Born in Clarksberg, West Virginia in 1917, Cyrus R. Vance was the nephew of 1924 Democratic Presidential Candidate John W. Davis who he would cite as having a lasting influence on his life and career. As a child a child he moved to New York before going on to study at Yale Law school along with future colleagues Sargent Shriver and William Bundy as well as Gerald Ford. After graduating and serving in the South Pacific during World War Two, Vance joined the New York Law firm Simpson, Thacher, and Bartlett eventually being made a partner. His first foray into politics came in the late 1950s when he was recruited by the then Senate leader Lyndon Johnson to act as a special counsel to the Preparedness Investigation Committee. That started a lasting personal and professional relationship between Vance and the future President as he returned to Washington to help LBJ with the Committee on Space and Aeronautics. When John F. Kennedy was elected President, Vance was appointed as General Counsel to the Defense Department on the back of Johnson’s recommendation. At the Pentagon, he eventually rose to be Secretary of the Army before being appointed as Deputy Secretary of Defense by Robert McNamara. The war in Vietnam escalated after Vance was appointed and although initially supportive of American intervention in South East Asia, both he and McNamara quickly turned against the war. Vance was later one of the ‘Wise Men’ who advised President Johnson should scale back U.S. involvement and seek peace. A back injury had forced Vance to leave his position in 1967 but he quickly found himself recruited by LBJ, keen to utilise his skills and expertise serving as roaming envoy, mediating in the Turkey-Greece dispute over Cyprus as well as serving as a Deputy to Averell Harriman at the Paris Peace Talks in 1968. He was also called upon to oversee the federal response to civil unrest in Detroit delivering a damming report on the treatment of African-Americans by the police and their handling of the riots.
Out of government but not out of favour, Vance continued to be sought out for advice in the 1970s. He advised Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the Paris Talks as well as the ongoing conflict in Vietnam and was also appointed to head the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. He also advised and campaigned for George McGovern during his failed run for the Presidency in 1972 before returning to practice law once again becoming President of the New York Bar Association in 1974. When Jimmy Carter ran for President, Vance was drafted onto his advisory team after his old friend Sargent Shriver dropped out. When Carter won, he appointed Vance as Secretary of State and his nomination was unanimously supported at home and abroad.
As Secretary of State, Vance played an integral role as the administration negotiated the Panama Canal Treaties, peace talks in Rhodesia, Namibia and Southern Africa as well as the Middle East which resulted in the Camp David Accords in 1978. He also wanted to forge closer ties with the Soviet Union embracing détente. He believed that Carter’s commitment to arms control was an opportunity to reduce tensions between the two and build trust in area of mutual cooperation. His efforts to use SALT negotiations initially hit a roadblock as the administration, against his advice, pursued a more radical arms control agreement which angered the Soviets when he visited Moscow in March 1977. It would not be until June 1979 that the United States and the Soviet Union would sign the SALT II accords as Vance’s efforts were frequently undercut by Brzezinski who lobbied for a more assertive policy vis-à-vis the Soviets. He urged for tougher action against Soviet activity in Africa in 1978 while he successfully persuaded Carter to normalise relations with China, something that Vance had advised against. He was duly marginalised as Brzezinski spearheaded the negotiations but his role influence within the administration was diminishing. When revolution erupted in Iran in late 1978, the two were divided on how to support the United States’ ally, the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Vance argued in favour of reforms while Brzezinski urged him to crackdown – the ‘iron fist’ approach. Unable to receive a direct course of action from Carter, the mixed messages that the Shah received from Vance and Brzezinski contributed to his confusion and indecision as he fled Iran in January 1979 and his regime collapsed. SALT II was eventually signed in June 1979 but six months later the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The treaty was shelved by Carter as the hardline approach to the Soviets Brzezinski had called for was adopted in the form of the Carter Doctrine. He later wrote that ‘the tenuous balance between visceral anti-Sovietism and an attempt to regulate dangerous competition could no longer be maintained. The scales tipped toward those favouring confrontation.’ As his position became more and more untenable, Iran continued to divide himself and Brzezinski. On November 4 1979, the U.S. embassy was overrun by demonstrators and 53 Americans were held hostage. Believing that diplomatic initiatives could see the hostages safely returned home, he fought off attempts by Brzezinski to pursue a militaristic course of action but to no avail and in April 1980 Carter ordered a military rescue mission. Vance, believing that such an option would not work and would only endanger the lives of the hostages, opted to resign, regardless of whether the mission was successful or not. Operation Eagle Claw failed, eight American servicemen were killed and Vance’s resignation was confirmed several days later and was replaced by Senator Edmund Muskie. A second rescue mission was planned but never carried out and the diplomatic efforts to negotiate the release of the hostages were handed over to Vance’s deputy, Warren Christopher. They were eventually released after 444 days in captivity.
Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Advisor 1977-1981 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983)
Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (Fayetteville : University of Arkansas Press, 1982)
William Gardner Bell, Secretaries of War and Secretaries of the Army (Washington, D.C. : Center of Military History, 1981)
Leslie H. Gelb, ‘Vance–Torn by Ideals and by Loyalty to Carter’ The New York Times April 29, 1980
Jussi M. Hanhimäki, The Rise and Fall of Détente: American Foreign Policy and the Transformation of the Cold War (Washington D.C. : Potomac Books, 2013)
Hamilton Jordan, Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency (New York : Putnam, 1982)
Scott Kaufman. Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration (De Kalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2008)
David S. McLellan, Cyrus Vance (Totowa : Rowman & Allanheld, 1985)
William W. Newman, Managing National Security Policy: The President and the Process (Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003)
Gaddis Smith, Morality, Reason and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years (New York : Hill and Wang, 1986)
Cyrus R. Vance, Hard Choices (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1983)