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The Diplomacy of Tragedy: Burmese Airways Crash Kills 14 Americans in 1987

In the early morning hours of October 11, 1987, a Burmese turboprop plane transporting 49 passengers, including 36 foreign nationals and four crew members, departed from Rangoon (now Yangon) and began its flight towards the popular tourist town of Pagan.  Approaching the airport, the plane’s wing clipped the ridge of a mountain just outside the city, sending it crashing down the ridge. All 49 people aboard the plane were killed.

Among the 49 killed were 14 Americans, seven Swiss, five British, four Australians, three West Germans, two French, and one Thai national. In the wake of this tragedy, the U.S. embassy in Rangoon was faced with the challenge of identifying and returning the bodies and belongings of the American nationals back to their families in the United States. This challenge proved difficult due to different standards of identification, the state of the victims’ bodies, and the looting of the crime scene by local villagers.

Aloysius M. O’Neill was  the Chief Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. O’Neill was the American counterpart on a team of diplomats from various embassies who were responsible for returning the nationals killed in the crash to their home countries. A career Foreign Service Officer, O’Neill served in various posts throughout East and Southeast Asia in addition to Burma (now Myanmar), including Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.  Below is an excerpt of his interview conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2008.

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Remembering Thailand’s King and the Transition to Democracy

Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, was the ninth monarch of Thailand and the longest-serving head of state in the world at the time of his death in October 2016. Beloved by his people, he was also a friend of the United States. Ambassador David Lambertson recalled his experiences with King Bhumibol and other members of the royal family in a 2004 interview.

Bhumibol’s reign began in 1946. A coup in 1957 ushered in a series of military dictatorships until Thailand began to democratize after protests in 1992. The king played a key role in democratization and what would be termed “The Crisis of 1992,” and intervened after violence and riots threatened to start a civil war. After the king’s intervention, Thailand held a general election and established a civilian government. Bhumibol was highly respected and extremely popular among his people.

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Act of Kindness: Chinese President Xi Jinping helped grant an American ambassador his final wish

Amb. John Leighton Stuart was a central figure in U.S.-China relations until his recall in 1949, when the United States broke diplomatic relations. His ashes were interred in at his childhood home in Hangzhou in 2008, with the assistance of then-Zhejiang Party Secretary Xi Jinping, now China’s powerful President.

Stuart was the first president of Yenching University in Beijing and became the United States Ambassador to China in 1946. He was recalled in 1949 when the U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with China. Stuart, whose parents were American missionaries, was born and raised in China. He died in Washington in 1962. Ambassador Stuart stipulated in his will that his final wish was to be buried in China.

Beatrice Camp was the Consul General in Shanghai from 2008-2011 and recalls how John Leighton’s final wish was largely fulfilled due to the intervention of then Party Secretary Xi Jinping, who made the arrangements for Stuart to be buried in China. Below is an excerpt from the collection “Shanghai Stories” which was published in 2013.

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Sound, Fury, Brilliance & Booze: Faulkner in Post-War Japan

William Faulkner, among the most decorated writers in American literature with the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award among his honors, was invited to Japan in 1955 under the auspices of the Exchange of Persons Branch of the United States Information Service (now consolidated into the State Department.) He was to speak at the annual Seminar in American Literature the U.S. Government sponsored for Japanese teachers of English language and literature in the mountain resort town of Nagano, then give lectures in other venues.

Enthusiasm for Faulkner in Japan was based in part on his stature in world literature, strengthened by parallels between Faulkner’s writings about the defeated South and postwar Japan, recovering from its massive losses in World War II and its rebuilding under the administration of a foreign army. Faulkner’s visit generated tremendous interest, but its overall impact was limited by his inebriation and subsequent inability to interact with some of the Japanese and American interlocutors he had been brought over to meet.  Read more

Richard Solomon, Ping-Pong Diplomat to China

China scholar Richard Solomon, who was an essential component of the “ping-pong diplomacy” that led to the thaw in relations between the United States and China, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After getting a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1966, Solomon taught political science at the University of Michigan. He left in 1971 to join the staff of the National Security Council, where he was responsible for Asian Affairs and worked with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on the normalization of relations with China. Solomon joined the Rand Corporation in 1976. Ten years later Secretary of State George Shultz recruited him to the State Department to lead the policy planning staff.

