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Our web series of over 800 "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.
 

Saving Political Prisoners in the Aftermath of the 1985 Presidential Election in Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2015) U.S. Institute of Peace | Flickr
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2015) U.S. Institute of Peace | Flickr

On November 12, 1985, exiled General Thomas Quiwonkpa invaded Liberia through Sierra Leone to launch a coup against President Doe. Across the country, Liberians celebrated Quiwonkpa’s challenge to the fraudulent results of the 1985 Presidential Election. Hours later, those hopes were crushed as soldiers in the Armed Force of Liberia (AFL) captured Quiwonkpa and defeated his forces. People watched in horror as members of the AFL dismembered Quiwonkpa’s genitals in front of the USAID building and paraded them around the streets of Monrovia.

After the failed coup, Doe imprisoned many opposition leaders, including future president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Ambassador Moses Hopkins was determined to prevent the continuation of ritual cannibalistic killing of political prisoners. He directed every Foreign Service Officer, including USAID officer Mary Kilgour, to pass along a message to their contacts in the Liberian government. They stated that the United States would respond to any attempt on the prisoners’ lives. Although she describes those months in Liberia as “scary,” Kilgour admired the Liberians for being long suffering with a good sense of humor.

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One City, Two Countries: Manning the Mexican-U.S. Border in Nuevo Laredo

Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr
Downtown Nuevo Laredo (2005) J. Stephen Conn | Flickr

Bustling with commerce, illegal border crossings, and cocaine trafficking, in 2000, Nuevo Laredo was the third busiest visa post in the world. Consulate staff had to balance encouraging commerce between the two countries, managing visa traffic, and preventing the movement of deadly narcotics. During his time as Consul General, Thomas Armbruster quickly learned this was a difficult balance to strike. Despite facing internal corruption, rampant narcotics violence, and death threats in pre-9/11 Nuevo Laredo, Armbruster believes that the good mostly outweighed the bad. After 9/11, the relationship between Mexico and the United States changed dramatically. Americans and Mexicans alike had to adapt to a “new normal.”

Thomas Armbruster entered the Foreign Service as a management officer in 1988 and spent much of his career working on environmental issues. He began in Helsinki as Deputy of the Soviet Support Office and went on to do tours in Havana during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arctic during the creation of the Arctic Council. Before he retired, President Obama nominated him as Ambassador to the Marshall Islands, giving him the opportunity to combine his lifelong passions for field work and environmental issues.
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The Fall of South Vietnam and Operation Babylift

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The fall of Saigon and the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy is one of the most infamous episodes in American diplomatic history. For Mary Lee Garrison, it was also part of her first job. At age 22, Garrison arrived in Saigon in June 1974 to an internal political consensus that the conflict was winding down and South Vietnam was finally on secure footing. The enormous multi-decade American campaign had culminated in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, enabling the withdrawal of the vast majority of U.S. forces. However, just months after arriving, Garrison began to notice some ominous signs. Applications for student visas were surging, and members of the well-connected Chinese business community rapidly began making arrangements to leave. By the following March, the country was in full-blown panic, and enormous mobs of Vietnamese started gathering outside the embassy trying to secure visas. As the military situation further north started to deteriorate, it became increasingly clear that U.S. officials did not appreciate the severity of the situation.

In a riveting interview, Garrison recounts the chaos that was unleashed as she and her colleagues worked to evacuate as many American and allied South Vietnamese personnel as possible as the capital fell to North Vietnamese forces. Simultaneously, Garrison was involved in the scramble to locate and evacuate thousands of Vietnamese family members of U.S. soldiers still in-country, as well as Operation Babylift—a last-minute effort to evacuate two thousand South Vietnamese orphans. Before long, the disastrous crash of a Babylift cargo plane and the disabling bombardment of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport by approaching North Vietnamese troops forced a harrowing fallback evacuation directly from the embassy via helicopter.

As Saigon descended into total anarchy, Garrison and her colleagues worked desperately to destroy the enormous trove of sensitive documents in the building and facilitate the helicopter evacuation before the ambassador finally ordered them to evacuate on April 29, 1975.

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“Encouraging” Soviet Workmen in 1984—Vodka, Cigarettes, and Snow Plowing in Soviet Russia

Historic Snow Plow (Feb 1955) VTrans | Flickr
Historic Snow Plow (Feb 1955) VTrans | Flickr

The currency of Soviet Russia was the ruble—or was it? When General Services Officer Robert Weisberg was posted to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1984, he found out first-hand that things sometimes get done a little faster with a few cartons of cigarettes and bottles of vodka.

In a winter with heavy snowfall, it fell on Weisberg to put the embassy in top shape, which meant finding ways to get the snow cleared daily. When workmen didn’t complete the job, he learned quickly how things really got done in Moscow—making deals to overcome the inefficiency that often plagued the USSR at the time. By exchanging vodka and cigarettes that he purchased on his own for the snow-clearing labor the embassy needed, Weisberg was able to leverage the Soviet system to accomplish the mission.

Under the USSR’s communist economic system, high-demand consumer goods were difficult to secure. Soviet central planning was endemic with false reporting, which led to underproduction and severe shortages of some consumer goods. Out of necessity, unofficial barter and exchange systems developed to fill in the gaps. Commodities, like cigarettes, could be valuable tools in the network of favors that operated outside of the parameters of the official economy—so Moscow’s workmen were eager to trade.

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“She’s Not a Woman, She’s a Diplomat”—Navigating Saudi Arabia in the 1980s

 Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress
Abaya driving (2009) H. Zughaib | Library of Congress

A car full of armed guards trailed after Janice Bay as she defiantly walked down the gate-lined road away from the car and driver who had refused to take her any further. She had an appointment with the military general in charge of civil aviation, and they were not going to stop her from meeting him. As the first female economic officer in Saudi Arabia, Janice Bay successfully negotiated the business world and disproved those who were skeptical that a woman could do her job. Relying on men for transportation was sometimes tricky, but with persistence, Bay was able to gain access to important and powerful people. 

Other women in Saudi Arabia at the time worked out exceptions to driving rules which allowed them to tackle typically male tasks. The ban on driving during the 1980s was very strict but enforcement was not yet as harsh as it would become later. Bedouin women and expatriates were some of the groups that were able to assert a limited amount of independence. As of June 2018, all Saudi Arabian women were officially given the right to drive through an order issued by the aging King Salman. But he also kept in prison some of the women activists who had pressed for this change.

Janice Bay first entered the Foreign Service in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam war. She was one of an unusually high number of women—eight in total—that were part of the 80th Foreign Service Class. She went on to serve in a variety of interesting locations over the next decade before serving in Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 1984. Bay continued her career with assignments in Egypt, France, Germany, and Washington, D.C. In 2003 she retired from the Foreign Service. 

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The 1964 Murder of Noted Composer Marc Blitzstein in Martinique

Marc Blitzstein Unknown | Library of Congress
Marc Blitzstein Unknown | Library of Congress

In 1964 on the French island of Martinique, well-known American composer Marc Blitzstein was found on the street badly injured and shouting for help. Blitzstein had been brutally attacked and robbed by three sailors after attempting to pick them up in a bar. The U.S. consular officer in Martinique, William B. Milam, rushed to check on Blitzstein in the hospital after the assault. Milam went on to a distinguished diplomatic career, serving as U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Blitzstein, tragically, died from a ruptured liver caused by the severe beating.

Blitzstein was best known for “The Cradle Will Rock,” a 1937 musical addressing corruption, union organizing, prostitution and other sensitive issues in a steel town. The Works Progress Administration famously shut down the show just before its opening night on Broadway. Blitzstein, director Orson Welles, and the rest of the cast marched uptown to another theatre. With Blitzstein at a battered piano and actors singing from their seats in the audience, the show opened and became a musical theatre legend. 

Blitzstein was also gay, and his murderers almost went free because of the stigma attached to homosexuality at the time. Initially Blitzstein told Milam that his injuries were the result of a car accident and asked that this be passed along to his relatives. Although openly gay, Blitzstein had kept his homosexuality private from his family and had briefly been married to Eva Goldbeck before she died at the age of 35. His ultimate decision to report the attack and identify his attackers resulted in the conviction of his three assailants of involuntary homicide and theft in 1965. Milam helped Blitzstein secure a translator and a medical examination for the police report.

Martinique was William B. Milam’s first foreign service post in a long career. Joining the Foreign Service in 1962, Milam went on to multiple postings in Washington, D.C. and abroad working on economic issues. From 1990 to 1993 he was ambassador to Bangladesh. He then served in Islamabad as ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2001, dealing with such questions as nuclear proliferation and the rise of the Taliban.

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“A Special Place in My Heart:” Memories of USAID in Vietnam

Images of the U.S. military in Vietnam are part of the American consciousness. But these images are only part of the story.  Often the lives and sacrifices of USAID workers are overlooked. They too made great contributions, joining with military personnel to deliver supplies to locals, promoting development in dangerous areas, and working with hamlet chiefs and ordinary civilians. Some USAID workers even lost their lives. Sidney Chernenkoff’s first overseas assignment with USAID was in Vietnam at the height of the war. His service is an excellent example of the complexity and value of USAID’s contributions to a war that remains controversial long after it has ended.

Chernenkoff initially joined USAID after spotting an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the agency was hiring for service in Vietnam. He was interviewed, scored highly on a language aptitude test, and was sent to Hawaii for six months to learn Vietnamese.  He then boarded a plane in March 1967 and arrived in Vietnam just as the war was entering its most intense phase. Chernenkoff worked as a part of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program in the town of Tuy Phuoc, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).

