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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.

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 »


The Art of Protocol

proto place-settingUnderstanding the rules of protocol is essential to conducting diplomacy, as any diplomat would attest. Everything from knowing how to properly greet a foreign leader, understanding foreign customs, or having suitable seating arrangements at a state dinner plays an important role in the diplomatic process. The White House Chief of Protocol is responsible for advising the president, vice-president and the secretary on matters of national and diplomatic protocol as well as arranging the itineraries of visiting foreign dignitaries. It is an exceptional demanding job as she is usually one of the most visible diplomats in the country. Former Ambassador Molly Raiser served as President Clinton’s Chief of Protocol from 1993 to 1997.

These excerpts from her oral history describe her many colorful experiences, including security issues, the occasional need for a sharp elbow, the need for diplomatic immunity, and dealing with an indignant (and punctual) German leader. continue reading »


The Tiananmen Square Massacre — June 4, 1989

tanksThe 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square was one of the most heart-wrenching displays of state suppression of peaceful assembly in recent history. Following the death of pro-reform Communist leader Hu Yaobang in April 1989, thousands of Chinese students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to march in his memory. Within days the gathering had transformed into a mass demonstration against corruption in the government, with calls for democratic reforms. The students were joined by civil workers, intellectuals, and public servants; at the height of the protests, up to a million people assembled in the Square.

By mid-May protests had spread to 400 cities. After several failed negotiations to persuade the protesters to leave, the government resolved to use force. Soldiers and tanks from the People’s Liberation Army were deployed to take control of Beijing and clear Tiananmen Square on June 3-4. The PLA opened fire on the crowds, killing hundreds to thousands of civilians. continue reading »


The Chinese Interpreter Who Said “No” to President Nixon

china Nixon and MaoIt is one of the most important Presidential visits in American history. Richard Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao led to a diplomatic opening with China and greatly altered geopolitics. Being a member of the official delegation was, of course, a great honor, and everyone did what they were asked to do by the White House. That is, except for Chas Freeman, who was the senior interpreter. continue reading »


Another Crazy Day in the Consular Section

cons Angry-BusinessmanConsular officers need to be prepared for whatever American citizens traveling abroad can throw at them. The consular section can often be a chaotic and stressful environment, as Foreign Service officers try to deal with an array of characters, usually with demands as outlandish as their personalities. Alexander Watson, who later became an ambassador, served at Embassy Madrid from 1964 to 1966 as a consular officer. The following account details his experiences with some of the most interesting Americans ever to walk — or sometimes stumble — into an American embassy. continue reading »


Sic Semper Tyrannis – The Assassination of El Jefe, May 30, 1961

DR trujillo-chevyRafael Trujillo, El Jefe, ruled the Dominican Republic as dictator from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo gained prominence after the U.S. occupation in 1916. He joined the National Guard in 1919, trained with U.S. Marines, and earned the rank of general only nine years later. In 1930, a rebellion broke out against President Horacio Vasquez. Trujillo made a secret deal with rebel leader Rafael Estrella Urena whereby Trujillo could run for president in new elections. Estrella’s rebels were allowed to capture the capital and Trujillo, the only candidate allowed to run, claimed victory with 95% of the vote and immediately assumed dictatorial powers. His reign was marked by bloody massacres, stringent laws, and an overbearing personality cult. His rule is considered one of the bloodiest in the Americas and responsible for more than 50,000 deaths.  continue reading »


Japanese Terrorists in Israel

Lod Airport MassacreOn May 30, 1972, Israeli security at Lod  Airport (now Ben Gurion International Airport) was caught by surprise when three Japanese travelers opened fire upon their arrival. Airport security was focused on possible Palestinian attacks. The Japanese Red Army members, who were trained in Lebanon by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and were casually dressed, were able to get by undetected. The terrorists carried a violin case containing a Czech Vz 58 rifle. They were also armed with grenades and plenty of ammunition. Two of the three attackers were shot and killed during the massacre, the other was wounded and captured, but not before 26 people were killed. Seventeen victims were U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico, one was from Canada, and eight were Israeli. Since 2007 Puerto Rico has commemorated the death of its 17 Christian pilgrims every May 30th on “Lod Remembrance Day”. continue reading »


Relying on the Kindness of Strangers — The Start of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation

Una Chapman CoxEstablished in 1980, the Una Chapman Cox Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the effectiveness and professionalism of the U.S. Foreign Service. Its founder, Una Chapman Cox, created it after a Foreign Service officer named Royal Bisbee got her out of a dilemma in Bombay in 1948. Her gratitude inspired her to do what she could to help the Foreign Service. You can learn more about the foundation here.

In the following excerpts from ADST’s oral history collection, Royal Bisbee, who was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2010, gives his account of his fateful encounter with Ms. Cox. Betty Atherton, a Foreign Service spouse interviewed by Mary Louise Weiss in 1987, talks about the creation of the foundation. continue reading »