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Collection Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

The Interview Process

By Charles Stuart Kennedy
Director, Foreign Affairs Oral History Program
Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection is the work of scores of individuals, interviewers, interviewees, transcribers, and editors, as well as the technical personnel who prepared the collection for the Internet. The interviewees are retired senior diplomats who shared their personal backgrounds, professional experiences, and insights.

Charles Stuart Kennedy interviews Benjamin Franklin. Photo courtesy of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

The interviewing process is quite simple. Originally subjects were put in front of a $35 Radio Shack cassette recorder and asked to "tell us a story."  Since 2008 a simple digital recorder has been used.

Dealing with the Soviets is a major focal point of the oral history program. There are accounts going back to the 1940s—in the middle of World War II. Informants described the hostility of the Soviet "ally" even while America was shipping vast amounts of war supplies to the USSR.  As a result of the continuing harassment by the KGB, Foreign Service Officers always went in pairs when traveling outside Moscow to avoid being compromised.

There were interminable negotiations with the Soviets. One account noted that at a nuclear disarmament negotiation, the head of the U.S. delegation described what U.S. diplomats knew of Soviet rocket launch sites. At a recess in the talks, the top general on the Soviet side came up to the U.S. negotiator and asked that he not be so specific as to what the Soviet Union had, since the civilians on the Russian team were not cleared for that information.

Berlin--for years a center of intrigue and cat-and-mouse games between the East and West--was the focus of much of the Cold War, as it was considered the most likely place for a conflict to break out.  Taped stories include accounts from personnel in Berlin over the entire period of tension.  Stories range from the 1948 airlift, to the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1962, from those present when Kennedy said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," and from when Reagan said, "Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev." There are also recollections from the American ambassador to East Germany at the time the wall was dismantled in 1989. 

U.S. relations with France have long been rocky and never more so than in the postwar world. One man interviewed was a top official at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels (France was a member of the political side of NATO but not the military side). This official said that his young children thought there was a nationality known as "those goddamn French," since he slammed his briefcase on the table and said "those goddamn French" did such and such when he came home from the office.

U.S. difficulties with France, however, are mostly on the political level. There has always been close cooperation between the American and French militaries and the two countries' intelligence services, as well as among their diplomats at the working level (most of the time) despite what their political masters were saying. There is good evidence of this cooperation in Frontline Diplomacy.

From the creation of Israel in 1948 to the present, the Middle East has been a focus of American interest.  There is no place for diplomatic dilettantes in places such as Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria. There is good reason that no president wants to put amateurs into this very volatile part of the world.  Since World War II the small American diplomatic service community has lost more ambassadors to hostile action than the entire panoply of American generals and admirals combined, and most of the ambassadors killed were serving in the Middle East.  Service in that area is almost the exclusive province of professional diplomats.

Nothing has been more frustrating to the U.S. diplomatic community than the countless rounds of talks and breakdown of talks between the Arabs and Israelis. Since 1948, American Foreign Service Officers have given their all to bringing about peace. Unfortunately, the situation remains perilous.

Many accounts provide information on what to do when your embassy is blown up, or if one is in the midst of a war or civil unrest. These accounts include those of Robert Dillon whose embassy in Beirut was hit by Islamic extremists in 1983 and Prudence Bushnell whose embassy in Nairobi was blown up by Al Qaeda in 1998.  The Foreign Service has always had some danger connected to it, but the risks from terrorism are far greater today.

Asia is another long-term preoccupation of the United States, particularly the question of China's status. There are accounts of U.S. dealings with the Chiang Kai-shek government during World War II and when it relocated to Taiwan.  When the communist Chinese took over the mainland, the U.S. attempted to keep some of its consulates open, but the staffs were effectively held in captivity until all were pulled out. 

The opening of China to the U.S. is the subject of a number of interviews.  These include oral histories from those who accompanied Henry Kissinger on his historic trip to Beijing in 1971, from persons who did the actual work of establishing U.S. posts in that huge country, as well as from personnel who were on the ground during the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The collection also holds the tale of the son of missionaries in China, who, as a teenager during World War II, joined Chinese guerrillas to fight the Japanese and many years later returned as U.S. ambassador to Beijing. Staff at the embassy in Beijing suffer from a unique malady, "Death by Duck." They are deluged by American business people who come to find markets for their various products and who insist on having a Peking duck dinner. Imagine the effects of such a dinner several times a week!

Regarding Indochina, there are interviews over the course of several decades. One oral history is with a man who was in Hanoi when Ho Chi Minh's troops took over in 1954. There are other interviews with persons who left Saigon and Phnom Penh by the last helicopters in 1975.  And, there is an interviewwith the consul general from Can Tho who fled under fire on a barge down the Mekong River.  The officer took his entire staff and the families of the Vietnamese who worked for him to await rescue by our fleet off the coast. As of 2007, interviews are being conducted with those who returned to Vietnam after the opening of relations in 1995.

Allan Wendt tells what it was like to be the unarmed duty officer in the embassy building when the Viet Cong attacked it in 1968 during the Tet offensive. Luckily for him, American military police killed the Viet Cong sapper team after a battle outside the embassy building.

