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David D. Newsom; Diplomat Played Key Role During Iran Hostage Crisis

David Newsom, a former ambassador, coordinated behind-the-scenes efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis.
David Newsom, a former ambassador, coordinated behind-the-scenes efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis. (1980 Photo By James K.w. Atherton -- The Washington Post)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

David D. Newsom, 90, the third-ranking official at the State Department who was a central figure during the Iran hostage crisis of 1980, died March 30 of respiratory failure at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.

From the first moments after Washington was alerted that the Tehran embassy was being overrun by Islamic fundamentalists, Mr. Newsom orchestrated the behind-the-scenes efforts in the Carter administration to negotiate an end to the 444-day crisis.

Working through the diplomats of other countries, Mr. Newsom negotiated for the release of the 52 Americans. He also was involved in expelling Iranian diplomats from the United States, freezing Iran's overseas assets and embargoing its oil.

Those and other efforts were unsuccessful, and most of the hostages were not released until President Jimmy Carter left office. But as one of the nation's most capable diplomats, Mr. Newsom was considered to be the most likely to succeed in an impossible situation. He had been an ambassador to trouble spots around the globe three times, and specialized in managing crises. Considered by his peers to be a consummate diplomat with an ability to solve complex problems, Mr. Newsom, officially the undersecretary of state for political affairs, described himself as "the all-purpose infielder on the seventh floor" of the department.

While he held that job, from 1978 to 1981, he fielded many other difficult issues: The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan began building a uranium enrichment plant that could be used to produce nuclear material, the first of about 100,000 Cubans left the port of Mariel for Key West, