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Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

ADST BenSeveral times a month, ADST highlights compelling moments in U.S. diplomatic history, using our substantial 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 or the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Laos 1973 – No Coup for You!

Laos bull-hornWhile the eyes of America were on Vietnam, another war was being fought next door in Laos.  Involvement of the United States in the war was frequently denied, leading to the name of the “Secret War in Laos” in the American press.  The Laotian Civil War began when the Communist Pathet Lao challenged the Royal Lao Government, and they continued to fight for power throughout the 60s and 70s.  Here, John Gunther Dean (Deputy Chief of Mission in Vientiane, Laos in 1972-1973) tells the story of how he had to resort to unusual methods to topple an attempted coup of the neutralist government in Laos on August 20,1973.  continue reading »


The More Things Change – A Look Back at Syria’s Hafez al-Assad

97s/40/huty/8593/17“You know I have my ups and downs, but I have a pact with God. The pact is that no matter what problems I have, wherever there is a challenge, I will have all my strength,” asserted a sickly Hafez al-Assad to George Shultz, who grimaced at the firmness of Assad’s grip. Despite Hafez al-Assad’s constant ailing health, the Syrian leader’s tenure in office spanned some 30 years. Political Officer Edward G. Abington, Ambassador David Ransom and wife, Deputy Chief of Mission, Marjorie Ransom, highlight Assad’s most criticized political power plays, Syria’s problems with Iraq and its reluctant reliance on the USSR, as well as provide insights about the man who reluctantly readied his son, Bashar al-Assad, to later assume power.  continue reading »


Murder in an Embassy, Part II — Paranoid Psychotic or Faked Insanity?

erdos2 I-ParanoidOn August 30, 1971, Alfred Erdos murdered his assistant, Donald Leahy, at the small American embassy in Equatorial Guinea. Delusional and paranoid, Erdos accused Leahy of being part of a massive Communist plot against the U.S., tied him to a chair in the communications vault, and stabbed him to death with a pair of scissors. While awaiting trial, he frightened secretaries at the State Department by waving a pair of scissors in front of them. His trial, however, brought to light alleged homosexual contact between the two men and questions about his apparent psychosis — had Erdos really gone mad, or was it all a fabrication to make the stabbing seem less heinous? Ambassador Hoffacker (who oversaw the embassy at Equatorial Guinea) details the contentious trial in this continuation of his account.  continue reading »


Murder in an Embassy, Part I — “I am not losing my mind”

Erdos Bloody ScissorsA Communist plot, a gruesome murder, a maniacal dictator:  all were elements in what would seemingly be the scandal of the decade, if not the plot of a Hollywood thriller.  This all-too-real incident, however, has largely fallen under the radar, as only a few now can vaguely recall the remnants of something approaching an urban legend:  the story of one Foreign Service Officer who murdered his co-worker in a far-off embassy somewhere in Africa. continue reading »


Chile’s Coup Against Salvador Allende and the Truth Behind “Missing”

allende street 20080607klphishch_56_Ies_SCOIn 1973, political tensions were high in Chile, with conflict arising between the socialist President Salvador Allende and the more conservative Congress of Chile. The Chilean economy was failing, the Supreme Court had denounced Allende’s government, and perhaps more importantly, the military had lost its respect for Allende. During the summer, there had been several failed coup attempts [read about the Tanquetazo], which led to the ouster of Arturo Prats as commander of the Chilean army and the rise of Augusto Pinochet; by September, Chile reached the final breaking point. On September 11 the military opened fire on the Presidential Palace; by the end of the day, Allende was dead and the stage was set for over a decade of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship  continue reading »


Come Spy with Me: Cold War Espionage Against China

spy history-cold-war-130306Intelligence services spend a great deal of time trying to recruit new assets, spies who have access to sensitive information and who are willing to provide that intel for ideological or financial reasons. Foreign diplomats often make for attractive targets, especially during the Cold War. Stephen Dachi, who was Public Affairs Officer in Hungary from 1973 to 1977, recounts an attempt to recruit him as a spy for the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior. continue reading »


Burma’s 8888 Demonstrations and the Rise of Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma poster AASK-18x24Political activist. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. Political prisoner and inspiration to millions of people around the world. Aung San Suu Kyi won 59% of the national votes in the 1990 general election and 81% of the seats in Parliament. But she was seen as a threat to the ruling military junta and was placed under house arrest from July 20, 1989 until her release on November 13, 2010. Marshall Adair was the Political/Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon (now Yangon) and witnessed the military crackdown and massacre under General Saw Maung as well as the mass demonstrations for democracy beginning August 8, 1988, which led to the rise to prominence of Burma’s Iron Lady. continue reading »


Qaddafi – The Man and His Rise to Power

Libya coup 6jAjKpNlV0On September 1st, 1969 Muammar Qaddafi along with a group of officers part of the Free Officers Movement staged a bloodless coup d’état against King Idris I of Libya who at that time was in Greece undergoing medical treatment.

The coup was staged in the city of Benghazi and was over within two hours. Qaddafi was careful not to promote himself to general after seizing power but rather ceremoniously adopted the promotion to colonel. With the help of the newly created governing body the Revolutionary Command Council, Qaddafi nullified the monarchy and declared the new Libyan Arab Republic a free and sovereign state. continue reading »


The Assassination of Ambassador John Gordon Mein, Guatemala, 1968

Mein on street 4355HVOEPJEight U.S. Ambassadors have died while on duty, six of whom were killed in armed attacks. The most recent was Chris Stevens, who died during the September 11, 2012 attack on Benghazi. (The other two ambassadors died in airplane crashes.) On August 28, 1968, Ambassador John Gordon Mein became the first U.S. ambassador to be assassinated when he was shot and killed just a block away from the consulate.

Mein began serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala in 1965, in the midst of the Guatemalan Civil War. Rebels of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), a local guerrilla organization, forced Mein out of his limousine on his way to the embassy. FAR had assassinated two U.S. military aides on their way to the embassy a few months earlier. It is believed that this time FAR only intended to kidnap Mein and hold him hostage while demanding the release of a recently arrested guerrilla leader. When Mein tried to run, however, the rebels shot and killed him, leaving him on the side of the street with eight bullets in his back. continue reading »


A Cold End to the Prague Spring

prague man and tankIn 1968, growing opposition to the failing sociopolitical and economic policies of hard-line Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, led by Antonín Novotný, finally came to a breaking point. Reformist politician Alexander Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Slovakia. The period that followed, known as the Prague Spring, saw an expansion in freedom of expression, economic liberalization and sociopolitical reform that took the country by storm and was ultimately seen as an existential threat in Moscow. As a result, four countries of the Warsaw Pact — Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria —  invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20th, 1968 to stop Czechoslovakia from further liberalizing its government. continue reading »