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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.
 

President Johnson says: “I Want YOU to Get Me a New Shower Head”

Many stars are (in)famous for the lists of must-have items that are to be stocked backstage or in

their hotel rooms. During one tour in London, Barbra Streisand demanded rose petals in the toilet and 120 peach-colored towels. Mariah Carey wants gold faucets and new toilet seats installed in her room before she checks in. (We won’t even go into Van Halen’s reputed liquor requirements.) But such demands aren’t limited to those in the entertainment business. Many Foreign Service officers have had to endure visits by high-level officials who have a seemingly endless list of incredible requests. Tom Stern served as Administrative Counselor in Bonn in the mid-1960’s and had to deal with one of the political rock stars of the era, President Lyndon Johnson. Read more

The Jonestown Massacre

Jonestown, Guyana was the scene of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history. On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones, 909 members of the People’s Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in a “revolutionary suicide.” They included over 200 murdered children. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others, including Congressman Leo Ryan, by Temple members at the nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. It was the largest mass suicide in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001. Read more

Recalling the Attack on the U.S. Compound in Benghazi – from June 1967

The circumstances seem all too familiar — political turmoil leads to angry mobs storming the U.S. compound in Benghazi.  Except this incident took place in June 1967. John Kormann fought in World War II as a paratrooper and went behind enemy lines to apprehend Nazi war criminals and uncover a mass grave.  As an Army Counter Intelligence Corps field office commander in Berlin from 1945 to 47, he helped search for Martin Bormann.  He joined the Foreign Service in 1950 and describes his experience as officer-in-charge at Embassy Benghazi, when it was attacked and burned in June 1967.  He is also author of his memoirs, Echoes of a Distant Clarion. You can read about the 2012 attack on Benghazi. Read more

The Iran Hostage Crisis– Part II

In these excerpts, Bruce Laingen, then Charge d’Affaires of U.S. Embassy Tehran and one of the “super Satans” kept hostage at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, discusses his concerns about a possible “apology” by the U.S. government to the regime, the confusion engendered by changes in the Iranian government, the Argo episode (and how the Ministry knew of their whereabouts but never told anyone), the failure of the rescue mission, his imprisonment, negotiations for their release, and their eventual flight to freedom.  To read Part I of his interview, go here.   Read more

The Iran Hostage Crisis — Part I

November 4, 1979 – Radical Iranian students take over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and hold 52 Americans hostage. The embassy had been seized in February of that year, shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris, but that was resolved quickly; few suspected that this diplomatic crisis would end up lasting 444 days and cost the lives of eight soldiers who died during the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt on April 24, 1980.

Bruce Laingen was Charge d’affaires of the embassy and was one of three people who spent most of that time held hostage at the Foreign Ministry. In this interview, conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting in January 1993, he discusses the run-up to the takeover, his stay at the Ministry, the “Canadian caper,” which became the inspiration for the movie Argo, and the negotiations which led to their eventual release. Read more

Tie a Yellow Ribbon — The Iran Hostage Crisis as Seen from the Home Front

Penelope (Penne) Laingen is the wife of Bruce Laingen, who had served in Germany, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan before being named ambassador to Malta in 1977.  He was sent back to Iran to serve as Charge d’Affaires, and had been there for only a few months when the U.S. Embassy was overrun by student protesters.  In this interview, Penne Laingen describes the agony of the hostage crisis from the spouse’s perspective, the now ubiquitous yellow ribbon campaign she started, and the chronic frustration of dealing with the U.S. government. She was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi starting in March 1986. Read Bruce Laingen’s account here. Read more

The Missiles of October

October 14, 1962, witnessed the start of one of the most potentially devastating moments in history, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Photographs taken by a high-altitude U-2 spy plane offered clear evidence that Soviet medium-range missiles — capable of carrying nuclear warheads — were now stationed 90 miles off the American coastline.

Tensions between the U.S. and the USSR over Cuba had been steadily increasing since the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Though the invasion did not succeed, Castro was convinced that the United States would try again, and set out to get more military assistance from the Soviet Union. During the next year, the number of Soviet advisers in Cuba rose to more than 20,000. Read more

Lessons Learned from a Former Hostage

In Captive in the Congo, Mike Hoyt describes his ordeal as one of 300 hostages taken by armed

rebels. They were eventually rescued in a joint U.S.-Belgian operation code-named Dragon Rouge. In this article, he discusses U.S. government policy on hostages and argues for a re-evaluation, contending that the longer people talk with hostage-takers, the greater the chances are that the hostages can be saved.  He was interviewed by Ray Sadler in 1995; these excerpts were taken from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Country Reader. Read more

Those Little Bastards at the State Department

Ah, the power of bureaucrats! It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re talking about the upper echelons of the State Department or the lowly ranks of the DMV, some people just never learned to share. Theodore Achilles, who later became ambassador to Peru, served in Washington as Chief of the British Commonwealth Division in the State Department from 1941 to 1945.  Here he relates Secretary of State Byrnes’ view of the very Department he oversaw.  He was interviewed by Richard D. McKinzie in 1972.

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Captive in the Congo

Michael Hoyt was Commercial Officer in Leopoldville from 1962 until 1965 and was serving as interim Principal Officer in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) when he and his staff, along with 320 other people, were taken hostage by the rebel Simbas.  Held for 111 days, they were eventually rescued in a joint U.S.-Belgian operation code-named Dragon Rouge on November 24, 1964. He talks of how they had to destroy classified material and fight off the rebels at the consulate before they were taken hostage, the many times they thought they would be executed or fed to the crocodiles, the daring rescue, and the less-than-positive feelings he had toward the ambassador who ordered him to stay at the consulate. Hoyt is a recipient of the Secretary’s Award for his actions and was interviewed by Ray Sadler in 1995. These excerpts were taken from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Country Reader.

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