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Warming to the New Administration at the State Department, 1980-1981

Administration transitions, during which power over the federal executive branch is transferred from the sitting president to the president-elect, can be stressful for federal personnel. During the weeks between Election Day and inauguration day, there can be changes in policy, staff and budgets, and the new administration needs to learn about the work of the executive branch. The transition from former President Jimmy Carter to incoming President Ronald Reagan in 1981 was jarring for some in the State Department as Carter’s strong prioritization of human rights gave way to his successor’s return to Cold War realpolitik in foreign policy.

Among those who witnessed the changes from within the State Department was Marc Grossman. After joining the Foreign Service in March 1976, his first overseas assignment was in Islamabad. He then returned to the Department, where he became the Special Assistant to the Special Advisor for Jewish Affairs in the White House.  When President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, Grossman was selected to be Liaison Officer to the Reagan Transition Team. Read more

Looking at the War in the Falklands/Malvinas from Both Sides Now

In 1982 a long-simmering dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over a small group of islands – the Falklands for the British, the Malvinas for the Argentinians – erupted into war. The disagreement arose from a dispute that goes back to the 1700’s when France, Spain, and Britain all tried to claim and settle the islands (with France selling her claim to Spain). Britain and Spain almost went to war over the archipelago before coming to a compromise that while neither recognized the claims of the other, they would not interfere in each other’s settlement activity. Eventually both sides abandoned their outposts due to the economic pressure of supporting the distant, windswept islands.

Businessman Louis Vernet began a settlement in 1829 as a business venture with the permission of the new Argentine government, which had inherited the Spanish claim. After a series of disagreements and violent incidents among several parties that involved the near destruction of  Vernet’s settlement by an American warship (the U.S. did not recognize the claim of any country over the islands at the time) the British reestablished authority in 1833 and brought in settlers whose descendants make up most of the current Falklanders.

During the post-WWII populism of Juan Peron, Argentina began to raise the issue again. Britain told Argentina that there was no hope of an eventual transfer. Seeing no diplomatic way forward, the Argentine military junta launched a surprises attack on the Islands in April, 1982. Within three months the British retook the islands. Read more

Between Iraq and a Hard Place: Declared Persona Non Grata by Saddam

Iraq expelled an American diplomat stationed in Baghdad on November 17, 1988 for having contacts with Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Haywood Rankin, head of the American Embassy’s political section, was forced to leave the country after he and a British diplomat returned to Baghdad from a trip to Kurdistan that had been approved by Iraqi authorities. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was infuriated by U.S. charges that his forces used chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels in far northern Iraq, repeatedly denying the allegations and saying they are part of a “Zionist plot” to defame Iraq in the wake of its military victory against Iran.

Upon Rankin’s return from his visit to the north, he sent detailed cables to Washington documenting his strong suspicion that chemical weapons had been used by the Iraqi military against Kurdish villages. Soon afterward, the Iraqis informed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that Rankin would be expelled for ”talking to Kurds” and ”contact with Kurds.”  Despite attempts to overturn the expulsion order, Rankin and the British diplomat were declared persona non grata and told to leave. 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

Crisis Management: Occupation of USIS in South Korea, 1985

On May 25, 1985, seventy-three South Korean students barged into the United States Information Services (USIS) library in Seoul and began a three-day occupation. The students’ primary demand was an apology from the U.S. Ambassador, Richard L. “Dixie” Walker, as the representative of the American government, for the United States’ alleged role and complicity in the 1980 “Kwangju incident,” a massacre of hundreds of protesters in Kwangju, South Korea on the orders of President Chun Doo-Hwan.

Though the United States had no involvement in the Kwangju incident and was distancing itself from the repressive Chun regime, lingering resentment toward the U.S. and misunderstandings about Kwangju persisted through the end of the twentieth century. After three long, tense days, the students, having shared their concerns with the Americans and with the larger South Korean public, peacefully left the library. The resolution of the occupation of the U.S. Embassy’s library was seen as a case study in successful crisis management. Read more

The 1991 Coup Against Mikhail Gorbachev

In August 1991, hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) who opposed President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and decentralization of government powers tried to overthrow him. The short-lived coup attempt is considered pivotal in the rise of Boris Yeltsin and the eventual breakup of the USSR. The attempt took place at a dacha in the Crimea, when several high-level officials demanded that Gorbachev resign from power or declare a state of emergency. When he refused, they put him under house arrest, shut down communication lines which were controlled by the KGB, and posted additional guards at the gates to stop anyone from leaving.

