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“A Special Place in My Heart:” Memories of USAID in Vietnam

Images of the U.S. military in Vietnam are part of the American consciousness. But these images are only part of the story. Often, the lives and sacrifices of USAID workers are overlooked, but they too faced enormous danger, joined with the military to deliver supplies to locals, promoted development in dangerous areas, worked with hamlet chiefs and ordinary civilians, and witnessed the unexpected loss of their friends. Some USAID workers even died. Sidney Chernenkoff’s first overseas assignment with USAID was in Vietnam at the height of the war.  His service is an excellent example of the complexity and value of USAID’s contributions to a war that remains controversial long after it has ended.

Chernenkoff initially joined USAID after spotting an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle that said the agency was hiring for service in Vietnam. He was interviewed, scored highly on a language aptitude test, and was sent to Hawaii for six months to learn Vietnamese.  He then boarded a plane in March 1967, arriving in Vietnam just as the war was entering its most intense phase. Chernenkoff worked as a part of the CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support) program in the town of Tuy Phuoc, about 300 miles northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). 

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Geiger Counters, and a Nanny Who Became a Millionaire—Establishing a USAID Mission in Kazakhstan

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, USAID made Central Asia a top priority—“no matter where you were posted and where you were on your current assignment” employees were urged to head there. Jonathan Addleton was working for USAID in post-apartheid South Africa. Central Asia intrigued him, and the organization quickly agreed to send Addleton to help establish the first USAID mission in Kazakhstan, “land of the Great Steppe.” Addleton served as a program officer, with responsibilities across Central Asia. Addleton’s spouse, Fiona, called Almaty “the hardest assignment [they] ever had.”

Their apartment measured just over 200 square feet, and they had to fit their sons Iain and Cameron in as well. Because of concerns regarding nuclear waste in the area, the Addleton family needed geiger counters for their residence—and years later Fiona and an unusual number of their friends developed thyroid cancer. The children’s nanny was eager to work for the family, and to learn English. When Addleton returned twenty years later, the nanny had a beautiful home, drove a Lexus, and owned vacation property on the Turkish coast.

Born and raised in Pakistan as the son of missionaries, Addleton returned to spend much of his professional life in Asia. He was posted to Kazakhstan from 1993–1996 as a Program Officer and served as USAID Mission Director from 2013–2015. He holds a BSc in journalism, history, and Asian Studies from Northwestern University and a PhD in international development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He served as ambassador to Mongolia 2009–2012.

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Death, Love and Conspiracy: The Nepalese Royal Massacre of 2001

Facing domestic unrest, including a Maoist insurgency, the Nepalese royal family never suspected that the greatest threat to the monarchy lived within the palace walls. On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra of Nepal got drunk and high (as he often did). Stumbling into the royal dining hall, the prince gunned down King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, and eight other members of the royal entourage, including his younger siblings. The prince allegedly then turned the gun on himself in an attempt to commit suicide. He failed to end his own life and plunged into a coma. As heir to the throne, the murderous Crown Prince Dipendra was declared King of Nepal. He reigned for three days in the hospital before being declared brain dead.

The massacre left the Nepalese population deeply traumatized. They “viewed the king as a god. Literally a god,” according to Larry Dinger, the senior American diplomat in Nepal at the time of the massacre. Many Nepalese remain suspicious of the official story, pointing to inconsistencies in the evidence. Supposedly, Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his family so he could be with the woman he loved. While attending school in the UK, he fell for Devyani Rana, a Nepalese woman from an important family. He wanted to marry her, but his mother—the Queen—disallowed it because Devyani’s grandmother was a concubine. The prince was willing to give up his title to marry her, but Devyani said she would only marry him if she became queen. After learning this, Crown Prince Dipendra “put on his camouflage fatigues. . . . He went into [the] Friday evening royal family gathering and shot the place up.” After the collapse of the royal family, various political groups vied for influence in the government. Although it took several years, the Nepalese royal massacre eventually paved the way for the multi-party system that Nepal has today.

Larry Dinger served in Nepal as Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy when the tragedy unfolded at Narayanhity Royal Palace. He would later go on to serve as ambassador to Micronesia, Fiji (and concurrently Tuvalu, Tonga, Nauru, Kiribati), and as Chief of Mission in Burma.

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The Struggle for Equal Rights: LGBTQ Advocacy in the Foreign Service

While working at the U.S. embassy in Seychelles in 1985, David Buss fell in love with a Peace Corps volunteer, David Larson. After their relationship became common knowledge, Buss was investigated by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Allegedly, the State Department was concerned that foreign persons could blackmail Buss because of his sexual orientation. Buss did not buy this. He said that the investigation was a “witch hunt,” meant to intimidate him and to identify other LGBTQ+ State Department personnel. Buss soon learned of dozens of other similar ongoing investigations. He decided to take action.

