Ten Foreign Policy Notables Who Died in 2020
from The Water's Edge

Ten Foreign Policy Notables Who Died in 2020

As 2020 comes to a close, here are ten influential U.S. foreign policy figures who passed away this year. 
The American flag flying at half staff at the United States Capitol on December 3, 2018. Shawn Thew/Pool via Reuters
The American flag flying at half staff at the United States Capitol on December 3, 2018. Shawn Thew/Pool via Reuters

Year’s end is a time for taking stock, counting successes, and assessing failures. It is also time for remembering those who are no longer with us. Here are ten Americans who died in 2020 who through their vision, service, intellect, or courage helped shape U.S. foreign policy. They will be missed.

Bruce Blair (b. 1947) was a leading nuclear scholar and arms control advocate. He was born in Creston, Iowa, and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1970. From 1972 to 1974, he served in the U.S. Air Force as a launch control officer overseeing fifty nuclear-armed Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles in an underground missile bunker. The experience set him on his career path. He received his doctorate in operations research from Yale University in 1984 while working as a project director at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment examining the nuclear command system. In 1985, his path-breaking book Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat was published. That same year Blair joined the Brookings Institution, where he remained until 2000. In 1999, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the so-called genius award. He went on to found Global Zero, the advocacy group that calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and to become a research scholar at Princeton University. In an interview with the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Blair said that his experience working with missiles in the Air Force “sensitized me to the magnitude of devastation at stake, which is humongous.”

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2020 in Review

Heads of State and Government

United States

Ruth Kluger (b. 1931) survived Auschwitz and wrote the unsparing memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. Born in Vienna, Kluger was six years old when the Nazis annexed Austria. Her father fled to France, where he was later deported and killed. In 1942, she and her mother were taken to Theresienstadt, a labor camp where many Jews were held before being sent to death camps. In early 1944, she was transferred to Auschwitz. At her mother’s behest, Kluger lied about her age—saying she was fifteen instead of twelve. That lie saved her life. She was targeted for forced labor rather than execution. In the war’s waning months, Kluger escaped while on a forced march and hid among the local population. She emigrated to New York with her mother in 1947. Three years later she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Hunter College. She went on to earn a master’s in English and a doctorate in German literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Kluger taught at several universities, including Princeton, spending the final eight years of her academic career at the University of California, Irvine. She said of the horrors she witnessed as a child: “We survivors are not responsible for forgiveness.”

J. Michael Lane (b. 1936) helped lead the global effort to eradicate smallpox, one of humanity’s most devastating diseases. Lane received a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale University in 1957, a medical degree from Harvard in 1961, and a master’s degree in public health epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1967. He joined the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1963 and within a year was working on smallpox eradication. A decade later, Lane was appointed the director of the CDC’s smallpox eradication program. In 1977, the last case of smallpox outside a laboratory was detected. In 1981, Lane was appointed the director of the CDC’s Center for Prevention Services. He retired from the CDC six years later. He subsequently taught epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta and the Australian National University in Canberra. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, he consulted on the potential use of smallpox as bioterror weaponism. He also found time at the age of seventy-nine to hike from Atlanta to Seattle. William H. Foege, who is credited with devising the strategy for eradicating smallpox, said that Lane was “extremely important to the success of the smallpox eradication program.”

Edward C. “Shy” Meyer (b. 1928) was the Army Chief of Staff who after the Vietnam War sought to rebuild what he called a “hollow army.” Born in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, Meyer was an Eagle Scout who was nicknamed “Shy” because of his outgoing personality. He graduated from West Point in 1951 and served in both Korea and Vietnam. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Silver Star for his valor in Korea and the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Purple Heart for his actions in Vietnam. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter chose him over eighteen more senior generals to be Army Chief of Staff. Meyer took the post at a time when the post-Vietnam Army suffered from low morale, staffing issues, and outdated equipment. During his four years as chief of staff, Meyer revitalized the Army with increased pay and benefits, better training, and greater unit cohesion. He retired from the Army after completing his stint as chief of staff in 1983. He subsequently served as the president of the Army Emergency Relief, which provides aid to soldiers and Army families, and joined numerous advisory panels and corporate boards. Meyer was described as “a wise, humane and humble leader who served his country honorably and well.”

Edward J. Perkins (b. 1928) was a distinguished Foreign Service officer who served as the first Black U.S. ambassador to South Africa. Born and raised in segregated Louisiana, Perkins served three years in the Army after graduating from high school. He returned to civilian life briefly before joining the Marines. He then earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland in 1967 while working in East Asia as a civilian for the Army. In 1971, he passed the Foreign Service exam, joining a State Department that was “overwhelmingly white, male and Ivy League-educated.” He rose rapidly through the ranks and was named U.S. ambassador to Liberia in 1985. The following year, President Ronald Reagan appointed him ambassador to South Africa, where he had a tense relationship with the apartheid government. In 1989, he was named director general of the Foreign Service, where he worked to diversify the Foreign Service. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush named Perkins ambassador to the United Nations. The following year, President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to Australia. After retiring from the Foreign Service, Perkins taught at the University of Oklahoma and directed the school’s International Programs Center.

Brent Scowcroft (b. 1925) was the only national security advisor to serve under two U.S. presidents and is widely regarded as the best ever to do the job. Scowcroft graduated from West Point in 1947 and joined the newly formed Air Force. He wanted to be a fighter pilot but changed career paths after he was injured in a plane crash. In 1953, he received a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University. Over the next dozen years he taught at West Point and the Air Force Academy, and served as an assistant air attaché at the U.S. embassy in Belgrade. In 1967, he earned his doctorate from Columbia. A year later, he took the first of several Pentagon posts before being named President Richard Nixon’s military aide in 1972. A year later, he became deputy national security advisor before moving up to the top job in 1975 under President Gerald Ford. Scowcroft left government service in 1997, but over the next dozen years he advised the Carter administration on arms control, chaired a commission to assess the Reagan administration’s plans for the MX missile, and served on the commission that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1987, President George H.W. Bush made Scowcroft his national security advisor. In the post, he played a critical role shaping U.S. policy on the Gulf War—for which Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and engagement with China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, among other epic issues. Scowcroft continued to contribute to the foreign policy debate long after his second stint at the White House ended, most notably in August 2002 when he presciently warned against a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

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2020 in Review

Heads of State and Government

United States

Jean Kennedy Smith (b. 1928) was a U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and the last surviving sibling of President John F. Kennedy. Smith graduated from Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in 1948 with a degree in English. She was active in many charities over her lifetime—she served as a trustee of the Kennedy Center and founded Very Special Arts, a program that supports physically and mentally handicapped artists. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for her work helping people with disabilities. Smith was also active in politics for many years. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her as ambassador to Ireland. She used the post to help advance the peace process in neighboring Northern Ireland. She met frequently with Gerry Adams, the head of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, and worked to bring the contending parties to negotiating table. Those efforts led to the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Ireland granted her Irish citizenship after she stepped down as ambassador in 1998 to recognize her “distinguished service to the nation.” Smith said of time as ambassador: “I really didn’t think of it as a Kennedy thing. I thought of it as a moment. A moment in history.”

Donald Stratton (b. 1922) was one of the last living survivors of the crew of the USS Arizona. Stratton was born and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska. He joined the U.S. Navy after graduating high school in 1940. He was a nineteen-year-old seaman first class when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He suffered burns on nearly 70 percent of his body during the attack, which killed 1,177 of his fellow sailors aboard the Arizona. He spent three years recovering from his injuries before rejoining the Navy and being posted on the USS Stack, where he participated in the invasions of New Guinea, the Philippines, and Okinawa. Stratton was discharged on December 4, 1945. He worked in the commercial diving business and sought to preserve the history of the Pearl Harbor attack. He campaigned for the recognition of Chief Boatswain's Mate Joe George, who had defied orders to cut a line from his repair ship to the Arizona until Stratton and five others had escaped over it. In 2017, George was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star for valor. Stratton recounted his experiences at Pearl Harbor in his memoir, All the Gallant Men. Just two members of the Arizona crew are still living.

