Admiral William J. Crowe

Former US ambassador to London
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William James Crowe, military officer and diplomat: born La Grange, Kentucky 2 January 1925; Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces, Southern Europe 1980-83; Commander-in-Chief, US Forces, Pacific 1983-85; Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff 1985-89; Chairman, President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board 1993-94; US Ambassador to Britain 1994-97; married 1954 Shirley Grennell (two sons, one daughter); died Bethesda, Maryland 18 October 2007.

Without William J. Crowe, Bill Clinton might never have been elected President of the United States. Crowe was a notable defence intellectual and one of the most effective chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in recent memory. But it is for his political endorsement of Clinton as a presidential candidate in 1992 that the four star admiral will be best remembered.

That September, Clinton was leading in the polls, but was highly vulnerable on the commander-in-chief issue. His avoidance of the Vietnam draft had earned the scorn of many top commanders, and some Republicans came close to urging the top brass not to work with him if he was elected.

Crowe's endorsement of Clinton thus created a sensation. Since he had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs between 1985 and 1989 under Presidents Reagan and Bush, it was assumed he was a Republican. By throwing his support behind the challenger, Crowe effectively took the issue of Clinton's lack of military experience off the table for the crucial last six weeks of the campaign. On 3 November 1992, Clinton comfortably won the White House. The thank-you came little more than a year later, when Bill Crowe was given the plum diplomatic posting of US Ambassador to the Court of St James's.

So why did he do it? His own explanation was adequate, as far as it went. "I was quite upset by the campaign rhetoric," Crowe told an interviewer a few months before he left the London embassy in autumn 1997. "It was dangerous. In the military I grew up in, It was our job to get along with the President – not the President's job to get along with us."

But a closer study of Crowe's career suggests a deeper-rooted reason as well. Almost from the moment he entered the US Naval Academy in Annapolis as a cadet in 1943, he was a contrarian. He was an intellectual in a branch of the service that was conservative, if not downright anti-intellectual. In 1962, with four years' experience on submarines, Lt-Cdr William Crowe stepped out of his uniform to attend Princeton University, where he took a doctorate in politics and international relations.

Soon after he arrived on campus, he did the unthinkable, turning down an invitation for an interview at the Pentagon with Admiral Hyman Rickover, the head of US nuclear submarine forces. A year later, he was not invited, but ordered, down to Washington. When they did finally meet, the outspoken Rickover called him a "stupid bastard". In his 1993 memoir, The Line of Fire, Crowe remembered being "distraught" when he left Rickover's office, convinced his Navy career was as good as over.

In fact it flourished, again against the odds. In the US Navy, command at sea is considered the fast track to the top. Crowe, though he did serve in the early 1970s in Vietnam, spent the bulk of his career in staff jobs. But by 1984 he was Commander-in-Chief of US forces in the Pacific, and dazzled Reagan and Caspar Weinberger, the then Defense Secretary, at a briefing in Honolulu when he spoke for 90 minutes without notes, slides and charts. "When we need a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he's our man," Reagan told Weinberger afterwards.

The following year, Crowe duly became the most senior uniformed officer in the US military. By common consent, he performed outstandingly – never better than when he quickly and publicly apologised for the mistaken 1988 shooting down by the USS Vincennes of an Iranian commercial jet over the Persian Gulf. He also forged unusually close ties with his Soviet opposite number Sergei Akhromeyev. The relationship smoothed the way for the arms agreements and détente that marked the closing stages of the Cold War.

In 1989, President Bush asked Crowe to serve a third two-year term as chairman, but Crowe turned the offer down, bringing his 45-year Navy career to an end. He initially returned to teaching, at the University of Oklahoma. But the Clinton endorsement put Crowe firmly back in the spotlight.

The London embassy was the reward, and Crowe's skills as administrator, negotiator and raconteur made him an excellent choice, at a time when relations between London and Washington were sometimes strained. Once again, however, his retirement, in 1997, was not final. As late as 2007, Crowe was teaching a course on national security in Annapolis, at the naval academy he had joined more than six decades earlier.

Rupert Cornwell