Jonestown, Guyana was the scene of one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history. On November 18, 1978, at the direction of charismatic cult leader Jim Jones (pictured), 909 members of the People’s Temple died, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in a “revolutionary suicide.” They included over 200 murdered children. It was the largest mass suicide in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until September 11, 2001.
Jones had established the Peoples Temple, a Christian sect, in Indianapolis in the 1950s, preaching against racism, and attracting many African Americans. After moving to San Francisco in 1971, his church was increasingly accused of financial fraud, physical abuse of its members and mistreatment of children. The paranoid Jones then moved his Temple to Guyana, to build a socialist utopia at Jonestown.
Richard Dwyer was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Guyana when the tragedy took place. In his oral history, he recounts the prelude to the massacre, how he pretended to be dead when shot at the airstrip, and how he dealt with the subsequent harrowing events. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy starting in July 1990.
Go here to read the Moment.
With rumors growing about Jonestown, a group of former Temple members and concerned relatives of current members convinced Congressman Leo Ryan (pictured) to investigate the settlement in person.
On November 17, 1978, Congressman Ryan arrived in Jonestown with a group of journalists and other observers. At first the visit went well, but the next day, as Ryan’s delegation was about to leave, several Jonestown residents approached the group and asked them for passage out of Guyana. Jones became distressed at the defection of his followers, and one of Jones’ lieutenants attacked Ryan with a knife.
The Congressman escaped from the incident unharmed, but Jones then ordered Ryan and his companions ambushed and killed at the airstrip as they attempted to leave. The Congressman and four others were murdered as they boarded their charter planes.
Read the Moment here.
In 1968, growing opposition to the failing sociopolitical and economic policies of hard-line Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, led by Antonín Novotný, finally came to a breaking point. Reformist politician Alexander Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Slovakia. The period that followed, known as the Prague Spring, saw an expansion in freedom of expression, economic liberalization and sociopolitical reform that took the country by storm and was ultimately seen as an existential threat in Moscow. As a result, four countries of the Warsaw Pact — Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria — invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20th, 1968 to stop Czechoslovakia from further liberalizing its government.
The Prague Spring, that period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia beginning in January of 1968, came to a swift end when Soviet troops, aided by other members of the Warsaw Pact, invaded the country on August 20-21. Dubček’s reforms were abandoned as he was arrested and sent to Moscow and was removed from office in April 1969. In the end, Prague 1968, like East Berlin 1953 and Hungary 1956, became just another poignant reminder of what could have been.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the winter of 1991, the newly-formed Russian Federation took on the challenge of creating a market-oriented economy from the world’s largest state-controlled economy. President Yeltsin’s economic reforms led to hyperinflation and loss of financial security for many who had depended on state pensions, and Russia’s GDP contracted an estimated 40 percent in seven years.
Adding to the complexity of making this transition was Russia’s decision to settle the USSR’s huge external debts. State enterprises were privatized and foreign investment encouraged, but changes in elements needed to support this transition, such as commercial banking and laws, did not keep pace.
Nonetheless, many Russians did prosper in the new economic environment and by the mid-1990s were enjoying the same luxury brands and fast food as their Western counterparts. Most notably, the first McDonald’s opened in the USSR on January 31, 1990.
A number of U.S. entrepreneurs saw the newly-opened market as a business opportunity, but the obstacles were daunting. Russian Federation officials tried to maintain control of parts of the market and imposed protectionist measures that made it harder for U.S. investors to operate. Some could not make a profit and were forced to give up.
Thomas Pickering, U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 1993-1996, watched this economic transformation unfold from a unique perspective. In his 2003 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, he recalls the U.S. role in Russia’s post-Soviet transition.
Read the Moment here.
Shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guard forces took hundreds of Americans and people of other nationalities hostage in Iraq and Kuwait. The intent was to use them as bargaining chips and forestall any military action against Iraq in retaliation for its invasion of Kuwait.
With hundreds of Americans being held across Iraq and Kuwait, along with many more in hiding, the American embassies in Kuwait and Iraq did all they could to safeguard American lives and provide safe transport out of Iraq and Kuwait.
With Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie out of the country on medical leave, Deputy Chief of Mission Joseph Wilson (seen in a meeting with Saddam) worked under extreme pressure and stress to secure the release and evacuation of the hostages and the maintenance of morale at an embassy that was under constant threat and unimaginable stress.
Wilson discusses how he cajoled the Foreign Ministry into releasing as many hostages as possible, resorting to the threat of bad PR with international media. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in January 2001. You can read the Moment here.
Consular officers must sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety and well-being of Americans overseas. One such officer was Dean Dizikes, who orchestrated the evacuation of 450 Americans from Egypt during the Yom Kippur War.
On October 6, 1973, Arab coalition forces attacked Israeli-held territory, and Israel swiftly retaliated. American citizens in Arab countries were in danger of being caught in the crossfire, and Dizikes was sent from the U.S. Embassy in Athens to extract American tourists from Alexandria. Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges he faced in bringing Americans to safety was the behavior of the Americans themselves.
Dizikes recounts his experiences in a 1990 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, with whom he worked in the consular section of U.S. Embassy Athens at the time of the incident. You can read the entire Moment here.
Adolph “Spike” Dubs was a career diplomat who served in Germany, Liberia, and the Soviet Union. He became a noted Soviet expert, and in 1973-74 he served as charge d’affaires at Embassy Moscow. In 1978, he was appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan following a coup d’etat which brought the Soviet-aligned Khalq faction to power.
On February 14, 1979, Dubs was kidnapped by armed militants posing as police. The kidnappers demanded the release of the imprisoned leader of their party. Hafizullah Amin’s government refused to negotiate with the militants. Dubs was then assassinated. A successor to Dubs was not named and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The U.S. embassy was finally closed in 1989 as security deteriorated.
Documents released from KGB archives in the 1990s showed that the Afghan government clearly authorized an assault on the kidnappers despite forceful U.S. demands for peaceful negotiations and that the KGB adviser on the scene may have recommended the assault as well as the execution of a kidnapper before U.S. experts could interrogate him. Dubs is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; Camp Dubs, a U.S. base in southwest Kabul, was named in his honor.
Bruce Flatin was the Political Counselor in Kabul at the time of Dubs’ assassination. He was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1993. Go here to read the Moment and other Moments on Afghanistan.
On May 1, 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured. The Eisenhower administration initially attempted to cover up the incident but was soon forced to admit that the U.S. had been conducting reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union for several years. The ensuing diplomatic crisis ended a period of warmer relations between the two superpowers and heightened Cold War tensions. Francis Gary Powers was eventually swapped for KGB agent Rudolf Abel, which was portrayed in the 2015 Spielberg movie, "Bridge of Spies."
In 2010, CIA documents were released indicating that “top US officials never believed Powers’ account of his fateful flight because it appeared to be directly contradicted by a report from the National Security Agency. He was posthumously awarded medals for fidelity and courage in the line of duty, including the Silver Star.
Vladimir I. Toumanoff was serving as a political counselor in Moscow at the time. He was interviewed by William D. Morgan in 1999. You can read the Moment here.