George C. McGhee Dies; Oilman, Diplomat

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

George C. McGhee, 92, a millionaire oil prospector who became a central figure in postwar diplomacy by helping create and shape U.S. economic, military and petroleum ties from Europe to the Far East, died July 4 at Loudoun Hospital Center in Leesburg. He had pneumonia.

Dr. McGhee, a Texas native, devoted his early years to winning a Rhodes scholarship, acquiring a fortune and marrying "the most beautiful and richest girl in Texas." He won the scholarship on the second try, became a wealthy oilman before he was 30 and married the daughter of the eminent oil geologist Everette DeGolyer.

Pulled into government service in 1946 by William L. Clayton, a fellow Texan and an undersecretary of state, Dr. McGhee rose quickly in the diplomatic world. Regarded as an energetic and capable emissary, he initially held a wide-ranging portfolio that included disbursing $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey.

Turkey, perched on the fulcrum between Europe and the Middle East, continued to figure prominently in his career. While serving as ambassador there from 1951 to 1953, he helped welcome the country to NATO membership. He later donated his restored Ottoman villa to Georgetown University, which uses the home for its Eastern Mediterranean studies program.

In the late 1940s, he traveled constantly to promote industrialization in Africa and the Middle East and negotiated lasting military and petroleum ties with the Saudi royal family.

His work at the time was at least partly seen as a bulwark to communism, and Dr. McGhee, known as "Mr. U.S." wherever he traveled, spoke eloquently about the role of American assistance.

Daniel Yergin, author of "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power" (1991), said Dr. McGhee was one of the key diplomats at a time of "shifting American foreign policy and implementing containment. He was on the front lines in the early crises that defined the Cold War."

In the early 1960s, as undersecretary for political affairs, Dr. McGhee was dispatched to Congo and the Dominican Republic when the instability of civil wars and unaccountable governments threatened to destabilize the peace. Not every negotiation was successful, particularly talks with a son of the Dominican strongman.

"He was 22 and a major general," Dr. McGhee once said. "We wanted him to sell back the sugar properties that his family had accumulated. We made him an offer, and he made us a counteroffer. But he lost his nerve one evening. In the middle of a big party in his yacht, Angelita, he set sail with all his girlfriends instead."

Dr. McGhee's last significant diplomatic posting was to West Germany, from 1963 to 1968. He largely went about cementing NATO alliances and military policies during that Cold War period and weathered anti-Vietnam War protests.

George Crews McGhee was born in Waco, Tex., on March 10, 1912, to a bank executive and his wife. As a child, he combed riverbeds for rocks, plants and other artifacts to bring home and display -- "butterflies, insects, minerals, arrowheads -- anything that aroused my curiosity."

He was a 1933 geology graduate of the University of Oklahoma and worked for various oil companies. He received a patent for a method of making dip determination of geological formations, a valuable contribution to his industry. After receiving his doctorate from Oxford University in 1937, he worked with his future father-in-law to find and buy promising fields.

He became an independent explorer in 1940 and, soon after, struck oil in Lake Charles, La., in an oil field that sustained him financially for the rest of his life.

During the early years of World War II, he served in the Office of Production Management and on the War Production Board. He became a naval air intelligence officer in the Pacific and served on the staff of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay.

After leaving government service in 1969, Dr. McGhee served on the corporate boards of such companies as Mobil Oil, Procter & Gamble and Trans World Airlines, as well as on countless advisory bodies.

He lived in an 18th-century brick farmhouse near Middleburg that he called Farmer's Delight and crafted his hundreds of acres into a showplace of landscape design. The property featured a maze formed by 300 boxwood plants, with the reward being a bottle of cold champagne inside the urn planted at the center.

He wrote several books about his diplomatic career and a fictional work, "The Dance of the Billions: A Novel About Texas, Houston and Oil" (1990), that he said was based on his life as a young man. However, the book is known within the family as far too puritanical and sexless to be a commercial success. Dr. McGhee said he wrote it because "I got so bored writing my memoirs that I took time off."

His wife of 63 years, Cecilia DeGolyer McGhee, died in 2002. Two of their children died, Valerie McGhee in 2000 and Michael McGhee in 2003.

Survivors include four children, George McGhee of Middleburg, Bebek McGhee of Bodega Bay, Calif., and Marcia Carter and Dorothy McGhee, both of Washington; five grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

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