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Edward Elson: Entrepreneurial Ambassador to Denmark

The fall of the Soviet Union upset long-established power dynamics, leaving East and Central Europe, in particular, in uncharted waters. The creation of the Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8), a regional cooperation consisting of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden, helped the Baltics transition away from Cold War-style self-identification toward a more regionally-focused identity.

President Bill Clinton appointed Edward E. Elson U.S. Ambassador to Denmark. During his tenure from 1994-1998, Elson helped to strengthen the bonds of the Nordic-Baltic region and secure American alliances in the region. Elson came to the job with impressive credentials. An entrepreneur, Elson pioneered retail outlets in airports and hotels, creating a lucrative retail empire among other businesses. Elson’s many interests led him to become a Charter Trustee of Phillips Academy, director of Hampton Investments, Rector of the University of Virginia, First Chairman of National Public Radio and Chairman of the Jewish Publication Society.

Elson discussed his experiences in Denmark, including an attempted assassination, creating a Baltic-Nordic hub in Copenhagen and having a Russian son foist upon him, with Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2012 and with Mark Tauber in 2017. Read more

 The Afghan Revolution of 1978: Invitation to Invasion

Afghanistan has had a long history of living under foreign rule. Once a protectorate of the British Empire, Afghanistan became fully independent in 1919, but its vulnerable monarchy led by King Zahir Shah was unable to unite the country’s many ancestral tribes into a central government. This set up the conditions for internal political instability. The monarchy came to an end in 1973 when Zahir Shah’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, led a bloodless coup against the king, declared himself president and foreign minister and established a secular republic.

President Daoud’s own rule came to a violent end on April 27, 1978 in what was known as the Saur Revolution when pro-Communist rebels stormed the palace in Kabul and killed him and his family. The ensuring domestic turmoil encouraged foreign intervention, and the Soviets invaded the following year.

Kenneth Yates, an information officer for the United States Information Agency (USIA), the public affairs branch of the U.S. foreign affairs community, describes the events of the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan. The local offices are referred to as the “United States Information Service” (USIS). Read more

Fleeing Rwanda to Survive, then Returning to Rebuild, 1994

On April 6, 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated when their plane was shot down near Kigali airport and crashed into the grounds of the Rwandan presidential residence. The incident ignited genocide by the majority Hutus against Tutsis and against those supporting peace negotiations to bring Rwanda out of civil war. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died over three months of slaughter, constituting as much as eighty percent of the Tutsi population. The Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) eventually gained control of the country, a victory that forced another two million Rwandans, mostly Hutus, to flee as refugees.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the failure of the international community to intervene to prevent the atrocities and displacement drew condemnation. Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the PBS news program Frontline: “The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia.” The United Nations and Belgium had forces in Rwanda but no one ordered them to stop the conflict, and most of the peacekeepers withdrew after ten Belgian soldiers were killed. The U.S. had recently suffered a loss of troops in Somalia and determined not to intervene. Read more

Mission Unspeakable: When North Koreans Tried to Kill the President of South Korea

On October 9, 1983, while South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan was on a visit to Rangoon, Burma to lay a wreath at the Martyr’s Mausoleum of Swedagon Pagoda, a bomb concealed in the roof exploded, killing 21 people including four senior South Korean officials. President Chun was spared because his car had been delayed in traffic and he was not at the site at the time of the detonation.

Chun had seized power in South Korea in December 1979. His tenure as president was characterized as poor on human rights and strong on economic growth and harshly enforced domestic stability. He was on a diplomatic tour in Rangoon when would-be assassins believed to have received explosives from a North Korean diplomatic facility targeted him. It was during Chun’s administration that South Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, in which North Korea refused to participate. As a result of the Rangoon bombing, Burma suspended diplomatic relations with North Korea and Chinese officials refused to meet or talk with North Korean officials for several months. Read more

The Technology of Terror – South America in the 70s and 80s

Terrorism the world over poses a threat to the lives of Foreign Service Officers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s terrorist groups threatened the safety of FSOs serving in South America. In Argentina, two such groups, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Montoneros, resorted to armed resistance 1969-1970 in response to the regime of Juan Carlos Onganía. The ERP was a Marxist group with the goal of establishing socialism in Argentina. Active in Tucuman and Buenos Aires, its members resorted to kidnapping people as well as sabotaging the police and military outposts. Like the ERP, the leftist Montoneros also operated in urban areas and were known for political kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings of police and military outposts. The Montoneros worked to bring about the return of exiled former president Juan Peron; ironically, upon his return, Peron distanced himself from the group. Peron proceeded to form close relationships with right wing groups which prompted the Montoneros to resort to political violence.