Africa is also well covered in the Frontline Diplomacy—from colonial days to the rise of independent nations and the problems of that glorious continent.  Officers who serve in Africa take pride in living under extraordinary circumstances and have a genuine love for the countries and the people. There are several narratives that discuss evacuating embassies under fire in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia; of working in famine relief; trying to end apartheid in South Africa, and having an insufficient U.S. response to the genocide in Rwanda.

Interviews on Latin America contain stories of dealing with dictators, drug wars, and promoting democracy. During the 1980s, U.S. officers in Central America tried to bring order out of chaos, and faced the problem of right-wing governments and communist guerrillas. For example, the U.S. chargé (the person in charge of an embassy when the ambassador is away) in Honduras got a telephone call from a port city with someone on the other end saying, "Your boots are here, what shall I do with them?" The chargé assumed that someone was sending him a pair of boots, so said, "Just mail them." There was a long pause and the voice at that other end said, "All 7,000 of them?"  This call was part of the secret Ollie North operation helping the contras against the will of the U.S. Congress.

Cuba is a particularly delicate political issue. Both Congress and American diplomats are sensitive to the Miami exile community. The difficulties involved in trying to send telecasts to Cuba via TV Marti in the face of interference by the Castro government is similarly problematic.    

At its inception, the oral history program had two goals: to capture the experiences and perceptions of retired senior officers—mainly those who had been ambassadors—and to pass them on to serving American diplomats. It was also important to spread the story of the Foreign Service to persons who wrote about foreign policy—primarily teachers of diplomatic history and international affairs. In addition Foreign Service Officers wanted the American public to know what their diplomats did. The plan at first was to give priority to interviewing former ambassadors who were born before 1918 so as to beat the actuarial table.

The Foreign Service has often been portrayed as an elite organization recruited from the upper class—therefore, a very un-American institution. After World War II this was no longer the case, but there was no denying that the organization was tainted with elitism. Hence, interviewees are asked to provide something of their backgrounds.

The early lives of U.S. diplomats became more intriguing as time went on as they came from extremely varied backgrounds—children of poor immigrants, or immigrants themselves, especially those who fled Europe because of Hitler. One young man left Germany just before it became impossible for Jewish families to flee; he returned to Europe in a glider on D-Day to interrogate German prisoners.  As a child, a career ambassador huddled in his home in a rundown-black section of Savannah while the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross outside. In the past, few interviewees had parents who graduated from college. This began to change as college degrees became more available to people of modest means.

Early on in the collection of interviews, the decision was made not to concentrate solely on the career Foreign Service officer, but to give political appointees—who were usually ambassadors, the same treatment. These men and women were asked about their early lives and their careers outside diplomacy. There is a solid collection of life in academe, business, and politics. Robert Strauss, ambassador to the Soviet Union under President George H. W. Bush, provided wonderful stories about his being the head of the Democratic Party and about Texas politics.

The G.I. Bill for returning veterans opened up higher education and had a profound effect on our society and on the Foreign Service. The war exposed many U.S. citizens to the world outside the United States and they were smitten with working in foreign environments. The collection amply documents this change in society.

Regarding women in diplomatic posts, Frontline Diplomacy is an excellent place to start documenting a history of the problems generated by attitudes toward gender in the governmental workplace. In 1955 a female Foreign Service Officer (FSO) had to resign if she married—in accordance with an unwritten rule. Today, marital status is no longer an issue. Women were scarce in officer ranks until the last two decades, but now incoming ranks of new officers are almost equally divided between the sexes.

The change in the status of minority officers over the years is also documented in Frontline Diplomacy, as more and more African Americans and other minorities are recruited and move into senior ranks. There are stories that document our changing society. This was not part of the original plan, but "just growed."

For those interested in how a bureaucracy works, Frontline Diplomacy spells out in great detail the internal politics of the Department of State and the policy conflicts with other elements of the government, particularly the Defense and Treasury departments, the White House, and Congress. The men and women interviewed narrate these domestic battles with the same gusto with which they speak of squabbles that they reported on in another country.

A standard interview question is, "When you arrived in Country X in such and such a year, what was the situation there?" Continuous probing of the interviewee's experience revealed more and more about that country's various situations and leadership. Interviewees' answers were not idle comments but the responses of trained observers, albeit from the points of view of American diplomats, with all that entails. Most interviewees served in multiple countries and also held several assignments in Washington. There are thousand of accounts of experiences all over the globe in the Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection—ranging from the 1920s to the present, with most accounts in the post-1945 time period.

Although the intention was to develop an oral history of American diplomats, the end result was a history of the world over the last 60-plus years. The accounts are spotty and overlap, whole decades are missing for some countries, but the richness of this collection is unparalleled, not only in America but throughout the world.

When the oral history program began in 1985 there was talk about "that great computer in the sky" which would make the oral histories easily available; the Internet was not yet a factor in setting up this collection. Over time, however, the World Wide Web became the obvious repository for these transcripts. It is hoped that the computer-literate generation will use this source of firsthand accounts about the diplomatic process both for their academic reports and for their enjoyment. The collection has an international appeal since people everywhere in the world are interested in what Americans did in their countries. This oral history program will continue to grow as there are always new retirees with unique experiences.