President George H.W. Bush nominated Solomon to be the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1989. In that role, Solomon helped to negotiate the 1991 Paris Agreement which helped end a long-running conflict in Cambodia. Solomon facilitated nuclear non-proliferation discussions between South Korea and North Korea and served in 1992-1993 as ambassador to the Philippines. Read more

Unexploded Ordnance, Spam and Moonshine–Life as Ambassador to Micronesia

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), sometimes known simply as Micronesia, consists of four states — Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae – spread across the Western Pacific Ocean. They are north of Australia, south of Guam, west of the Marshall Islands and almost 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Together, the states comprise 607 islands spread across a distance of almost 1,700 miles. The capital is Palikir, located on Pohnpei Island. The first Micronesians settled on the islands 4,000 years ago. 

The FSM was formerly a part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, (TTPI), a United Nations Trust Territory under U.S. administration, but it formed its own constitutional government on May 10, 1979.  FSM became a sovereign state after independence was attained on November 3, 1986 under a Compact of Free Association with the United States. Read more

The U.S. Incursion into Cambodia

When President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger vowed to find a way to end U.S. involvement in Viet Nam quickly and honorably without appearing to cave in to communist pressure. The U.S. launched a secret air campaign, thirteen major military operations, against North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. Cambodia’s neutrality and military weakness had made its territory a safe zone where North Vietnamese troops established bases for operations over the border.

President Richard Nixon gave formal authorization to commit U.S. ground  troops, fighting alongside South Vietnamese units, against North Vietnamese troop sanctuaries in Cambodia on April 28,1970. The incursion was possible because of a change in the Cambodian government in which Prince Norodom Sihanouk was replaced by pro-U.S. General Lon Nol. News of the military action in Cambodia ignited massive antiwar demonstrations in the U.S., in part because the determination to invade was made secretly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, which had closed in 1964, was in the process of reopening. The fact that only a small circle of people in Washington knew what the Nixon administration was planning to do in Cambodia, including the April 1970 incursion, complicated the work of U.S. diplomats there. Read more

Revolutionizing Public Diplomacy: U.S. Embassy Tokyo in the 1970s

The goal of public diplomacy (PD) is defined as supporting the achievement of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives, advancing national interests, and enhancing national security. It is done by informing and influencing foreign publics and strengthening the relationship between the people of the U.S. and citizens of the rest of the world. In Washington, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is in charge of the bureaus of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Public Affairs, and International Information Programs.

There has been an evolution in the practice of public diplomacy over the years since the State Department created the Office of International Information and Cultural Affairs in 1946. This office was replaced in 1953 by a separate foreign affairs agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), whose officers managed press, cultural relations and exchanges at U.S. embassies and consulates. USIA’s offices overseas were called the U.S. Information Service (USIS).

The continuing changes in Public Diplomacy are the subject of academic scrutiny, with advanced courses notably at the University of Southern California, George Washington and Syracuse. This marks a transformation from the days when communicating with foreign audiences was done in a rigidly structured way. One of the first U.S. embassies to revolutionize its approach was in Japan. In the mid-1970s, under the leadership of Alan Carter, Public Affairs Officer in Tokyo, programming in Japan shifted away from historical lectures toward two-way discussions on contemporary issues with targeted audiences. Read more

Picturing the “War of Ideas”: Wartime Film-Making in Korea

Throughout the Cold War, democratic and communist nations waged a “war of ideas.” The United States, seeking to expose the disadvantages of communism and to encourage democracy, engaged in numerous media campaigns targeted at influencing peoples in zones of Cold War conflict. The U.S. State Department, along with branches of the American military and other government agencies, published leaflets, newsreels, films, articles, and cartoons in numerous languages around the world.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), this use of soft power was intended, in the words of Public Affairs Officer James L. Stewart, “to create democratic-minded people in Korea friendly to the United States.” For much of the war, the State Department’s domestic film-making campaign in Korea was headed by a single American, William G. Ridgeway, and staffed by dozens of South Koreans who had reinvented themselves as film industry workers.

Ridgeway played a key role in sharing American ideas and shifting South Korean sentiment against communists as the Motion Picture Officer in Korea from 1950-1958. It was far from an easy task; he contended with an evacuation from Seoul, a severe dearth of equipment, and local cultural norms. 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