Ten Americans Who Died in 2014 Who Shaped U.S. Foreign Policy
from The Water's Edge

Ten Americans Who Died in 2014 Who Shaped U.S. Foreign Policy

As 2014 comes to a close, here are ten influential U.S. foreign policy figures who passed away this year. 
Americans who died in 2014
Americans who died in 2014

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 2014 who through their vision, service, intellect, or courage helped shape U.S. foreign policy. They will be missed.

Howard H. Baker, Jr. (b. 1925) was a Republican senator from Tennessee from 1967 to 1985, serving as Senate minority leader from 1977 to 1981 and majority leader from 1981 to 1985. Baker came from a family of politicians: his father and stepmother both served in Congress, his grandfather was a judge, and his grandmother was a sheriff. Born and raised in Tennessee, Baker joined the U.S. Navy out of high school and served in the Pacific toward the end of World War II. After the war ended, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee. In 1966, he became the first Republican to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. He gained national fame seven years later during Watergate. As a member of the bipartisan committee created to investigate the scandal, he famously asked: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Baker sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1980 but finished far behind Ronald Reagan. He got a nice consolation prize, however, when Republicans won control of the Senate: majority leader. He likened the job to “herding cats.” But he was good at it, earning the reputation as the “great conciliator” for his knack of forging compromises. He retired from the Senate in 1985. He wasn’t on the sidelines for long. In 1987, he became White House chief of staff to help President Reagan in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal. He then left public service for more than a decade. In 2001, George W. Bush appointed him U. S. ambassador to Japan, a post he held until 2005. Baker’s life-long passion beside politics was photography. You can see some of his photos here.

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Shirley Temple Black (b. 1928) is probably best known to older Americans as Hollywood’s biggest star during the Great Depression, when she was a child actor. Younger Americans might have heard of her because a well-known non-alcoholic cocktail bears her name. What most people do not know is that she was also a diplomat. Black lived in Washington during the 1950s when her husband Charles Alden Black (who did not know she was a movie star when they met in 1950) was stationed at the Pentagon. She developed an interest in politics and became active in the Republican Party. She lost a 1967 bid for a seat in Congress, but two years later President Richard Nixon made her a delegate to the UN General Assembly. When Gerald Ford became president in 1974, he named her U.S. Ambassador to Ghana. She gave up that position in 1976 to become Ford’s chief of protocol. President George H.W. Bush later named her U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where she served from 1989 until 1992. She discovered she had a fan base in Prague.

Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr. (b. 1924), was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in 1980, but his biggest foreign policy moment came fourteen years earlier. In 1965 the forty-one year old U.S. Navy pilot and father of seven was shot down over North Vietnam. As a prisoner of war, he became a leader among prisoners, resisting attempts by his North Vietnamese jailers to break him. In 1966, the North Vietnamese had a Japanese reporter interview Denton as part of a propaganda campaign. Denton took advantage of the opportunity. He answered the reporter’s questions, but he also he blinked the word “torture” in Morse code, hoping that Americans who saw the interview would decipher it. They did, and it confirmed that the North Vietnamese were torturing American prisoners of war. After being released in 1973, Denton entered politics, advocating for conservative groups before becoming the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama since Reconstruction. Denton served one term; he lost to then Democrat Richard Shelby in 1986. Denton was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kurt Chew-Een Lee (b. 1926), a California native and son of Chinese immigrants, joined the Marines near the end of World War II. When the Korean War started, he was a lieutenant, and in all likelihood, the service’s first officer of Asian descent. Racism abounded. Many of Lee’s fellow Marines had never seen a Chinese-American before. They doubted his loyalty; some called him a “Chinese laundryman” or simply “the Chinaman." But Lee ignored the insults. In early November 1950, he helped save his men by striking out on his own and distracting invading Chinese forces by yelling orders in Mandarin. He was wounded in the fighting, but he left his hospital bed a few weeks later to lead a march through a blizzard to reinforce American defenses during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. In doing so, he helped save eight thousand Marines from certain capture. By the time Lee left Korea, he held the rank of major and had received the Silver Star, the Navy Cross, and two Purple Hearts. In 2010, he told the Washington Post one of his biggest regrets: not telling his mother he had joined the Marines until the day before he left. (The Smithsonian Channel made a documentary about Major Lee in 2010. You can watch clips of it here.)

