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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.

Prague Spring as Seen from the Outside – The Utter Impotence of U.S. Policy

prague InvasionNewspapers that had long been the Party mouthpiece were allowed to criticism the government, labor unions were given more rights to speak for their members, people were allowed to speak more freely. The shackles of Soviet totalitarianism were loosened. But only briefly. The Prague Spring, that period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia beginning in January of 1968, came to a swift end when Soviet troops, aided by other members of the Warsaw Pact, invaded the country on August 20-21. Dubček’s reforms were abandoned as he was arrested and sent to Moscow and was removed from office in April 1969. In the end, Prague 1968, like East Berlin 1953 and Hungary 1956, became just another poignant reminder of what could have been. continue reading »


Stalin’s Legacy: The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Nagorno-Karabakh war 2Nagorno-Karabakh is a highly contested, landlocked region in the South Caucasus of the former Soviet Union. The present-day conflict has its roots in the decisions made by Joseph Stalin when he was the acting Commissar of Nationalities for the Soviet Union during the early 1920s. In April 1920, Azerbaijan was taken over by the Bolsheviks;  Armenia and Georgia were taken over in 1921. To garner public support, the Bolsheviks promised Karabakh to Armenia. At the same time, in order to placate Turkey, the Soviet Union agreed to a division under which Karabakh would be under the control of Azerbaijan. With the Soviet Union firmly in control of the region, the conflict over the region died down for several decades.

When the USSR began to collapse, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged. In August 1987 Karabakh Armenians sent petition for union with Armenia tens of thousands of signatures to Moscow. The struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated after both Armenia and Azerbaijan attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. continue reading »


Princess of Monaco, Full of Grace

Princess-Grace-of-Monaco-Cartier-diamondsGrace Kelly was known for her beauty, success and passion even before becoming Princess of Monaco. Before her untimely death in 1982, Princess Grace had become involved in, and even founded, various charity organizations to help people through the world. During an oral history interview conducted in 1994 by William D. Morgan, Peter Murphy describes one of the lesser known acts of kindness Princess Grace would perform for those in need. continue reading »


Cyprus — August 1974: “It was a blind shot that got the Ambassador”

cyprus davies014On August 19th, 1974, recently appointed Ambassador to Cyprus, Rodger Davies, was shot dead during a Greek Cypriot protest outside the U.S. Embassy. The demonstration brought out over 300 people who were protesting against the U.S.’s failure to prevent the Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island the week before. Davies was seeking shelter in a hallway at the embassy building in Nicosia when a sniper struck him in the chest. When Antoinette Varnava—a Maronite consular employee—rushed to his aid, she too was struck dead, with a bullet to the head. continue reading »


Cain and Abel: Splitting Up North and South Korea

korea indep flagWith the end of World War II in August 1945, there was still no consensus on Korea’s fate among Allied leaders. Many Koreans on the peninsula wanted independence and rejected re-occupation by foreign forces. Per the agreement at Yalta, the USSR entered the fight against Japan and invaded Manchuria and northern Korea. On August 10, 1945 two young officers, including future Secretary of State Dean Rusk, worked to define an American occupation zone. Working on extremely short notice and without consulting any experts on Korea, they used a National Geographic map to decide on the 38th parallel (not knowing that 40 years earlier, Japan and Russia had discussed sharing Korea along the same parallel.) On August 15, 1945, Japan’s last Governor-General handed over power, marking Korea’s Victory over Japan (Gwangbokjeol, literally “Restoration of Light Day”). The Republic of Korea was established exactly three years later. continue reading »


The KKK’s “Coup Attempt” in Kenya

f88dkkk_women3Kenya of the late 80’s was essentially a single-party state, with the president holding almost complete control. President Moi ruled from 1978 through 2002 and worked to crush movements among academics to initiate democratic reforms. Two failed coups d’état were attempted almost simultaneously in 1982, and then just a few years later the Kenyan government publicized a letter asserting that the Ku Klux Klan was attempting to overthrow the Kenyan government. Elinor Constable, who was Ambassador to Kenya from 1986-1989, recounts the discovery of this letter and the kidnapping of an American citizen that followed. continue reading »


Terror on the 9th Floor — The Kuala Lumpur Hostage Crisis

KL gunmanOn August 4th, 1975, five members of the Japanese Red Army or JRA – a militant organization intent on overthrowing the Japanese government and starting a worldwide revolution – stormed the United States embassy on the 9th floor the AIA Insurance building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The tallest building in Malaysia at the time, it housed five foreign embassies, including those of the United States and Sweden. The JRA gunman held 53 people hostage, mostly Malaysians but also including U.S. consul Robert Stebbins and a Swedish diplomat, for four days. Robert Dillon, a Foreign Service officer in Kuala Lumpur at the time, was working on another floor of the building when it happened. As the crisis progressed, he oversaw negotiations and the security of the hostages during the entire ordeal. continue reading »


“We Didn’t Start the Fire”: Billy Joel Sums up World History with a Single Song

BillyJoel_Fire“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was a huge commercial success when it was released in 1989. It was Billy Joel’s third Billboard No. 1 hit and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. It’s also a great summary of history for the second half of the 20th Century. Its lyrics include brief, rapid-fire allusions to more than 100 headline events between January 1949 (Billy Joel was born on May 9 of that year) and 1989, when the song was released on his album Storm Front.

Billy Joel, a self-described “history nut” who wanted to be a history teacher when he was younger, got the idea for the song as he was talking with someone on the verge of turning 21, who averred that the world was an unfixable mess. Joel replied to him, “I thought the same things when I was 21”. The person replied, “Yeah, but you grew up in the 50’s and everybody knows that nothing happened in the 50’s”. Joel retorted, “Wait a minute, didn’t you hear of Korea, the Hungarian freedom fighters or the Suez Crisis?” continue reading »


Zimbabwe — The Death of a Nation

zimb robert-mugabe-2On April 18th, 1980, Southern Rhodesia, the richest nation in Africa, officially gained independence from the United Kingdom and established majority rule for the first time in its history. Anti-colonial freedom fighter Robert Mugabe became the new president and the country was renamed Zimbabwe. Keeping a hold on power through rigged elections, intimidation and violence, Mugabe subsequently ran the country’s economy, health and education sectors and food supply into the ground.

In 2000, the government introduced a fast-track land reform program in which war veterans and other Mugabe supporters marched on white-owned farms and seized the land, killing many in the process. Much of this land was redistributed not to the black poor as was intended, but to Mugabe’s cronies and other party supporters. continue reading »


“Viet Cong Invade American Embassy” — The 1968 Tet Offensive

Tet-OffensiveOn Jan. 30, 1968, Vietnamese communists attacked the American embassy in Saigon. For several hours they held the embassy grounds, inflicting injury and damage and trapping a small group of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel within the embassy. The assailants failed ever to enter the building, and all of them ultimately were killed or captured. This was part of the broader Tet offensive, a military campaign that carried the Vietnam War from the countryside into cities and towns.

continue reading »