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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.
 

The Un-Dithering—Releasing Reliable GPS to the Public

In 2000, the Clinton administration made the decision to release an undisrupted Global Positioning System (GPS) for civilian use. Since then, GPS has become an integral part of our commercial economy and everyday life. Hans Binnendijk, who served from 1999 to 2001

GPS Satellite (2006) NASA | Wikimedia
GPS Satellite (2006) NASA | Wikimedia

on the National Security Council, was involved in the decision making process.

GPS was developed by the military for military use during the 60s and 70s. The system has its origins in the Space Race era, when U.S. scientists observed the Doppler effect created by Sputnik. The U.S. Navy launched its first experimental satellites in the mid 60s to track their nuclear submarines. The Department of Defense embraced the Navy’s program, and in the early 70s began developing a military-wide navigation system called NAVSTAR. The then-24 satellite system would be fully operational by 1993.

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Siberia and Samizdat: Moscow’s Underground During Communism

Long regarded as a monolithic entity where any dissension was ruthlessly suppressed by the KGB, Western audiences often ignored the intellectual culture of the Soviet Union. However, this viewpoint dismisses the underground scene of Soviet dissidents who played a critical role in speaking out against and documenting the abuses of the regime.

Demonstration against arrest of writer A. Amalrik in front of Russian Trade Representation Building (1970) Rob Croes | Wikimedia Commons
Demonstration against arrest of writer A. Amalrik in front of Russian Trade Representation Building (1970) Rob Croes | Wikimedia Commons

Whether through human rights movements, subversive art and literature, or even religious protests, Soviet citizens fought back against the government in a variety of ways. One particularly notable method was that of “samizdat” where Soviet individuals reproduced contraband material by hand to escape government censorship and inform the everyday person. Nevertheless, these methods were fraught with risk, and only a small coterie of brave citizens worked tirelessly to continue the struggle.

A hotbed for this defiance was located under the feet of the Politburo, taking place in Moscow itself. Though disunified and disorganized to prevent their destruction, a multitude of Soviet intellectuals gathered in Moscow to protest for their chosen causes. A strange tolerance existed within this space as the government capriciously charged dissidents seemingly at random. Nevertheless, these writers, painters, and thinkers ran the constant risk of being sent off to Siberia or even killed outright by an authoritarian government that would do whatever was necessary to ensure its survival.

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The Velvet Divorce: A Peaceful Breakup in Post-Communist Czechoslovakia

Most divorces do not end well, and those between countries tend to be the messiest of all. The dissolution of the USSR was no exception to this rule as the nation itself, along with many of the individual states within it, fell apart in the early 90s. However, one country, the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia, proved resilient to the tendency towards violence and conflict when a state splits.

Czech Senate (2011) Qaalvin | Wikimedia Commons
Czech Senate (2011) Qaalvin | Wikimedia Commons

The Velvet Revolution freed Czechoslovakia from communist control in 1989, and the first democratically elected government came to power soon after. However, tensions quickly arose between Czech and Slovak leaders as the later’s politicians demanded more decentralization while Czech politicians advocated for greater control from Prague.

Nevertheless, a split between the two groups was not inevitable. A strong majority of both ethnic Czechs and Slovaks opposed dissolution, and relations between the two groups were generally strong. Furthermore, remaining united also brought economic benefits for both sides, especially for the relatively less developed region of Slovakia. Yet, the two groups were relatively disunited even if there was no active dislike. Neither Czechs nor Slovaks had much media presence in the other region. Bratislava was viewed as a cultural backwater compared to Prague, and there was an undercurrent of economic resentment on both sides. However, none of these issues proved insurmountable in the early years of the newly liberated republic.

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To Aid, or Not to Aid—Breaking the Feudal System in Developing Nations

Fifty billion dollars. That is the most recent figure for U.S. yearly spending on foreign aid. However, even though this aid goes to over 200 countries, the vast majority is received by a select few. So how does the U.S. determine which nations get this massive amount of funding, when it is received, and what is the most effective way to utilize it?