Roger Hilsman (b. 1919) was a foreign policy advisor to President John F. Kennedy. A graduate of West Point, Hilsman served in the Army during World War II and participated in two highly dangerous missions: one as part of Merrill’s Marauders and one that rescued his own father. After the war, he earned his Ph.D. in international relations at Yale and landed a job at the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. There, he did research for then-Senator Kennedy. He was rewarded for his efforts. When JFK was elected president, he made Hilsman director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department. There he managed communications with Soviet officials during the Cuban missile crisis. He was later named assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. In August 1963, he sent Cable 243—later known as the “Hilsman Cable”—to Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, while Kennedy and many of his top advisors were out of town. The cable urged Lodge to support opponents of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Many of Hilsman’s colleagues criticized the cable, but it was never reversed. It may have spurred the coup that overthrew Diem that November, which is why it has been called the “single most controversial cable of the Vietnam War.” Hilsman left government after President Kennedy was assassinated and joined the faculty of Columbia University, where he remained until 1990.

Chester Nez (b. 1921) was a Navajo code talker who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. Nez was raised in a Navajo community in New Mexico and sent to a government boarding school, where his teachers washed his mouth out with soap when he spoke in Navajo. But when World War II began, the Marines realized that Navajo speakers could be used to create a code that would be unbreakable. Nez grasped the irony. He told USA Today in 2002, “All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo. And then to turn around and ask us for help with that same language…It still kind of bothers me.” Nevertheless, he was excited about the opportunity: “I told my buddy [Roy Begay], ‘Let’s get the heck out of here, climb that mountain up there and see what’s on the other side.’” He and twenty-eight other Navajos volunteered. The Marines used their code in the Pacific from 1942 until the war’s end. The Japanese never managed to break it. The code talkers’ mission remained classified until 1968. Hollywood turned their exploits into a movie in 2002, and in 2013 the code talkers received congressional gold medals. Nez was the last surviving code talker.

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James R. Schlesinger (b. 1929) served as secretary of defense under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the first secretary of energy. The New York City native attended Harvard, where he earned a B.A. and a Ph.D. in economics. He then taught at the University of Virginia and worked at the RAND Corporation. In 1969, Nixon made him an assistant director of the Bureau of the Budget (now known as the Office of Management and Budget). Later, Nixon appointed him head of the Atomic Energy Commission (now known as the Nuclear Regulatory Agency) and then CIA director. In his five months at the agency he ordered an investigation into its illegal practices and he fired about 10 percent of its staff. In 1973, Nixon appointed Schlesinger secretary of defense. Schlesinger was notable for the pipe he constantly smoked and for his hardline attitude on national security. He advocated for what became known as the “Schlesinger Doctrine,” which would have required the United States to develop a strategy for winning a limited nuclear war. He didn’t get along well with President Ford, who fired him in 1975. Schlesinger quickly rebounded. President Carter made him an advisor on energy policy, and when the Department of Energy was formed, he appointed Schlesinger secretary.

Robert S. Strauss (b. 1918) was a quintessential Washington insider who held critical posts under President Jimmy Carter. When he was a child, Strauss’s mother predicted that he would become “the first Jewish governor that Texas ever had.” Strauss never held that office or any other elected post. But he became very close with many of those who did. Strauss was born in Texas and attended the University of Texas, where he earned a law degree. Before turning to politics, Strauss worked for the FBI and co-founded a law firm in Dallas. (To this day it remains one of the most powerful in Washington, DC.) When his old college friend John Connally was elected governor of Texas in 1962, Strauss found himself appointed to the Democratic National Committee. He rose to the top of the organization. In 1974, he asked Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter to chair the party’s congressional campaign. Carter used the job to win the presidency in 1976. He then appointed Strauss as special trade representative and later to represent the United States in peace talks in the Middle East. Ronald Reagan also sought Strauss’s advice during his presidency, especially around the time of the Iran-Contra scandal. George H.W. Bush appointed him as ambassador to the Soviet Union, where he oversaw the fall of communism and became the first U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. (Full disclosure: I was the inaugural director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas.)

