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Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Kissinger and Zhou Enlai

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(s) interviewed. The views expressed should not be considered official statements of the U.S. government nor the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

House for Rent in the War-torn Congo–Three Baths, no Squatters

baluba-warriors-in-the-central-congo-province-of-kasai-train-for-battle-with-homemade-small-arms-on-january-2-1961 Balubas in CongoHousing for FSOs was not always provided on assignments abroad. Francis Terry McNamara had to find housing for himself and his family in many different places, some under unconventional situations. McNamara tells about his house-hunting in Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi), Congo in 1962 after the city had been ravaged by an attempted insurrection and continued unrest since independence in 1960. With the help of an Indian Gurkha colonel, McNamara was able to secure a fixer-upper, but one with some drawbacks. continue reading »


FSO Ends Up in an Irish Stew Over His Christmas Letter

Mr. PotatoWe’ve all wanted to blow off steam about our boss, co-workers, or those troglodytes in Human Resources. Robin Berrington, who served as Public Affairs Officer in Dublin from 1978 through 1981, was no different. He talked about his frustrations with his job and with Ireland in general in what was supposed to be a private Christmas letter in 1980 to friends and family, writing things like, “The country has food and climate well matched for each other — dull.”  People have said much worse. However, someone somehow leaked the contents of Berrington’s letter to the media and all hell broke loose. The Irish tabloids ran headlines like “American Embassy Diplomat says We Irish Are Small Potatoes.” And then it went downhill from there. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2000. continue reading »


When Visa Officers Went Bad

Visa Fraud handcuffsConsular officers are often the face of the U.S. government overseas.  They are the ones interviewing visa applicants, dealing with prospective adoptive parents, helping U.S. citizens who have had their passports stolen or gotten in a scrape with the law. It can often be a demanding job, with weekend calls as duty officer or the emotionally draining meetings with people who unexpectedly lost their loved ones during a trip abroad [See Dealing with Death]. Consular officers, like other FSOs, routinely endure hardships in service to their country. In rare instances, for reasons of venality or misplaced sympathy, they may take a wrong turn.  continue reading »


Japanese Fishermen and the Bikini Atoll H-bomb Blast

800px-Castle_Bravo_BlastOn March 1st, 1954, the U.S. conducted its largest hydrogen bomb test ever near the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. An unexpected blast of 15 megatons — 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb — affected Australia, India and Japan with widespread radioactive fallout. The Fortunate Dragon (Daigo Fukuryū Maru), a Japanese fishing boat, was about 150 kilometers from the blast and was gravely affected. At least one crew member died due to direct exposure. The U.S. initially tried to cover up the incident. The shock stemming from the tragedy helped further an anti-nuclear movement in Japan. It also inspired the 1954 movie Godzilla, in which the nuclear test awakens and mutates the monster, which then attacks Japan. continue reading »


The Day Stalin’s Daughter Asked for Asylum in the U.S.

Stalin_with_daughter_Svetlana,_1935On March 9th, 1967, Svetlana Alliluyeva —  Joseph Stalin’s only daughter — walked into the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and requested political asylum. No one knew she was even in India. (She had traveled there in 1966 in order to place the ashes of her boyfriend, an Indian Communist she had met in Moscow, in the Ganges; she then stayed at his family’s home.) After several countries refused to allow her to stay permanently, she finally was allowed to come to the U.S. Upon her arrival in New York in April, she held a press conference in which she denounced her father’s regime and the USSR. She later lectured and wrote at Princeton before moving to Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona at the behest of Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow. She died in 2011. continue reading »


The Red Scare Hits the Foreign Service Institute

FSI SollenbergerThe Foreign Service Institute plays a central role in the training of American diplomats and other professionals in the U.S. foreign affairs community. Decades of experience and its hundreds of course offerings–from language and area to studies to management and technical training–have made FSI uniquely qualified in this regard. Despite its importance, the Institute’s existence was once put in jeopardy.

FSI was still a young institution when the Red Scare and McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s. It had been in business only since 1947, but it had already developed a record of successful training, especially in its language programs thanks to the efforts of people like Howard E. Sollenberger.  A future Director of FSI, Sollenberger was a professor of Chinese studies and an executive officer of the language school at the time. In the following excerpts from his oral history, he discusses how FSI unjustifiably came under suspicion during the McCarthy period. continue reading »


The Terrorist Attack on the Saudi Embassy — Khartoum, 1973

Khartoum_hostage_cristsLess than a year after its members murdered 11 Israeli athletes and one German police guard during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the infamous Palestinian terrorist group Black September Organization (BSO) on March 1, 1973 launched a brazen raid on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, kidnapping U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) George Curtis Moore, along with the Saudi ambassador, his wife and four children, and the Belgian and Jordanian charges d’affaires, who were all attending a farewell dinner in honor of Mr. Moore. The BSO demanded the release of Arab militants. President Nixon said in a March 2 news conference that the U.S. would “not pay blackmail.” Ambassador Noel, Moore, and the Belgian were allowed to write final letters to their wives; they were killed 12 hours later. continue reading »


Nixon Goes to China

Nixon_Mao_1972-02-29“There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.” Richard Nixon, after his election in 1968, pushed for better relations with China despite historical tensions and hostilities. In 1971, National Security Advisor and future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took two trips to China – the first made in secret – to consult with Premier Zhou Enlai. After more than two decades of icy relations, Nixon embarked on a trip to China starting on February 22, 1972. Not only did this visit strengthen Chinese-American relations, but it also served to encourage progress with the USSR. continue reading »


McCarthy’s Red Herring

senator-joseph-mccarthyWith his infamous Wheeling, West Virginia speech on February 9, 1950, in which he declared he had a list of communists working in the State Department, Senator Joseph McCarthy ushered in one of the darker periods in the post-war era.

The speech came at a time when the fear of communism and communist infiltrators in American society was at an all time high, exacerbated by alarming developments like the “loss of China” to communism and the successful detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union. The case of Alger Hiss, accused of spying for the Soviets while working for the State Department, made McCarthy’s allegations plausible. This environment enabled McCarthy to spearhead the movement to investigate suspected communist dissidents within the State Department and elsewhere.

Often, he relied on colorful rhetoric to make up for a lack of evidence. His tactics contributed to creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation throughout the Department. A number of people were unjustly accused and were either forced out or suffered lasting damage to their reputations. One such person was Vladimir I. Toumanoff. continue reading »


President Nixon Meant to Thank Faisal, not Faisal

09269L01.jpgLess than a month before President Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, he took a presidential tour of the Middle East.  The trip was meant to strengthen U.S. relations with the region as well as provide the president with a respite from the onslaught of bad press at home due to the infamous Watergate scandal. The following took place at a state dinner in June 1974, most likely the 14th, about a year before the assassination of King Faisal, the monarch of Saudi Arabia, at the hands of his own royal nephew. Hume Horan served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Saudi Arabia from 1972 to 1977. Photo by AFP. continue reading »