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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

December 1996

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Mr. Kennedy, director of the Foreign Affairs Oral History Program based at the Foreign Service Institute outside Washington, DC, and a retired Foreign Service officer, has provided American Diplomacy the following description of the Program and its offerings, along with an invitation to participate. -- Ed.

The Foreign Affairs Oral History Program

by Charles Stuart Kennedy

For those interested in how diplomacy was conducted by United States officials, the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training's Foreign Affairs Oral History Program offers a treasure not duplicated anywhere. There are over 700 completed, in-depth career interviews, a few starting in the 1920s and 1930s, with the majority occurring in the post World War II period. The interviews deal with the experiences and perceptions of American diplomats and consuls at over 200 posts abroad; represented are officials from the Department of State, United States Information Agency, Agency for International Development, the National Security Council, and the Departments of Defense, Labor and Agriculture. The collection is growing by about 100 new interviews each year.

The interviews are mainly conducted by retired Foreign Service officers after training by the director of the oral history program. They focus on the situation in country X at a particular time:

  • What American interests were in country X,
  • how the embassy or consulate worked and dealt with the country,
  • what the interviewed officer did, and
  • what factors bore on his or her work.

There are many insights into the influence of personalities on policy matters and on relations between the different bureaus of the Department of State, and between the State Department and the National Security Council, the Defense Department, and Congress, none of which appear in the official records. They include frank assessments of American and foreign leaders as seen by those who dealt with them from the ranks of the U.S. foreign affairs establishment.

The approach of using retired FSOs to interview other retired FSOs, and of having career interviews which cover family background, academic and military experiences as well as each posting, whether in Washington or abroad, has proved most fruitful. Interviews are unclassified, but few punches are pulled. Often the most interesting and revealing parts of the interviews concern officers' early careers. Junior officers frequently get about a country more than their more senior, desk bound, colleagues. Junior officers are often the note-takers and the flies on the wall at policy meetings, and they remember these occasions well. By using one professional to interview another, there is considerable emphasis on how things were done and how they were perceived at the time. The transcripts give a researcher an excellent feel for the times, something not easily extracted from the official records. The practicalities of diplomacy are at the center of this collection.

Some of the matters dealt with in detail are:

  • The divisions over our policy towards Greece and Cyprus during most of the post war period.
  • The frustrations in dealing with the Middle East.
  • Views of India and Pakistan from the respective embassies.
  • The Korean peninsula problem.
  • The difficulties of relations with France.
  • Working in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
  • Accounts of relations with China, Nationalist and the Peoples' Republic.
  • The Foreign Service in Vietnam, in Washington, Saigon and the provinces as well as in its neighbors, Cambodia and Laos.
  • Opening posts in the newly independent African states.
  • Panama Canal negotiations.
  • The Latin American Bureau's dealings with Central America and Grenada during the early Reagan years.
  • The Gulf War as seen from the perspective of the U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia and the assistant secretary for Middle Eastern Affairs.
  • Evacuating Mogadiscio, Somalia and Monrovia, Liberia.
  • Conducting trade negotiations with America's trading partners.
  • Nuclear and disarmament negotiations.
  • The experiences of some of the participants in the Camp David accords, as well as the views of American ambassadors from the Arab capitals.
  • The account of the Foreign Service officer trapped in the Saigon embassy with one Marine when attacked by the Viet Cong during Tet.
  • Work and life in Lebanon during its time of troubles.
  • Assassinations, coups, bombings, civil wars and natural disasters.
  • The work of consuls in protecting Americans abroad, issuing visas and passports and the problems therein (an important facet of Foreign Service work not well covered anywhere else).
  • The inside story of how some ambassadorial appointments were made.
  • How the Foreign Service really works: unexcelled and candid accounts of particular interest to those interested in the Foreign Service as a career or in evaluating it.

The program has a number of sub-projects that concentrate on the work of various branches of foreign affairs establishment, including AID, labor officers, agricultural attaches and USIA. The AID project plans to complete over 100 interviews in the next two years. Country collections have been assembled, consisting of excerpts from career oral histories that deal with service in a particular country or the country as viewed from Washington. These are available on diskette for $25, $50 or $75, depending on the size of the particular collection.

Right now transcripts from the Foreign Affairs Oral History Program can be read at the Special Collections Room of the Lauinger Library at Georgetown University. Individual interviews can be obtained from:

Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
4000 Arlington Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22204
(Tel. 703 302 6990)
(FAX 703 302 6799)
at a cost of $15 per transcript, which is sent on a diskette. In conjunction with Georgetown's Lauinger Library, the Association planning to produce by the middle of 1997 a CD ROM containing the entire collection to date. This CD will be available for purchase by libraries and researchers.

The program, begun in 1985, was originally located at George Washington University. From there it moved to Georgetown University and is now directed from offices in the Old Main Building on the campus of the State Department's National Foreign Affairs Training Center. The program is part of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, a private, not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting the training of America's diplomats through exhibits of U.S. diplomatic history, conferences, and awards to language teachers; and promoting the study of U.S. diplomacy through a research center which houses the oral history program, a small collection of manuscripts of U.S. diplomacy, and operates a publications program. The Association is supported by contributions from retired members of the Foreign Service and grants from foundations.

One of the program's major challenges has been interviewing retired people who live outside the Washington, D.C. area. It has used volunteers from academic and other institutions to help record oral histories.

Anyone who is interested in participating should contact Charles Stuart Kennedy, the director of the oral history program, at the Arlington, VA, address and telephone listed above.


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