the dramatic opening of the suspect container. Its contents: “toys, ballpoint pens, and a lot of anodyne stuff.”

China enjoyed a propaganda coup.  But Tkacik points out that China’s record on proliferation issues in the early 1990s was still highly problematic.

John Tkacik got his bachelor’s  degree in International Relations from Georgetown University in 1971. He joined the foreign service that same year.  His first posting was as a consular officer in Reykjavik, Iceland. He had a great interest in China and went on to serve in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.  He also served as the lead China analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

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