Diplomatic Insider Chester L. Cooper

Chester L. Cooper's hobby was carving and building model circuses.
Chester L. Cooper's hobby was carving and building model circuses. (Family Photo)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 3, 2005

Chester L. Cooper, 88, whose public service career spanned more than five decades in and out of government, died Oct. 30 of congestive heart failure at Sibley Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Cooper, who in years past relaxed late at night by building precisely carved model circuses in the basement of his Chevy Chase home, was by day something of a public policy ringmaster himself, albeit a discreet one.

In positions with the CIA, National Security Council and State Department, he often found himself at the center of the action. Although rarely, if ever, in the spotlight, he was the consummate government insider, invariably playing a key role.

In 1956, he was deputy to the CIA chief of station in London when the British attacked Egypt, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower's great consternation. With relations between the two allies strained, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles assigned Dr. Cooper the delicate task of maintaining everyday connections with the British, so issues too urgent to ignore could be addressed.

During the Cuban missile crisis six years later, Secretary of State Dean Acheson dispatched him to London to show Prime Minister Harold Macmillan the highly secret photographs proving that the Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba.

A paper he prepared Jan. 6, 1965, as a member of the NSC staff was typical of the work he did for the Johnson White House during the escalating Vietnam War. He wrote: "We should not underestimate the risk of bombing the North. . . . But aside from the risk of greatly expanding hostilities, there is the considerable risk that the object of the exercise (i.e., forcing Hanoi to call off the dogs in the South and/or to improve our negotiating posture) won't be attainable by this means."

Years later, he accompanied former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara and other Vietnam-era policymakers to Hanoi for a conference with their Vietnamese counterparts. The conferees revisited the failed diplomatic efforts to end the war earlier.

In a 1997 article for The Washington Post, Dr. Cooper characterized the Hanoi meeting as "less than a success," in part because the Vietnamese felt the need to indulge in sermons and polemics. He expressed the hope that in subsequent meetings the old antagonists could "move from the past to the present."

According to Dr. Cooper's daughter, they did meet again. Her father, she said, felt that they reached a modicum of mutual understanding.

Chester Lawrence Cooper was born in Boston on Jan. 13, 1917. As a teenager, he was the impresario and drummer for Chet Cooper and His Melodians, which played at weddings, anniversaries and bar mitzvahs, occasionally with a young fellow named Leonard Bernstein tickling the ivories.

He received a bachelor's degree in 1939 and a master's degree in business administration in 1941, both from New York University. World War II interrupted his doctoral studies at Columbia University; he received his doctorate from American University in 1959.

During the war, he served initially in India with the Army and then in China with the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA. He was assistant deputy director at the CIA from 1947 to 1962, when he joined the NSC.

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