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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.

A Diplomat Recalls Escape From a Kidnapping in Uruguay

Kidnappings, particularly those of high-ranking political officials, were not uncommon in 1970s Uruguay given the prominence of an urban guerilla group called the Tupamaros. Mistaken as someone with great importance, junior diplomat Mark Gordon Jones was kidnapped by the group in 1970. In “one of the dumbest luck things that could ever happen,” Jones was able to escape, and was subsequently removed from the country. Unfortunately, USAID Public Safety Advisor Dan Mitrione was not as lucky and was brutally murdered by the Tupamaros shortly after his kidnapping.

The Tupamaros were founded in the early 1960s on leftist principles of overcoming entrenched socio-economic divides in Uruguay. They were initially known for distributing food and money in the poorer areas of Uruguay.  They soon provoked the government and military into brutal responses, which helped increase the group’s popular appeal. By the early 1970s, however the Tupamaros adopted a policy of kidnapping and assassination which led to an erosion of popular support and heavy-handed repression by the Uruguayan government.  Finally, by 1973, arrests and killings by the government successfully terminated the presence of the Tupamaros.

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Sheila Platt: A Diplomatic Life Bridging Both Sides of China’s Divide

Few Americans have met personally with the leadership of both Mao Zedong’s China and Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan. Sheila Platt, and her husband Nicholas Platt, are among that select group.  Sheila Platt dropped out of Radcliffe in 1957 to join her Foreign Service husband in a storied diplomatic career that led him to ambassadorships in Zambia, the Philippines, and Pakistan. Much of his career — and her experience — was focused on China.  Sheila did pioneering social work, led embassy activities, and advanced the cause of American diplomacy in all these assignments. When she began her work, the State Department did not permit married women to serve as Foreign Service officers. Hers is a story of the grit, determination, and unremunerated service of Foreign Service spouses in that era.

As the Communists swept through a devastated post-war China in 1949, the battered Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and set up government there. While the Taiwanese government was neither democratic nor free, it was a U.S. ally because of its staunch anti-communist position and willingness to work with the United States to advance diplomatic, military, and intelligence objectives in the region.  Nick and Sheila Platt went to Taiwan in 1962 to study the Chinese language, then moved to Hong Kong, where Nick served as a political officer. In 1971, President Nixon made his famous visit to China and began the process of normalizing relations with mainland China under Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai. Nicholas Platt was intimately involved in these overtures, working closely with Henry Kissinger. Nick and Sheila were among the first Americans to arrive in China and serve at the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing — where the United States still had no official embassy.

While language students in Taiwan, the Platts were invited to a swank reception at which Generalissimo Chiang and the formidable Madame Chiang summoned them to the pavilion where they were holding court.  Nicholas Platt’s uncle, Joseph H. “Sandy” Choate III, had been a counselor to one of Chiang Kai-shek’s rivals, and the Chiang family respected his work. Many years later, both Platts met Mao Zedong’s equally formidable wife, the feared Madame Mao, at a reception.  Nick Platt read excerpts from Sheila Platt’s diary concerning the Chiang Kai-shek incident into his ADST oral history. He also recounted their meeting with Madame Mao following a concert in Beijing by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In addition to her work at embassies, Sheila Platt pursued a career in social work that began in Hong Kong, where she cared for refugees from mainland China. She would later help orphans in Tokyo and serve as a mental health advisor in Zambia and the Philippines, with a speciality in post-traumatic stress disorders.

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Whistle-Blowing on American Corruption in Russia

USAID unearthed a major corruption scandal in Russia in the late 1990s involving Harvard University’s Institute for International Development.  Dr. Janet Ballantyne, USAID’s mission director, blew the whistle. In her oral history, Ballantyne discusses the consternation this caused with U.S. Embassy leadership, and the repercussions of her reporting on relationships with key Russian officials.

Throughout the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia worked together to implement privatization and other economic reforms. USAID funded the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) to help design and implement major economic reforms in the country, including privatization and market reforms.  In 1997, however, HIID contractors were found to be using their access to insider information for their own benefit. Harvard later settled with the U.S. government in 2005 and paid what is believed to be the largest settlement ever by a university in a case of this type.