Colombia also has a long history of terrorism not only with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but also with narcotraffickers who conduct illicit drug trade throughout the country. These traffickers were constantly fighting the Colombian military as well as U.S. efforts to combat the drug trade during the 1980s. The United States fought to stop the flow of cocaine from the Medellin and other prominent cartels, into the U.S. by working with police in Colombia and bringing in Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. Actions to undermine American intervention in the drug trade included blowing up police stations and attacking U.S. buildings in Bogota. Read more

Diplomacy in Cold Blood: Fatal Encounters Around the World

An American citizen abroad accused of murder: this is a particular nightmare for consular officers. These cases can become public scandals and political quandaries, and it is the job of American Citizen Services to ensure that Americans accused of major crimes beyond U.S. borders receive appropriate treatment in accordance with international law. If an arrested American citizen requests that authorities contact the U.S. Embassy or consulate, they must do so. The consular officer will visit the detained person in jail and contact family, friends or employers with the  prisoner’s consent. The consular officer will also try to make sure the citizen is getting appropriate medical care. What they can’t do is get U.S. citizens out of jail overseas, provide legal advice, serve as official interpreters or pay legal, medical, or other fees. Many Foreign Service personnel have had to deal with murder abroad – by fellow Americans, local despots and other killers – during the course of their careers.

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The Overthrow of Haiti’s Aristide

Haiti has long been plagued by coups d’état and regime changes, leading to long-time political instability and weak governance. In this volatile political field, it was easy for a Haitian leader to assume dictatorial powers, as was the case with President François Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc.”

After becoming the President of Haiti in 1957, he soon took on the title of “President for Life” and established a repressive and authoritarian government. His regime was supported by the Tonton Macoute, a paramilitary force, which also served to counter the considerable power of the Haitian military. With the passing of Duvalier in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, or “Baby Doc,” assumed the role of President of Haiti. This in essence established a dynastic dictatorship that would last until he was overthrown from a popular uprising in 1986.

Following a series of failed elections and military coups, the first democratic election in Haitian history was held between December 16, 1990 and January 20, 1991. Winning with a clear majority was the Salesian priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With representatives from both the United Nations and the Organization of American States monitoring the election, it was declared free and fair. However, within eight months of being sworn into office, President Aristide was deposed in yet another military coup on September 29, 1991; his life was spared only due to the intervention of U.S., French, and Venezuelan diplomats. Read more

Anatomy of an Overthrow: How an African Leader was Toppled

A council of combined security forces known as the Derg staged a coup d’état on September 12, 1974 against Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, arresting and imprisoning the monarch who had ruled for decades. The committee renamed itself the Provisional Military Administrative Council, took control of the government, soon abolished the monarchy and established Marxism-Leninism as Ethiopia’s ideology. Emperor Haile Selassie died in August 1975; some believe his political successor, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was complicit in his death.

Why oust someone who led his country for 45 years and who millions of Rastafarians revered as a messianic figure? Conditions for the take-over began with the Selassie regime’s failure to undertake economic and political reforms, along with inflation, corruption and drought-related famine in northeastern provinces, so that military unrest quickly spread to the civilian population and ignited a nation-wide revolution. There was general resistance to Selassie’s reign because of an array of grievances including higher fuel prices, curriculum changes in the schools, low teachers’ salaries, poor working conditions in general and the need for land reform. Read more

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Evacuating Liberia, 1990

Being caught up in violent political upheaval and forced to evacuate is among the risks of diplomatic service, as at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in 1990 in what the Marines called Operation Sharp Edge. The problems started a decade before when a group led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe staged a military coup in Liberia, toppling the government established over a century before by freed American slaves, and beginning a ten-year rule characterized by corruption, economic mismanagement and repression of political opponents. In 1983, Liberian government official Charles Taylor, charged with embezzlement, fled to the US, was arrested and imprisoned. He escaped, underwent military training and raised an army, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. It surged into Liberia in December 1989.

Taylor’s forces quickly gained control of most of the country, but then other rebel factions entered the conflict, not only because of ideological and ethnic differences but also the desire to control natural resources such as gold and diamonds. Read more

Naming Names: U.S. Embassy Jakarta and Indonesian Purges 1965-1966

An article by an American reporter alleged that the U.S. embassy in Jakarta played a role in the Indonesian massacres of 1965-1966 by supplying a list of known communists to Major General Suharto (seen right), whose forces then hunted them down and killed them. The violence began when Communist forces killed six of Indonesia’s senior army officers on October 1, 1965. In response, army forces under the command of Suharto began a campaign to rid Indonesia of the communist party (Partai Komunis Indonesia or PKI) and other leftist organizations. The purges and ensuing civil war left an estimated half-million people dead. President Sukarno remained in power for six more months before being ousted by Suharto.

In her May 19, 1990 article “Ex-agents say CIA compiled death lists for Indonesians,” Kathy Kadane of States News Service asserted, “U.S. officials acknowledge that in 1965 they systematically compiled comprehensive lists of Communist operatives, from top echelons down to village cadres. As many as 5,000 names were furnished to the Indonesian army, and the Americans later checked off the names of those who had been killed or captured.” The article, published in The Washington Post and other dailies, was refuted by New York Times reporter Michael Wines, who examined transcripts of Kadane’s interviews for inconsistencies and spoke to her sources. Read more