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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.

Escape from the Congo

evac congo UN refugeesDuring the Congo Crisis (1960-1966), which began after the colony was granted independence from Belgium, the province of Katanga declared itself a sovereign state. The situation in the Congo became so grave that in November 1961, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 169 to remove foreign military and other personnel not under the U.N. Command, “including the use of the requisite measure of force, if necessary.” In response, the Katangan gendarmerie planned an offensive against the UN peacekeepers and set up roadblocks to isolate UN units from one another. This prompted another major UN military operation, launched on December 5 to take control of strategic positions around Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), which resulted in heavy fighting and casualties. Amidst all of this, Terry McNamara had to evacuate all Americans from Elisabethville at the end of 1961. Most of the evacuees were missionaries, who managed to test his patience and diplomatic skill with their vacillating and even ingratitude. continue reading »


Did he do it?: Navigating the Alleged Murder of a Kenyan Prostitute

prostitutes possible prostitutes....An unfortunate, but not uncommon, part of a consul’s job is to help American citizens who are in distress — and often not of their own doing. Robert Gribbin, who later served as ambassador in the Central African Republic and Rwanda, was assigned to set up a consulate in Mombasa, Kenya, where he had to deal with an American who was unfairly charged with the murder of a prostitute. Coincidentally, he is one of the select few Foreign Service officers who also had to deal with a “delegation of prostitutes” as part of his official duties. continue reading »


“It was something out of a B movie” — The 1980 Coup in Bolivia

boliv tank La PazSocial unrest, political fragmentation, drug trafficking, and violence all characterized the late 70’s in Bolivia.  All of the major parties failed to gain a majority vote, coups were attempted with an alarming frequency, and human rights violations were severe and widespread.  In the early 80’s, Bolivia transitioned to democracy, but that transition was far from smooth.  In a 1997 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Alexander Watson (Deputy Chief of Mission in La Paz, Bolivia 1979-1981) discusses the turbulent course of events, beginning with a coup on June 20, 1980, how he gave the keys to his house to certain political leaders, the change in policy after Ronald Reagan’s election and the eventual collapse of the coup plotters. continue reading »


A Short History of Demarching Orders

demarche ListenandIgnoreButtonA demarche is the term of art for formal instructions sent from a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (or the State Department) in the capital out to an embassy outlining that country’s position on a particular topic. The topic may be routine (a pro forma administrative matter in the UN) or highly sensitive (criticism of the host government’s human rights record). While demarches are usually delivered to the relevant office at the host country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in extreme matters they may go to the foreign minister or even the head of state. continue reading »


Delivering the Mail and Avoiding Martial Law in South Korea, 1987

korea man with flagChun Doo-hwan, president of South Korea from 1980 to 1988, seized power in 1979 and crushed many democratization movements during his controversial rule. According to the South Korean constitution, Chun was limited to seven years in power, but as the end of his term approached, it was not clear that he would step down.  By late June, it seemed likely that Chun would declare martial law and use the Army to stay in power.  This decision would have the potential to bring about a civil war in South Korea, and the U.S. Embassy had only hours to deliver a letter from President Reagan and attempt to change Chun’s mind before the announcement planned for June 19 — a letter the government did not want to accept.  continue reading »


“Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!”

ronald-reagan-berlinwallOn June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan made one of his most famous Cold War speeches at the Berlin Wall. James Alan Williams recalls that day, as well as the Gipper’s famous sense of humor at the lesser known party for the city of Berlin. Williams was interviewed by Ray Ewing beginning in October 2003. continue reading »


A Completely Lawless Place – Beirut and the Assassination of Ambassador Meloy and Robert Waring

Meloy arrival_ceremonyThe Lebanese Civil War was a 15-year conflict that took the lives of more than 130,000 people. Throughout the early 1970s, divisions between Christian Maronites and Palestinians began to deepen and soon escalated into all-out war. While the war was largely a struggle between these two groups, the violence soon affected the U.S. On June 16, 1976, recently appointed Ambassador Frank Meloy, along with Economic Counselor Robert Waring, were traveling to meet with the Lebanese president when they were kidnapped by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Both Meloy and Waring, along with the driver, were killed. (At right, President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger at the arrival ceremony.) continue reading »


An Encounter with Hitler

Hitler-Riding-in-his-merc-001So it’s 1935, you’re blonde and Jewish and have a bit of Wanderlust. And where do you go? Why, Nazi Germany, of course!  Herbert Fierst traveled around Europe the year after his graduation from Yale University and wonders what if things had turned out differently. continue reading »


The East Berlin Uprising, June 16-17, 1953

Berlin uprising ,_russischer_PanzerIt began as a strike by East Berlin construction workers but quickly escalated into waves of protests throughout the German Democratic Republic. The 1953 uprising in East Germany is not as well remembered today as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Prague Spring of 1968, but it was no less consequential. On the 16th of June hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets. A decree to raise production quotas in industry and construction was the initial catalyst, but soon enough the movement was calling for a free country and the resignation of the government. It was violently suppressed a day later by Soviet troops and tanks and East German police. Hundreds of people were reportedly killed.  continue reading »


Israel’s Attack on the USS Liberty

Liberty DamageOn June 8, 1967, a Navy intelligence ship, the USS Liberty, was mistaken for an Egyptian warship and attacked by the Israeli military during the Six-Day War. The strafing and torpedo attack left 34 Americans dead and 171 wounded.  The Liberty still managed to reach another U.S. vessel despite suffering heavy damage (including a 40-foot wide hole in its side) and was  later escorted to Malta for repairs.  Captain William McGonagle was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his leadership under fire in an unconventionally secret ceremony. The Israeli government quickly apologized for the incident and paid compensation to the victims and their families. A report conducted by Clark Clifford, then on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and later Secretary of Defense, concluded that “The unprovoked attack on the Liberty constitutes a flagrant act of gross negligence for which the Israeli Government should be held completely responsible, and the Israeli military personnel involved should be punished.” continue reading »