Not long after being rejected from her dream job of becoming a spy right out of college, Janet Ballantyne began her career with USAID in the Latin American Bureau. A strong personality who fought hard for every assignment she set her sights on, Ballantyne landed posts in Peru, Nepal, Morocco, and Nicaragua, and eventually worked as the Mission Director for USAID in Russia (1996-99).

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Helping Rebuild Rwanda After the 1994 Genocide

Rebuilding Rwanda after the genocide was no easy task.  USAID tasked George Lewis to head up that agency’s efforts to help a nation heal after one of the most horrific episodes in recent history.  He faced extreme ethnic animosity, a destroyed country, and an “epic event in the history of human movement,” the return of a million refugees.

In April 1994, members of the numerically dominant Hutu ethnic group in Rwanda began a genocide against the Tutsi minority and any moderate Hutus who defended the Tutsi. Rwanda had struggled with a longstanding ethnic hatred between both groups, a hatred that was exacerbated by Belgian colonial rule, which had historically empowered the Tutsi minority. In 1994, the shooting down of the plane of Hutu Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, and the insurrection of Uganda-based Tutsi refugees, were used as a justification for the killing of the Tutsi population. It is still not known who shot down the plane, but what is known is that approximately 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in a short, 100-day period. The response of the existing UN peacekeeping force was valiant but woefully inadequate, as its commander later detailed.  France mounted a belated and controversial intervention, with primary focus on protecting French citizens. The genocide ended when predominantly Tutsi forces under Paul Kagame retook the country, prompting a massive outflow of Hutu refugees. Rwanda became a symbol of the failure of the international community to act.

George Lewis was named head of the USAID mission to Rwanda in 1996 after 25 years with the agency. Lewis discusses the difficulties in reconciliation and the successes of USAID in a time and region marked by despair and tragedy.  In a 1998 visit to Rwanda, President Clinton declared, “We can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope.” It was George Lewis’s task to help deliver on this promise. Lewis’s interview was conducted by John Pielemeier on January 11, 2018.

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Removing Corpses from the U.S. Embassy: Behind the Scenes of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia  

After the fall of  Somalia’s dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, a civil war broke out between warlords.  In the ensuing conflict, an estimated 350,000 Somalis died because of famine, disease, and war-time casualties. With the death toll mounting, President George H.W. Bush sent a U.S.-led humanitarian force to Somalia.  It was among the earliest examples of humanitarian intervention in armed conflict. General Anthony Zinni served as Operations Officer in what was dubbed “Operation Restore Hope.” In his oral history, Zinni recalls arriving at the ruins of the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu to set up command, on a compound filled with refugees, stray animals, and dead bodies.  General Robert B. Johnston commanded the force, which later gave way to a UN peacekeeping operation. Zinni went on to serve as President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

General Zinni joined the Marine Corps in 1965, after completing his BS in Economics at Villanova University. During his first tour in Vietnam as Second Lieutenant, he trained South Vietnamese Marines. The tours following Vietnam included Japan, the Philippines, Germany, and Yugoslavia. General Zinni has held positions such as Deputy Director of Operations for the United States European Command (EUCOM) and Commander-in-Chief of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). General Zinni was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2007.

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Human Moments With George and Barbara Bush on the Eve of the 1991 Gulf War

Joseph C. Wilson IV oversaw the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in 1991, just before U.S. and allied forces launched Operation Desert Storm.  Wilson defied a directive from the State Department’s Operations Center to evacuate the American Embassy under cover of darkness, insisting that the U.S. departure be coordinated with the embassies of our allies.  “It was important . . . not to abandon the other diplomats,” he recalled. They and their governments “had been part of this drama” and would participate in the coming war. On January 12, Wilson flew out of Iraq with the American flag and a planeload of U.S. and foreign diplomats, U.S. citizens, and a few members of the press.  

Shortly thereafter Wilson was at the White House, briefing President George H.W. Bush and senior cabinet officials — about 36 hours before the start of the Gulf War.  It was a heady moment for a self-described “California ex-hippie surfer.” The President then invited Wilson to meet First Lady Barbara Bush. His recollection? “To be hugged by Barbara Bush is really something . . . She’s great at that, and she’s a great lady.”