Childhood Home of General Park Chung-hee (2015) hyolee2 | Wikimedia Commons
Childhood Home of General Park Chung-hee (2015) hyolee2 | Wikimedia Commons

Robert Brent saw the impact of foreign aid firsthand while working in the Africa Bureau of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and later cooperating with the Millenium Challenge Corporation. These positions gave him a view of the different criteria that the U.S. uses to select the countries that receive this aid. He argues that these criteria are inherently flawed, and ultimately do little to incentivize growth within developing nations. As evidence, he examines notable successes of economic reform—whether historical and U.S.-assisted as in South Korea and Taiwan, or the singular modern example of China. These examples provide a way forward for foreign aid policy: one that focuses more on land reform and the growth of industry and less on meeting specific democracy and governance indicators that dominate USAID concerns today.

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Counterinsurgency and the Vietnam War

The United States Intelligence Community was, infamously, heavily involved in the Cold War. The tensions between the United States and the USSR dominated world affairs between 1945–1991, periodically erupting into “hot” conflicts beyond the two powers’ borders.

Village on the Long Tau River (25 May 1971) Manhai | Flickr
Village on the Long Tau River (25 May 1971) Manhai | Flickr

Perhaps the most destructive of these conflicts was the Vietnam War, which extended from 1955–1975. In Vietnam, the CIA organized projects, such as the Census Grievance program and training of People’s Action Teams (PATs), to address the political facets of the conflict in addition to security concerns.

Thomas Donohue worked as a CIA case officer from 1951–1954. He joined the Foreign Service in 1954, working predominantly in Southeast Asia for the next two decades, finally joining the U.S. Department of Commerce as a consultant in 1976. In the following excerpt, he discusses the structure and intent of these programs, including his own involvement in their facilitation, while he was posted in Saigon, Vietnam, from 1965–1966.

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A City Torn Apart: Americans in Berlin

A U.S. army tank manned by a defecting soldier crashed straight through a Berlin Wall checkpoint manned by Russian troops. Anxious American and West Germans soldiers hastily acted to contain the situation.In situations like these, and throughout the tensions of the Cold War, Americans in Berlin played an important part in the dynamics of Berlin.

View of the West Berlin side of the wall | Thierry Noir | Selbst fotografiert
View of the West Berlin side of the wall | Thierry Noir | Selbst fotografiert

On the night of August 13th, 1961, East German soldiers began laying down the first barbed wire and bricks of what would become the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the “Iron Curtain” between the Western allies, West Germany (FRG), and the Soviets in East Germany (GDR) in the midst of the Cold War from 1961 to 1989. Thousands of East Germans attempted to cross at great personal risk, after many were separated from their families and cut off from friends.

Throughout the chaos in Berlin, Americans were caught up in the action. Even before the Wall’s construction, tensions over immigration and control between the Soviet, American, British, and French zones of occupation caused trouble. The following excerpts present astonishing and often perilous stories from U.S. Foreign Service Officers—from missing children passport issues to kidnapping and a plane hijacking. For Americans in Berlin, the consequences of separation were felt deeply.

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Rivalry in the Southeast: Preah Vihear Temple Dispute Between Cambodia and Thailand

Foreign Service Officer Thomas Donohue served in both continental and archipelagic Southeast Asia during a tumultuous period in which countries in the region and other parts of the globe were breaking away from European colonial powers. He witnessed first-hand the complex relations among regional countries.

A group of children visiting Preah Vihear| Helistar Cambodia| (2019)
A group of children visiting Preah Vihear| Helistar Cambodia| (2019)

During his assignment in Cambodia from 1962 to 1964, both Cambodia and Thailand laid claim to the centuries-old Preah Vihear Temple. Although constructed by the Khmer Empire, the temple is located within the Dângrêk Range, a natural land border between Cambodia and Thailand. The geographical location, along with its recognized beauty and mysticism, led to a territorial dispute between the two countries for the ownership of the temple site. Donahue was the duty officer when Embassy Phnom Penh got the news that the International Court of Justice ultimately proclaimed that the Preah Vihear Temple was rightfully in Cambodian territory.

