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Year’s end is a time for taking stock, counting successes, and assessing failures. It is also a time for remembering those who are no longer with us. Here are ten Americans who died in 2016 who through their vision, service, intellect, or courage helped shape U.S. foreign policy. They will be missed.
Muhammad Ali (b. 1942) was an all-time boxing great and one of the most influential athletes of the twentieth century, in good part because he risked his career for his beliefs. Born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Ali won the Olympic light-heavyweight title in Rome in 1960. Less than four years later, he won the world heavyweight title by beating a heavily favored Sonny Liston. The day after the fight, Clay announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam. Within weeks he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, though most journalists continued to call him Cassius Clay. In 1967, Ali’s request to be granted conscientious objector status was rejected. When he refused induction into the U.S. Army, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed his conviction, which the Supreme Court overturned in 1971. While Ali never served prison time, he was stripped of his heavyweight title during the prime of his career and barred from boxing for more than three years. After he returned to the ring, he went on to win the world heavyweight title twice more. Parkinson’s disease eventually robbed Ali of his physical grace and oratorical skills. In 1996, the man once pilloried for converting to Islam and refusing to be drafted was enthusiastically cheered as he lit the flame at the opening of the centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Doris Bohrer (b. 1923) was a spy for the United States during World War II. Born Doris Sharrar in Basin, Wyoming, she grew up mostly in Silver Spring, Maryland dreaming of being a pilot. In 1942, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA. Like most women at the time, she had limited career prospects. But she proved to be the exception. Originally hired as a typist, she was chosen in 1943 to attend photo reconnaissance school. She was posted to Egypt and then to Italy’s Adriatic coast where she helped plan allied troop drops and scoured aerial photographs of German troop movements and manufacturing production. Bohrer, who changed her name after marrying her husband and fellow CIA employee, Charles A. Bohrer, remained in the spy business after the war. Although she encountered significant sexism from her colleagues, she rose through the ranks, eventually retiring from the Agency in 1979 as deputy chief of counterintelligence. Little was known about Bohrer’s intelligence career until 2011 when a Washington Post reporter wrote about her and another female OSS veteran, Elizabeth McIntosh. The two women gave a fascinating joint interview to NBC News in 2013.
Larry Colburn (b. 1949) joined with two fellow soldiers to stop the 1968 My Lai Massacre. Colburn was an eighteen-year-old member of a three-man U.S. Army helicopter crew assigned to monitor My Lai on the morning of March 16, 1968 while Charlie Company swept through the hamlet. The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr., landed the helicopter after realizing that a massacre was in progress. Lt. William Calley, who would become the only U.S. Army officer convicted for the atrocities that killed some five hundred South Vietnamese, ignored Thompson’s demand that he stop the killings. So Thompson positioned his helicopter between the U.S. troops and surviving villagers. He then ordered Colburn to fire his M-60 machine gun at anyone who threatened the villagers. Colburn replied, “You got it boss. Consider it done.” Thompson, Colburn, and the helicopter’s crew chief, Glenn Andreotta, then flew survivors to safety and reported the massacre to their superior officers. Those commanders, however, covered up the killings. The world did not learn about My Lai until journalist Seymour Hirsch broke the story in November 1969. Thirty years after the massacre, Andreotta, Colburn, and Thompson were awarded the Soldier’s Medal—the highest award given by the U.S. military for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy—for their heroism at My Lai. Andreotta received his medal posthumously; he was killed in combat three weeks after My Lai.
Tom Hayden (b. 1939) was a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Born in Royal Oak, Michigan, he attended the University of Michigan, where he became editor of the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily. For all his love of journalism, Hayden’s passion was politics. He became involved in civil rights protests, which led him and three dozen other activists to form the SDS in Ann Arbor in 1960. After being arrested in 1961 while participating in the Freedom Rides, he wrote a 25,000-word manifesto that eventually was revised and released by the SDS as the Port Huron Statement, which proclaimed itself to be an “agenda for a generation.” As U.S. involvement in Vietnam deepened, Hayden became involved in the antiwar movement. In 1968, he helped plan protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The resulting clashes between protestors and police were later labeled “a police riot” by a national commission. Hayden and others who planned the protests were arrested on charges of conspiracy and inciting to riot. The so-called Chicago Seven were acquitted of conspiracy, but Hayden and four of his co-defendants were convicted on the inciting-to-riot charge and sentenced to five years in prison. The verdict was overturned on appeal. Hayden may be best remembered for his sixteen-year marriage to Jane Fonda. He wrote nearly two dozen books, the last of which, Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Movement, will be released next month.
