By Kristine Sasala
“American diplomats need to do a better job learning about the history and culture of their host countries,” said retired Foreign Service Officer John Dickson during a presentation in the Ralph J. Bunche Library Speaker Series, Feb. 15.
Dickson’s discussion of his recent book, “History Shock: When History Collides with Foreign Relations,” drew examples from his quarter century of diplomatic service in North America, South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. More than 140 Department of State personnel attended the event via WebEx. Chief Librarian Julie Arrighetti introduced Dickson and moderated the robust question and answer session.
Dickson unflinchingly described how his lack of historical literacy had, at times, been an impediment to his work. His recurrent question of, “Why didn’t I know that?” led him to pursue a graduate degree in history and memory, and to writing his book. Dickson discussed the interaction between history and foreign relations and underscored the costs to American diplomats of not knowing the history of U.S. partners and adversaries. He described how “ignorance of history has often gotten in the way” of U.S. foreign relations.
Citing President Truman’s 1947 visit to Mexico, Dickson argued that “something as simple as laying a wreath” can have a significant positive impact on improving international relations. Truman rescheduled his visit to Mexico out of respect for Mexican sensitivities about the 1948 centenary of the U.S.-Mexican War and he laid a wreath on the Mexico City memorial to the Niños Heroes, or Boy Heroes, of the U.S.-Mexican War. This gesture deeply impressed the Mexican people, improved bilateral relations, and influenced Mexico’s 1948 decision to join the Organization of American States.
Dickson emphasized the importance of acknowledging past errors. He asserted that when a nation denies or disavows errors, including past atrocities, it fuels distrust and inhibits international reconciliation.
“You have to acknowledge what happened in the past to reduce threat perceptions,” he stressed.
Dickson also argued that, in some circumstances, nations should seek to make amends for previous errors. He cited the U.S. government’s public return of looted cultural artifacts to Peru as a noteworthy example of restoring trust through making amends.
Dickson concluded his presentation with an exhortation for thorough historical training for outgoing diplomats; he praised the Ralph J. Bunche Library’s role in preparing reading lists for outgoing diplomats. He also offered several ideas for more focused diplomatic training, including Foreign Service Institute courses focused on specific countries, closer consultation with the Office of Historian, and the possibility of embedding historians in domestic offices.
To learn more about upcoming Speaker Series presentations, email the Bunche Library team and ask to be added to their mailing list.
Kristine Sasala is a technical information specialist in the Ralph J. Bunche Library.