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Geiger Counters, and a Nanny Who Became a Millionaire—Establishing a USAID Mission in Kazakhstan

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, USAID made Central Asia a top priority—“no matter where you were posted and where you were on your current assignment” employees were urged to head there. Jonathan Addleton was working for USAID in post-apartheid South Africa. Central Asia intrigued him, and the organization quickly agreed to send Addleton to help establish the first USAID mission in Kazakhstan, “land of the Great Steppe.” Addleton served as a program officer, with responsibilities across Central Asia. Addleton’s spouse, Fiona, called Almaty “the hardest assignment [they] ever had.”

Their apartment measured just over 200 square feet, and they had to fit their sons Iain and Cameron in as well. Because of concerns regarding nuclear waste in the area, the Addleton family needed geiger counters for their residence—and years later Fiona and an unusual number of their friends developed thyroid cancer. The children’s nanny was eager to work for the family, and to learn English. When Addleton returned twenty years later, the nanny had a beautiful home, drove a Lexus, and owned vacation property on the Turkish coast.

Born and raised in Pakistan as the son of missionaries, Addleton returned to spend much of his professional life in Asia. He was posted to Kazakhstan from 1993–1996 as a Program Officer and served as USAID Mission Director from 2013–2015. He holds a BSc in journalism, history, and Asian Studies from Northwestern University and a PhD in international development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He served as ambassador to Mongolia 2009–2012.

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Death, Love and Conspiracy: The Nepalese Royal Massacre of 2001

Facing domestic unrest, including a Maoist insurgency, the Nepalese royal family never suspected that the greatest threat to the monarchy lived within the palace walls. On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal got drunk and high (as he often did). Stumbling into the royal dining hall, the prince gunned down King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, and eight other members of the royal entourage, including his younger siblings. The prince allegedly then turned the gun on himself in an attempt to commit suicide. He failed to end his own life and plunged into a coma. As heir to the throne, the murderous Crown Prince Dipendra was declared King of Nepal. He reigned for three days in the hospital before being declared brain dead.

The massacre left the Nepalese population deeply traumatized. They “viewed the king as a god. Literally a god,” according to Larry Dinger, the senior American diplomat in Nepal at the time of the massacre. Many Nepalese remain suspicious of the official story, pointing to inconsistencies in the evidence. Supposedly, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his family so he could be with the woman he loved. While attending school in the UK, he fell for Devyani Rana, a Nepalese woman from an important family. He wanted to marry her, but his mother—the Queen—disallowed it because Devyani’s grandmother was a concubine. The prince was willing to give up his title to marry her, but Devyani said she would only marry him if she became queen. After learning this, Crown Prince Dipendra “put on his camouflage fatigues. . . . He went into [the] Friday evening royal family gathering and shot the place up.” After the collapse of the royal family, various political groups vied for influence in the government. Although it took several years, the Nepalese royal massacre eventually paved the way for the multi-party system that Nepal has today.

Larry Dinger served in Nepal as Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy when the tragedy unfolded at Narayanhity Royal Palace. He would later go on to serve as ambassador to Micronesia, Fiji (and concurrently Tuvalu, Tonga, Nauru, Kiribati), and as Chief of Mission in Burma.

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The Struggle for Equal Rights: LGBTQ Advocacy in the Foreign Service

While working at the U.S. embassy in Seychelles in 1985, David Buss fell in love with a Peace Corps volunteer, David Larson. After their relationship became common knowledge, Buss was investigated by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Allegedly, the State Department was concerned that foreign persons could blackmail Buss because of his sexual orientation. Buss did not buy this. He said that the investigation was a “witch hunt,” meant to intimidate him and to identify other LGBTQ+ State Department personnel. Buss soon learned of dozens of other similar ongoing investigations. He decided to take action.

In 1992, Buss and Larson hosted a now-famous brunch—bringing together federal employees from several different departments—in an effort to establish an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. After a series of meetings, the “Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies” (GLIFAA) was formed. Buss was the first president. The founding members were so worried about the consequences of these meetings that one of the first rules of the organization was that there would be “no outing of or speculation about anyone present at the meeting or not present.” GLIFAA fought hard for concrete non-discrimination policies and for official recognition of their romatic partners. After founding GLIFAA, serving as its president, and nurturing the organization through its formative years, Buss retired from the State Department in 2006. He was finally able to marry Larson four years later.

David Buss was born and grew up in Homewood, Illinois. After high school, he was recruited by the CIA. While visiting his girlfriend in Kinshasa a few years later, Buss was offered a job working for the embassy’s commissary, which he accepted. He went on to serve as a GSO in Port-au-Prince, Dar es Salaam, and Nouakchott. While working as the Chargé d’affaires in Seychelles, Buss met and fell in love with his future husband, David Larson. Buss eventually returned to Washington, where he passed the Foreign Service exam and became an FSO in 1992. He continued to work in embassies across the world, finally ending up at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Buss retired in 2006 and moved to Poughkeepsie, New York with Larson, where they live to this day.

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