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November 2005

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U.S. FOREIGN RELATIONS THROUGH FSO LENSES-AS IT “REALLY HAPPENED”

Frontline Diplomacy: The U.S. Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection. Edited by Marie Bentley and Marie Warner. (Arlington, VA: Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, 2001. $145 CD-ROM.

Review by David W. Thornton

This 'bottom-up' angle on the formulation and implementation of U. S. foreign policy . . . will be of particular interest to FSOs and others having personal connections to the people and events chronicled on the CD . . . . The candid content and conversational tone of the interviews gives them a depth and credibility that simply cannot be found in secondary sources, official versions, or even in memoirs.

Published in 2001, this CD-ROM is the first installment in an ongoing project of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) to preserve the oral history of U. S. foreign relations. It contains the transcripts of 893 interviews with FSOs who served the U. S. around the world during the middle and latter parts of the twentieth-century. As a record of their recollections and perspectives on developments both momentous and mundane, it is an essential resource for those interested in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy, as well as for insight into the daily life of the FSO.

Since beginning its work in 1986, ADST has recorded and transcribed over 1400 interviews with former diplomats. About eighty are added each year, with the latest batch released in March 2005. The audiotaped sessions were conducted mostly by Charles Stuart Kennedy and other retired FSOs, and their content reviewed and verified by each interviewee before publication. Some of the earliest material contained in the interviews dates back to the 1920s, while the later records cover much more recent events and developments, including the first Gulf War and the Balkan conflicts. In addition to the CD-compilation, transcripts of individual histories-both in print and on diskette-can be obtained from ADST. The original tapes of the interviews are held at Georgetown University. ADST is working with the Library of Congress to make the interview transcripts eventually available online.

The CD is a valuable reference and research tool for students of American diplomacy. Using the search feature permits the reader to browse the contents alphabetically by the interviewees' last names, and the text or any portion of it can be highlighted and annotated for subsequent reference. The contents are also organized into Country Readers, with the specific parts of interviews relevant to any particular country excerpted. For example, the full interview with Dr. Paul M. Kattenburg* can be found under his name in the Interviews Database, while the parts of that interview pertinent to his service in Indonesia and Vietnam can be found in the Country Reader database under those respective countries. The user-friendly Research Guide contains several very helpful features, including an alphabetized list of all interviewees by their posting locations, a list of acronyms and abbreviations, and guidance on citation.

This “bottom-up” angle on the formulation and implementation of U. S. foreign policy will naturally be of particular interest to FSOs and others having personal connections to the people and events chronicled on the CD, but this perspective will be at least as enlightening to those not so familiar with real world diplomacy. The candid content and conversational tone of the interviews gives them a depth and credibility that simply cannot be found in secondary sources, official versions, or even in memoirs. While not intended to provide a comprehensive account of U. S. foreign policy, the interviews provide a useful complement to and corrective for narratives that portray it as merely derivative of doctrine or as the inevitable consequence of objective conditions. Instead, in plain view are the institutional tensions and personality conflicts that are the stuff of diplomacy as it really happens. The interviews capture FSOs trying to make some larger sense of perhaps connected but certainly not coordinated events unfolding with relentless pace in thousands of strange if not always exotic locations, as they seek both to define and achieve U. S. objectives.

In reading the interviews, the innumerable references to countless individuals, and the anecdotes of their impromptu conversations, chance meetings, and fleeting encounters as they pursue both professional goals and personal priorities reveal the contingent character of policy as it really made. The focus on the people actually involved in the process accentuates the inherently indeterminate interaction of perceptions and events, and shows that policy derives not from an overarching plan, but instead emerges from the collision of doctrine with the often intractable and unanticipated developments on the ground. Therefore, this CD provides unique and enduring documentation of the fact that our FSOs truly are the front line of American diplomacy.

ADST was founded in 1986 and is located at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC) in Arlington, Virginia. In addition to the Oral History Program, the ADST publishes the Diplomats and Diplomacy Series in conjunction with DACOR (Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired). A relatively recent and well-received addition in this series is Building Diplomacy: The Architecture of American Embassies by Elizabeth Gill Lui. Published in October 2004, this oversized volume contains hundreds of photographs of U. S. diplomatic properties and facilities around the world, along with information about their designers and architects. The more recently inaugurated Memoirs and Occasional Papers Series continues to grow as well, with its fourth and most recent volume by former ambassador Robert E. Gribbin on the U. S. role in Rwanda released in March 2005. ADST is also currently working with the U.S. Institute for Peace interviewing Foreign Service personnel who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. And finally, ADST is consulting with both the Department of State and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in developing exhibits of artifacts relating to the history of American diplomacy.

*The use of Paul Kattenburg's entry as an example here is meant to recognize and remember both his service to his country and his influence on countless lives as a professor, mentor, and friend. Dr. Kattenburg passed away in June 2004.


Dr. David W. Thornton, a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy, is Associate Professor of Government and Director of Government Studies at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. He is the author of Airbus Industrie: The Politics of an International Industrial Collaboration (1995)

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