Cyrus Vance

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Cyrus Roberts Vance, lawyer and government official: born Clarksburg, West Virginia 27 March 1917; admitted to the New York Bar 1947; Associate and Partner, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, New York 1947-60, Partner 1956-60, 1967-77, 1980-98; Secretary of the Army 1962-64; Deputy Secretary of Defense 1964-67; Secretary of State 1977-80; married 1947 Grace Sloane (one son, four daughters); died New York 12 January 2002.

Cyrus Vance was a gentleman, a kind and self-effacing man of high moral standards who saw diplomacy as the art of reconciliation and the resort to force as an admission of failure. He was a wise counsellor and skilled administrator. First and foremost however, in the jargon of the high Cold War times when he was US Secretary of State, he was a dove, but at a moment when doves were going out of fashion.

He was among the last of a certain breed of Ivy Leaguers in the upper reaches of American government: old enough to have served in the Second World War, unabashedly Anglophile, trained in high-powered New York law firms, wealthy and well-connected, but conscious of a mission to serve. He looked the part too, when he travelled abroad as a top official for the Carter administration or as a troubleshooter for other Democratic Presidents and the United Nations – he was never less than immaculately suited, decked out in a trademark soft hat and half-moon glasses that somehow only enhanced the natural twinkle in his eye.

Cyrus Vance was the son of a wealthy insurance executive who died in 1920 when he was just three. His main formative influences were his mother, Amy Roberts, a high-principled social activist, and his much older cousin John Davis, the Democratic presidential candidate defeated in 1924 by Calvin Coolidge. Cy Vance's education was top-drawer New England; first the exclusive Kent boarding school in Connecticut, followed by Yale (where his classmates included other luminaries of the Kennedy administration like Sargent Shriver and McGeorge Bundy) and Yale Law School. Having obtained an LLB with honours in 1942, he joined the US Navy and served as a gunnery officer on destroyers in the Pacific war against Japan.

In 1947, having passed the New York state bar exam, Vance joined the Wall Street law firm of Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett, which would serve as his base throughout his career. By 1956 he was a full partner, but a year later came the summons that shaped his life. Lyndon Johnson, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Vance to be special counsel for the Committee, one of the most powerful bodies on Capitol Hill. The move pitchforked him into the heart of defence policy, and such vital concerns as missile strategy and the comparative military strengths of the US and the Soviet Union.

When John Kennedy became president in 1961, Vance was named special counsel for the Defense Department. A year later he was promoted to Secretary for the Army and in 1964 he became Deputy Defense Secretary and the seeming choice of Johnson, by then President, to take over the Pentagon one day from Robert McNamara.

Johnson was already highly appreciative of Vance's negotiating skills, sending him on a string of troubleshooting missions – to Panama, the Dominican Republic, and then Vietnam. At least until he left Washington in June 1967, for health and personal reasons, Vance supported the President's escalation of the war.

Hardly had he left government than Johnson was again enlisting his services, this time to head a special White House mission to look into the race riots that erupted in Detroit that summer. Vance's report, known as the "Detroit Book", instantly became a manual of how to subdue race riots with minimum force, and proved invaluable when he was asked to cool passions when similar violence swept Washington after the murder of Martin Luther King in April 1968.

In late 1967, Vance was credited with helping avert a likely war between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. Next, he visited Seoul to reassure South Korea against the threat of aggression from the North. By then, however, his views on Vietnam were changing. He helped prepare the first peace conference in Paris in May 1968, and backed the Republican President Richard Nixon's ceasefire call of October 1969. Vance acknowledged his conversion during his confirmation hearings as Secretary of State in 1977: "In the light of hindsight, it was a mistake to intervene in Vietnam."

Modest and a natural delegator, he could not have been more different from Henry Kissinger, his predecessor at Foggy Bottom. But, like almost everyone, Kissinger welcomed Jimmy Carter's choice of Vance as Secretary of State. Vance was considered a safe pair of hands, a pillar of the foreign policy establishment, who would not waver from Kissinger's pursuit of détente with Moscow and peace in the Middle East.

Alas, events and personalities conspired against him. Carter quickly earned the reputation of being a weak president. Vance himself was accused of indecision, though the charge reflected not only his dovish instincts but also his endless tussling with Carter's national security adviser, the hawkish and sharp- elbowed Zbigniew Brzezinski.

But the Soviets did not spare their opponents' hesitancy. No breakthroughs came on arms control, and the Carter administration's hectoring on human rights did nothing to deter the Kremlin from invading Afghanistan just after Christmas 1979. The biggest success for the administration was in the Middle East, with the 1978 Camp David accords between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, followed by a full peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. But all was overshadowed by the US policy disaster in Iran.

Carter's refusal to give shelter to the Shah of Iran after his overthrow in January 1979 seemed rank cowardice to many, while the subsequent crisis over the Tehran embassy hostages made him seem impotent and humiliated. Vance counselled caution. But on 25 April 1980, conscious that his very presidency was slipping away, Carter rolled the dice – only to see the attempted helicopter raid to free the hostages end in fiasco and tragedy in the Iranian desert.

Having been overruled, Vance felt he had to resign, and his parting letter was as close as a polite man could come to a direct rebuke: "I wish I could support you," he wrote, "but for the reasons we have discussed, I cannot." Edmund Muskie took over at State for the last nine months of the Carter presidency, while Vance returned to New York, once more a partner at Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett.

But by the end of the 1980s he was in action again as a troubleshooter, this time as the personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General. He tried to broker peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in 1992 went to South Africa to help ease the passage to black majority rule. The highest profile mission, however, was between 1991 and 1993 when, along with David Owen, who had been British Foreign Secretary when Vance was Secretary of State, Vance devised a peace plan for Bosnia, a "Switzerland solution" dividing the country into 10 "cantons" of different ethnic mixture, under a weak central authority.

Washington rejected the scheme as too generous to the Serbs. In hindsight, it was perhaps the right idea, but at the wrong time. The same formulation broadly fitted Vance's years at the State Department. Two decades on, however, the new global emphasis on human rights and human dignity is belated tribute to the ideas on which he built his entire diplomatic career.

Rupert Cornwell