In 1992, Buss and Larson hosted a now-famous brunch—bringing together federal employees from several different departments—in an effort to establish an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. After a series of meetings, the “Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies” (GLIFAA) was formed. Buss was the first president. The founding members were so worried about the consequences of these meetings that one of the first rules of the organization was that there would be “no outing of or speculation about anyone present at the meeting or not present.” GLIFAA fought hard for concrete non-discrimination policies and for official recognition of their romatic partners. After founding GLIFAA, serving as its president, and nurturing the organization through its formative years, Buss retired from the State Department in 2006. He was finally able to marry Larson four years later.

David Buss was born and grew up in Homewood, Illinois. After high school, he was recruited by the CIA. While visiting his girlfriend in Kinshasa a few years later, Buss was offered a job working for the embassy’s commissary, which he accepted. He went on to serve as a GSO in Port-au-Prince, Dar es Salaam, and Nouakchott. While working as the Chargé d’affaires in Seychelles, Buss met and fell in love with his future husband, David Larson. Buss eventually returned to Washington, where he passed the Foreign Service exam and became an FSO in 1992. He continued to work in embassies across the world, finally ending up at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Buss retired in 2006 and moved to Poughkeepsie, New York with Larson, where they live to this day.

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Strong-arming Other Donors: Part of USAID’s Response to Famine in Ethiopia

Described by one reporter as “a biblical famine in the 20th century,” the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine was a humanitarian crisis that was initially little known to much of the rest of the world.  For six months, General Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the military junta ruling Ethiopia, refused to acknowledge the famine–even as millions of people starved. When USAID Administrator Peter McPherson visited Ethiopia at the height of the famine, he was appalled by the scope of the suffering.  And he resolved to take action.

Back in Washington, McPherson met with President Reagan and showed him photographs of the famine.  In an Oval Office meeting, Reagan agreed to overlook political differences with the Mengistu regime and uttered the famous words, “a hungry child knows no politics.”   U.S. policy changed, and the aid began to flow. The Live Aid concert and expanded press coverage solidified public engagement and support. But McPherson’s engagement with Reagan was also critical.

McPherson returned to Ethiopia and was again outraged, this time by delays in food delivery.  USAID hired its own vehicles to transport food aid from Ethiopian ports to people in need. Other donors relied upon the Mengistu government to transport the food, and refused to publicly hold the government accountable when the vehicles did not show up.  McPherson asked a colleague to surreptitiously photograph other donors’ clearly-marked food assistance lying uncollected at the ports. Armed with photographs of wasted food and visible donor names, McPherson gave local ambassadors a choice: join USAID in issuing a public call to action or be embarrassed before a global public that was finally beginning to pay attention to the crisis.  Days later, a press conference was held and the food began to move.

During his tenure as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (1981-87), Peter McPherson combined realism and idealism to protect USAID from budget cuts, a loss of relevance, and domination by the State Department. He worked on diverse challenges—from family planning in China to economic policy in Egypt—and was equally adept in political battles as in meeting the challenges of promoting development and providing humanitarian aid around the world.  Read more

Persuading an Arms Dealer to Come Clean in a New South Africa

Yacht trips, golf junkets, and private receptions with Oprah. These are rare events even in elevated diplomatic careers.  Yet William Center, who served in the U.S. Commercial Service during a period of tremendous economic change, experienced all this and more.  His time in South Africa after the fall of apartheid was particularly notable. He faced new political leaders deeply suspicious of the United States.  He also faced business leaders who had operated at the margins of international commerce under the apartheid government—and sometimes broke U.S. laws. He even managed to persuade a major South African arms manufacturer to come clean on secret transactions with Libya—clearing the way above-board trade with the United States.

By the late 1990’s, South Africa had emerged as a new democracy no longer plagued by apartheid and international isolation. The country faced an unprecedented opportunity to forge stronger economic ties to the rest of the world.  However, efforts to break into the United States and global markets met negative perceptions of the African continent, and limited understanding of how quickly South Africa was changing. In some cases, however, South Africa was not changing fast enough.  Many of the countrys biggest firms had been tied up in the illegal activities of the apartheid government. Nowhere was this issue more acute than in the country’s vast arms industry, which had long supplied rogue regimes in violation of international sanctions.  Case in point: arms sales to Libya. Center used every tool at his disposal to overcome the legacy of apartheid, illegal behavior by prominent firms, and enduring distrust of the United States.

William Center spent 30 years in the U.S. Commercial Service (1984-2014). He majored in History at Brown University. After college, he moved to Taiwan for three years to learn Chinese. Returning home unemployed, Center had a happenstance encounter at a Seder dinner, and learned that the newly established Foreign Commercial Service was scrambling to hire Mandarin speakers. He was soon posted in Hong Kong, and later, Shenyang, China in the midst of the country’s opening to the outside world. Center then went on to serve in Paris for five years before returning to China as the principal commercial officer in Shanghai from 1997 to 1999. Following his work in South Africa, Center worked as an adviser at the World Bank as well as at the U.S. embassies in Islamabad and London before retiring in 2014.  

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Diamonds, Coal, and the Dutch Queen—NBC’s First Female Broadcaster Escapes The Netherlands in 1940

Reporting live from a shortwave radio station near the German border at the beginning of World War II, NBC’s first female correspondent, could hear the bombs begin to land outside her Dutch radio station—and so could her audience. Margaret Rupli Woodward knew it was time to go.

