U.S. Diplomats Tell All For Oral History Project

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His distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service included serving as consul general in some half a dozen cities around the world, notably Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Yet his greatest contribution to the Foreign Service, and to his country, is the work he has been doing since his retirement.

Charles Stuart “Stu” Kennedy retired in 1985, completing 30 years in the diplomatic corps. Rather than sail off into the sunset though, Kennedy took retirement as an occasion to poke around for something else to do. At a funeral for an ambassador at that time, he heard interesting stories from other diplomats in attendance, and it struck him that their stories would make for fascinating listening. So he decided to spend his retirement collecting these stories on tape.

Kennedy got a tape recorder and with the assistance of colleagues began interviewing retired diplomats and mining their rich professional experiences. Today, 22 years and some 1,400 interviews later, Kennedy’s ongoing project is a major contribution to the public record of America’s diplomacy since World War II and an invaluable resource for students and scholars of modern U.S. history. It’s also an entertaining compilation of tales by former diplomats free of their so-called “diplospeak” shackles and recounting everything from the serious to the strange with an honesty that only comes with retirement.

The narrative collection, “Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training” (ADST), can be accessed on the Web site of the Library of Congress. The collection is produced by ADST, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit where Kennedy works.

According to ADST, the massive oral history project “presents a window into the lives of American diplomats. Transcripts of interviews with U.S. diplomatic personnel capture their experiences, motivations, critiques, personal analyses and private thoughts. These elements are crucial to understanding the full story of how a structure of stable relationships that maintained world peace and protected U.S. interests and values was built.”

The interviews are conducted mostly with Foreign Service officers, but there are also some political appointees and other officials. Although elements of 1920s-, 1930s-, and World-War-II-era diplomacy are covered, most of the interviews span the major diplomatic crises and issues that the United States faced during the second half of the 20th century and, as new interviews are added, will include developments in the 21st century.

Stu Kennedy is a great big bear of a man with a heart as large as his stature. At 79, he is as vigorous and robust as any man one-third his age. Having originated the narrative project, he continues to be its primary producer, and he has no intention of giving up his passion anytime soon.

“I am doing this project out of love and it’s entertaining,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of listening to stories, and I wouldn’t know what I’d do with myself otherwise.”

And those stories run the gamut—from insider accounts of the Vietnam War and Cold War, for example, to sillier fodder of diplomatic faux pas and comic encounters, to amazing first-hand insights into a plethora of U.S. and foreign leaders.

It’s a world Kennedy enthusiastically immersed himself in. “My interest since school has been history. I majored in it,” noted the 1950 graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, the Chicago native enlisted in the Air Force and served in the Korean War before he returned to the United States to study Russian. Kennedy received a master’s degree in history from Boston University in 1955, the year he entered the Foreign Service. Between stints stateside, Kennedy’s diplomatic career took him to Frankfurt, Dhahran (Saudi Arabia), Belgrade, Saigon, Athens and Naples.

One of Kennedy’s strongest literary influences was a novel by Kenneth Roberts called “Oliver Wiswell,” which depicted the American Revolution from the Loyalist point of view. “It opened my eyes to the other side of history and not to accept one version,” Kennedy said. “It was a great preparation for the Foreign Service.”

During his lengthy service, Kennedy said his life as a diplomat was largely routine, in contrast to the melodramatics often portrayed in novels and on the big screen. As consul general in Saigon in the mid-1960s, he did witness some violence and spent a lot of his time bailing American civilians out of jail. “These people,” he said, “were involved in the black market and the South Vietnamese didn’t want them around. I got them out of jail and had them shipped back to the States.”

Although Saudi Arabia used to be a “very sleepy” country, Kennedy also bailed out Americans who became ensnarled in the country’s Byzantine traffic laws. Kennedy, who was vice consul in Dhahran from 1958 to 1960, spent some of his time helping Americans who had been jailed for their involvement in traffic accidents, even if they were not at fault.

Kennedy also enjoyed plenty of lighter moments—for example, during his time in Dhahran, “we had responsibility for what are now the United [Arab] Emirates,” he writes on the ADST Web site. “It was a very quiet place before the oil revenues hit the area. I was invited by the ruler of one of the emirates to his place out in the desert, and I remember we sat on beautiful Persian carpets spread on the sand under date trees sipping Pepsi Cola and listened to the emir’s collection of Elvis Presley records.”

But there were those brushes with violence and death to which diplomats are increasingly exposed. “In 1963, I was posted in Skopje, Yugoslavia, as chief of consul,” recalled Kennedy. “There was an earthquake and I had to go to the morgue to identify dead Americans after a hotel collapsed.”

In the early 1970s, Kennedy was consul general in Athens when a small car bomb went off. His wife was sitting in the car at the time but was not hurt. Kennedy says the bomb was planted by a local physician as a protest against U.S. support of the military junta then in power.

“Diplomats are often in harm’s way,” he said. “More ambassadors have been killed since World War II by hostile action than U.S. military generals. Though most nations subscribe to diplomatic immunity, many groups operate outside these standards, and diplomats are a soft target.”

Kennedy’s biggest challenge now, however, is to get his interviewees to talk candidly about their experiences and views. With professionals who have been trained to play their cards close to the vest, this might be a formidable task, but Kennedy’s colleagues universally praise the man for his ability to ask good questions and to sit back and let his subjects speak without interruption. Kennedy also has the motivations of his speakers in his favor—and of course it helps that they’re retired.

“I’m dealing with articulate, highly intelligent people who are interested that we are creating a historical record for others to use,” he said. “These are diplomats who hope their experiences and views will be acknowledged.

“I find people to interview primarily through word of mouth or I ask someone who has worked with so and so. It’s a haphazard approach,” he added. “The collection includes people at various diplomatic levels as well as generals, other military personnel, and political appointees. It’s a broad spectrum. People you have never heard about have done all sorts of interesting things. When people get to be a certain age, many look for validation. They are proud of what they’ve done.”

Although his subjects sometimes orally edit their narratives in the interest of, well, diplomacy, Kennedy said, “Usually the people I interview are pretty objective. Because of my own experience, it’s hard for them to BS me. My interviews are relatively frank.”

Kennedy’s interviews typically run six hours to 10 hours long but some can take up to 20 hours or more. The oldest man interviewed was 99. Kennedy normally does 15 hours of interviews a week.

Kennedy noted that the U.S. oral history collection is now linked with a British equivalent, the Churchill Collection, housed at the University of Cambridge. He said he hopes that over time the U.S. narratives will be linked to similar collections from additional countries.

“It would be a shame and potentially a great loss,” Kennedy said, “if the collection were to remain dominated by Anglo-American material. Our hope is that other points of view can be added and enrich the overall story—such as oral histories from our traditional allies and other nations steeped in diplomatic history.”

About the Author

Alan B. Nichols is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999