Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Picturing the “War of Ideas”: Wartime Film-Making in Korea

Throughout the Cold War, democratic and communist nations waged a “war of ideas.” The United States, seeking to expose the disadvantages of communism and to encourage democracy, engaged in numerous media campaigns targeted at influencing peoples in zones of Cold War conflict. The U.S. State Department, along with branches of the American military and other government agencies, published leaflets, newsreels, films, articles, and cartoons in numerous languages around the world.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), this use of soft power was intended, in the words of Public Affairs Officer James L. Stewart, “to create democratic-minded people in Korea friendly to the United States.” For much of the war, the State Department’s domestic film-making campaign in Korea was headed by a single American, William G. Ridgeway, and staffed by dozens of South Koreans who had reinvented themselves as film industry workers.

Ridgeway played a key role in sharing American ideas and shifting South Korean sentiment against communists as the Motion Picture Officer in Korea from 1950-1958. It was far from an easy task; he contended with an evacuation from Seoul, a severe dearth of equipment, and local cultural norms. Read more

Getting on the Seoul Train — The 1988 Summer Olympic Games

The Olympic Games represent the height of sporting diplomacy, with thousands of athletes transcending politics for two weeks as they represent their countries on the world stage. While the athletic spectacles entrance and amaze on television, without the behind-the-scenes political efforts and negotiations, there would be no Olympic Games. For many countries, hosting the Olympics is an opportunity to show the world its culture, hospitality, and innovation. The 1988 Summer Games served as just such an opportunity for South Korea, as they gave the world a preview of South Korea’s impending economic boom, as the country moved alongside Japan to become a leader in technological development.

Moreover, the 1980 and 1984 summer Olympic Games, held in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively, were marred by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent boycotts.By 1988, there were no such issues and Seoul had one of the highest participation rates to date, with 159 countries and 8400 athletes attending. It also marked the swan song for Olympics powers the USSR and East Germany. as both ceased to exist before the next Olympic Games. Read more

“Austria is Free!” Post-War Vienna Escapes the Soviet Bloc

May 15th, 1955, was a momentous occasion for a war-battered Europe, and for the national history of Austria as the Foreign Ministers representing the Occupying Powers  gathered to sign the Austrian Independence Treaty. Leopold Figl, the former Chancellor and then the Foreign Minister, famously appeared on the balcony of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace (now home to a dazzling Klimt collection), waved the signed paper and uttered the words Österreich ist frei! (“Austria is free!”),

This treaty reinstated Austria’s sovereignty for the first time since the March 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany, which had annexed Austria and made it the province of Ostmark.  It called for the withdrawal of the four occupying state’s forces, outlawed any future Anschluss with Germany, and banned Nazism. The newly independent country formally declared its neutrality in October of that year. Read more

The Inspector General — Rooting Out Fraud and Abuse in the State Department

With thousands of employees from dozens of countries spread across the globe, the U.S. Department of State sometimes falls victim to various forms of fraud and abuse at the hands of the locally employed staff (LES, formerly called Foreign Service Nationals, FSNs) who help run the day-to-day operations of embassies and consulates, and who were often aided by less than observant Foreign Service Officers. While abuse by LES and especially FSOs is relatively rare, it can be an issue from time to time. One State employee at Embassy London was sentenced to 57 months in prison in March 2016 in an extensive computer hacking, cyberstalking and “sextortion” scheme.

The responsibility of rooting out these crimes falls to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which performs the vital, and often thankless, task of ensuring that the Department is functioning efficiently and maintaining its integrity at every one of its posts. Read more

North Korea Blows up South Korean Airliner

Someone once described the dissolution of the USSR as a typical Soviet divorce — you’re no longer married but you’re still forced to live in the same apartment. So it is with North and South Korea, which have had more than their share of animosity the past half century, which has, not surprisingly, affected the U.S. in one way or the other.  North Korea has tried to assassinate the South Korean President and when that failed, it doubled down and seized the USS Pueblo.  A few years later, North Korean soldiers hacked two United States Army officers in the DMZ to death. And there’s the more recent missile-rattling by current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Read more

