Joseph Sisco

Remarks at American Academy of Diplomacy Fifteenth Annual Diplomatic Awards Luncheon honoring the late Joseph Sisco

Joe Sisco was an original; when they made him, they threw away the mold. Indefatigable, dedicated, knowledgeable, a superb diplomat, and a skillful bureaucratic infighter, Joe was an indispensable colleague and a valued friend. We met in the early days of the Nixon administration. The Cold War has, in retrospect, acquired an almost nostalgic quality as being relatively simple because it was seemingly bipolar. But it did not look that way to those of us required to manage it. The Soviet Union had just occupied Czechoslovakia; there was no contact of any kind with China; India was aloof; hostilities were raging along the Suez Canal. And Vietnam was tearing the country apart.

A new American administration was seeking to distill a sense of direction from the conflicting pressures, fears, and hopes that greeted it. The combination of a new presidency and domestic turmoil raised an issue that periodically preoccupies this city: the relationship between the Foreign Service and the policymaking apparatus beyond the State Department.

This issue is often put in terms of prerogative. In my experience, the problem is best overcome by a demonstration of indispensability.

Joe Sisco understood this and set about to implement his insight. When I was appointed National Security Advisor, Dean Rusk had urged me to keep an eye out for him if we ever needed help in times of trouble. As it turned out, I did not have to find Joe; he presented himself, and he was not to be ignored. He could wear down any objections by sheer persistence and outwork any aspirations to arbitrary decisions using three methods: (1) In crises, he would move himself physically as close to my office as circumstances permitted preferably into the Situation Room, which had the added advantage of assuring his participation in all meetings. (2) From his office issued a seemingly endless array of policy proposals. Some say he offered more solutions than there were problems. But it kept me busy and cut down the time available for interfering in his concern. (3) Finally, he knew that, in the end, strategy winds up as a cable, and he made certain that the process started with his draft. By these methods, Joe helped us through the 1970 crises along the Suez Canal, Black September, the Syrian invasion of Jordan, and the diplomacy that followed. He was a steadying element in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971.

When I became Secretary in 1973, Joe had already established himself and the role of the Foreign Service. Now there was no longer a question of jurisdiction. And what a group Joe had assembled: Roy Atherton, Hal Saunders, Dean Brown, Dick Murphy, Hermann Eilts, and others. Any Secretary would look good with their help. And the country had every reason to be proud of them, and the Foreign Service that produced them.

Joe and the team he assembled were simply indispensable. They helped manage the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the diplomacy that followed. Together we navigated the war, a nuclear alert, shuttle diplomacy, two disengagement agreements and one political agreement between Israel and Syria and Egypt. And then Joe became my emissary when the Cyprus crisis erupted and contributed decisively to preventing the outbreak of war between two NATO allies.

All of this was accomplished with buoyancy, good humor, and great serenity sometimes belied by Joe’s stentorian voice. Joe was very conscious of his background as the son of Italian immigrants. He had entered the Foreign Service laterally from the Civil Service. And he was enormously proud of that distinction. First, Joe viewed the United States as embodying a special responsibility for peace and progress. He was impatient with self-pitying righteousness. The disputes of the Vietnam and Watergate period were to him challenges to America to demonstrate that it retained its sense of mission and was capable of translating it into a contribution toward a better world.

A great deal has been written about shuttle diplomacy. Not enough credit is given to those whose dedication and ability provided the framework and the impetus. I did the negotiating under the wary eye of Joe and his team. But the professionals here know who sustained it. No matter how late in the night the negotiations lasted, I could count on finding the next morning a summary of what had happened, a report to the President, and an outline of necessary next steps.

Joe’s buoyancy made the enterprise a lot of fun. On one of our shuttles, a Xerox machine got loose from its moorings on the airplane and began rolling around, with Joe frantically trying to corral it. One of my assistants shouted, “Grab him before he falls into it; if there were a duplicate of him, we would never get any sleep.” On another occasion, Joe was with me on a shuttle in Damascus even after he had been promoted to Political Under Secretary. I explained to Assad that I had brought along such a high-ranking officer because Joe had been caught measuring the curtains in my office when I left him alone in Washington. Coups were something Assad understood, and Joe reported to me gleefully that after that remark, his protocol treatment in Damascus improved dramatically.

Joe left the Foreign Service in 1975 because the opportunity came along to head a university. It had always been his dream to follow his service to American diplomacy with a career in education. In 1974, he had been asked to head Hamilton College, but he could not yet bring himself to separate from his beloved Foreign Service. Eighteen months later, however, the opportunity to preside over American University proved irresistible.

Joe loved his country, was proud of the Foreign Service, and adored his family. His wife Jean beautiful, charming, worldly provided the emotional ballast and security that was the foundation of his ebullience. And he was devoted to his daughters. I invited him to my 80th birthday party and seated him next to my daughter Elizabeth so that he could talk about his family and perhaps tell mine something about the battles where we stood shoulder-to-shoulder in trying to repay our country for the opportunities it had given us.

After Joe retired from the Foreign Service, he and I remained in contact by telephone and occasional dinners. He never fully recovered from Jean’s premature death. In his last years, he threw himself with characteristic relish into the service of this institution. I spoke to him the last time a few days after he entered the hospital on his final illness. He mentioned the infirmity of age. But he would not dwell on his disabilities. He wanted to know what I thought of Iraq. When he got better, he would devote himself to healing the rift between the administration and some of his colleagues. I could imagine the old warrior saddling his horse for another adventure.

Joe’s passing leaves a huge void, also for me personally. I admired his gallantry, his wisdom, and his humility. I shared many of his attitudes derived from his origins. Amidst the bedlam of day-to-day events, it was reassuring to know that Joe was there a national treasure, a personal safe haven. We who loved and admired Joe will miss him for as long as we live. But we would not trade places with those who were never fortunate enough to benefit from the dedication, the love of country, the humanity, and the inspiration of our honoree today.