Joe Sisco

Straight-talking diplomat and Kissinger aide
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Joseph John Sisco, diplomat: born Chicago 31 October 1919; staff, US State Department 1951-76; President, American University, Washington DC 1976-81; married 1946 Jean Head (two daughters); died Chevy Chase, Maryland 23 November 2004.

As a hard-charging career diplomat and perhaps the most trusted aide of Henry Kissinger when he was Secretary of State, Joe Sisco played a key role in coping with the Middle East crises of that era. But his most critical intervention came in July 1974, when Sisco's blunt talk to the military regime in Athens undoubtedly prevented a Greek attack on Turkey in reprisal for the Turkish invasion of Cyprus - and in the process sealed the downfall of the colonels and the return of democracy to Greece.

On 15 July that year, a Greek- sponsored coup overthrew the Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios, and five days later the first Turkish troops landed in the north of the island. On the instructions of Kissinger - then virtually in charge of the US government as the Watergate scandal engulfed Richard Nixon - Sisco flew to London before shuttling between Athens and Ankara to resolve the crisis.

On 22 July in Athens he met military leaders and made clear that, not only would the US not support Greece in an all-out war with its enemy, but that the US assessment was that if Greece attacked it would be "defeated handily".

The colonels faced an unpalatable choice: invade and face military disaster, or acquiesce in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and thus incur a devastating loss of prestige that would guarantee their downfall. They chose the latter course. On 23 July Turkey agreed a ceasefire in Cyprus. In the small hours of 24 July, Constantine Karamanlis returned from exile to restore civilian government in Greece.

That, surely, was Joe Sisco's most momentous hour. But in a series of high-level posts under Presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford he was closely involved in many other major events in the Middle East and beyond, including the Syrian invasion of Jordan in 1970, the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, and the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Sisco came from humble origins - his Italian immigrant father was a tailor in Chicago - but was academically outstanding, taking a master's degree and then a doctorate at the University of Chicago. He entered government service with the CIA in 1950, before switching to the State Department the following year.

Most remarkable perhaps was his relationship with the normally overweening and somewhat frightening Kissinger. But Sisco, often known as "Jumping Joe", was not one to be intimidated. "His preferred method was to shout me down. That's where we started and we went on from there," Kissinger would remember.

In 1976 Sisco hung up his diplomatic gloves, to become President of American University in Washington DC. The appointment was not a great success and in 1981 he left to go into management consulting and risk analysis, all the while continuing to speak out on foreign policy issues in newspaper columns and TV interviews.

On 8 December Sisco had been due to receive an award from the American Academy of Diplomacy. The award will now be presented posthumously by his old colleague Dr Kissinger.

Rupert Cornwell