Sound and the Fury — The 1954 Geneva Conference on Vietnam and Korea

In April 1954, amidst growing tensions regarding the situation in the Korean Peninsula and Indochina, the international community convened a conference in Geneva in the hopes of reaching some sort of accord. The United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union, and People’s Republic of China were the primary negotiators, each jockeying to achieve their objectives through backroom negotiations, while other countries which had sent troops in the Korean War or the First Indochina War against the Viet Minh had smaller roles. Meanwhile, as the negotiations were going on in Geneva, the Viet Minh achieved their decisive victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu, which led to France’s withdrawal from the region.

On July 21st, 1954, the results of the Geneva Conference on Indochina were announced. While the Korean question went unanswered, the Conference passed the Geneva Accords, which divided French Indochina into Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Vietnam was to be temporarily partitioned on the 17th parallel with elections scheduled for July 1956. These elections, of course, never materialized Read more

The 1980 Kwangju Massacre and the Surge in Anti-Americanism in South Korea

In 1980, a democratization movement spread throughout South Korea following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, which ended his 18-year authoritarian rule and brought political instability to the country. General Chun Doo Hwan took power as the new president through a coup in December 1979 and expanded martial law soon after in attempt to suppress increasing demonstrations. The extent of this suppression culminated on May 18, 1980 when a student protest in Kwangju was met with a brutal military response that left hundreds injured, dead, or missing.

Anti-American sentiment arose in the aftermath of what would later be referred to as the Kwangju Massacre or Uprising. Because of the close American ties with the South Korean military and statements by the Korean government implicating the United States, many Koreans believed Washington was somehow involved in the violent suppression of the demonstrations, which led to lingering distrust and suspicion of the U.S. for years afterward. (Photo: AP) Read more

An Axe Murder Triggers a Standoff in Korea’s DMZ, 1976

The United States and North Korea have not had the best relations, to put it mildly. Even in a place like Cuba, which Washington does not recognize diplomatically, the U.S. has an Interests Section which can get a better idea of the situation in country and which can serve as a channel, however imperfect, with Havana. Not so in Pyongyang. Over the decades, there has been a raft of provocative incidents which fortunately did not lead to all-out war between the two sides. The most notable of these is the 1968 USS Pueblo incident in which North Korea, having failed to assassinate the South Korean president, decided to follow up by seizing an American surveillance vessel in international waters; the crew was held for nearly a year. Most recently, Sony Pictures, which was behind the December 2014 movie The Interview, was hacked; North Korea, thought to be by many to be the perpetrator, denied involvement while it applauded the act.

One of the most bizarre, and potentially inflammatory, incidents, was the axe murder of two United States Army officers by North Korean soldiers on August 18, 1976, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The U.S. Army officers had been part of a work party cutting down a poplar tree in the JSA that was blocking the view of United Nations observers. Read more


Diplomats by training, if not by disposition, are calm, level-headed types. They may be called on to deliver a harsh message about your human rights situation or those tanks amassing on the border but will do so in a polished, genteel manner. “A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way you look forward to the trip” as the saying goes.

However, once in a while, if they’re particularly peeved, they can unleash an eruption of foul-mouthed epithets that could embarrass a fishmonger’s wife. Herewith some of the choicest examples from various Foreign Service Officers and a few others sprinkled in for good measure. (And if you didn’t guess already, yes, they do contain some raw, Not-Safe-For-Work language, so be forewarned. And kids, don’t try this at home.)

Read NSFW FSOs Part II, then check out 8 Weird Things You Didn’t Know About American Diplomats.

Return to Inside Foggy Bottom

Go to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History



Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright sharply criticizes Cuban manhood

Her famous rejoinder, as opposed to the others on this list, was not blurted out in the heat of the moment but was discussed some time in advance. In 1996, Cuban military pilots shot down two small, unarmed civilian aircraft flown by the Cuban-American exile group Brothers to the Rescue over international waters and, according to transcripts, joked with each other that  they had cojones but the Cuban-American pilots did not.

