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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.

John A. Burroughs – From Tackling with the Philadelphia Eagles to Tackling Equal Opportunity at the State Department

Growing up in segregated Washington DC inspired John A. Burroughs to a life-long commitment to equal opportunity.  He went on to serve as Ambassador to Malawi and Uganda, and to head up equal employment efforts at the Department of the Navy.  Burroughs worked alongside big names such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt — and Malawi’s tough but decidedly odd dictator, Hastings Banda.  He also served as a special envoy to Sudan before that nation was partitioned into two countries.  Burroughs majored in political science at the University of Iowa, which he attended on a football scholarship.  After graduating in 1959, Burroughs was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles and had a brief season with them before heading back home to Washington and a career in government.  In addition to distinguished service as a U.S. ambassador and at the Department of the Navy, Burroughs was the State Department’s first African-American passport examiner.   He also served as our Special Envoy to Sudan.  Late in his career, Ambassador Burroughs served as Diplomat in Residence at Lincoln University. After retirement, Burroughs continued speaking on college campuses, serving on boards and other committees of the United Negro College Fund, the International Fellows Program, and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program.

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Never the Twain Shall Meet? Bureaucratic Cultures at USAID and the State Department

The famously contrasting bureaucratic cultures of the State Department and USAID made a sharp impression on Donald Bliss, USAID’s executive secretary during the Ford Administration.  Bliss recalls needing to submit 14 copies of a fairly simple memorandum from USAID’s Administrator Daniel Parker to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  Bliss, a Harvard Law grad and Peace Corps volunteer, had a distinguished career in both the public and private sectors.  After USAID, Bliss was General Counsel at the Department of Transportation and partner at a prestigious law firm.  He was appointed by President George W. Bush as permanent U.S. representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2006, where he held the rank of ambassador.  This interview was conducted by ADST’s Oral History founder Charles Stuart “Stu” Kennedy in November 2013.

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Death Squads in El Salvador, the Taliban in Afghanistan: a Diplomat’s Challenges

American Foreign Service Officer Todd Greentree served in El Salvador from 1981-82, a time when violence from local “death squads” was at its peak.  He also served in Afghanistan from 2008-2012, the height of what was then termed the Global War on Terror.  Greentree’s oral history describes first-hand the dangers of living as a diplomat in conflict zones, and discusses the impact of conflict on his everyday life while working abroad.  His work included encounters with Oliver North in Central America and close collaboration with the U.S. military’s “Stryker Brigade” in Afghanistan.  Greentree was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May of 2014.

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An Espionage Caper in Ghana; Helping Americans Escape Rwanda — Scenes From a Diplomatic Life

Arlene Render’s career took her from a segregated neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, to three ambassadorships and a lifetime of diplomatic accomplishment, particularly in Africa.  Her experiences included cleaning up after a messy espionage affaire in Ghana and helping ensure that safe evacuation of American citizens from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  Ambassador Render attended West Virginia State College on a full  scholarship from 1960-1964 and received her M.A. in Public Health from the University of Michigan in 1967. In 1970, Render joined the Foreign Service Reserve Officers Program, one of a small handful of “minority” officers in her A-100 entering class.  She went on to serve as as the Ambassador to The Gambia, Zambia, and the Ivory Coast, Director of Central African Affairs and Director of Southern African Affairs. In 2004, Ambassador Render became a Diplomat in Residence in the State of Georgia working with schools, universities, and organizations to discuss U.S. foreign policy issues and answering questions about careers in the Foreign Service. She served in posts promoting public health, development, and peacekeeping in Iran, Jamaica, and throughout Central/Southern Africa.

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The Impact of China’s Tiananmen Square Massacre in Taiwan and on the Mainland

Hong Kong-born U.S. Foreign Service Officer Edward Loo migrated to the United States as an infant, and went on to serve in Taiwan at the time of the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — and in mainland China during the period of martial law that followed.  Loo’s career as a Foreign Service Officer spanned nearly three decades and took him around the globe, from Asia to Europe and beyond.  Loo grew up in San Francisco, California, earned an MA at Columbia University, and joined the Foreign Service in 1987.  In Taiwan, Loo witnessed first hand the reactions of shock and dismay that followed the events in Tiananmen Square.  Shortly thereafter Loo was transferred to Beijing, where the martial law and other repressive measures instituted by the Chinese government brought tension throughout the country — and in the U.S. Embassy.  Loo was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in September, 2017.

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Cold War Cover Stories: The U-2 Incident

On May 1, 1960, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union brought down an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers.  The U.S. government’s first reaction was to construct a believable cover story to conceal its program of high-altitude surveillance missions over the Soviet Union.

