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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.
 

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

Grim. 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.  Read more

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

In 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. Read more

Apocalypse Not, Part II

On 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. Read more

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

The 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. Read more

The Fall of Saigon — April 30, 1975

April 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.  Read more

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

Syngman 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. Read more

The Embassy Beirut Bombing — A Consular Officer’s Perspective

The 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. Read more

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

The 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. Read more

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

The 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. Read more

Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady

One 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. Read more