On December 13, 2010, Richard Holbrooke, one of America’s most accomplished yet most undiplomatic of diplomats, died. His death was caused by a tear in his aorta, a cardiac event that occurred during a December 10 meeting with his boss, Hillary Clinton, at the State Department. Though he underwent two operations, one of which went on for more than 20 hours, he succumbed to the disorder three days later, at age 69.
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Holbrooke had an unusually rich career: As a public servant, he helped the U.S. government contend with some of its most vexing international political challenges, and as a private individual, he had several high-profile forays into business, journalism and humanitarian work. His manifold accomplishments came at a price. Colleagues and adversaries alike found him abrasive, to put it modestly, and his domineering personality may have cost him the opportunity to hold the one job he wanted most but never attained – secretary of state.
Envoy in Saigon
Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke was born in Manhattan on April 24, 1941. His father, Dan Holbrooke, was a physician, and his mother, the former Trudi Moos, a ceramicist. Both parents were European-born Jew
s: Dan, whose family name was originally “Goldbrajch,” had come to the U.S. from Warsaw in 1939. Trudi, a native of Hamburg, emigrated with her family to Buenos Aires in 1933, and from there to the U.S.
The family was religiously non-observant, although Trudi told a journalist late in life that she had taken her son to Quaker meetings as a child.
Dick grew up in the tony New York suburb of Scarsdale, where his father practiced medicine until his untimely death from cancer in 1957. He attended Brown University, where he was editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Herald. During several summers in Paris, he worked as a stringer for the New York Times. When the Times turned him down for a job after graduation, in 1962, however, he joined the U.S. foreign service.
Holbrooke’s first seven years in government were taken up with Vietnam, first as a civilian employee with the Agency for International Development, working on assistance programs for the South, then at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, as an aide to several ambassadors, and finally back in Washington, on a working team in the Lyndon Johnson White House, to which he was appointed at age 24. He also participated in early peace talks in Paris, in 1968-69.
Holbrooke’s government service was generally with Democratic administrations. He did serve with the Peace Corps in 1970-72, when Richard Nixon was president, but that was as the program head in Morocco. He then spent four years as managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, before returning to government under Jimmy Carter, whom he had advised on foreign relations during the former Georgia governor’s run for president, in 1976.
Space doesn’t permit even a mention of all of Holbrooke’s major jobs or accomplishments. He was the only person to serve as assistant secretary of state for two different regions: East Asia and the Pacific, in 1977-81 (under Carter) and Europe and Canada, in 1994-96 (under Bill Clinton). He was U.S. ambassador to Germany, in 1992, during which time he was involved in the expansion of NATO, and to the United Nations, in 1999-2001, when he renegotiated and then paid off America’s $800 million debt to the organization.
He also was key in Israel’s status at the UN being upgraded to membership in the Western European and Others regional group.
Probably Holbrooke’s greatest accomplishment was convening negotiators from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Wright-Patterson Air Base, outside Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, to bring the cruel civil war in Bosnia to an end. Later efforts to strike deals in a divided Cyprus, and in the Kosovo enclave in Serbia, were less successful, and Holbrooke’s final position, as U.S. special representative tasked with bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan, under President Obama, was perhaps a mission impossible. Even as he was being received at George Washington University Hospital, after suffering the aortic tear, he told a surgeon, who urged him to calm down, that he was too worried about Pakistan and Afghanistan to be able to relax.