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His Diplomatic Coup: Getting Them on the Record

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"I thought, gosh, wouldn't it be a great idea to go around with a microphone and say, 'Tell me about the good old days' and just sit there and listen. And I'd have this archive and people would come and listen to it."

So he did it. After he retired in 1985, Kennedy teamed up with Victor Wolf, another retired Foreign Service officer, to create the Foreign Service History Center. They persuaded George Washington University to provide office space and money to pay transcribers, and they started interviewing. Kennedy's first interview subject was retired ambassador Douglas MacArthur II, a nephew of the famous general.

"I did it with a great deal of trepidation because he was known to chew people out," Kennedy says. "But the man did have some good stories to tell. He'd served as a Foreign Service officer in France when the Nazis came in and he was interned by the Germans."

In 1986, Wolf died in an automobile accident but Kennedy kept the project going. Kennedy's work has been supported since 1987 by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, a nonprofit organization devoted to diplomatic history. The association put out a CD-ROM containing 893 interviews in 2000, selling it to historians, scholars and university libraries. In 2005, Congress appropriated $100,000 to install the interviews on the Library of Congress Web site.

Meanwhile, Kennedy kept working, typically conducting two interview sessions a day, each two hours long. In March of last year, he quit briefly, sidelined by a triple bypass heart operation. But he was back in action six weeks later.

"I'm a curious man," he explains. "And these are people who were in interesting places at interesting times."

His philosophy of interviewing is simple: "I ask a question and then listen to what they say and then ask a question about what they said."

"He has a feel for how to ask questions and how to draw people out," says Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a China scholar and history professor at Georgetown University. "He's a very good interviewer."

Tucker is one of several historians who have used material from Kennedy's interviews in books. For her book "China Confidential," Tucker wove excerpts from dozens of the interviews to tell the story of American relations with China. She also helped Kennedy interview Winston Lord, a former ambassador to China, which turned out to be the longest interview in the collection -- 32 hours of talk, 1,200 pages of transcript.

"My interviews keep getting longer," Kennedy says.

The reason, he explains, is that he asks more questions about his subjects' childhoods. He's fascinated by the endless variety of American childhoods -- on farms or in ghettos or at ritzy boarding schools. Or, in the case of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a youth spent in the '60s California subcultures of surfing and student radicalism.

Kennedy interviewed Wilson in 2001, long before Wilson became famous as the husband of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. He told Kennedy that he applied to the University of California at Santa Barbara after seeing photos of a nearby beach in a surfing magazine. When he arrived in 1967, he found that the campus was a hotbed of student activism; radicals torched the local Bank of America during one protest. It was a lot like Berkeley, but with one subtle difference.

"We used to say that the difference between Berkeley and Santa Barbara was that Berkeley was a commuter school, which, being a highly politicized school, knew the value of getting their riots in during the day so they could be on the evening news," Wilson told Kennedy. "We in Santa Barbara had other things to do during the day, like surfing and smoking dope and drinking red wine. We could never get together to go rioting until after the sun had gone down. But our riots were every bit as intense."

"What was your involvement in these campus activities?" Kennedy said.

"I never played any role in the antiwar movement," Wilson replied. "A couple of my roommates and I walked through the Bank of America when it was burning but we didn't actually light any matches. We didn't throw any rocks, although I had a friend, a fraternity brother, who was a member of the golf team, who would sit out behind the house and hit pitching wedges into the police roadblocks."

History: It always turns out to be a little weirder than you expected.

Still Having Fun

"When I started this program," Kennedy says, sitting in the association's office in Arlington, "I thought, 'There's got to be a great computer in the sky somewhere that can get all this stuff out.' And soon we learned about the Internet."

The Internet is the perfect place for these interviews. If you printed them all out, they'd fill a room. Instead, all you have to do is Google "Frontline Diplomacy." That gets you into the collection and then you can search for whatever you want: Vietnam or Mao or Kissinger or Saddam or . . . perhaps something less lofty.

For sheer entertainment value, its hard to beat Kennedy's interview with Anthony Quainton, who was the American ambassador to the Central African Republic during the reign of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the megalomaniacal dictator who in 1977 crowned himself emperor in an elaborate ceremony modeled on Napoleon's coronation.

"We were sent appropriate instructions in a diplomatic note on how to comport ourselves in the presence of His Imperial Majesty -- including instructions as to how far we should stand from him, what kind of bow we should make, how we should answer questions from the imperial personage," Quainton told Kennedy. "The answer to any question, we were instructed, was always to be 'Yes.' But if that left something to be desired, you were permitted to say, 'Yes, but . . .' "

The ambassador wondered: What is the appropriate coronation gift for a dictator who is crowning himself emperor?

"The office of protocol came up with two plates from the Franklin Mint," Quainton recalled. "Sometime in the 1970s, the Franklin Mint had produced a series of very elegant silver plates engraved in gold with portraits of the presidents of the United States. Some of these were long since gone -- John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. -- but Chester Arthur and Millard Fillmore were still in stock."

The coronation cost $20 million, which was a third of the country's annual budget. It took place in a basketball arena.

"There was a great golden throne in the shape of an imperial eagle," Quainton said. "Bokassa himself wore a Roman toga embroidered with a hundred thousand pearls. He came wearing a golden laurel wreath in his hair, and an imperial toga and staff. As in the case of Napoleon, he crowned himself in the presence of his family, visiting delegations and selected guests. He then drove in a coach pulled by six white horses, which had been flown from Paris."

It's stories like that that keep Stu Kennedy going. He's not planning to quit anytime soon. He's got a list of 560 more people he'd like to interview, and more diplomats keep retiring every month.

"I'm having fun," he says. "I've probably had the greatest seminar in American foreign policy that anyone has ever had." He smiles. "Unfortunately, my memory isn't all that great, so I don't remember most of it."

Now, of course, he doesn't have to remember it because it's all online, available free to anybody on Earth.

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