Scenes from New Year’s Eve in the Foreign Service

Instead of celebrating, U.S. diplomats have contended with bombings, coups d’état, technology fears and other unwelcome disruptions.


Rescuers search for bodies under the rubble of the Nabil Restaurant in Baghdad, Iraq, on New Year's Eve 2003, after a car bomb blast. Photo by Stars & Stripes.

It had been a tough year for American diplomats. After the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in March 2003 and deposed President Saddam Hussein, some of them were called to serve in a war zone — not something for which they had been trained or expected to do in a diplomatic career. But they played a major role in rebuilding Iraq and helped it transition to democratic governance after decades of dictatorship.

Beth Payne was the first U.S. consul in Baghdad since the United States had broken off diplomatic relations after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. A former criminal lawyer who had joined the Foreign Service in 1993, she had served in Kuwait, Israel and Rwanda. Like her colleagues, Payne faced unique challenges in 2003, and when a friend invited her to a New Year’s Eve dinner at her house, Payne hoped for a relaxed and pleasant evening. But insurgents had other plans.

“We were sitting around the table, having this classic, fun New Year’s Eve dinner,” Payne recalled in a 2019 interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST). Not long after 9 p.m., “there was a flash that my dear friend and I both saw out of the corner of our eyes and then an incredible explosion,” she said. Not far from the house, a car bomb destroyed the Nabil Restaurant, a popular hangout for Westerners and upper-middle-class Iraqis, killing five Iraqis and injuring two dozen, including three Los Angeles Times reporters.

“There was no question that the insurgents knew what they were doing,” Payne said. Their New Year’s celebration cut short, she and her colleagues spent the night and much of the next day working with the State Department’s Operation Center, a 24-hour crisis-management hub, to arrange emergency medical care and transportation for victims of the bombing. The insurgency would grow significantly in the next few years and would eventually claim thousands of American and Iraqi lives. Payne’s Iraqi consular assistant’s brother was assassinated by the insurgents during her tour in Baghdad, she told Nicholas Kralev in his book “America’s Other Army.”

While some career diplomats serving abroad try to go home for the holidays and spend them with family, many contend with violence, coups d’état, technology fears and other unwelcome disruptions. Contrary to perceptions of glamor and highlife in diplomacy, the way of life in the Foreign Service is often marked by risks and hazards, including dangerous pollution, poor healthcare, carjackings and physical attacks.

At the end of 1999, the world was facing a very particular threat: a potential computer programming shortcut that could cause extensive havoc as the year changed to 2000, because software might not recognize the new millennium. The phenomenon became known as Y2K. The U.S. Embassy in Fiji was the first one west of the international dateline, so it would be the first to experience the new millennium and a possible Y2K catastrophe. “Somebody in the State Department figured this out and sent us a long list of things to be checked just after midnight on January 1, 2000. We had strict instructions to report back to Washington at 00:15,” Ronald McMullen, who was deputy chief of mission, told ADST in 2013.

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Having received the task of reporting to headquarters, McMullen was “grouchy” for having to miss the New Year’s celebrations. Then, shortly after midnight, the phone rang. “A man’s voice said, “This is WXKR in Toledo, Ohio. You’re live on the air. How’s the New Year in Fiji?” McMullen said that all seemed fine and, when asked if he wanted to say anything to listeners in Ohio, he realized that for them, he was the voice of tomorrow.

“After a pause, I said: ‘Do you realize that your listeners are hearing a live voice from a future millennium? And that I’m hearing a live voice from a past millennium? This doesn’t happen very often,’ and I hung up,” he recalled. “Now, I can plausibly claim to be the first person in the history of the world to have actually heard a live voice from a past millennium, because in [the year] 1000, there was no international date line, there were no telecommunications, and people didn’t know what was going on” in other parts of the world.

Y2K preparations globally included stocking up on food and medical supplies, just in case a calamity befell the planet. In Ghana, the U.S. Embassy ended up needing those stockpiles, but for a very different reason. After years of stability, the military staged a coup on Christmas Eve and imposed a curfew, leading to “a tense few days,” the embassy’s political and economic counselor at the time, Robert Jackson, told ADST in 2020. “All of our Y2K preparations and stockpiling of supplies and cash actually came in handy.”

By New Year’s Eve, most Ghanians thought the coup would lead to better things and they “enthusiastically welcomed” the new millennium, Jackson noted. But their optimism would not carry through the new year. Another major mutiny on July 4 and a contested October election led to demonstrations, riots, human rights abuses, deaths and an evacuation of embassy family members.

Back in 1979, diplomats serving at the U.S. Embassy in Taiwan witnessed how members of the Marine Security Guard lowered the U.S. flag for the last time on New Year’s Eve, before the embassy ceased operations. The next day, the United States transferred its recognition as the seat of the Chinese government from Taipei to Beijing. The embassy would be replaced by a newly established nonprofit called the American Institute in Taiwan.

Neal Donnelly, the embassy’s public affairs officer, argued that high attention back home warranted a public ceremony and media coverage when the U.S. flag came down its pole in front of the chancery, but Ambassador Leonard Unger preferred a private ceremony for the embassy staff, Donnelly told ADST in 2013. Unger even sent Donnelly to kick out the only American reporter who had snuck onto the compound in a Chinese diplomat’s car, but the journalist refused to leave.

Despite its unusual status as a “nonprofit, private corporation,” the American Institute in Taiwan has functioned as a de facto embassy ever since. The main difference is that it’s headed not by an ambassador but a director. Donnelly held that position briefly in an acting capacity in late 1980.