His Diplomatic Coup: Getting Them on the Record
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Diplomats are trained to be, you know, diplomatic, but somehow Stu Kennedy gets them to say what they really think.
He waits until they retire, then he sits them down in front of his tape recorder and pretty soon they're telling him great stories about wars and revolutions and coups -- lots of coups! -- and about the Berlin Airlift and the fall of Saigon and drug lords and dictators and how it feels to get stabbed and bombed and shot.
"The crowd started beating me up," Frank Carlucci told Kennedy, recalling the day he was attacked by a mob in the Congo in 1960. "I didn't know I'd been stabbed until I saw the pool of blood. "
"All of a sudden, the window blew in," Robert Dillon told Kennedy, describing the day in 1983 when the American embassy in Beirut was bombed. "As I lay on the floor on my back, the brick wall behind my desk blew out. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The wall fell on my legs."
"Somebody got me with a .22 long," said Richard Dwyer, remembering the worst day of his tour of duty in Guyana in 1978, when members of the People's Temple cult shot him, along with a congressman and several reporters and a group of defectors fleeing the cult's Jonestown commune. "I lay on the ground and the firing stopped. I was trying to pretend I was dead. I couldn't decide whether I would be more convincing playing dead with my eyes open or closed. . . . I heard feet on the loose stones of the dirt on the tarmac and a shotgun went off. More steps and the shotgun went off again."
Of course, not every diplomat tells Kennedy tales of mayhem and death. Some tell him stories about far more prosaic events, such as furiously attempting to find a toilet seat for the embassy in Niamey, Niger, before the vice president of the United States shows up for a visit. Or rescuing an elderly American lady in Guadalajara when she gets a bit carried away and strips naked in the lobby of a posh hotel.
Over the last 20 years, Kennedy, now 79, has heard all these stories -- and many, many more. He has interviewed nearly 800 American diplomats and collected nearly 700 interviews conducted by other people. In February, the transcripts of 1,300 of these "Frontline Diplomacy" interviews were posted on the Library of Congress Web site, thousands of anecdotes from people who witnessed some of the most important, and the most absurd, events of our time.
"Although the intention was to develop an oral history of American diplomats," Kennedy says, "the end result was a history of the world over the last 60-plus years."
Out of Death, an Epiphany
The idea was born at a funeral.
It was 1983 and Charles Stuart "Stu" Kennedy was nearing the end of a 30-year Foreign Service career that took him to Germany, Saudi Arabia, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Greece, South Korea and Italy.
"My epiphany came at a funeral for an ambassador," Kennedy recalls. "His name was Burke Elbrick and he was my ambassador when I was in Yugoslavia. He would regale us with stories about getting American citizens out of Poland when the Nazis invaded, and how he was kidnapped in Brazil."
At the funeral, Kennedy realized he'd never hear Elbrick's stories again. He looked around and saw lots of other old Foreign Service officers, all of them with great stories of adventures in exotic lands.