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.
Bureaucracies are often considered dry and difficult to navigate. However, every organization is only as good as the people who comprise it, and the U.S. Foreign Service is widely respected and admired because of the incredible individuals who form and lead it.
The humorous anecdotes below, narrated by several diplomats about their superiors, relay some of the most important qualities of leadership: losing gracefully, learning from one’s mistakes, and self-discipline.
Drafted by Sairah Aslam
Manila, Philippines—Ambassador 1978–1981
Richard Murphy was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 6, 2017.
Read Richard Murphy’s full oral history HERE. Read more
Lord Palmerston, a former British prime minister and three time foreign minister, once famously noted, “Dining is the soul of diplomacy.” Countless diplomatic discussions have occurred over good food and drink, centered at well-dressed dining tables in embassies and diplomatic residences. Food brings people together, and the dining table makes for an excellent setting to develop cordial and productive relationships with others.
However, just as not all of our own dining experiences merit a generous tip, not all diplomatic dinners go as smoothly as planned. The following excerpts present a collection of amusing stories from U.S. Foreign Service Officers depicting the unexpected circumstances and mishaps that attended their own dinner parties.
Victor Masbayi was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1951; he lived there with his family throughout his undergraduate college education at the University of Nairobi. While working for the African Medical and Research Foundation, Masbayi was sponsored to complete a Master’s Degree in Public Health at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
After receiving his degree, he secured a job with USAID/Kenya, where he worked on a variety of different projects relating to health, population, and development. Later in his career, Masbayi had the opportunity to work again in Kenya with USAID’s Regional Program for East Africa.
Having now concluded his career with USAID, Masbayi offers in his oral history a series of thoughtful reflections on his career. These include what he is most proud of, what challenged USAID in East Africa, and what USAID was successful at there. Additionally, he shares what advice he would offer to future employees, and what recommendations he would make for USAID to improve its work. Read more
With a simple “good luck” from President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Joseph Farland set out to Pakistan, unsure of what to expect. Having previously worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during World War II, Ambassador Farland was always cautious of those around him.
Thus, when he entered this post, he had been preparing for the worst. And the worst is what he got. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 erupted while he was stationed in Islamabad. As all other foreign diplomats left the country, those in the U.S. Embassy stayed put, many not realizing that their ambassador had devised an escape route from the country for all of them, in case the situation became too dangerous.
The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 started in early December with air strikes on Indian air stations. At that time, Pakistan controlled two different territories: East Pakistan and West Pakistan (now Bangladesh and modern-day Pakistan, respectively). The preemptive air strikes led to greater hostilities between West Pakistan and India, leading the latter to support the Liberation War for Bangladesh. Militarily, India planned on splitting West Pakistan in two, breaking Islamabad and Karachi away from each other, thus weakening the power of West Pakistan. With West Pakistan weakened, it would be harder to fight the insurgency in East Pakistan. Despite what the leaders of West Pakistan believed, they did in fact start the war, and they were not going to win it.
The war only lasted 13 days, ending in the middle of December of 1971 with the fall of Dacca and the establishment of Bangladesh. The main goal of this specific war was to achieve East Pakistani independence. While other wars between Pakistan and India have followed, no other ambassador since Farland has had to devise a secret escape route from Pakistan or been “the only one left.”
In 2003, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated up to $650 million worth of food aid to meet urgent food needs in Ethiopia. However, during the same time period, it only provided six million dollars in agricultural assistance, even though more than 70 percent of all Ethiopian households relied upon farming for both food and income.
This experience showed, consequently, that providing food aid without enabling people to better their agricultural production efforts can adversely affect the relationship between agricultural development and developing nations.
With the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world, African farming communities stand to gain the most from increased agricultural development. Despite the importance of rural African women participating in agricultural ventures, most U.S.-based research had ignored the major contribution of women in the rural economy. By shifting focus toward household dynamics and the processing of farming commodities, agricultural research has grown to acknowledge the input and successes of rural women in Africa.
Growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, Emmy B. Simmons learned the importance of farming in rural communities. This upbringing, along with her work as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, led to more than thirty years of experience in international agriculture and economic development, with a particular focus on the role of women in an agricultural economy. While working for USAID, Simmons sought to combat the issues facing agricultural development in Mali and Kenya, and she held a number of agriculture, research, and nutrition positions in Nigeria and Liberia. Read more
While U.S. politics can be contentious, American elections themselves tend to run smoothly. Usually, voters cast their ballots, numbers are counted, and the winners are declared. In many countries, the United States is seen as an exemplary role-model for conducting democratic elections, and U.S.-based groups often help run and oversee elections in other countries.
