HM - November 2017 - McNicholl

Partners in History

Making the Case for Diplomatic Oral Histories
Maureen McNicholl
Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
"The good diplomat must have an observant mind [and] sound judgment. The diplomat must be quick, resourceful, a good listener, courteous, and agreeable. Above all, the good negotiator must possess enough self-control to resist the longing to speak before he has thought out what he actually intends to say. He must have a calm nature, be able to suffer fools gladly, which is not always easy.”
––French diplomat François de Callières (1645–1717)
Diplomacy is the art of conducting international relations, forming alliances, and exercising tact and skill in dealing with people of varied backgrounds to advance the nations’ interests and security. The success of our foreign policy, peace, and security depends largely on the skill and experience of diplomats. Article II, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution authorizes the president to appoint diplomats, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. From 1789 to 1924, the Diplomatic Service, which staffed U.S. embassies, and the Consular Service, which promoted American commerce and assisted distressed American sailors, developed separately. The Rogers Act of 1924 merged these two parts into the U.S. Foreign Service that we know today.
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) captures, preserves, and shares the experiences of America’s diplomats (also known as Foreign Service officers, or FSOs) to strengthen public understanding of diplomacy’s contribution to our national interest.  ADST was established in 1986 as a nonprofit organization by retired U.S. Department of State Foreign Service officers. Over the past three decades, ADST’s collection of primary source oral histories, available free at and at the Library of Congress website, now exceeds 2000 interviews and some are even on podcasts. Our interview collection is a record of those who represented America as diplomats since World War II. They provide a context of many locations and the events that shaped today’s world from the point of view of those who often worked quietly, behind the scenes, to help develop U.S. security and prosperity.  
ADST also has two series of shorter resources: Moments in Diplomatic History and Fascinating Figures. Moments highlight events in diplomatic history such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and Mexican Immigration Talks. Fascinating Figures focus on an individual who has influenced diplomatic history. For example, we feature Betty Allan, a female code-breaker during World War II, as well as  “the Velvet Hammer,” Secretary of State James Baker III. Finally, we have the longer Country Readers series, which contain the experiences of many diplomats and provide an overview of U.S. relations with a particular country.
Using Oral History as a Primary Source
Primary sources are the raw materials of history. They differ from secondary sources created by researchers and writers lacking firsthand experience. Examining primary sources gives your students a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past. Students analyze primary sources and employ critical thinking and analysis when considering individual bias and how one’s understanding of an event changes over time. Primary sources help to answer the essential questions of how historians learn about the past and how the past informs our understanding of the present.
Simply put, oral histories make your classroom content come alive. Primary source oral histories provide a social and cultural context that enriches your curriculum in a way that simple descriptions do not. Historical records and documents often lack the everyday experiences of people, how they felt about a particular topic, why they made certain decisions, and how historical events impacted their personal lives. These frontline diplomats explain both what they thought at the time and what they now understand in the light of further experience and reflection. The oral histories enable students to see how they can be agents of change by learning about the impact U.S. diplomats made in unique circumstances. 
Why study the work of diplomats in your classroom?
First, diplomats are front-seat witnesses to many world history events, serving our nation 24/7 around the world in often dangerous, unhealthful, or highly complex societies where knowledge of the local language and culture is essential for success. The work of our diplomats is largely unsung, often occurring behind closed doors or in far-flung locations inaccessible to the general public. Reading their oral histories is a way to illuminate the world of American diplomacy. It engages students in history through storytelling.  
Foreign Service officers work on a broad range of important issues that relate directly to social studies curricula, such as environmental issues, climate change, counterterrorism, women’s rights, conflict resolution, the evil of human trafficking, and the need to preserve cultural and intellectual property. FSOs promote U.S. business to create new and better paying jobs for Americans and help foreign countries protect basic human rights like freedom of speech, religion, and fair judicial systems.  Foreign Service officers are often the first on the scene during natural disasters around the world. They have saved many Americans who got lost or sick or have been victims of crimes abroad. 
Next, to do their jobs well, diplomats become experts in the language, politics, economics, history, culture, and traditions of the country to which they are assigned. Diplomats work with a fascinating range of people from artists and musicians to journalists and scientists. They conduct high-level discussions with foreign leaders, analyze political and economic developments, write speeches for their ambassadors, and connect with foreign citizens through social media. Above all, they are masters at communicating across cultures.  
In sum, primary source diplomatic oral histories provide your students with a rare, front-seat glimpse into our nation’s role in many of the most significant international events over the last seven decades. These unique stories help students understand individual and institutional agency in response to historical conditions. Finally, using oral histories provide opportunities for your students to analyze the authenticity and credibility of sources and develop perspectives of time and place, all higher-order thinking skills.

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.