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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.

The Fall of Saigon — April 30, 1975

Saigon-evac of US embApril 30, 1975 will long be remembered as the day that Saigon fell and with it, the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It also marked the beginning of Vietnam’s unification as a “socialist republic.” North Vietnamese forces began their final attack on Saigon on April 29, with a heavy artillery bombardment. This bombardment at the Tan Son Nhut Airport killed the last two American servicemen that died in Vietnam. By the afternoon of the next day, North Vietnamese troops had occupied the important points within the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. The fall of the city was preceded by the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime.  continue reading »


The Fall of South Korean Strongman Syngman Rhee — April 26,1960

april revolutionSyngman Rhee, a staunch anticommunist and authoritarian, was the first president of South Korea. Backed by the United States, Rhee was appointed head of the Korean government in 1945 before winning the country’s first presidential election in 1950. He led South Korea through the Korean War, but because of widespread discontent with corruption and political repression, it was unlikely that he would be re-elected by the National Assembly. Rhee ordered a mass arrest of opposing politicians; elections were held, with Rhee receiving 74% of the vote.

In March 1960, a protest against electoral corruption took place in Masan. Violence erupted as police started shooting, and the protesters retaliated by throwing rocks. A few weeks later, the body of a student who had disappeared during the riots was found in the Masan Harbor. Rhee’s regime tried to censor news of this incident; however, it was reported in the Korean press along with a picture of the body. The incident became the basis of a national movement against electoral corruption. continue reading »


The Embassy Beirut Bombing — A Consular Officer’s Perspective

Beirut REAGANSCASKETSThe suicide bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon on April 18, 1983 was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission up to that point. The blast killed sixty-three people, seventeen of whom were Americans. The attack is thought of as the beginning of anti-U.S. attacks from Islamist groups. This attack, along with the Marine Corps barracks bombing that same year, prompted a review of security measures at the Department of State and led to the creation of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Diplomatic Security Service. Diane Dillard was a consular officer in Beirut at the time of the bombing. Here she recounts the troubles she encountered directly after the bombing and the troubles her office encountered in the days following the bombing. You can also see Ambassador Robert Dillon’s account here. continue reading »


The Bombing of U.S. Embassy Beirut — April 18, 1983

Beirut Security at the US EmbassyThe suicide bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon on April 18, 1983 was the deadliest attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission up to that point. The blast killed 63 people, 17 of whom were Americans. The attack is thought of as the beginning of anti-U.S. attacks from Islamist groups. Along with the Marine Corps barracks bombing that same year, the terrorist attack prompted a review of security measures at the Department of State and led to the creation of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and the Diplomatic Security Service. Ambassador to Lebanon Robert S. Dillon recounts the explosion, the Hezbollah terrorists, the issues with embassy security, and how the attack changed his life. You can read Diane Dillard‘s account as a consular officer and Anne Dammarell’s thesis on the effects the bombing had on survivors. continue reading »


Crossing Qaddafi’s Line of Death – April 15, 1986

Moammar GadhafiThe late 1980s saw an alarming decline in U.S.-Libyan relations. A plane hijacking and airport attacks in Rome and Vienna in 1985, all linked to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi  further escalated tensions between the two countries. The U.S. discovered that surface-to-air missiles were being deployed in Libya around the same time. In contravention of international sea regulations, Qaddafi also claimed the whole Gulf of Sidra for Libya, drawing the so-called “Line of Death” on the Mediterranean. This led to the United States bombing of Libya on April 15, 1986. Michael Ussery, Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for Near East Asian Affairs from 1985 to 1988, recounts the run-up to the attack, the plans to topple Qaddafi, how the Libya desk officer refused to participate in the planning on moral grounds, and the blowback encountered over plans to spread disinformation through the American media. continue reading »


Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady

Thatcher-locOne of the most prominent political figures in Cold War history, Margaret Thatcher, led Britain as the only female prime minister from 1979 to 1990. In these brief excerpts from their oral histories, Tom Niles recalls the surprisingly acrimonious meeting between President Reagan and Thatcher over sanctions, which eventually led to Secretary of State Haig’s resignation. In a very different anecdote, Lynne Lambert, who was trade policy officer at Embassy London, tells of a rather awkward situation with the Chancellor of West Germany. continue reading »


Operation Eagle Pull before the Fall of Phnom Penh

phnom penh 1975It took place in the shadow of the dramatic evacuation from Saigon, which signaled the close of an era and the end to a U.S. presence in Vietnam. However, the fall of Phnom Penh proved to be an even greater tragedy, as it paved the way for a takeover by the ruthless Khmer Rouge, whose leader Pol Pot orchestrated the Cambodian Genocide, in which an estimated two million people died from 1975 to 1979. On that day in April 1975, the U.S. embassy had to respond to try to save as many people as it could. continue reading »


A Soul Filled with Shame –The Rwandan Genocide, April 7- July 18,1994

rwandan-genocideA colony of Belgium until 1962, Rwanda became dominated politically by the minority Tutsis. During the independence movement, the majority Hutus seized control of the government, killing thousands of Tutsis and forcing even more into exile. Many fled to Burundi and Uganda as refugees. Tensions between the two ethnic groups continued to fester over the course of the next two decades, culminating in the outbreak of civil war in 1990. Exiled Tutsis regrouped as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and led an invasion to overthrow the Hutu-controlled government and re-establish themselves in Rwanda. Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Hutu president of Burundi were then killed on April 6, 1994, when their airplane was shot down as it was landing in Kigali. continue reading »


“Two Men, One Grave” — The Execution of Pakistan’s Ali Bhutto

Pak zulfikar-ali-bhutto11Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founder of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), served as president of Pakistan in the 1970s.  By 1977, opposition against Bhutto and the PPP had grown due to incidents of repression, corruption, and alleged election fraud. Violence escalated across Pakistan, and Bhutto was overthrown by his army chief, General Zia-ul-Haq. Bhutto was put on trial for authorizing the murder of a political opponent, and executed on April 4, 1979. However, his party remains Pakistan’s largest national political party, and his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, served as Prime Minister before her assassination in a 2007 bombing. Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, served as President from 2008-13. continue reading »


The Somalis will do Without the Slobber, Mr. Ambassador

kid-kissing-pigWhen traveling abroad, it’s always good to remember local customs and cultural aversions. It also doesn’t hurt to remember that not all people love your dog as much as you do. This excerpt is taken from Stephen Keat’s oral history. continue reading »