However, the U.S. presidential election of 2000 was not so smooth, causing the U.S. Embassy in Honduras’ “Celebration of Democracy” night to take an unexpected turn. A year later, Honduras itself held an election which passed without any major glitches or issues. This unusual reversal of roles was an interesting and humorous facet of Frank Almaguer’s ambassadorship in Honduras. As he said, “The Honduran media had a great time with this story. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, one cartoon had me holding a newspaper with a headline (in Spanish) that read, ‘U.S. Election Decided in 36 Days,’ and a Honduran holding another newspaper that said, ‘Honduran Election Decided in Two Hours.’ Many of my political friends were enjoying the opportunity to suggest that Honduras would be glad to offer the U.S. technical assistance in conducting elections!”
Apart from his ambassadorship in Honduras, Frank Almaguer also held positions in Belize, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Washington, D.C. Read more
The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami of 2004 killed over 275,000 people in 14 different countries. In Aceh, Indonesia alone, over 130,000 people perished. The tsunami left in its wake ruined infrastructure, dislocated families, and other political, economic, and social challenges.
In response to the tsunami and it ruinous effects, the international community together donated over 7 billion dollars in aid to Indonesia. Up until that point, this was the most generous outpouring of financial assistance that any one country had ever received during a natural disaster.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as other U.S. agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense, together allocated over 400 million dollars in emergency aid to Indonesia. USAID led the effort, providing immediate support in the areas of food, water, shelter, sanitation, and medicine. As time has passed, USAID has continued to work in Indonesia to support survivors and rebuild affected communities, focusing on education initiatives, job creation, infrastructure improvement, and proper governance.
White smoke billowed from the Vatican, indicating that the College of Cardinals had cast their ballots. Jorge Mario Bergolgio, a Jesuit priest from Buenos Aires, had been elected pope. He selected his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, who venerated nature and poverty. This unique choice reflected Pope Francis’ unconventional background and views. He made history as the first Jesuit pope and the first one from the Americas. He quickly became renowned across the world for his humility and his progressive stances on controversial issues. U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett witnessed Pope Francis shake up the Vatican first-hand. According to Hackett, at a meeting with all the members of the Roman Curia (the administrative institutions of the Holy See), Pope Francis “laid them out straight. He listed 12 diseases [of] the bureaucracy, those people who were trying to climb the ladder to get up, and those people who were loose-lipped… he really ate them alive.” He fought to reduce money laundering and streamline the Vatican bureaucracy, fighting against centuries-old norms.
With over a billion Catholic followers world-wide, Pope Francis’ beliefs were immensely influential. On a visit to Brazil, he convened a staggering three million people. He encouraged European countries to take in migrants, called for peace in war-torn Syria, and advocated for global nonproliferation efforts. Despite Pope Francis’ profound influence, Hackett recalls his humility: “He lived in the guest house, not the apostolic palace. He drove around in a Fiat, not a Mercedes or a limo. He carried his own bag.”
In 1989, French counterintelligence agents watched Felix Bloch as he dined in Paris with known Soviet spy “Pierre Bart.” Bloch placed a black bag under the table, which he left behind as he exited the restaurant. Felix Bloch, former Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, was one of the highest ranking Foreign Service Officers ever to be suspected of espionage. He later claimed that the encounter was an innocent exchange of postage stamps between two fellow collectors. The contents of the black bag from the incident were never recovered, and it was therefore impossible to say whether any classified material had changed hands.
The FBI continued surveillance of Bloch while he worked in Berlin until a cryptically worded call from “Bart,” whose real name was Reino Gikman, indicated that the investigation had been blown. It was later revealed that Robert Hanssen, famously convicted spy within the FBI, had alerted the KGB to the investigation. U.S. officials confronted Bloch, but he vehemently denied he had engaged in espionage with a KGB agent and refused to cooperate further. Suddenly, the initially promising case against Bloch faltered without enough conclusive evidence to prove the allegations in court.
Ghana and the United States have historically boasted a close friendship, partnering together in exchange programs, trade, and development initiatives. However, interactions between U.S. officials and Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, were not always so smooth. Nkrumah, who studied in the United States, was known to be anti-American, and even went so far as to publish his views in a book on neo-colonialism, in which he blamed the United States for many of Africa’s difficulties. This rocky relationship continued until February 1966, when Nkrumah was ousted in a coup while on a trip to China.
In 1949, Kwame Nkrumah formed the Convention People’s Party (CPP) with a vision to secure the independence of the Gold Coast from Britain. The CPP quickly gained legislative representation, and in 1956, passed an independence motion which was subsequently approved by the British Parliament. On March 6th, 1957, Kwame Nkrumah declared the Gold Coast independent from Britain and renamed the country as Ghana. The U.S. has history with Ghana that extends back to before its independence. Yet, it was not until 1957 that the U.S. established official diplomatic relations with the country, elevating the Consulate General at Accra to Embassy status. Unfortunately, Nkrumah’s nationalist and socialist administration had a short honeymoon and a strained relationship with the United States.