Seymour Topping (b. 1921) was a foreign correspondent and editor at the New York Times. Topping was born in Manhattan. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1943, he served as an infantry captain in the Pacific theater. He began his journalism career as a wire reporter in China during the final years of the country’s civil war. In 1949, he was briefly held prisoner by Communist forces after he crossed the battle lines seeking an interview with Mao Zedong. He displayed similar grit in his decades-long career covering stories in Asia and Europe. He started his thirty-four-year stint at the New York Times in 1959. As the Times’ Moscow bureau chief, he broke the story of the Soviet capture of U-2 pilot Gary Powers and covered the Kremlin’s reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He later returned to New York to become first the Times’ foreign news editor and then its managing editor. After leaving the Times in 1993, he became a journalism professor and the Pulitzer Prize administrator at Columbia University until his retirement in 2002. Topping wrote several books inspired by his time abroad, including his 2010 memoir, appropriately titled, On the Front Lines of the Cold War.

Chuck Yeager (b. 1923) was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. Yeager was born and raised in rural West Virginia. He joined the Army Air Forces in 1941 as a mechanic and was later accepted into flight training. Despite vomiting during his first flight, he became an ace fighter pilot. During World War II he downed thirteen German planes, including five in one day. In March 1944, he was shot down over German-occupied France, but eluded capture with aid of the French resistance and returned to service. After the war Yeager became a test pilot. On October 14, 1947, he flew his Bell X-1 aircraft over the Mojave Desert at nearly 700 mph. Yeager described the actual experience of breaking the sound barrier as a “letdown.” He spent the remainder of his military career testing experimental aircraft, training astronauts, and flying combat missions in Vietnam. He retired from the Air Force in 1975 at the rank of brigadier general. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985 and was promoted to major general in 2005. Yeager was famous for his stoicism—he flew the X-1 with broken ribs. He once told Time Magazine: “I’ll be back all right. In one piece, or a whole lot of pieces.”

Other Americans who had an impact on foreign policy and who died in 2020 include: Frank Anderson was a CIA operative who managed the covert mission in the 1980s to supply Afghan insurgents with weapons to fight Soviet occupation forces. Robert Sam Anson was a journalist who covered wars, U.S. politics, and popular culture. Stephen F. Cohen was an historian who studied the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and who frequently criticized post-Cold War U.S. policy toward Russia. Richard N. Cooper was a longtime professor of international economics at Harvard University who did pioneering work on international cooperation and whose government service included stints as Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and chair of the National Intelligence Council. Richard Fenno was a longtime University of Rochester political scientist who wrote path-breaking books that are essential to understanding how members of Congress approach their job, whether on domestic or foreign policy. Ole Holsti was a longtime Duke University political scientist who studied foreign-policy decision-making. Amory Houghton Jr. was a congressman from upstate New York who was one of the six House Republicans to vote against the 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Larry Kramer was an influential AIDS activist and playwright who crusaded in the 1980s for public action to stop the AIDS epidemic. Jim Lehrer was the longtime anchor of PBS NewsHour, where he interviewed world figures like Fidel Castro and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Roberta McCain was the wife of Adm. John S. McCain Jr. and the mother of Senator John McCain. 

Stephanie Neuman was an adjunct senior research scholar for four decades at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies who studied the international arms trade. Paul H. O’Neill was secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush. Ardeth Platte was a Dominican nun and anti-nuclear activist who was sentenced to forty-one months in prison in 2002 for breaking into a nuclear missile site in Colorado. Avraham Rabby fought to overturn the State Department’s prohibition against employing blind people in the Foreign Service and became the first blind U.S. diplomat. Ronald Rosser reenlisted in the Army to avenge his brother’s death in Korea and was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery. Robert Thacker survived Japanese fighters firing on his unarmed B-17 bomber during the attack on Pearl Harbor— he went on to fly eighty combat missions in World War II and to fly in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Carlisle Trost was chief of naval operations during the Navy’s transition into the post-Cold War era. Ezra Vogel was a Harvard University professor and leading Asia scholar. James D. Wolfensohn was a two-term president of the World Bank. Marvin Zonis taught for more than forty years at the University of Chicago and wrote extensively about the Middle East and energy politics.

Margaret GachKara Jackson, Noah Mulligan, and Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of 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 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 2014 Who Shaped U.S. Foreign Policy

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

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