Donald Henderson (b. 1928) helped eradicate smallpox, a disease that killed an estimated 300 million people in the twentieth century alone. Born in Lakewood, Ohio and known as D.A., he graduated from nearby Oberlin College and earned his medical degree at the University of Rochester. In 1955, he joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He helped pioneer a U.S. effort to eliminate smallpox in Africa. In 1966, he took charge of the World Health Organization’s global campaign. He wasn’t expected to succeed. The WHO effort was poorly funded, and similar WHO campaigns to curb yellow fever and malaria had flopped. Henderson wasn’t a man to be stopped, though, by scant financial or political support. His team developed a vaccine that could survive in tropical climates along with new techniques and tactics for inoculating vulnerable populations. After a decade of work the effort succeeded. The last documented case of smallpox was recorded in Somalia in 1977. The eradication of smallpox generated calls for similar campaigns against other deadly infectious diseases. Henderson was skeptical, however, that such campaigns would work. He argued that the smallpox virus had several unique features that made it easier to defeat. So when he changed his mind in 2011 about the potential to eradicate polio, it became big news. Alas, while the campaign to eradicate polio has reduced the incidence of the dreaded disease, it has yet to achieve its ultimate goal.
Melvin Laird (b. 1922) was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives nine times and served as secretary of defense during Richard Nixon’s first term. Laird was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but was raised in his mother’s hometown of Marshfield, Wisconsin. A graduate of Carleton College, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1942. He was awarded a Purple Heart during his service on the destroyer USS Maddox in the Pacific theatre of World War II. As Laird’s time in the Navy was winding down, he turned to the family business—politics. His grandfather had been Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor and his father was a Wisconsin state senator. In 1946, his father died and he won the race to succeed him in the Wisconsin State Senate. Six years later Laird was elected to the U.S. House. He gained prominence in the mid-1960s for criticizing Lyndon Johnson for failing to be more aggressive in fighting the Vietnam War. By the time he became secretary of defense in 1969, however, he had concluded that the war could not be won on the battlefield. He championed the Nixon administration’s efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from South Vietnam and to empower the South Vietnamese army to protect the country, a policy he named “Vietnamization.” His relations with the White House grew tense, though, when he opposed Nixon’s decision to hide the bombing of Cambodia from the American public. As he promised from the start, Laird stepped down as secretary of defense at the end of Nixon’s first term. Under Laird’s leadership, the Pentagon replaced the discredited draft deferment system, which favored young men from upper middle-class backgrounds, with a lottery system. By the end of his time as secretary of defense, Laird had paved the way for the transition to an all-volunteer force.
Sydney Schanberg (b. 1934) was a New York Times correspondent whose coverage of the Khmer Rouge insurgency in Cambodia won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and inspired the classic film The Killing Fields. Schanberg was born and raised in Clinton, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard University in 1955, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as a reporter in Germany. Journalism would become his career. He joined the Times in 1959. A decade later he was made a foreign correspondent and dispatched to India to cover South and Southeast Asia. In 1972, while covering the rise of the Khmer Rouge he met Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist who eventually became his assistant and translator. Almost every journalist fled Phnom Penh when it fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Schanberg and Dith, however, ignored their editors’ orders to join the exodus and instead remained behind to document the rule of the new regime led by Pol Pot. The decision almost proved fatal. Schanberg and Dith were captured and nearly executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers; only Dith’s pleas saved their lives. Schanberg was subsequently able to flee Cambodia; Dith as a Cambodian national wasn’t. While Schanberg was back stateside writing about what he had witnessed and helping Dith’s wife and four children resettle in San Francisco, Dith was witnessing firsthand the horrors of Pol Pot’s rule. In three-and-a-half years, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians. Vietnamese forces finally ousted Pol Pot from power in early 1979. Dith soon escaped, and Schanberg persuaded the Times to hire him as a photographer. On January 20, 1980, Schanberg’s unforgettable story, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” ran in the New York Times Magazine. It was later published as a book.
