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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.
 

Diplomacy and Danger—Close Calls in Uganda

In 1971, a Ugandan coup d’état led by General Idi Amin ousted President Milton Obote’s government. After Amin seized power, he began a campaign of brutality against the Ugandan people. This brutality led to the general-turned-dictator’s own overthrow just eight years later in 1979, and Amin soon fled the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

Melissa Foelsch Wells  (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named)| U.S. Department of State
Melissa Foelsch Wells (Date Unknown) (Photographer Not Named)| U.S. Department of State

In his absence, Uganda had no central authority and competing coalitions began vying for power. It was the perfect storm.

It was in the midst of this storm that Melissa Wells came to Uganda as the United Nations Resident Representative. When Wells arrived, she was immediately met with danger. Even during simple car rides, she faced car-jackings, roadblocks, and ambushes. In those moments, Wells learned how to keep calm, think quickly, and stay safe during life-threatening altercations. What’s more, she was able to reflect on the role that risk plays in the Foreign Service, in addition to considering how Foreign Service Officers work through fear in order to operate as a cohesive, successful team.

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Only the Good Die Young—Attending Bobby Kennedy’s Funeral

Nineteen sixty-eight was one of the most chaotic years in American history. As the unpopular Vietnam War raged on, protests demanding peace and an immediate withdrawal of American forces erupted from coast to coast. At the forefront of these protests stood college students, many of whom distinguished themselves from the older generations by embracing a new “counterculture” based on peace, love, and harmony.

Flag of U.S.A. Standing Near Tomb (July 2, 2018) Sharefaith | pexels
Flag of U.S.A. Standing Near Tomb (July 2, 2018) Sharefaith | pexels

Civil rights demonstrations intensified after the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of that same year under the leadership of groups such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). These events all played out in the midst of a presidential election which left the country more divided than ever.

After the assasination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Robert (Bobby) Kennedy hoped to carry on his brother’s legacy. After initially resisting widespread calls for him to run as a candidate in the 1968 election, Bobby finally announced his candidacy from the Caucus Room of the Old Senate Office building, the same place his late brother made the announcement eight years prior. Bobby Kennedy made alleviating poverty a central focus of his campaign, but his platform also included opposition to the Vietnam War, emphasis on law and order, and devotion to the civil rights cause.

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Finding Resilience in the Bombing of the Al Rasheed: Beth Payne in Iraq

Life in the Foreign Service extends far beyond the office, following its officers into all realms of existence abroad, at times for the worse. In 2003, after a military invasion, the United States had just begun its occupation of Iraq. A betrayal by Iraqi dissident Ahmed Chalabi thwarted U.S. efforts to set up an Iraqi president that would be accepted by the Iraqi populace.

Baghdad’s Green Zone (2008) Robert Smith, WikiMedia Commons
Baghdad’s Green Zone (2008) Robert Smith, WikiMedia Commons

For the Foreign Service Officers posted to Iraq at this time, this meant arriving in a host country with no established embassy, no consulate, and no country team.

When Beth Payne arrived in Baghdad, she quickly discovered that she and her co-workers would be taking up residence in the Al Rasheed hotel, initially sharing rooms that failed even to lock, following the theft of the building’s doorknobs. In her first few months, as she established an Office of the U.S. Consul, Payne also adapted to shootings outside of her hotel, the prevalence of weapons in the hotel bar, and the harassment of women at the hotel pool. Already, her service as a Consular Officer felt marked by a sense of fear she had not felt in her earlier postings in Kuwait, Israel, or Rwanda. Yet, this aura of danger proved merely a precursor to the events that would follow that very October.

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Introducing American Culture to Tokyoites

Renate Coleshill was born in Germany and went on to work for the U.S. Foreign Service in a number of places, including Poland and eventually Japan. While working in Japan’s capital city Tokyo from 1972 to 1976, she served as the secretary for the Deputy Public Affairs Officer, and in addition to her secretarial duties, she was able to coordinate American cultural programs in Tokyo.

Stevie Wonder, Apollo Theater circa 1970. Taken by Winston Vargas. Source: Flickr.
Stevie Wonder, Apollo Theater circa 1970. Taken by Winston Vargas. Source: Flickr.

For example, she organized an artist’s tour for Sam Cooke (no, not the “King of Soul”—rather a visual artist with the same name) all around Tokyo. She also welcomed people to Tokyo, helping speakers, cultural presenters, exhibitors, and even just plain visitors get acquainted with Tokyo as well as showcasing them to the Japanese public.