Richard H. Ullman (b. 1933) was a distinguished foreign policy scholar and government advisor, and for a time, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Born in Baltimore and raised in San Antonio, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University. He went on to study British-Soviet relations at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1967, he joined the staff of the National Security Council. Later that year he moved to the policy planning staff at the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Robert McNamara. After leaving government service the following year, he held a variety of positions, including director of studies at CFR (1973-1976), member of the New York Times editorial board (1977 to 1978), and editor of Foreign Policy (1978 to 1980). He even returned to government service briefly, working on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 1999 to 2000. But Ullman’s most significant contribution was as a professor at Princeton University. Those who worked with and studied under him sing his praises. General David Petraeus, an Ullman student, called him “an extraordinary professor, scholar, and mentor.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, said he was “one of the nation’s foremost foreign policy thinkers.” And Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of CFR, noted that "some of our country’s best foreign policy experts and government officials learned their ways in his classroom at Princeton."

Garrick Utley (b. 1939) was a long-time foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News. Utley worked in the family business; both his parents were reporters. A graduate of Carleton College in Minnesota, Utley did a stint in the U.S. Army and pursued graduate studies in Berlin on a Fulbright Scholarship before he was hired by NBC as a researcher in Brussels in 1963. He stayed with the network for thirty years, eventually becoming chief foreign correspondent. He covered virtually every major world event during that time, including the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War, the Persian Gulf War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He moderated Meet the Press from 1989 to 1991, before leaving NBC to report in London for ABC, and later CNN. At CNN, Utley was once again a foreign affairs reporter, and he covered the September 11 terrorist attacks. After retiring from journalism in 2002, he became the first president of the SUNY Levin Institute.

Other Americans who made significant contributions to U.S. foreign policy and who died in 2014 include: Joel D. Barkan, a leading scholar on the economic and political development of Africa and my colleague for many years at the University of Iowa; Julia Cuniberti, an Italian-American who helped the United States make plans to bomb her own home in Italy, which was being used as a Nazi base; David Greenglass, a Cold War spy who gave atomic secrets to the Soviets; Richard C. Hottelet, the last surviving member of the “Murrow Boys,” the group of radio correspondents who covered World War II in Europe under the leadership of famed CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow; Carol J. Lancaster, a foreign aid expert who was also the dean of Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service; Samuel W. Lewis, a Middle East expert and negotiator who served in the Carter and Reagan administrations; John J. McGinty III, a Marine who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Vietnam War; Otis G. Pike, a New York congressman who criticized excessive defense spending and who chaired a House committee in the 1970s that investigated the CIA; Jonathan Schell, the author of penetrating books on topics such as the folly of the Vietnam War and the case for nuclear abolition; Peter “Pete” Seeger, the folksinger who songs were a staple at anti-Vietnam War protests; Terence A. Todman, a career diplomat who served as the ambassador to a half-dozen nations; and Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator on the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Rachael Kauss and Corey Cooper helped prepare this post.

Other posts in this series:

Remembering Ten Americans Who Died in 2023

Ten American Foreign Policy Notables Who Died in 2022

Ten American Foreign Policy Notables Who Died in 2021 

Ten American Foreign Policy Notables Who Died in 2020

Ten American Foreign Policy Notables Who Died in 2019

Ten American Foreign Policy Influentials Who Died in 2018

Ten American Foreign Policy Influentials Who Died in 2017

Ten American Foreign Policy Influentials Who Died in 2016

Ten American Foreign Policy Influentials Who Died in 2015

Ten Americans Who Died in 2013 Who Shaped U.S. Foreign Policy