Eulogy for Cyrus R. Vance
January 19, 2002
Cyrus Vance devoted his life to the service of his nation and the search for peace in the world. Dedicated, tenacious, unflappable, self-effacing, Cy was a gentleman of what is now called “the old school;” we would all be better off had qualities such as his remained commonplace.
We met in the 1960s when Cy served in the Pentagon as General Counsel, Secretary of the Army and Deputy Secretary of Defense. In these positions, he displayed his characteristic common sense, which came to expression in the “Vance 2-1/2 Rule” about military procurement: Always remember that everything takes twice as long, costs twice as much and works half as well as the original projection.
But the 1960s were not about management. America had launched itself with exuberance and noble motives into shaping a world in conformity with its values only to end the decade in division and turmoil.
It was a time for Cy's special qualities: a dedication to the cause of freedom, total reliability, profound respect for different points of view. Above all, Cy stood for that special brand of American optimism that sees the Golden Age in the future, not in the past, and therefore never doubts that even the most daunting problems are soluble.
Almost inevitably, Cy became the nation's indispensable troubleshooter. When thoughtful assessments and calm judgment were needed, he was called in: on Cyprus in 1967, on the Detroit conflagration in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King and as negotiator with the North Vietnamese in Paris. Given his service in the Pentagon, peace in Vietnam was a task especially close to his heart. Caught in the dilemma between our commitments and our possibilities, he devoted himself to the task with understated passion, despite being wracked by pain from a back injury that made it very difficult for him to get in and out of a car or even to sit down. He occasionally slept on the floor of his office, and his beloved Gay was pressed into service from time to time to tie his shoelaces. I learned all of this not from Cy, of course, but from his staff. His associates then and later spoke with affection and admiration of how meticulously he worked, how carefully he prepared himself, how he would edit any memorandum to remove superlatives or the word “very” and to modify any sentence that began with an “I.” Cy served his nation and his principles, never himself; that is also why he rarely talked about his service in the Navy during World War II. To Cy, doing one's duty was its own reward.
What is not so widely known is that respect for his qualities extended into the new Nixon administration. He was offered the position of Undersecretary of State (now Deputy Secretary), and Secretary of State Bill Rogers and I did our utmost to persuade him. Cy felt that he owed his family some respite from public life. But two months later, in March 1969, President Nixon showed his confidence by asking Cy to go to Moscow to initiate two simultaneous negotiations on behalf of the new administration: talks with the Soviets on principles of strategic arms limitation and with a North Vietnamese negotiator to achieve a rapid breakthrough in the stalled peace talks. The project failed because Hanoi refused to negotiate in Moscow, and the Soviets were not yet ready to begin strategic arms limitation talks. But Cy, as always when the nation called, was ready.
During the years that followed, though we differed on a number of issues, Cy and I consulted regularly.
Thus, when he was appointed Secretary of State to succeed me, it was the most seamless of transitions. And after he took over, years of preparation enabled him to take charge in his unobtrusive way. Cy guided the nation's foreign policy during the conclusion of the Panama treaties, the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, the second strategic arms limitation agreement and completing the process of normalizing relations with China. Several of these measures were controversial; all have proved an integral part of the nation's international architecture. (Though SALT II was never ratified, largely because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, its limits were maintained by each succeeding administration for over twenty years.) And when the administration in which he served took a decision which he felt he could not defend, Cy resigned over principle – only the second Secretary of State in history to do so. But he never publicly argued the issue; he had too much respect for the nation to expose it to a debate between the President and his Secretary of State.
Out of office, Cy returned to the law firm Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett. But the practice of law did not keep him from service to his country and to the world. Cy took on missions for several U.N. Secretaries General in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in South Africa and then in the Balkans. His advice there jointly with David Owen proved, in my view, profoundly farsighted.
By the 1980s, we had become good friends. There were family lunches at Martha's Vineyard, and family to Cy included not only Gay, to whom he was so devoted, but also Natasha, the basset hound, and her successors.
Cy was most concerned about how, having lived through the complexity and anguish of policymaking in a divided country, he might ease the task of his successors. I was honored that he permitted me to participate in this effort. In 1988, on the eve of a presidential election, Cy and I wrote a joint article for Foreign Affairs, calling for a restoration of bipartisanship in foreign policy and comity in executive-congressional relations. In 1994, Cy and I wrote another joint article to contribute to a bipartisan approach to China policy. In pursuit of the same objective, we jointly chaired a group to visit the Soviet Union in 1987 and China in 1998. In the last months of Cy's life, the nation has come together on foreign policy – as he had hoped.
The late great Ambassador Chip Bohlen used to quote from Alice in Wonderland: “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Cyrus Vance always knew where he was going. He will be laid to rest, by his choice, in Arlington National Cemetery among the comrades who, like he, each in his or her own way devoted their lives to service. It will be the end of a long journey that advanced the cause of peace, brought honor to his country and decency to the world.