How was this received by the public? At the time (the mid-1970s), tensions did exist between the United States and Japan mostly due to economic reasons. The Japanese public also had a negative view of American soldiers, which did not contribute to an overwhelmingly “pro-American” stance in Japan. Despite these tensions, Coleshill was able to bridge the gap and create a space where Tokyoites could learn about American culture; they were generally very welcoming to learning about life and culture in the United States. Coleshill described the Japanese people who came to her programs as “incredibly polite” and believes that their horizons were broadened in respect to their view of the United States by seeing a more “human” side to the country.

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An Expropriation Saga in Peru

For many Latin American states, expropriation has been a hammer in the toolbox of land or labor reform. For the United States, expropriation has been a thorn in the side of its companies’ profitable operations in the region—and, therefore, a threat to its interests.

The Talara refinery | El Comercio
The Talara refinery | El Comercio

This conflict has played out many times throughout the region. In 1938, the Mexican government expropriated the oil industry under Article 27, which specified the state owned all natural resources; the Roosevelt administration responded with a boycott of Mexican products. In 1952, Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz enacted Decree 900, which expropriated the land that the United Fruit Company (UFC) had laid fallow; the Eisenhower administration, with close ties to the UFC, overthrew the Árbenz government two years later. And in 1962, the Cuban government expropriated substantial U.S. landholdings, compensated at the declared tax value of the property. However, U.S. companies, who had artificially lowered prices to pay fewer taxes, cried foul that the Cuban government would not pay them the fair market price for their property. As a result, Congress passed the Hickenlooper Amendment to withhold U.S. aid from countries that expropriated U.S. property “without just compensation” the same year.

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Do You Hear the People Sing?—Democratic Promotion in Haiti, Mozambique, and Iraq

E Pluribus Unum. The average American will unwittingly encounter these very words on a daily basis and hardly give them a second thought. But this is not some meaningless Latin phrase that we simply plaster all over our currency for no reason. In fact, it provides an exemplary representation of the American democratic ideal: an empowerment of the masses—regardless of racial, social, or religious background—and their voices in shaping a unified American identity.

Robin Smith in Baghdad, Iraq (May 2003) | Robin Smith’s Personal Collection
Robin Smith in Baghdad, Iraq (May 2003) | Robin Smith’s Personal Collection

One may even go a step further and claim that these words additionally represent an American perspective of a global democratic ideal; a brief analysis of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades may testify to the fact that we have sought to promote similar values of democracy throughout the international sphere.

Robin Angela Smith has devoted much of her career in the Foreign Service to the pursuit of this broader aspiration for global democracy. Her efforts in Haiti to emphasize Martin Luther King’s concept of non-violence inspired adolescents to contribute their own thoughts on the topic during a time of much political tension. She maintained her determination to this cause during her tour in Mozambique, where her organization of election night events allowed its populace to see the intricacies of American politics, all while having a laugh in the process. And finally, regardless of their ultimate outcome, her activities in Iraq sought to assure the Iraqi people that the U.S. would aid in their establishment of a “democratic, unified, and multiethnic” country.

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9/11 Terror Attacks: A Consular Officer’s Perspective on Visas and Government Intelligence

September 11, 2001 marked one of the worst ever terror attacks on American soil. Two hijacked planes crashed into and destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, one crashed into the Pentagon, and one crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, 8,900 were injured, and thousands more were left traumatized after experiencing the attack.

The view on 9-11 from Jersey City, 11 September 2001, Wally Gobetz.
The view on 9-11 from Jersey City, 11 September 2001, Wally Gobetz.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks have also significantly affected U.S. foreign and domestic policy by increasing security and surveillance measures and fueling ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The attacks also led President George W. Bush to create the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, which remains active today working to protect United States civilians and combat domestic terrorism.

Career Foreign Service Officer Mary Ryan served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs during the attacks on September 11, 2001. In Congressional testimony, she told how the terrorists who committed the attacks had received legitimate U.S. visas, and described how difficulties and limitations in background checking and interviewing made the visa adjudication process inaccurate. Ultimately, Ryan believed that it was important for other parts of the U.S. government to share its intelligence with consular offices to ensure that they issued visas responsibly and prevented future terrorists from entering the country. Without such coordination, consular officers would not have real-time information that could empower them to prevent potential terrorists from acquiring visas. Despite the lack of information, inter-agency cooperation, and similar circumstances for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) borger agents who actually admitted the terrorists into the United States, Mary Ryan and other front-line consular officers received a lot of criticism and even blame for what happened.

