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When the Life of the Party Became Ambassador to France

An effective diplomat, dazzling socialite, and the mother of Winston Churchill’s grandson, Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman won the respect of fellow diplomats and adroitly handled complex problems related to the war in the Balkans, export subsidies, and intellectual property rights during her tenure as U.S. Ambassador to France from 1993-1997. Richard Holbrooke said of her service in Paris: “She spoke the language, she knew the country; she knew its leadership. She was one of the best ambassadors that ever served the United States.”

Pamela Beryl Digby was born in England in March 20, 1920. The daughter of a baron, she was well-educated and moved in prominent circles from a young age. At 19, she married Randolph Churchill. She soon became the confidante of his father, Winston Churchill, and through him she met the administrator of the lend-lease program, Averell Harriman, whom she would marry 30 years later. Together, the Harrimans worked to raise millions of dollars and rebuild the Democratic Party in the 1980’s. Pamela Harriman played such an important role that one biographer called her the “Life of the Party.” Read more

Charlie Wilson’s Warpath

Congressman Charlie Wilson was a twelve-term United States Democratic Representative from Texas from 1973-1997 who was known by his (in)famous nickname “Good Time Charlie.” A self-proclaimed “ladies’ man,” Wilson embraced his hard-partying image, claiming that his constituents knew they were not electing a “constipated monk.”

Despite his playboy persona, Wilson was known for his passionate anti-Communism. He famously fought to increase U.S. funding and support for the Afghan Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, which was later described in a book and movie, both titled Charlie Wilson’s War.  Congressman Wilson made several trips to neighboring Pakistan on fact-finding missions – sometimes accompanied by one of his attractive “Charlie’s Angels.” Read more

Shirley Temple Black: From the Good Ship Lollipop to the Ship of State

Shirley Temple Black, born April 23, 1928, served her country in vastly different ways. As a child star in the late 1930s, she cheered up a nation suffering the effects of the Great Depression, making 20 movies by the time she was six years old. Born April 23, 1928, Shirley Temple was known for films such as “Bright Eyes,” “Curly Top” and “Heidi” as well as songs including “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” She ended her acting career at the age of 22 but would return to the spotlight in service to her nation later in life.

In 1968 she was at a conference in Prague when the Soviets invaded. The beginning of her diplomatic career came shortly thereafter, when President Nixon appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations. President Ford named her ambassador to Ghana in 1974, and later as his Chief of Protocol, the first woman to hold that job.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush named her ambassador to Czechoslovakia, just a few months before communist rule was overthrown. President Reagan asked her to direct the Ambassadorial Seminar at the Foreign Service Institute and she  served as a member of the Board and Advisory Council of ADST. She died February 10, 2014. 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

Ping Pong Diplomacy, April 1971 — Opening the Road to China

Following the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, a “Bamboo Curtain,” the Chinese equivalent of Russia’s “Iron Curtain,” was established, closing off China from the non-Communist world. The 1966 Cultural Revolution only served to strengthen the Communist Party’s commitment to isolation from the West. However, by 1971 China was growing desperate for foreign investment while the United States sought an end to the Vietnam War as well as ways to increase its leverage vis-a-vis  the Soviet Union. These diplomatic objectives led to President Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China.

But before his February 1972 to Peking there was ping pong diplomacy. Sports had long been a diplomatic tool for the Chinese under the slogan “Friendship First, Competition Second.” Thus, on April 6, 1971, the Chinese national ping-pong team invited the American team to visit China while the two teams were at the World Championships in Nagoya, Japan. Read more

The Canadian Caper, Argo, and Escape from Iran

The years leading up to the autumn of 1979 in Iran proved to be turbulent, resulting in a radical transformation of the nation. The U.S had backed the semi-absolutist monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, even when the increasing popularity of Islamic fundamentalism, Iranian Nationalism, and opposition to western influence exploded, culminating in protests against the Shah in 1977. The Shah used increasingly brutal tactics to suppress rebellion; his actions only further inflamed the revolutionary fervor of the populace.

Organized armed resistance began in 1977. The Shah fled the country on January 16, 1979, leaving a provisional government in power. Meanwhile, the fundamentalist leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who had lead opposition movements before his exile, returned and resumed leadership over the revolution. Khomeini rallied his forces and disposed of both residual royalist troops and the provisional government that ruled in the Shah’s name, thus formally establishing himself as Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic. Rival factions were subverted, and Revolutionary Guards roamed the country to ensure the preservation of the new order.

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The U-2 Spy Plane Incident

On May 1, 1960, an America U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, causing great embarrassment to the United States, which had tried to conceal its surveillance efforts from the USSR. In 1957, the U.S. had established a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan in order to send U-2 spy planes into Soviet airspace and secretly sent the spy plane into Soviet territory.

Upon release of the news, the United States initially covered up the story by claiming the U-2 was a NASA aircraft that had gone missing north of Turkey. However, President Eisenhower had to eventually admit the mistake after the Soviets produced the missing U-2, the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, and pictures of Soviet bases that the spy plane had captured. Read more

Frenemies: Warm Encounters with Cold War Soviets

Just because the war between the two superpowers was cold didn’t mean that relations between U.S. and Soviet diplomats had to be frosty. While there were certainly some testy times, U.S. diplomats report that their relationships with Soviets were sometimes warm, funny, and congenial — especially if the Soviet officer was trying to convince them to defect.

And while they may not have cared for U.S. politics, a number of Soviet diplomats loved other aspects of American culture, especially Westerns, rifles, magazines, and, of course, Kentucky bourbon.

Thomas F. Johnson reports the amusing exchanges he had with Soviet diplomats during his time in Liberia in a 2003 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy. George G.B. Griffin and Ernestine S. Heck both share their experiences with Soviet defection with Kennedy in 2002 and 1997, respectively. (The happy poster says “Person to person. Friend, Comrade and Brother!”) Read more

The Longest Day — Tales from D-Day, 1944

The June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy marked the beginning of the end of World War II. Planning for what would be the largest seaborne invasion in history began in 1943. In the months leading up to the invasion, the Allies conducted substantial disinformation regarding the date and location of the main landings in order to mislead the Germans, who were spread thin throughout northwest Europe. The amphibious landings were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and the landing of 24,000 British, U.S., and Canadian airborne troops shortly after midnight. Allied infantry and armored divisions began landing on the coast of France at 6:30 in the morning.  Read more

The Seychelles – Gangsta’s Paradise

A country of white sand beaches and palm trees, the Seychelles is an exotic tourist destination. It also happens to be a haven for international criminals. Ambassador David Fischer describes his time there like something out of “an Eric Ambler novel, where an innocent character suddenly stumbles on something, and he becomes involved in a huge conspiracy.” Fischer became a character in a much larger story that included fraudulent banking, Mob activity, money laundering, drug smuggling, and murder, much of which involved France Albert Rene, the president of the Seychelles.

When Fischer informed Rene that people were plotting to overthrow him, the suspects were rounded up, beaten to death and their bodies disposed of in the Ambassador’s yard. Rene then threatened the Ambassador’s son. (In its wisdom, the Department agreed the son should leave the island immediately; however, it declined to pay for his travel.) Read more