Joseph John Sisco, 85, a diplomat who played a major role in then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and whose career in the State Department spanned five presidential administrations and numerous foreign-policy crises, died Nov. 23 of complications from diabetes at his home in Chevy Chase.
In addition to his diplomatic career, Dr. Sisco served as president of American University from 1976 to 1980. He became a university president, he said, because he came from an impoverished background and wanted to acknowledge all that education had done for him.
Dr. Joseph Sisco was involved in diplomatic issues including Syria's invasion of Jordan in 1970 and the Mideast peace talks in 1974.
As a State Department negotiator, Dr. Sisco was involved in diplomatic hot spots that included Syria's invasion of Jordan in 1970, the India-Pakistan war in 1971, and Egypt and Israel's peace negotiations in 1974.
He didn't feel bound by diplomatic niceties if a more direct or a more personal approach -- which included cooking Italian food for heads of state visiting his home -- would get results. Tough and resourceful, he was sometimes known as "Jumping Joe" for his drive and intensity.
"It was fun to work with Joe because he was so enthusiastic," Kissinger said of the man he appointed undersecretary of state for political affairs. "He had a solution for everything."
Kissinger recalled that on one of their shuttle flights, a fax machine became loose and was careering around the plane. With Dr. Sisco trying to corral it, Kissinger and others were shouting, "For God's sake, don't let him get that thing! We couldn't stand a copy of Sisco."
Writing about a Mideast cease-fire in the summer of 1970, columnist Joseph Kraft noted that credit was widespread, but "by far the most important contribution was made by Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco, an outspoken, candid man, rough in manner and more interested in tactics than strategy who possesses in abundance the quality Talleyrand said diplomats should renounce -- zeal."
A Chicago native, Dr. Sisco was the son of Italian immigrants. His mother died when he was 9, and his father, a tailor, raised the five Sisco children in modest circumstances.
He graduated from high school in 1937, briefly attended junior college and then transferred to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1941. He worked for a short time as a high school teacher and then joined the Army, where he served as a first lieutenant with the 41st Infantry Division in the Pacific. He was discharged in 1945.
At the University of Chicago, he received a master's degree in 1947 and a doctorate in 1950, specializing in Soviet affairs. He also played basketball as a scrappy 6-foot-1 center on the college's last Big 10 team.
He expected to pursue an academic career but felt he needed government experience before teaching and writing about international relations. He became a Central Intelligence Agency officer in 1950 and joined the State Department the next year.
From 1951 to 1965, he served as a foreign affairs officer, specializing in issues involving the United Nations and other international organizations. In 1965, Secretary of State Dean Rusk appointed Dr. Sisco assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.
His deep involvement in Middle East diplomacy began at about the time Arthur J. Goldberg succeeded Adlai Stevenson as ambassador to the United Nations. Because Rusk was devoting much of his time to Vietnam, Goldberg was, in essence, in charge of U.S. policy in the Middle East during and after the Six-Day War in June 1967. Dr. Sisco worked closely with Goldberg until the U.N. ambassador left government service in the spring of 1968. Dr. Sisco became the chief U.S. mediator in the Middle East.
On Jan. 30, 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed him assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. Later that year, his policy paper on the Middle East became the basis for the president's Middle East policy.