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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 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.
 

“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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Rich in Oil and Rich in Corruption — Nigeria in the Early 1970s

Oil boomed. Revenue skyrocketed. So did political corruption, economic dependency, and environmental degradation. The dramatic spike in oil production in the Niger Delta in the early 1970s had social, political, economic and environmental consequences in Nigeria that few imagined at the time.  Many of these consequences were negative. The so-called “oil curse” had descended upon Nigeria.

The American ambassador at the time, John Reinhardt, saw the impact.  Oil production and revenue absorbed almost all the government’s attention.  Economic diversification was neglected, as was infrastructure, agriculture and multiple other key sectors.  This neglect, in turn, exacerbated Nigeria’s economic dependence on oil. While oil brought profits for the elite, little consideration was given to improving the standard of living or distributing wealth and benefits to the broader population. Mosts development partners cut off aid, and oil became a source of conflict among ethnic groups.  Most of all corruption mushroomed in Nigeria, on a scale rarely seen in Africa or the world.

John Reinhardt was the first African American ambassador to Nigeria.  Appointed in 1971, he served in Lagos until 1975. A World War II veteran, Reinhardt’s Foreign Service career began in the Philippines and later took him to Japan and Iran. President Jimmy Carter named Reinhardt director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1977. Reinhardt later taught at several universities.

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A Problem in Palau: Negotiating Free Association Status with the Micronesian Islands

In a Hawaiian hotel room sat a U.S. ambassador and officials from Palau, peering over details of a treaty to define the tiny Pacific nation’s relations with the United States. The clock was ticking—if the two delegations were unable to reach an agreement by the end of that year, 1980, the results of the American presidential election could put the entire deal in jeopardy. The treaty in question was the Compact of Free Association, and it would determine not just the future of Palau, but also that of its U.S.-administered neighbors: the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Prospects for a deal grew markedly worse when Palau adopted a constitution containing provisions on nuclear weapons, eminent domain and territorial waters to which the United States strongly objected.  The crisis in Palau threatened to derail a years-long process in which Palau and neighboring U.S.-administered territories sought “free association” with the United States — an international status close to independence, which would give the Micronesian micro-states far greater control over their own affairs. The ambassador representing the United States in these complex negotiations, Peter Rosenblatt, helped engineer a solution that permitted Palau to waive its constitutional provisions in order to achieve the desired compact with the United States.  That saved the deal, despite Jimmy Carter’s loss in the 1980 presidential election and growing political opposition in the United States.

Ambassador Peter R. Rosenblatt recounts in his oral history the steps taken to ensure a successful outcome, benefitting both the Micronesian islands and the United States. Before the Micronesia negotiations, Rosenblatt worked as a White House staff member in the Johnson administration, then served as consul general in Saigon (Vietnam) from 1969-1970.

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