Powers began his flight from an airfield in Pakistan, but both he and his aircraft were stationed at Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey, the main U-2 base in the region. Powers was there as an (ostensibly) civilian pilot assigned to the Second Weather Observational Squadron. The closest U.S. diplomatic facility was our consulate in Iskenderun, Turkey, where Foreign Service Officer Beauveau “Beau” Nalle was serving his first overseas tour. (In 1961, the consulate would be moved to Adana, only a few miles from the air base.)

In a 1994 interview with Thomas Dunnigan, Nalle relates an encounter with Powers and recalls the various cover stories the U.S. government provided to explain the presence of the U-2 aircraft in the region — before the Soviets put Powers on television and the United States government went public with more accurate the details surrounding the crisis. Nalle’s story provides a glimpse into an age of espionage, revealing the amount of secrecy that existed even within governmental organizations.

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The Suez Canal Company: Catalyst for an Egyptian Crisis

The Suez Crisis of 1956 had far-reaching implications not only for Egypt and the Middle East, but throughout the world. President Gamal Abdel Nasser had risen to power determined to rid Egypt of colonial influence and avoid Cold War alignment. When the U.S. and U.K. suddenly withdrew their offer to help finance construction of the Aswan Dam, Nasser accelerated his plan to nationalize the Suez Canal. Nasser’s actions infuriated the British and French who were seeing a steady decline of their influence in the region with the rise of anti-colonial nationalism. The subsequent military incursion into Egypt by the British and the French was rooted in outrage at what these countries perceived to be an attack on their imperial interests. In a tripartite agreement, Israel agreed to launch an invasion force across the Sinai, at which point the British and French could intercede as peacekeepers. While this plan was later exposed, the British and other Western countries found it convenient, especially in the Cold War context, to paint Nasser as the aggressor. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company and the canal remains in Egypt’s hands to this day.  Ambassador Raymond Hare comments on the crisis and shares his experience working with President Nasser. Ambassador Hare was interviewed by Dayton Mak on July 22, 1987.

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USAID: Working With State and DOD on Counter Terrorism – and with Oliver North in Honduras

Elizabeth Kvitashvili’s USAID career took her from Afghanistan to Honduras to Russia. She led efforts to provide humanitarian assistance amidst crisis and vast human suffering. Along the way she encountered Oliver North in Central America and President Clinton at a chocolate factory in Russia. She also helped USAID determine its role in countering the spread of terrorism, drawing on USAID’s own experience and the insights of Department of Defense “thought leaders” including then-Lt. General David Petraeus, Major General James Mattis and Colonel H.H. McMaster.
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The Diplomacy of Tragedy: Burmese Airways Crash Kills 14 Americans in 1987

In the early morning hours of October 11, 1987, a Burmese turboprop plane transporting 49 passengers, including 36 foreign nationals and four crew members, departed from Rangoon (now Yangon) and began its flight towards the popular tourist town of Pagan.  Approaching the airport, the plane’s wing clipped the ridge of a mountain just outside the city, sending it crashing down the ridge. All 49 people aboard the plane were killed.

Among the 49 killed were 14 Americans, seven Swiss, five British, four Australians, three West Germans, two French, and one Thai national. In the wake of this tragedy, the U.S. embassy in Rangoon was faced with the challenge of identifying and returning the bodies and belongings of the American nationals back to their families in the United States. This challenge proved difficult due to different standards of identification, the state of the victims’ bodies, and the looting of the crime scene by local villagers.

Aloysius M. O’Neill was  the Chief Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. O’Neill was the American counterpart on a team of diplomats from various embassies who were responsible for returning the nationals killed in the crash to their home countries. A career Foreign Service Officer, O’Neill served in various posts throughout East and Southeast Asia in addition to Burma (now Myanmar), including Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.  Below is an excerpt of his interview conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2008.

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Russian Interference and the Marshall Plan

Russian Disinformation is Not New, Say Diplomats Who Implemented the Marshall Plan

The obstacles the United States faced in implementing the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s and early 1950s included a vigorous propaganda contest with the USSR and their European communist allies. By the time Secretary of State George Marshall announced the plan at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, the United States was already implementing an ambitious foreign aid program — and working to counter Russian influence. Thomas W. Wilson, an Information Officer in Paris, and U.S. Ambassador William H. Taft III both recall early issues with Marshall Fund implementation. Each was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy. Jacob J. Kaplan Head of Economic Research for the Southern Region of Europe was interviewed by W. Haven North.

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