Wilson had foreign service postings in Niger, Togo, South Africa, Burundi, Congo, Iraq, and finally as the Ambassador to Gabon. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1998.  After retirement, he was famously asked by the CIA to travel to Niger to evaluate claims that Saddam Hussein purchased uranium there. Wilson found no credible evidence to support the claim, which nevertheless resurfaced in President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address.  The interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on January 8, 2001.

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Tracking the Politics of Burma (Myanmar) After the Flawed 1990 Elections

While democratic elections were held in Burma (Myanmar) by the military-led government in 1990, the elected parliament was never allowed to meet. Even before the elections were held, Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of one of the founders of Burma and leader of the National League of Democracy) was detained and subsequently put under house arrest by the military junta. The ensuing environment in Burma was considered quite “grim” by employees at the U.S. Embassy—the fear of being persecuted and detained by the government was a constant cause of distress for the Burmese people. Douglas Wake, a Political Officer assigned to Rangoon (Yangon) at the time, talks in depth about how the environment in Burma following the 1990 “elections” made it difficult for him to make foreign contacts. In an effort to gain information, Wake would often simply walk around and hope to see or overhear something noteworthy.  Wake was interviewed by Charles Stuart ‘Stu’ Kennedy in April 2014.

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The State Department’s Air Wing and Counternarcotics Programs in South America

In the early 1990s, at the height of the “War on Drugs,” David Lyon took a break from consular work and accepted an assignment as the Director of the Bureau of International Narcotics Matters (INM/T—now INL for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement). Over the course of his three years with INM/T, Lyon was responsible for the State Department’s Air Wing and for supporting counternarcotics initiatives in several South American countries on both the local and federal levels. While working closely with the Peruvian and Bolivian militaries, Lyon oversaw operations aimed at hindering the transport of cocaine throughout South America, and damaging the large fields of opium poppies grown by the local cartels with the intent to sell internationally. During his career with the State Department, Lyon served throughout the world; his career culminated with an ambassadorship in Suva, Fiji from 2003 to 2005. Lyon was interviewed by Charles Stuart “Stu” Kennedy in December 2010.

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Travelling with First Lady Hillary Clinton to Romania: “She was Quite Incredible.”

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton traveled extensively to Central and Eastern Europe in order to foster ties with foreign governments and NGOs. She often selected a group of USAID staff to accompany her on these trips so they could give her advice about the different groups operating in the region. Barbara Turner accompanied the First Lady on many of her trips as the senior USAID officer. Turner recalls how the First Lady would often go to the rural regions of these countries to meet with women’s groups that even local governments were oblivious about. Clinton wanted to provide them with a platform and give them the opportunity to have dialogue with their regional governments. She used to go above and beyond the usual duties of First Lady.  She would also do radio and TV interviews in order to spread information about democracy and its many virtues. On a trip to Romania, Turner remembers the difficult situation faced by women and children and how Clinton encouraged changes in Romania’s legal structure to alleviate the problems. Turner had a very successful career in USAID between 1966 and 2005 serving in posts such as Egypt and Bosnia. The interview was conducted by Ann Van Dusen on September 26, 2017.

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The “Blood Telegram” That Angered Henry Kissinger: Violence in East Pakistan/Bangladesh

Shortly after joining USAID in 1969, Desaix “Terry” Meyers found himself witnessing both the aftermath of a major natural disaster, and the devastating levels of sectarian violence that followed in East Pakistan in the early 1970s. After a cyclone hit Pakistan in the fall of 1970, killing over 500,000 people, a famine ensued. This particular famine occurred during an election in Pakistan that subsequently resulted in great levels of violence and discrimination against an ethnic Hindu minority (Bengalis) within the city of Dacca. Despite the level of violence and death that followed, especially at the University of Dacca, the United States remained “largely mute” in the midst of all the chaos. Department of State and USAID staff at the consulate (including Myers) signed a letter expressing their frustration with the lack of U.S. government action.  While he didn’t sign it, Archer Blood (the U.S. Consul General in Dacca) forwarded the letter in a cable to headquarters. The “Blood Telegram” eventually garnered a response by Henry Kissinger, who was quite upset at this rare form of correspondence. Myers was interviewed by Alexander Shakow in January 2017.

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