Thomas Schelling (b. 1921) was a Nobel Prize-winning economist whose pioneering work on game theory provided new insights into nuclear strategy. Schelling was born in Oakland, California, earned his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley and his doctorate in economics from Harvard University. He taught economics at Yale University from 1953 to 1958, before returning to Harvard, where he would remain until 1990. In 1960, he published perhaps his most influential work, The Strategy of Conflict. Based in part on work he had done during a fellowship at the RAND Corporation, it applied insights from game theory to analyze international conflict and competition. It was this effort to promote “understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis” that led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2005, a prize he shared with Robert Aumann. During the Kennedy administration, Schelling headed a committee that recommended establishing a hotline between Soviet and U.S. leaders to prevent miscommunication during crises. Schelling had fans outside academia and government: his review of the novel Red Alert helped inspire director Stanley Kubrick to write Dr. Strangelove. Schelling served as a consultant on the film. In 1990, Schelling, whose research interests had always been diverse, joined the faculty of the University of Maryland’s Department of Economics and School of Public Policy, where he worked on problems ranging from climate change to smoking.
Thomas Sutherland (b. 1931) was a professor of agriculture who was held hostage for six years during the Lebanese civil war by Hezbollah. Sutherland was born and raised on a dairy farm in Falkirk, Scotland. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Glasgow, and then earned his Ph.D. from Iowa State University in 1958. He taught for more than two decades at Colorado State University and became an American citizen. In 1983, he went on leave to become dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science at the American University of Beirut. Two years later, he was kidnapped from his car. He spent much of his captivity with journalist Terry Anderson, ironically a fellow Iowa State graduate and the only Western hostage to be held longer by Hezbollah. Sutherland was repeatedly abused physically and mentally by his captors, especially during the first two years of his captivity. After protracted negotiations, he was finally released in November 1991, along with another hostage, the Anglican cleric Terry Waite. A decade later, Sutherland and his family won a $350 million court judgment against Iran for its support of Hezbollah. The damages were paid out of Iranian assets frozen in the wake of the fall of the Shah. Sutherland gave much of his settlement to charity, though he liked to joke that he lived his life “on extended vacation paid for by the shah of Iran.”
John W. Vessey (b. 1922) began his U.S. Army career as a private and eventually rose to become a four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Ronald Reagan. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Vessey lied about his age in 1939 to enlist in the Minnesota National Guard as a private, thirteen months before he graduated high school. He got his first taste of combat in 1942 as a first sergeant in North Africa, calling it the “toughest job he ever had.” A year later he won a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant at the Battle of Anzio. He remained in the army after the war ended, but did not see combat again until Vietnam. In the 1960s, while he was in his forties, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from George Washington University. During his service in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery, helping to fend off an attack on an American firebase. He later served as the commander of U.S. troops in South Korea, and helped persuade President Jimmy Carter to reverse his decision to withdraw U.S. ground forces from the country. In 1981, Reagan made Vessey his pick for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As chairman, he oversaw tremendous growth in military spending and encouraged Reagan to pursue what became the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars.” When Vessey retired in 1985, his forty-six years of service made him the longest serving member of the U.S. Army. In 2003, the Council on Foreign Relations created the General John W. Vessey Chair in Conflict Prevention to honor General Vessey’s service to his country by encouraging the development of strategies for preventing conflict around the globe.
Other Americans who had an impact on foreign policy and who died in 2016 include: Sidney Drell, a particle physicist and defense intellectual who for more than forty years advised presidents on nuclear weapons and arms control issues; Benjamin Gilman, a fifteen-term congressman who chaired the House International Relations Committee from 1995 to 2000; John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and a four-term U.S. senator from Ohio who flew back into space at the age of seventy-seven; Michael Herr, a journalist and the author of one of the best memoirs of the Vietnam War, Dispatches; Gene La Rocque, a U.S. Navy admiral who in retirement co-founded the Center for Defense Information, which was often critical of U.S defense policy; William McNeill, a long-time professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, which won the 1964 National Book Award for history; Robert B. Morgan a U.S. senator from North Carolina whose vote in favor of the Panama Canal Treaty likely cost him his Senate seat; Jeremiah O’Keefe, a U.S. Navy pilot who became an “ace” in his first battle when he shot down five Japanese planes over Okinawa; Alvin Toffler, a futurologist and author of the mega best seller, Future Shock; and Yutaka Yoshida, a Japanese-American police officer in Honolulu who was required to round up Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and who fought with distinction with the U.S. Army in Europe.
Bardia Vaseghi and Jonathan Levitt assisted in the preparation of this post.
Other posts in this series: