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Our web series of over 700 "Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History" captures key historical events -- and humorous aspects of diplomatic life, using our extensive collection of oral histories.
Note:  These oral histories contain the personal recollections and opinions of the individual interviewed.  The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government or the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. To read the entire interview, go to our Oral History page.

Building a USAID Program in a Country With No Roads: The Case of South Sudan

USAID Mission Director William Hammink’s troubles began shortly before his 2009 arrival in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital; President Omar al-Bashir had just expelled 13 international organizations providing humanitarian assistance in Darfur.  While negotiating to permit the return of these organizations, Hammink’s team also had to help a new, inexperienced government in southern Sudan build infrastructure, deliver basic services, and manage the return of tens of thousands of refugees from decades of civil war.  The soon-to-be independent country had “not one tarmac road outside of the capital,” Hammink recalled in his ADST oral history.

During his time as mission director, Hammink ran large development programs in both Sudan (Khartoum) and southern Sudan (Juba).  He also led USAID’s efforts to support the 2011 referendum that marked the birth of South Sudan–the world’s youngest country. Conflict between Sudan and southern Sudan stopped in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

William Hammink previously served as a USAID program officer in Swaziland, Senegal, and Madagascar; as deputy director in the West Bank/Gaza strip region; and as mission director in Ethiopia. After Sudan he would direct USAID missions in India and Afghanistan.

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Embassies: “An Artifact of an Earlier Age?”

Do embassies still matter?  Donna Oglesby, a senior official at the United States Information Agency (before it was incorporated into the State Department), argues that globalization and the communications revolution make embassies and field officers more important than ever.


Donna Oglesby served 26 years in the Foreign Service, with a focus on Latin America. She finished her career as USIA Counselor.  In retirement, she went on to teach for two decades at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Hurricane Mitch Devastated Nicaragua, But Helped Improve Relations With the U.S.

Slow-moving, coast-hugging Hurricane Mitch devastated Nicaragua in October 1998. The United States organized a massive disaster response, and President Clinton and a host of other dignitaries visited to see the results. Our aid improved military-to-military ties and helped Ambassador Lino Gutierrez pursue better relations twenty years after Nicaragua’s bitter civil war. A Category 5 hurricane, Mitch was reputedly the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 1780.

Lino Gutierrez, American Ambassador to Nicaragua when Hurricane Mitch struck, recalls that the storm claimed the lives of 4,000 Nicaraguans, washed away villages, and destroyed infrastructure. Gutierrez helped organize initial disaster assistance efforts, from distribution of food, water and other basic human needs to helicopter rescue missions. The disaster assistance also produced the first military-to-military cooperation with Nicaragua since the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979. The U.S. response helped Amb. Gutierrez improve relations with Nicaragua, despite Sandinista claims that the assistance was setting the stage for future U.S. military intervention.

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“A Sea of Golden Grain”: USAID’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Georgia

In the aftermath of Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008, the National Security Council (NSC) met to review U.S. policy toward both countries.  Some urged elimination of USAID’s program in Russia. But USAID’s Russia program promoted democracy and development in Chechnya–a program Russia’s leaders would be all too happy to eliminate.  Susumu Ken Yamashita, AID’s representative at a crucial NSC meeting, had a better idea: a massive program to help rebuild the parts of Georgia that Russia had invaded and briefly held. How big?  Surprised by the positive reaction to his idea, Yamashita quickly proposed the sum of $1 billion. He was even more surprised when the number was accepted.

USAID was given only a month and a half to develop a program for reconstruction in northern Georgia, where Russia had pursued a literal scorched earth policy.  With winter approaching, USAID focused on help for refugees and internally displaced people, and helping restore the economic livelihood of the broader population.  A key component: planting cold-resistant varieties of wheat. By the following spring, the fields were a “sea of golden grains.”

Susumu Ken Yamashita was serving as the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in USAID’s Regional Bureau for Europe and Eurasia during the time of the invasion. Shortly after, Yamashita became Acting Assistant Administrator and helped oversee the plan created to allocate funds to Georgia.  He would later serve as USAID’s mission director in Colombia and Afghanistan before retiring in 2016.

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Migrating with Iran’s Bakhtiari Tribe Before the Revolution: A Tale From the Foreign Service

Back when the United States had diplomatic missions in Iran, a young Foreign Service Officer  travelled with members of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe to better understand their culture and politics.  Malcolm Butler recalls camping with the Bakhtiari at the time of the 1969 Apollo IX moon landing — and trying to convince his skeptical hosts that the grainy images he showed them represented actual humans on the moon.  More substantively, both the nomads and students Butler met at Iranian universities betrayed signs of discontent with the Shah’s regime well before the 1978 Iranian Revolution.

In 1975, Butler would go on to work with the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger, and eventually become intimately involved in the work of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As Mission Director for USAID in the ‘80s, he would lead programs in Bolivia, Peru, Lebanon, and the Philippines, also acting as Executive Secretary from 1983 to 1985. His wife, Tish Butler, was in Beirut during the embassy’s bombing in 1983.

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Benazir Bhutto, USAID, and Girls’ Education in Pakistan

Nine days after David Sprague arrived in Pakistan to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a plane crash killed President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and American Ambassador Arnold Raphel. Three months later, in December 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister–and the first female to lead a democratic government in a Muslim majority country. Bhutto’s support for girls’ education coincided with USAID’s desire to expand its Pakistan program.  With strong Washington support, USAID Pakistan launched an ambitious program that contributed to a 70% increase in girls’ enrollment in two conservative provinces bordering Afghanistan. The program was halted six years later when the Pressler Amendment forced a cutoff in aid in response to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush invited Bhutto to a state visit in June 1989.  The National Security Council and White House aides pushed hard for policy initiatives to support the Bhutto government — and provide “deliverables” for the state visit.  Pakistan had struggled for decades to improve its education program. By 1988 Pakistan was in the midst of its seventh five year plan, which still failed to reach target goals for literacy and enrollment rates.  USAID quickly developed a primary education program that concentrated on Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), with a particular focus on increasing the number of girls in school.