In May 1940, Woodward was living in the Netherlands with her husband, a British newspaperman. She’d only recently begun reporting for NBC.  When CBS hired its first female correspondent, NBC felt compelled to follow suit. Woodward, an American woman in war-torn Europe with little else to do, found herself working unexpectedly as a radio journalist.  She spent several months reporting on live shortwave radio, telling American audiences what was happening in the warand now the Germans were bringing it to her door.

To flee the invading Nazis forces, the Woodwards found passage on a British coal barge, alongside the Sadler’s Wells ballet company.  There was an even more important passenger in nearby waters. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands escaped on a British destroyer that sailed from Holland on the same day as the coal barge.  In the commotion, and using her American citizenship to her advantage, Margaret Rupli Woodward was able to smuggle out a Dutch Jewish woman’s entire wealth in diamonds by wearing them as her own.

One of very few female American radio journalists reporting from Europe during World War II, Woodward’s radio career ended after she returned to the United States. Woodward supported the war effort with a job in the U.S. Civil Service, and after the war worked with refugees and displaced persons in Europe. She went on to travel and work across the United States, Europe, and Asia. In 1958, Woodward was able to join the Foreign Service, serving as an economic officer in Ottawa, Canada. In retirement, she returned to the Washington, D.C. home she had grown up in.

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How Soviet Astronauts Met Stars in America

Two Soviet astronauts—a general and a scientist—come to visit the United States. They ride roller coasters at Disneyland, donkeys at the Grand Canyon, and a presidential plane through the sky—and then, they drop in on an A-list Hollywood party. It’s not the opening line of a joke, or the premise of a comedy film—it happened, courtesy of State Department employee William R. Codus in 1969. Invited by U.S. Astronaut Frank Borman, the two Soviet cosmonauts, Major General Georgy Beregovoy of the Russian Air Force and civilian scientist Konstantin Feoktistov, were part of a delegation that did a two-week sightseeing tour of the United States in October of 1969. 

The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union had already peaked that summer when the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon on July 20, 1969.   The Space Race began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. The competition for dominance in spaceflight capabilities led to more than a decade of fervent scientific exploration and discovery, courtesy of dozens of pioneers in space exploration—like Borman, Beregovoy, and Feoktistov. 

“Advance Man” William R. Codus spent his career as the State Department’s Assistant Chief of Protocol for Visits, organizing and scheduling trips around the country and around the world for presidents, First Ladies, foreign dignitaries, dictators and many others. He managed visits to Africa for Mrs. Nixon, cruises for Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain and eventually, after retirement, public relations for First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos and the Philippine government. In sum, William R. Codus’ position with the State Department allowed him to meet the stars of government, politics, the arts — and actual astronauts.  

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Fake Eyeglasses and an Elaborate Ruse: Escaping Iran During the 1979 Hostage Crisis

With forged passport in hand, Kathleen Stafford donned fake eyeglasses and pulled her long hair back. If this plan worked, she would finally be free. Kathleen, a foreign service spouse, had been in hiding for the past three months. On November 4, 1979, Islamist revolutionaries attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Smoke billowed from the building, shattered glass peppered the floor, and many embassy personnel were led out of the building blindfolded and bound. Through luck and quick thinking, Kathleen and a small group of fellow Americans managed to evade capture, but they had no way to leave the country. Fortunately, the Canadian ambassador agreed to hide Kathleen and her companions until the situation cooled down. But when days turned into weeks, it became clear that the new Iranian Islamic Republic was not going to free the hostages, and would continue to look for the escapees. 

One day, a CIA officer showed up under alias “Kevin Harkin” to relay the final plan for escape. Kathleen and the other Americans would pretend to work for a Canadian movie production company. “Harkin” gave them business cards, a magazine with an advertisement for the movie site, and disguises. As a final step, the group “tossed everything we had from the USA, everything we owned that had any sort of American brand on it.” Then they headed for the airport, and after many tense moments, they made it onto a commercial flight.  Meanwhile, the Canadian ambassador closed his mission and quietly escaped. This story was later captured in the 2012 movie Argo, which won Best Picture at the Oscars.

Although she was physically unharmed, Kathleen bore the mental toll of the Iranian hostage crisis for a long time.  It would take another year for the remaining American hostages to be released. Kathleen frequently dreamt that she was on a plane, and “the other hostages would be on the plane, but they wouldn’t talk to me.” Once an avid painter, Kathleen found that “everything I’d paint, I’d ruin.” She concluded that this was all the result of survivor guilt.  When the hostages were finally released, Kathleen flew to Italy to meet them and express her joy that they were finally free. The dreams stopped and she began painting again.

Kathleen Stafford is the spouse of Foreign Service Officer Joe Stafford. They married in 1972. Seven years later, they were stationed in Tehran, immediately before the Iranian hostage crisis. Kathleen went on to serve in consular sections in Italy and Tunisia. She also worked as an art teacher for several years, and continued to paint. Joe retired from the Foreign Service in 2014.

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