Gorbachev had tried to liberalize Soviet economic policies, moving from a state-controlled to free market approach, and to democratize the communist political system. He also advocated warmer relations with the United States, winning the respect of President Ronald Reagan. His initiatives were seen less positively by opponents in the USSR; some felt he was driving the Soviet Union to second-class status, others felt the reforms were not far-reaching enough. Among them, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party in protest, yet he opposed the coup against Gorbachev and called on the Russian people to demonstrate against it. They filled the streets by the thousands, and the coup failed, but Gorbachev would resign by the end of the year in part because of the attempt with Yeltsin emerging as leader of the state of Russia. Read more

The Siberian Seven: Escaping Religious Persecution in the U.S.S.R.

From its inception, the Soviet Union became the first state in the world to actively attempt to eliminate religion from society. Religion was viewed by Soviet leadership as counter-intuitive to scientific reason and as a threat to the consolidation and exertion of state power. Correspondingly, under Soviet religious policy, tens of thousands of houses of worship were closed, spiritual leaders were exiled and persecuted, and the faithful were subject to harassment.

While the Kremlin targeted all religious organizations, Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Protestantism that had accumulated a small but rapidly expanding base throughout the twentieth century, was considered particularly problematic. Believers were known to receive twenty-year sentences during the gulag period, while many were committed to mental hospitals in the years following the Second World War. Read more

Seeking a Peace Settlement with Shimon Peres, Hawk and Dove

The passing of Israeli statesman Shimon Peres on September 28, 2016 was deeply felt by U.S. diplomats who had worked with him through the decades.  Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer wrote: “Some will criticize Peres for his early years as a security hawk, while others will be critical of his later years as a peace dove. Some will focus on his early support of settlements, while others will admire his vision and dream of peace with the Palestinians. Shimon Peres was all of these things and, as such, was a true embodiment of modern Israel.”

Peres’ career spanned nearly 70 years. Born Szymon Perski in Wiszniew, Poland in 1923, Peres was educated in the Jewish faith by his grandfather. In 1934 his immediate family moved to Palestine, where Peres attended school and trained as a farmer and shepherd. Members of the family who remained in Poland died in the Holocaust. Read more

“The Cold War Was Truly Over” — The 1986 Reykjavik Summit

After the 1985 Geneva Summit, where President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, met for the first time, the Reykjavik Summit, held on October 11-12, 1986, presented an opportunity to try to reach an agreement between the two sides on arms control. While Gorbachev wanted to ban all ballistic missiles and limit the talks to arms control, Reagan wanted to continue to work on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and sought to include talks on human rights, the emigration of Soviet Jews and dissidents, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Though ultimately a failure, the Reykjavik Summit changed the relationship between the United States and the USSR, and provided a platform for a continuing dialogue between the two countries. It eventually resulted in the 1987 signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and is often cited as the end of the Cold War. Read more

“The Wild West” — Peshawar and the Afghan Mujahedeen

In the late 1970s, the USSR had been supporting the Afghan government in its fight against rebels, who had made considerable inroads and controlled territory outside Afghanistan’s major cities. Determined to squash a growing threat, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. Soviet troops and swarms of helicopters overthrew the government, which Moscow believed had contributed to the instability, and installed a pro-Soviet government, forcing millions of Afghanis into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and Syria.

However, the Soviet military faced significant resistance from a group of highly motivated fighters called the mujahedeen, literally “one engaged in Jihad.” The Islamic fighters fought the Soviets aggressively and attracted the attention of the United States, most famously Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, whose work on the issue became the subject of the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War. Most famously, he successfully fought to give the mujahedeen Stinger surface-to-air missiles, which proved to be very effective against Soviet helicopters. The Soviets eventually withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989, in what has widely been deemed “Russia’s Vietnam.” Read more