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Cyrus R. Vance, 84; 'Superb Statesman'

January 13, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cyrus R. Vance, only the second U.S. secretary of State to resign over a principle of conscience-in his case, President Carter's ill-fated attempt to rescue American hostages from Iran-has died. He was 84.

Vance, who served as the nation's top diplomat from 1977 to 1980 but helped shape foreign policy for more than three decades, died Saturday at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

"Cy Vance was an old-fashioned patriot," Warren Christopher, secretary of State in the Clinton administration, said Saturday night shortly after learning of his friend's death. "He devoted his enormous abilities to the nation and to the cause of world peace. To those who had a chance to work with him and the opportunity to know him, he was just an inspirational role model.'

Whatever their differences two decades ago, Carter was equally gracious in his comments Saturday night on behalf of himself and his wife, Rosalynn, calling Vance "a champion for peace and human rights.'

"He was a superb statesman, who served me and other presidents well," Carter said. "We will miss his friendship, and the world will miss his humanitarian work and goodness.'

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described Vance as "the pride of a generation of Americans who valued public service as the highest good.'

One of the last of his breed of Ivy League-educated, wealthy intellectuals who dominated the U.S. foreign policy establishment for most of the 20th century, the shy, self-effacing Vance was a loyal servant to numerous Democratic administrations. But nothing in his long career attracted the attention like his resignation from the highest office he ever held: secretary of State.

Vance achieved modest success in the post-working to normalize ties with China, negotiating new Panama Canal treaties and keeping Israel and Egypt at the bargaining table until they signed the Camp David peace accords in 1978. He is also widely credited with instilling the international quest for human rights into U.S. foreign policy.

But he held the post during a demoralizing decline in American prestige and power around the world, highlighted by events in Iran. He was also overshadowed throughout his tenure by Carter's outspoken National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom many viewed as the administration's voice on foreign policy.

Vance's decisive break with Carter came in April 1980, when the president launched his ill-fated attempt to rescue 52 American hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The raid came to an embarrassing and tragic end when a helicopter and a cargo plane collided in the Iranian desert, killing eight U.S. servicemen and injuring five others.

Carter's initial go-ahead for the abortive mission came at a National Security Council meeting attended by Brzezinski while Vance was out of town. Vance, describing himself as "stunned and angry that such a momentous decision had been made in my absence," returned to Washington to argue against the mission.

He said it would cause deaths of hostages and Iranians and also enrage American allies who wanted to give sanctions time to work before taking military action. Finding no support for his stand, Vance followed the historic lead of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who resigned from the Woodrow Wilson Cabinet prior to World War I, and handed Carter his letter of resignation without waiting to see how the mission fared.

"I knew," Vance wrote in his memoirs, "I could not honorably remain as secretary of State when I so strongly disagreed with a presidential decision that went against my judgment as to what was best for the country and for the hostages.'

Born in Clarksburg, W.Va., Cyrus Roberts Vance majored in economics and then law at Yale University, where he was a classmate of President Kennedy's National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Kennedy's brother-in-law Sargent Shriver. Vance served as a Navy gunnery officer during World War II and practiced law on Wall Street.

But the lawyer, described by Yale classmates as having "a Rolodex file in his head," was quick to aid his government. In 1957, he was named special counsel to a Senate subcommittee on military preparedness by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, beginning their long working relationship. Vance also served as counsel for the Senate Special Committee on Space and Astronautics and helped establish NASA.

In 1961, Vance was quickly brought into the Kennedy administration as chief legal officer of the Department of Defense. A year later, Kennedy named him secretary of the Army.

In 1964, President Johnson appointed Vance deputy secretary of Defense and made him a trouble-shooter to handle various crises, including the Detroit racial riots in 1967. There he first worked with Christopher, then a Justice Department aide, whom he later made his deputy secretary of State. Vance's thorough report of the Detroit events won praise from black leaders as well as government officials.

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