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Agent Orange and the Vietnam War

In 1961, United States forces in Vietnam began to use chemical herbicides and defoliants on South Vietnamese crops, bushes, and trees in order to deprive the Vietcong of both food and cover for ambushes. Code-named Operation Ranch Hand, the campaign used a variety of herbicides but the most commonly used, and most effective, was Agent Orange, named for the orange stripe painted on the 55-gallon drums in which the mixture was stored. It was one of several “Rainbow Herbicides” used, along with Agents White, Purple, Pink, Green and Blue.

Ultimately spraying more than 20 million gallons of herbicide on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the campaign destroyed five millions acres of forest and untold millions of acres of crops. Many of those exposed to Agent Orange, Vietnamese and Americans alike, suffered health complications as a result, and scores of children were born with severe birth defects which were believed to be linked to the herbicides. Read more

The Day the Fountain Ran Dry: An Indian Duck Tale

As a Foreign Service Officer serving abroad, it is natural to become close friends with the colleagues with whom you share embassy offices; in many cases, they get to be like your family away from home. In the same way, any creatures which happen to be resident in diplomatic spaces become like family pets. As with every family, there are those who like animals and those who do not. It follows that if something happens to those creatures, there is bound to be trouble. Such was the case with the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, where jobs were nearly lost, ducks were kicked and ambassadors were insulted.

Former Ambassador to India William Clark Jr. (1989-1992) recounts the time when resident ducks were forced to depart the premises of the embassy. He was interviewed by Thomas Stern in January 1994. Read more

I, Spy?  Diplomatic Adventures during Soviet-American Détente    

Among the challenges of serving as a U.S. diplomat in the USSR during the Cold War years of 1945 to 1991 were the certain knowledge that one’s words and actions were being monitored and reported back to the host – and often hostile – government. Intelligence gathering was carried out by both sides to learn about the other’s intentions, technological advances and military capabilities.  Diplomats served under restrictions in terms of the people they could meet and the places they could go, and U.S. officers knew that wherever they went, agents from the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security) would surely follow.

James E. Taylor and his wife Louise Pfender Taylor were U.S. diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union from 1974-1976. They experienced the KGB’s watchful eyes during their tenure, realized their apartment was bugged and were mistaken as being spies themselves by a grievously disappointed Russian contact.   Read more

A U.S.-Chinese Mid-Air Collision and “The Letter of Two Sorries”

A collision in the air, a destroyed Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. ‘spy’ plane forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airbase — mix together to create a maelstrom of chaos and outrage. Add in the fact that the U.S. had accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade just two years earlier and you have the makings of a real diplomatic challenge.

On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet some 70 miles off the Chinese island of Hainan. The Chinese jet had actually harassed the EP-3 just days earlier, getting so close that the Chinese pilot held up a piece of paper with his e-mail address, which was visible to the American crew. The collision caused both planes to lose altitude quickly — the Chinese fighter was unable to recover and was killed. Against all odds, the EP-3 somehow rolled out of its nearly inverted dive and managed to limp towards the closest air base without its nose. This airbase, however, was on Hainan, the same site that had sent the downed fighter. Read more

A Blind Eye — Fighting Terrorism in the 1980s

The U.S. focus on terrorism began to intensify in the late 1970s and 80s. However, it was often difficult to get actionable intelligence on many groups, given how hard it was to infiltrate them. And in those cases  where the U.S. was able to track a major terrorist figure down, that person was often able to elude capture.

L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) in 1986, discusses the many difficulties the U.S. encountered in infiltrating groups, dealing with countries like Greece, which often turned a blind eye to terrorist groups, and his experience with Delta Force.  He also describes how they were able to capture one terrorist by inviting him to a party on a yacht with women in bikinis. Needless to say, he was surprised to discover those women were FBI agents. Read more

I Was So Wrong For So Long: The Art of the Apology

The words “I am sorry” can be difficult to say and sometimes even more painful to accept. Working as representatives of the United States, individuals in the Foreign Service are accustomed to using apologies as powerful tools to repair tense relationships and acknowledge mistakes.

These excerpts form a collection of both serious and humorous accounts of apologies in the Foreign Service. The selections range from an officer working towards reconciliation in post-WWII Germany to a school teacher’s experience with an unruly student. The common link between the excerpts demonstrates the often ignored and under-appreciated roles that apologies serve in the Foreign Service, and, more generally, in interpersonal relations.  Read more

A Tale of Two Countries — and One Bizarre Hostage Situation

If you think your relationships are complex, consider the convoluted ties among Ghana, Guinea, and the United States in the mid-1960s. The friendship between Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, and Guinea’s first President, Ahmed Sékou Touré, proved problematic for the United States, and even led to the first U.S. diplomatic hostage situation, years before Iran.

Nkrumah and Touré were both anti-Western presidents of recently independent countries. In 1966 after Nkrumah was deposed while on a trip to China, Touré welcomed Nkrumah to Guinea, and named him Co-President of Guinea. Washington, which was glad to see Nkrumah go, had little desire to deal with him now in Guinea. However, the new Ghanaian government then kidnapped the Guinean Foreign Minister and said it would not release him until they got Nkrumah. On October 29, in an odd counter move, Guinea then detained American diplomats until their Foreign Minister was released. Read more

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

Lost in Translation while Posted Abroad

Working as a U.S. diplomat overseas requires patience, composure, and the ability to communicate cross-culturally. Oftentimes, diplomats can speak multiple languages, or use interpreters to make their opinions known to another party. However, as is the case with any linguistic encounter, misunderstandings and miscommunication can often occur.

In interviews with Charles Stewart Kennedy, Hans N. Tuch (interviewed in 1998), Richard P. Butrick (1998), John M. Evans (2009), Francis Terry McNamara (1993), and Richard A. Dwyer (1990), all recount humorous incidents involving language mix-ups. Read more

The Coup Against Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh

Mohammad Mossadegh became Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 and was hugely popular for taking a stand against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British-owned oil company that had made huge profits while paying Iran only 16% of its profits and often far less. His nationalization efforts led the British government to begin planning to remove him from power. In October 1952, Mosaddegh declared Britain an enemy and cut all diplomatic relations. Britain was unable to resolve the issue unilaterally and looked towards the United States for help. However, the U.S. had opposed British policies; Secretary of State Dean Acheson said the British had “a rule-or-ruin policy in Iran.”

That changed after Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President in 1952. Now, pleas from British intelligence officials and Winston Churchill to oust Mossadegh had a more receptive audience. Beginning in January 1953, the U.S. and the Britain agreed to work together toward Mosaddegh’s removal.  Read more