Albright, who worked to get condemnation of the act at the UN, uttered her now-famous quote, “This is not cojones. This is cowardice.” The line endeared her to President Clinton, who said it was “probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration’s foreign policy.”



Ambassador Hume Horan resignedly accepts his fate

Horan was widely respected for being the consummate Arabist. As Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he received instructions from the Department to inform the King of Washington’s concerns about Saudi Arabia’s plans to buy medium-range missiles from China.

However, he was soon told the U.S. had sent a different message to the Saudis at the same time and that the King was displeased with Horan. Because of the Saudis’ sway, this Arabist could no longer work in the region he had dedicated his life to. Afterwards, he ran into Ed Djerejian from Near Eastern Affairs, who asked how he was doing. Horan replied with with this understandable sentiment.


An Admiral yells out a Political Counselor for not agreeing with him

FSO Cleveland was more the target than the perpetrator in this incident. He had been serving as the Political Counselor in Seoul in the mid-1970s and was deeply concerned that forces under the salty Admiral Morgan had committed “an act of piracy” when they attacked North Korean patrol boats on the high seas, which ended up killing 30 North Korean fishermen.

Morgan swatted down Cleveland’s objections with these immortal words.



The Obama White House lays out its foreign policy guidelines

In mid-2014 the West Wing distilled its foreign policy mantra for the Middle East and elsewhere into one simple, easy-to-remember phrase:  “Don’t do stupid [stuff].” However, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton obliquely criticized this in an August 2014 interview with The Atlantic, in which she said “don’t do stupid stuff” was not “an organizing principle” worthy of “great nations.” She did soften criticism of her former boss by  saying that President Obama was “trying to communicate to the American people that he’s not going to do something crazy,” but she repeatedly suggested that the U.S. sometimes appears to be withdrawing from the world stage.



An FSO cusses out the Romanian secret police — and takes a stand for human rights

Swearing at a colleague or in front of the media may not help your career but you probably aren’t endangering your physical well-being. On the other hand, yelling at the secret police in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, takes (to not use Secretary Albright’s turn of phrase) guts.

But that’s what E. Ashley Wills did when a junior officer in Bucharest. One of his jobs was to meet with Romanian dissidents. One day, Romanian security agents walked over to him at his house and told him not to see a leading dissident ever again. Wills said — in Romanian! — “Du te in pizda matei,” which basically means “Hop up on your mother’s private parts.” Fortunately, Wills was able to eventually resume meeting the dissident and security never bothered him again. And despite the lack of judgment, Wills did OK for himself — he later became Ambassador to Sri Lanka. The language skills probably didn’t hurt.


Someone in Foreign Building Operations tells a colleague what to do with that funding

We get it. Working in a bureaucracy can be tough, especially when your colleagues are ordering you to do something that you really should not. That was John Helm’s problem. He was in FBO back in the 1980s and was told to send funding for an embassy project in Islamabad, even though he had no authority to do so.

Then he said something he shouldn’t have. And followed that up with something else he shouldn’t have said, which didn’t go over too well, either. They demanded a public apology. Which he gave. Rather halfheartedly. After that, he was shipped off to the worst place they could think of:  Mogadishu, Somalia. And still, he was so happy to get out of FBO that Mogadishu looked pretty good.




North Korea and U.S. Violation of International Waters

For much of military history, combatants of all nationalities have operated under the guidance of an ancient adage:  all’s fair in love and war. Unfortunately, even with the advent of maritime law and international conventions on the conduct of war, countries continue to commit violations of one kind or another during times of conflict, such as during the Korean War. Tensions on the peninsular remained high even after the War ended, which often led to drastic, sometimes illegal measures. In an interview with Thomas Stern beginning October 1996, Paul M. Cleveland, who was serving as the Political Counselor in Seoul in the mid-1970s, discusses Korean tensions over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Northern Line Limit (NLL) and laments how forces under the salty Admiral Hank Morgan attacked North Korean patrol boats on the high seas, which ended up killing 30 North Korean fishermen in what Cleveland called “an act of piracy.”   Read more