David Sprague began his career with USAID in 1972, as a civil servant in the Office of Education. Already a leader in the education sector, Sprague transferred to USAID’s Foreign Service in 1988 and assigned as an Education Officer in Pakistan.  He stayed for five years. He later served in Ukraine and Bangladesh. After retiring from USAID in 2001, he was an education consultant to USAID and the World Bank.

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Responding to Terrorism in Saudi Arabia: Memories of a Public Affairs Officer

When terrorists struck Americans in Saudi Arabia in 2004, Washington and a global public wanted answers. In June, Al-Qaeda kidnapped and executed Paul Johnson, an American helicopter engineer working for Lockheed Martin. He was the fifth Westerner killed in Saudi Arabia in roughly one week. Just months later, operatives linked to Al-Qaeda fought their way into the U.S. consulate in Jeddah with machine guns and explosives. Consulate security forces prevented the attackers from entering the main building until Saudi forces secured the area. Throughout this tense period Washington officials, family members, and a voracious international news media needed information.  Public Affairs Counselor Carol Kalin had to keep all these audiences informed and respond to their inquiries. Kalin recalls her experiences during this dangerous period.

Carol Kalin began her career in the Foreign Service as an economic officer in 1993, but later shifted to work in public diplomacy. She would go on to serve in multiple other capacities, including as a Congressional Liaison Officer in Afghanistan at the height of the war.  Kalin was deputy chief of mission in both Beirut, Lebanon (2001-2003) and Nouakchott, Mauritania (2010-2012).

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The Politics of Water in the Middle East: U.S. “Good Offices” Mediation Between Jordan and Israel

For countries in the Jordan River Basin, water is a life-or-death matter. Disagreements and even armed skirmishes over water issues between Israel and Arab states played an important role in the lead-up to the 1967 Six Day War.  A decade later, USAID Foreign Service Officer Selig Taubenblatt found himself mediating long-standing water disagreements between Israel and Jordan.

In 1975, Jordan decided to build the Maqarin Dam, later named Al-Wehda Dam, on the Yarmouk River not far from the Golan Heights at the Jordan-Syria border.  The dam was to supply Jordan with water for human and agricultural use, and produce electricity. But nothing is simple in this region. Israel protested, claiming the dam would interfere with Israeli rights downstream on the Yarmouk, a major tributary to the Jordan River.  When both Jordan and Israel asked the United States to provide “good offices” in resolving water disputes, Taubenblatt emerged as a key player in thrashing out numerous technical details. Jordan refused to conclude a final agreement without the assent of an as-yet unformed and unrecognized Palestinian State.  Ultimately the Israel–Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 resolved outstanding water issues associated with the Maqarin/Al-Wehda Dam, which opened in 2011.

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Talking to Soviet Soldiers During the 1991 Coup Attempt: A U.S. Defense Attaché’s Tale

James Cox knew that Soviet officers would stonewall a foreigner like him, but there was a chance that regular soldiers might express their grievances to him. In the midst of the 1991 Soviet coup attempt, Cox sought information to report to the U.S. Embassy. So when the officers were not looking, he launched into a tirade about the coup, hoping to solicit a congenial response from a startled group of Russian soldiers–and it worked. The soldiers said they had no idea where their officers were leading them, or why.  The information was invaluable to the U.S. Embassy team attempting to make sense of it all.

The leaders of the August 1991 coup attempt sought to remove reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev from power and preserve the Soviet Union. These hardliners confronted Gorbachev and isolated him under house arrest. On August 19, the coup leaders declared a state of emergency, sending military units into Moscow.  Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian component of the USSR, condemned the coup and called for a general strike. People responded by rallying around Yeltsin. As the coup lost momentum, its leaders fled Moscow, the military pulled back, and the coup collapsed. Though Gorbachev returned to power, the damage was done, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union followed in December of the same year.  

Lt. Col. James Cox came to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with extensive qualifications in the Russian language, having served as a Russian instructor at the U.S. Military Academy and a Soviet foreign area officer in East Germany. After his time in Moscow, Cox went on to serve as a defense attaché in Warsaw and worked with the Department of State as an arms control delegate at the representative for the United States in Europe.

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USAID Helps Sri Lanka Respond to 1996 Bombing of Central Bank–And Avert Financial Chaos

One of the deadliest terror acts in Sri Lanka’s long civil war was the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank, which cost almost 100 lives–and threatened to unleash economic and financial chaos.  USAID was able to move quickly to replace the bank’s computer system, restoring its vital functions, and preventing panic from spreading through the country. Mission Director David Cohen recalls our response in this ADST oral history.

Sri Lanka’s bloody 1983-2009 civil war grew out of longstanding ethnic and religious disputes.  The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) developed into a formidable military and terrorist force, prompting an increasingly violent government response, culminating in the group’s destruction.  While it was active, the LTTE held significant amounts of Sri Lankan territory and carried out multiple high-profile operations, including the assassinations of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.  In the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank, LTTE operatives crashed a truck carrying explosives through the main gate. The attack killed roughly 100 people and injured dozens more. By 2009, LTTE had been reduced to pockets of hard-core fighters. The government’s killing of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran effectively marked an end to the war.  

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