From his first visit to the Soviet Union when he was 19, Mr. Palmer recognized that the Russian people were different from the Soviet government.
“I profoundly believed that Russians were like Americans,” he recalled in an oral history interview with the State Department in the late 1990s. “I believed that sooner or later they would have a decent political system.”
Building on that belief of shared humanity, Mr. Palmer spent 26 years in the Foreign Service and became the State Department’s top Kremlinologist, or expert on Soviet affairs, in the 1980s.
Throughout his career, Mr. Palmer was known for his advocacy of democratic principles of government. His notions were considered a bit quixotic in the 1970s, when U.S. foreign policy was geared more toward containment of the Soviet threat and monitoring human-rights abuses. But his ideals were vindicated over time, as democracy movements spread from one country to the next.
Mr. Palmer was named U.S. ambassador to Hungary in 1986 by Reagan and carried his campaign for democracy to the streets of Budapest, sometimes marching with forces opposing the communist regime.
“This is the greatest opportunity the West has had to influence this region since the division of Europe after World War II,” he told Time magazine in 1989. “We simply must jump in, not only to advance our own values and economic system but to do all we can to assure that these dramatic changes come with maximum stability.”
Mr. Palmer’s support of the Hungarian opposition movement lent credibility to its cause, but his close ties with dissidents sometimes led to reprimands from his State Department bosses.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Palmer was the sole speechwriter for Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger from 1973 to 1975. He was also a primary author of Reagan’s 1982 speech to the British Parliament in which the president outlined a goal of spreading democracy throughout the old Soviet bloc.
“It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens,” Reagan said in one of his most celebrated speeches. “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.”
Mr. Palmer also organized the 1985 Geneva summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, which was considered a diplomatic breakthrough that led to a thawing of relations between the two superpowers.
“His passion was clearly freedom, and he was passionate about seeing the remaining walls of dictatorship fall,” Andras Simonyi, Hungarian ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2007, said in an interview. “It’s not too much to say that the democracies of central Europe owe a lot of debt to Mark Palmer.”