Vance surrendered power to hold on to his principles

January 16, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When most notable public figures depart this vale of tears, they're memorialized for what they did.

But when former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance made his final exit at age 84 the other day, his obituaries instead featured another celebrated departure in which what he didn't do rated great attention. That was when, in April 1980, Mr. Vance resigned to protest President Jimmy Carter's decision to resort to force in what became a failed effort to rescue American hostages in Iran.

Quitting the highest appointive executive position in the government was nearly unprecedented in itself. Previously, only William Jennings Bryan had put on his hat and walked out of the State Department on principle. A devout pacifist, Bryan in 1915 quit in protest of President Woodrow Wilson's sharp note to Berlin in the wake of the torpedoing and sinking of the liner Lusitania, in which 124 Americans perished.

What made Mr. Vance's principled departure all the more notable was that although he presented his resignation to Mr. Carter in advance of the ill-fated mission that ended in the crash of an American helicopter and a cargo plane in the Iranian desert, he did not permit it to be made public until after the incident.

Although he disagreed strenuously with the mission as potentially destructive to diplomatic efforts to extricate the American hostages, he declined to throw a monkey wrench into a presidential decision already made. Nor did he engage in any self-serving "I told you so" afterward.

"You would not be well-served in the coming weeks and months," he wrote Mr. Carter, "by a secretary of state who could not offer you the public backing you need on an issue and decision of such extraordinary importance, no matter how firm I remain in my support on other issues, as I do, or how loyal I am to you as our leader."

Mr. Vance went so conspicuously against the grain of behavior of nearly all high-level appointed officials before or since. All through the Vietnam experience, for instance, no similar policy-making official ever walked the plank in protest of a war about which many of them held the deepest reservations.

The customary argument for keeping quiet and continuing to serve was either that speaking out would not have changed policy -- Hubert Humphrey was a sad example of this rationale as President Lyndon Johnson's vice president -- or that a resignation would only lead to the appointment of somebody worse in the job.

Then there was the sorry -- some would say tragic -- history of LBJ's secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, who harbored severe doubts about the continued pursuit of the war he was directing but never came clean on them until years later in a pathetic mea culpa book.

Another high Pentagon official, John T. McNaughton, an assistant defense secretary under Mr. McNamara, was said to be contemplating resignation in open protest against the Vietnam War in 1967 when he was killed in a plane crash. He had just been nominated to be secretary of the navy.

Another secretary of state, Dean Acheson, also resigned on principle, but he was an undersecretary of the treasury at the time, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. He disagreed with FDR's decision to take the country off the gold standard. Acheson, like Mr. Vance, left quietly, and when another Treasury official later submitted a rancorous resignation, FDR told his press secretary: "Return it to him and tell him to ask Acheson how a gentleman resigns."

The high government service of neither Acheson nor Mr. Vance ended with their resignations on principle. Acheson later became secretary of state under President Harry Truman, and Mr. Vance as a private citizen successfully undertook a number of critical diplomatic negotiations, including one that brought about a cease-fire in Croatia, clearing the way for a U.N. peacekeeping force in Yugoslavia.

Both men demonstrated a lesson too seldom learned in Washington -- doing what you believe to be right in the face of authority doesn't necessarily mean oblivion, even in politics.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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