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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.

Born in the Congo: The Experience of Giving Birth During a Civil War

Congo-Baringa_HospitalEmergency medical care in developing countries can be problematic, if not wholly inadequate. Even more so in the 1960s. When you’re expecting twins. In a country in the midst of a civil war. However, when Terry McNamara’s wife went into labor in the conflict-ridden Province of Katanga in the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1961, they had to tough it out at a small, understaffed and scant clinic with only a nun, and later, a doctor. With a cigar. continue reading »


The Attack on the U.S. Compound in Benghazi — September 11, 2012

benghazi_probe_11_15_2012The attack began the night of September 11, 2012, at a compound that is meant to protect the consulate building in Benghazi, Libya. A second assault early morning the next day targeted a nearby CIA annex in a different diplomatic compound. Four people were killed, including  Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Ten others were injured. The attack was strongly condemned by the governments of Libya, the United States, and many other countries. The following is the transcript of Gregory Hicks’ testimony, delivered May 8, 2013 before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Darrell Issa (R-CA), regarding the events of Sept. 11, 2012, in Libya. Hicks served as Deputy Chief of Mission and was at Embassy Tripoli on the night of the attacks. continue reading »


Tom Clancy Bombs Korea

Clancy Op-Center_coverRemember when renegade South Korean soldiers set off a bomb in Seoul during a festival and make it look like it was done by North Korea? And how the head of the Operations Center and the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Gregory Donald had to prove that North Korea had nothing to do with it before the situation got hostile? No? That’s because it was only the plot of a 1995 Tom Clancy novel, inspired in part by the career of real-life Ambassador Donald Gregg, who served in the Central Intelligence Agency for 31 years, including in Korea, and was Ambassador to South Korea from 1989 until 1993. Here he discusses his 2002 visit to the Hermit Kingdom of the North and its attempts to understand the U.S. better, including by reading Tom Clancy novels. continue reading »


Independence and “Catastrophe”: The Deadly Founding of Israel, May 14, 1948

Israel Ben-Gurion declaring independenceOn May 15, 1948, the UK withdrew from Palestine. (It had been given a mandate over the territories after it defeated the Ottomans in World War I.) The evening before, David Ben-Gurion, President of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declared Israel’s statehood and independence. This prompted the Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi, and Saudi Arabian armies to invade Israel. Thus began the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Israelis beat back all of their attackers and established Israel as a state. To this day the war is known as the War of Independence in Hebrew and The Catastrophe in Arabic. continue reading »


Dealing with a PR Disaster – The U.S. Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade

Beijing Anti-American_Protests_Liu_Kai_b3On May 7, 1999, U.S. warplanes accidentally dropped laser-guided bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia.  The strike was meant to target a warehouse storing Yugoslav munitions, but the maps given to NATO were out-of-date. Three Chinese citizens were killed and twenty were wounded. The Chinese blamed America for deliberately bombing the embassy despite apologies from President Bill Clinton. CIA Director George Tenet testified that the Agency had identified the incorrect coordinates for a nearby Yugoslav military target. A wave of strong anti-American protests erupted in China. Paul Blackburn served as Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in Beijing during the time of the bombing and had to deal with the anti-American backlash. continue reading »


The Day Venezuelans Attacked Nixon

Venez nixon protestersIn the spring of 1958, President Eisenhower sent Vice President Nixon on a tour of Latin America to improve relations. Unfortunately, the tour would create even more friction, as it was punctuated by protests in various countries, including Ecuador and Peru. His May 13 visit to Venezuela turned violent and threatened the safety of the Vice President, his wife, and his support staff. Robert Amerson, who was Press Attaché in Caracas, explains the fragile transition Venezuela was undergoing at the time and how the public’s opinion of the U.S.– and Communist Party agitprop — made for a very unwelcome visit. continue reading »


Back in the USSR — Life as a Student in Moscow in the 1960s

Moscow 1965 busGrim. Tedious. Unrelentingly cold and dreary. Add in KGB surveillance and the fear that they truly were out to get you and you have the makings of one memorable graduate year abroad. Dr. Naomi F. Collins has enjoyed a storied life and career in academia, non-profit work and various other areas. Some of her most notable experiences come from living in Russia during the height of the Cold War. Her husband is a retired career Foreign Service Officer and former Ambassador to Russia, James F. Collins, whom she accompanied to Moscow several times over the course of four decades. In the following excerpts from her oral history, Dr. Collins speaks of her life as a graduate student in Russia from 1965 to 1966. She details what it was like to be a Westerner studying abroad there – from the day-to-day challenges, the social tensions that came with surveillance, and finally their hasty escape when they feared that they’d run afoul of the KGB.  continue reading »


The Year of Living Dangerously – Indonesia and the Downed CIA Pilot, May 1958

PopeIn April and May of 1958, Indonesia went through a period of rebellion, as discontent on the peripheral islands, like Sumatra, grew because of lack of support and autonomy from the central government, which is located on the island of Java. Although Sukarno’s government was not communist, it did allow the communists to participate politically. That led the U.S. to covertly support the anti-communist rebels. On May 8 Allen Pope, an American pilot who had been carrying out attacks against the Indonesian military, was captured. This news reached the press and exposed the actions of the CIA in Indonesia. Pope was accused of bombing the rural village of Ambon and sentenced to death. continue reading »


Apocalypse Not, Part II

McNamara at_SubicOn April 29, 1975, Francis Terry McNamara, then Consul General, finally received orders to evacuate the Consulate General in Can Tho, Vietnam. By that time, the U.S. had resigned itself to the fall of Saigon and McNamara and others had been evacuating the most vulnerable Vietnamese staff. McNamara had also been preparing for a water-borne evacuation which, in his view, would be able to rescue far more Vietnamese and Americans. The second part of this story recounts how the vessel, carrying more than 325 people, was intercepted by Vietnamese “monitors,” a final act of apparent rebellion from the CIA contingent at Can Tho, and the conclusion to McNamara’s trip down the Bas Sac River. continue reading »


Apocalypse Not – The Evacuation from Can Tho, Vietnam — April 1975

mcnam apocalypse-now_21The shaky peace that had held in Vietnam since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 began to crumble in late 1974 after North Vietnam began a series of military offensives which pushed the South Vietnamese army back on its heels. By early 1975 it had become painfully apparent that there would not be two Vietnams, as had existed in Korea, but that the North would soon be in Saigon. Despite this, Ambassador Graham Martin refused to believe that a collapse was imminent and had stalled in authorizing evacuation plans, much to the dismay of his subordinates. Terry McNamara at the time was Consul General in the city of Can-Tho. Pushing through the maze of bureaucracy and against the background of an unprecedented American defeat, McNamara came up with a bold plan that would allow him to evacuate a great number of Vietnamese employees in addition to the American staff. continue reading »