Donahue regularly expressed advocacy for the aspirations of autonomy of multiple countries in the area. He spent the majority of the 1950s back and forth from Sukarno-led Indonesia, which was going through a transition period after being a Dutch colony for over two centuries. In addition, Donohue later served in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam before finally joining the U.S. Department of Commerce as a consultant in 1976. Read more

Origins of the Carter Center’s Election Observation Work

The Carter Center was founded in 1982 just after President Jimmy Carter was defeated in the 1980 U.S. presidential elections. He and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, partnered with Emory University to begin the non-profit. Today, the center is known, in part, for its efforts to promote democracy around the world, especially through election observation and support.

Election Observation (2010) | The Carter Center
Election Observation (2010) | The Carter Center

This component of the Carter Center’s work has it roots largely in the International Human Rights Law Group (IHRLG), to which Larry Garber belonged before he began working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The group was the only human rights organization at its time involved in election monitoring. Today, while the original group no longer exists, its vision lives on as free and fair elections are widely considered and fought for as a basic human right. Organizations like the Carter Center have been inspired by the legacy of IHRLG and have taken similar work upon themselves—supporting the rights of citizens around the world to freely elect their own governments. In his oral history, Garber commented, “[IHRLG] showed Carter that he could make a difference in the election field, and since then the Carter Center has observed 110 elections in 37 countries around the world.”

Garber began working with IHRGL in 1983, a few years after he finished graduate school at Columbia University. Later in his career, Garber held positions with USAID in Washington D.C., in the West Bank/Gaza, and at the National Defense University.

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The Emperor’s New Year’s Day Party

With brightly colored clothes and impeccable attention to protocol, Foreign Service spouse Hilda Lewis hoped to impress at the Japanese Emperor’s 1955 New Year’s reception at the Imperial Palace. As she felt her hat slowly slipping off her head while she bowed to the empress, Lewis knew everything wasn’t going quite according to plan.

Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako greet guests to the imperial palace (1946) Agence France-Presse | Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako greet guests to the imperial palace (1946) Agence France-Presse | Wikimedia Commons

Despite a few mishaps, Lewis was dazzled by the food, dancing, and spectacle of the event.

The New Year is the most important national holiday in Japan, and it is full of special traditions. It is a chance for families and visitors to reflect on the past year and their dreams for the future as they celebrate the New Year’s Day feast. It is also one of only two days in which the main area of the Imperial Palace is open to the public. In recent years, on January 2nd the Emperor and the royal family have made a brief and rare public appearance in an inner courtyard for a greeting and speech.

Lewis was in Japan from 1954 to 1956 while her husband, Harrison Lewis, was stationed in Japan as a commercial attaché. During their visit to the Imperial Palace, Japanese Emperor Hirohito was on the throne (he would retire in 1989) and Empress Kōjun was empress consort (kōgō). Kōjun served as empress consort from 25 December 1926 to 7 January 1989, the longest in Japanese history.

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Drowning in a Strawberry Ice Cream Soda: Life as a Diplomat in the Philippines

World powers, including the United States, have long considered the Philippines to be of strategic importance. The entire landmass of the Philippines is comprised of over 7,000 islands.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy and the Marcoses view turnover ceremonies at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines (14 March 1979) Al Ramones & Domie Quiazon | National Archives and Records Administration
U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy and the Marcoses view turnover ceremonies at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines (14 March 1979) Al Ramones & Domie Quiazon | National Archives and Records Administration

It is one of the largest archipelagos in the world. In the 16th century, Imperial Spain attempted to conquer the Philippines numerous times. They finally succeeded in 1571, creating the modern-day capital of Manila and forcibly establishing a feudal system with a tiny population of Spanish elites who owned vast estates worked by vast swathes of the native Filipino population.

The Filipino revolutionaries rebelled many times, finally declaring independence in the late 1890s—the same time that the United States, the victor of the Spanish-American War, claimed the Philippines as a territory. Controversially, the revolution was brutally crushed by U.S. troops and the Philippines endured another 50 years of colonialism. In 1946, spurred by the renewed public consciousness of World War II, the U.S. granted the Philippines independence and fostered the improvement of the public school system, healthcare institutions, and infrastructure.

During the Cold War years from 1947–1991, the United States worked very hard to maintain access to two strategically vital military bases by encouraging robust diplomatic ties with the Filipino dictatorship led by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

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