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From Les Misérables to Good Americans: One Ambassador’s Fight to Secure Refugee Status for Romanian Dissidents

They were doctors, professors, and, in some cases, even peasants. The one thing they all had in common, however, was the desire to flee communist Romania for America and being “just miserable” because of it. Thanks to the efforts of two people at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, “The Miserables” found a voice in the U.S. government.

Romanian Revolution 1989. Photographer Unknown
Romanian Revolution 1989. Photographer Unknown

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had little tolerance for dissent. So when thousands of desperate Romanians committed the “crime” of wanting to become American citizens, Ceaușescu cracked down. He had them fired from their jobs, revoked their benefits, and all but stripped them of their Romanian citizenship. Despite their pleas for help, the U.S. embassy declared that these asylum seekers did not qualify as refugees, since Ceaușescu’s assault on them was “not politically motivated.”

Virginia “Ginny” Young, the Consul General, personally took on their case. She lobbied the front office again and again over the years but they rejected her every time. Sometimes she was called “too emotionally attached;” at other times, she was rejected because a senior official’s reputation was at stake in preserving our relationship with President Ceaușescu. Finally, in 1989, she took the issue all the way up to the new U.S. ambassador, Allen “Punch” Green.

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Effects of Poverty on Women’s Rights in 1990s Kenya

For women in the 1990s, Kenya was a difficult place to live. For those who came from wealthier families and could afford education, they sometimes had the resources to do great things, from simply living independently to even winning the Nobel Peace Prize as Wangari Mathai did in 2004. Unfortunately, however, poverty, lack of resources, and patriarchal laws and societal structures often prevented many women from becoming educated and achieving their full potential.

Wangari Maathai speaking at the World Social Forum. 27 January, 2007.
Wangari Maathai speaking at the World Social Forum. 27 January, 2007.

Women were expected to marry early to start a family, and families often couldn’t afford to send girls to school. Even for those who were educated, it was difficult to find jobs, and this contributed to violence, robbery, and other crime. In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action and subsequent introduction of feminist thought into Kenya began to improve women’s conditions, but they still had a long way to go. More girls began going to school and women’s education improved, but there was still a huge disparity between the wealthy and poorer classes. Even today, women have few rights to property ownership in Kenya and are often even banned from inheriting their husbands’ assets because of their gender.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Joanne Grady Huskey discusses her experiences volunteering as the head of the American Women’s Association in Kenya from 1996 to 1999 while her husband, a Foreign Service officer, was posted there. From working with Kenyan women to build a hospital and then having it taken away by the government, to even meeting a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Huskey experienced many interesting and diverse things during her time working in Kenya related to poverty and the fight for women’s rights.

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Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: Establishment of the United Nations Special Commission

Following the 1990–1991 Gulf War, the United Nations wanted to prevent any further aggression, and feared that Iraq had developed nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The rest of the world could only imagine the level of mass destruction and carnage that would result if Iraq decided to use such weapons.

U.S. Military personnel examine missile, 26 May 1992, https://www.dimoc.mil
U.S. Military personnel examine missile, 26 May 1992, https://www.dimoc.mil

As a result, the United Nations developed a Special Commission (UNSCOM) to inspect Iraq’s arsenal of weapons and to ensure that Iraq complied with the regulations and guidelines pertaining to weapons of mass destruction. The international community largely considered Iraq to be responsible for the start of the Gulf War due to its invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990. As such, UNSCOM required Iraq to recognize Kuwait as an independent country and pay war reparations. It also gave the United Nations extensive insight into and supervision over Iraq’s military structures and production.

During the investigation, the Commission discovered that Iraq had indeed created weapons of mass destruction as early as the 1980s. While Iraq initially complied with the UNSCOM mandates, there was some minor conflict between UNSCOM investigators and the Iraqi military. At one point in 1991, the Iraqi military fired warning shots at the investigators to prevent them from searching vehicles that were believed to contain contraband weapons. Iraq subsequently admitted to developing nuclear weapons for defensive purposes only and complied with the UN’s rules by destroying a large part of its nuclear arsenal in the summer of 1991. Amid suspicions that the United States was using the Commision to spy on the Iraqi military and Saddam Hussein, rather than to actually fulfill its original goals, UNSCOM ended its special investigation in 1998, and was replaced by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Committee (UNMOVIC). Iraq ultimately agreed unconditionally to the searches by UNMOVIC in 2002, and the investigation ended altogether in 2005.

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