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A Flood of Cuban Migrants — The Mariel Boatlift, April-October 1980

One of the most contentious events in mass migration started on April 1, 1980 when several Cubans took control of a bus and drove it through a fence of the Peruvian embassy in Havana; they requested – and were granted — political asylum. After Fidel Castro retaliated by having the Cuban guards protecting the embassy removed, over 10,000 people crammed into the tiny Peruvian embassy grounds. Castro ultimately stated that the port of Mariel, just outside of Havana, would be opened to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, as long as they had someone to pick them up. Cuban exiles in the United States rushed to Key West and to docks in Miami to hire boats to transport people to the United States.

That set in motion a six-month drama in which more than 125,000 Cubans fled their country and overwhelmed the shores of the U.S. Castro, whose façade of popularity and support was badly shaken, then upped the ante by allowing thousands of criminals and mental patients to leave as well. Read more

“There were no full bodies” – The Crash of Pan Am Flight 812 in Bali

On April 22, 1974, Pan American Flight 812, a plane known as the Clipper Climax, crashed into the mountainous terrain of Denpasar, Bali, claiming the lives of all 96 passengers and 11 crew members on board, including 26 Americans and 29 Japanese. En route from Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia, with a stop in Denpasar, the aircraft crashed into the rough terrain as a result of a prematurely executed right-hand turn by the pilots of the plane. Following the crash, the U.S. Embassy and military worked alongside Balinese forces to recover what was left of the aircraft and the passengers’ remains. Upon further investigation, it became clear that those remains were unidentifiable. (At right, the memorial to Pan Am flight 812 in Bali.)  Read more

Get Your Cameras Ready: Celebrities in the Embassies

While the work at embassies can often put Foreign Service officers in harm’s way, on occasion they have the chance to rub elbows with the rich and famous. That could range from helping the niece of a famous actor get a passport, arranging a meeting between a diplomatic rock star and George Harrison or, in a more serious case, grant a visa to a famous punk rocker despite serious opposition, only for that person to be arrested for murder while in the States. Read more

The Light at the End of the Tunnel — Surviving a Nazi POW Camp

Fredrick Irving’s plane was shot down over Magyarovar, Hungary during World War II. Right after hitting the ground, three Hungarian farmers tried several times to execute him; on the final attempt, it was only the intervention of German soldiers, who wanted Irving as a POW, that saved him. He was then interrogated by an American who had switched to the German side and who already had a lengthy dossier on Irving, thanks to German sleeper agents in the U.S. who collected information on American citizens. Irving then spent nine months in the same German POW camp where the “Great Escape” had taken place just months before.

In early 1945, the POWS were ordered to vacate the camp after they refused to fight in a counter-offensive against the approaching Soviet troops. Once he was finally liberated after months of starvation, brutality, and brutal cold he weighed less than 100 pounds. Irving let nothing stand in his way to survive, but at the same time, he did not lose his humanity. Read more

From Nation-Building to Black Hawk Down: U.S. Peacekeeping in Somalia

Somalia has become synonymous with well-meaning but ill-fated humanitarian intervention. Live television footage of American soldiers being dragged in the streets by the very insurgents they hoped to defeat in the Black Hawk down incident disillusioned Americans from the concept of nation-building abroad. Many credit the U.S.’s embarrassment in Somalia to the international community’s failure to intervene during the genocide in Rwanda and in more recent humanitarian crises such as Syria. The situation in Somalia has undoubtedly created a legacy of hesitation in international intervention and heightened the role of the media’s “CNN effect” on U.S. foreign policy.

The crisis began after the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. Over half of the population were in severe danger of starvation and malnutrition-related disease; some 300,000 died outright in the early months of 1992 and another million fled the country as refugees. The UN Security Council responded by creating the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) to send in humanitarian supplies; however, most of that was stolen by local warlords, who often exchanged it with other countries for weapons. Read more

An Affair to Remember and a Job to Forget: Falling for a Communist during the Height of McCarthyism

In 1953, the Department of State removed John F. Melby from the Foreign Service because of  his affair with acclaimed American author and political activist Lillian Hellman, who was suspected of being a Communist Party member. Hellman was famous for her 1934 Broadway play, The Children’s Hour, which dealt with lesbianism, and The Little Foxes. As a screenwriter at Goldwyn Studios she earned the incredible sum of $2500 a week and like many others she supported the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. She described herself as a “casual member” of the Communist Party but said she attended meetings from 1938-40.


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Establishing Ties with Pakistan — 1947

It was the end of one era and the beginning of another. In August 1947 the British Empire, which had ruled the Indian subcontinent as part of the Raj since the mid-19th century, granted independence to the India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Muslim League, which arose in the 1930s in order to assure Muslim representation and interests in politics, had fought for Partition for several years and now faced the task of creating a new country. On October 20, 1947, the United States established diplomatic relations with Pakistan, a strategically important partner during the Cold War and a bulwark against the spread of Communism. David Newsom, who was posted in Pakistan as an Information Officer from 1947 until 1950, relates his experiences regarding life in Pakistan, establishing diplomatic ties from scratch, and his trip to the “Movieland” with the wife of the Prime Minister. Read more

Khrushchev Visits America – A Cold War Comedy of Errors, Act I

Amid the descent of the Iron Curtain, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the conflict in Vietnam lies one of the more bizarre moments of the Cold War – Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s goodwill tour of the United States that began on September 15, 1959.

While some may have heard of Khrushchev’s failed attempt to visit Disneyland, many do not realize that this was just one of a hundred things that went wrong on this trip, one that stands in stark contrast to the highly scripted photo ops of today’s politicians. From angry journalists to scandalous movie stars, the entirety of the visit was cloaked by barely concealed threats and marked by chaos – almost to the point of political farce. Read more

“Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” — The Tumultuous Times of Juan and Evita Peron

July 26, 1952: The people of Argentina are glued to their radios and fall silent as an official broadcast comes from the Subsecretary of Information:  “It is our sad duty to inform the people of the Republic that Eva Peron, the Spiritual Leader of the Nation, died at 8:25 p.m.

The silence is broken as the sound of sobbing and corks popping ensue. The working-class people of Argentina are heartbroken, and a weeping cacophony echoes throughout the streets. Meanwhile, the wealthy elite sip their champagne privately, toasting to a future free of “the whore.” The sounds of mourning and celebrating reflect both the love and hate that Eva Peron, the wife of Argentine President Juan Peron, inspired in her 33 years. Fast-forward several years to September 19, 1955:  After a decade in power, Juan Peron is overthrown in a coup.

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Chile’s Coup Against Salvador Allende and the Truth Behind “Missing”

In 1973, political tensions were high in Chile, with conflict arising between the socialist President Salvador Allende and the more conservative Congress of Chile. The Chilean economy was failing, the Supreme Court had denounced Allende’s government, and perhaps more importantly, the military had lost its respect for Allende. During the summer, there had been several failed coup attempts [read about the Tanquetazo], which led to the ouster of Arturo Prats as commander of the Chilean army and the rise of Augusto Pinochet; by September, Chile reached the final breaking point. On September 11 the military opened fire on the Presidential Palace; by the end of the day, Allende was dead and the stage was set for over a decade of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship  Read more