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Using diplomatic oral histories to make your classroom come alive

Maureen McNicholl, Coordinator of Special Projects in Education, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training

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 foreign policy, peace, and security depends largely on the skill and experience of diplomats. Diplomatic oral histories are ideally suited to the international global studies or world history classroom.

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 fosters your students’ historical empathy and helps them consider the complexity of the past. Students analyze primary sources and employ critical thinking and analysis when considering individual bias and perspective. They help students to consider multiple perspectives and compare competing narratives. 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 and makes history memorable for your students.
Primary source oral histories provide a social and cultural context that enriches your curriculum in a way that textbooks never will. Even 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 (also known as Foreign Service officers) are front-seat witnesses to many world history events, serving our nation 24/7 around the globe in often dangerous, unhealthful, or highly complex societies where knowledge of the local language and culture is essential for success. The work of U.S. 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, women’s rights, conflict resolution, the evil of human trafficking, and the need to preserve cultural and intellectual property. Diplomats promote. business to create new and better paying jobs 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. 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.

ADST’s oral history collection

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) captures, preserves, and shares the experiences of America’s diplomats 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, 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.

We also have two series of shorter products for a quick dive into our collection: 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.

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.

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