Suddarth on Zimmermann: “An American Diplomat Who Made a Difference”
The events of 9/11 and the current situation in Iraq have led the American public to call for greater emphasis on excellence in our foreign affairs community as we confront dangerous and exotic adversaries abroad. In this context, I would like to cite the life of Warren Zimmermann as the kind of foreign affairs professional that our nation needs to produce and nurture in the coming generation.
Zimmermann abandoned promising careers in teaching and then in journalism to join the U. S. Foreign Service in 1961, rallying to the newly elected President Kennedy’s inspiring appeal for vigorous American leadership in foreign affairs. He then spent the next 33 years in assignments in Washington and in Venezuela, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Austria.
Zimmermann is best known as our last ambassador to Yugoslavia, but throughout his career he was often at the epicenter of U. S. foreign affairs. A gifted writer, he was a speechwriter for Secretary Rogers. As the Deputy and later the Head of the U. S. Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe he helped forge new standards of human rights behavior that contributed to Perestroika and ultimately to the breakup of the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. As Chief of Staff of the U. S. Delegation to the Geneva Arms Control Negotiations, Zimmermann helped hammer out the nuclear arms reductions that were so important in reducing the risk of nuclear war.
What was it that made Zimmermann so extraordinary? One might call it “the three Cs”: Curiosity, Courage and Compassion. First, he had an intellectual curiosity that propelled him to the deepest expertise on every foreign assignment. He learned Russian and Serbo-Croatian as well and French, Spanish and German. He read deeply in the history and literature of his host countries. He also made sure to get around outside the official circles in his country of assignment.
This preparation gave him extraordinary insight into the workings of the societies that his job was to analyze. His cables were often so engaging that they were passed around in the State Department. One cable, “Who Killed Cock Robin,” gave a fascinating account of the factors – which he continually argued were not inevitable – that were leading to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Another cable’s title, describing the various Yugoslav leaders and their blindly disastrous policies, quoted the six-foot American actress Josephine Baker’s saying: “I’m Up to My Ass in Dwarfs.” In recognition of his superb judgment, Zimmermann was often chosen for delicate assignments. For instance, he became the U. S. diplomat chosen to make contact with Ayatollah Khomeini’s camp in Paris prior to Khomeini’s return to take power in Iran.
He had a natural affinity for intellectuals, journalists, and think-tankers, whom he cultivated in his various assignments-always with the same openness and command of U. S. interests and American culture that made him attractive to his hosts and his diplomatic colleagues. In Paris he made sure to keep the Embassy door open to leftist opposition groups – with which the U. S. had great differences – so that when the time came to deal with them as the majority, we would have strong relationships. Then, when the French Socialists come to power, he saw more clearly that most that President Mitterrand, for his own purposes, might wish to distance himself from the Communists in the government by closely aligning himself with U. S. security policies, e. g. regarding medium-range missiles in Germany.
In Moscow, he and Ambassador Hartman established a program giving a day’s in-country leave every month in order to enable Embassy personnel to get to know the ordinary Russia outside the isolation imposed on foreign embassies by Soviet authorities. Throughout his tour he led the Embassy not only to the dissidents but also to the suffering intellectuals who were reaching out for our support. Thus, instead of feeling hemmed in by the restrictions that the Soviet situation imposed and believing that the Soviet internal situation was hopeless, the Embassy personnel came to feel the sorrows of real people who wanted a better life for themselves and their country.
Zimmermann’s courage was rooted in his values. Like his admired Hemingway, he recognized that there are moments in a lifetime that require an act of courage regardless of the consequences. He was a loyal and disciplined civil servant and never to my knowledge failed to carry out his instructions, nor did he leak to the press. However, when the stakes required it, he was prepared to put his career on the line. In 1970 he joined in a private letter to the Secretary of State from a handful of Foreign Service Officers criticizing our continued involvement in Vietnam. His courage also accounted for his ability to be tough when necessary. As Charge d’Affaires in Moscow when the Soviets shot down a commercial airliner, he gave a tongue-lashing to the Soviet authorities for their brazen refusal to admit the truth even before Washington instructed him to do so.
He was also sometimes startlingly frank in self-criticism. He blamed himself in his book on Yugoslavia, Origins of a Catastrophe, for not insisting on U. S. intervention at the very start of troubles in Yugoslavia in late 1990 because of his belief that the U. S. government could not handle another crisis at the very moment when the U. S. was preparing for war in Iraq. As the newly arrived ambassador to Yugoslavia he publicly criticized the virulent Serbian nationalism of President Milosevic, which was to cause Yugoslavia to unravel. His criticism put him on Milosevic’s blacklist; Milosevic refused to see him for a year. Many ambassadors would have muted their criticism in order to maintain acceptable relations with the host government (and to avoid the death threats that came afterwards), but Zimmermann saw it otherwise and was vindicated by later events. He finally resigned from the Foreign Service in a protest over Washington’s unwillingness to intervene forcefully in Bosnia, and then spent months in public advocacy of his view, which finally prevailed and helped save Bosnia from extinction. Finally, only a few weeks before his death, in accepting an award for his book on Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy, Zimmermann used what he knew was to be his last public appearance – in the Ben Franklin Room of the State Department – to voice his personal opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
Compassion is not usually cited as a diplomatic virtue, but Zimmermann turned his naturally good heart to diplomatic purpose. He and his wife Teeny were always alert to the human side of things. During the détente era in the 1970s he saw clearly that there was no path to a normalized relationship with the Soviet Union that did not recognize that the Soviets had to treat their people better and respect the rule of law. Later he saw the whole Helsinki process as a necessary prelude to making the Soviets see what they had to do in order to have the advantages of a more normal relationship with the Western world.
In the Soviet Union the Zimmermanns both took personal risks in supporting dissidents under the prying eyes of the KGB. He won the Scharansky prize for his work in helping Soviet Jews emigrate despite enormous obstacles placed in their way by the Soviet authorities. He was instrumental in helping the talented dissident pianist Vladimir Feltsman to obtain permission to leave Russia. Zimmermann was particularly protective of the beleaguered American press corps in Moscow and helped many reporters out of scraps with the Soviet authorities. His Belgrade embassy was given an award for management in large part because of Zimmermann’s concern for the views and welfare of his subordinates. When Yugoslavia finally fell apart the Zimmermanns arranged at their own expense to support their entire Belgrade Embassy household staff’s emigration to America. In his retirement and until his death, Zimmermann passed on his knowledge and wisdom as the author of two award-winning books and as a gifted and caring professor of foreign affairs. Students, colleagues and friends all remember his humor, erudition, and insight.
I hope that Warren Zimmermann’s life and career will be an inspiration to the coming generation of Americans who are considering service to their country by working in foreign affairs.
Ambassador Arthur Hartman, former Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs and Ambassador to France and the Soviet Union also contributed to this appreciation.