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Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2002 / 3 Shevat 5762

Philip Terzian

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Remembering Cyrus Vance -- I HAD a brief, and decidedly tenuous, connection to Cyrus Vance, who died this week at the age of 84. During 1978-79, when he was Jimmy Carter's first secretary of state, I was one of his speechwriters. It was an instructive, but not especially happy, experience, and the only detour I have ever taken during three decades in journalism. For my sins, however, that season in the State Department haunts me still: In a recent book about political bias in the media, I am quoted and described as a "former Carter administration official." For that I have Cyrus Vance to thank, or blame.

To those who knew Cyrus Vance, according to The New York Times, "the tall, lanky, patrician lawyer ... was Mr. Integrity, Mr. Honesty. He was the epitome of the American establishment, that small group of men who moved seamlessly from the prep schools of New England and the Ivy League colleges of the East to the law firms of Wall Street, with time out for service in government. Then they would return again to private practice, bringing with them the old values of family, work and public service."

All of that may well have been true, but from my modest vantage point, he was neither Mr. Integrity nor Mr. Honesty, but a Mystery Man of whom something was known, but was seldom seen and from whom little was heard. For a speechwriter, especially an ambitious one in his late twenties, this was immensely frustrating. Secretary Vance did not like to issue statements, deliver speeches, or engage in the kind of public discourse that influences foreign policy. He preferred secret talks, subtle nudges and private persuasion.

As a lawyer of discreet and prudent habits Vance specialized in quiet diplomatic repair jobs. He was sent on a peacekeeping mission to the Panama Canal Zone after the 1964 riots. He sought to forestall war between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus in 1967. He was deputy to Averell Harriman during the Vietnam peace talks in Paris the following year. During the 1990s he succeeded in negotiating a cease-fire in Croatia, which allowed the United Nations to disarm the warring militias, and he shuttled between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. He and former British Foreign Secretary David Owen tried to sort out Yugoslavia as it swiftly disintegrated -- the so-called Vance-Owen plan -- but the Balkans were less amenable to lawyerly settlements.

My tenure with Vance took place during a relatively quiet interregnum in the Carter years: My immediate boss was Anthony Lake, later Bill Clinton's national security adviser, whose principal interest was clearing the path for Robert Mugabe to seize power in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Yet to come was the arrival of a Soviet brigade in Cuba, the overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, the fall of the Shah of Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the murder of the US ambassador.

But my principal memory of that period is contending with the multilayered bureaucracy, which seemed to insulate Vance from reality. The Secretary not only avoided articulating policy, but declined to meet with the people who put words in his mouth. I once wrote a long memorandum warning that the SALT II treaty was not likely to pass the Democratic Senate unless Vance did some salesmanship. (Lake, lips pursed in a pitying smile, thanked me for the effort while his deputy, Samuel Berger, glared ominously.) Speeches were vetted by innumerable bureaus and embassies, or converted into lead by Vance's number two, Warren Christopher, who once sent a draft back for revision 33 times. The process was so cumbersome and discouraging that I soon volunteered, for amusement's sake, to write Jimmy Carter's after-dinner remarks to foreign dignitaries, shaping jokes and homely anecdotes to his Georgia delivery.

Hanging over the seventh floor of the department, like an angry cloud, was the Secretary's continual feud with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser. Vance always maintained that recruiting Brzezinski was a serious error -- and to some degree, he was right: Their rivalry poisoned the atmosphere. But even at the time it was evident that Vance was the one who was out of his depth, and Brzezinski had the greater acumen and clearer vision.

The whole unworkable arrangement exploded in April 1980 when eight Americans were killed in the ill-fated mission to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. Brzezinski, who promoted the mission, had prevailed in the White House over Vance, who opposed it, and the Secretary promptly resigned.

Vance was much admired for quitting on principle -- the first secretary of state to do so since the pacifist William Jennings Bryan in 1915 -- although some detractors faulted him for abandoning Carter at a vulnerable moment. In retrospect, however, it seems appropriate. Vance was unquestionably true to those old-school values of honor and selfless service: He did what he thought was right, and he didn't care about the consequences for his career. The fact that he was probably wrong, and did more harm than good by his action, is another matter.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal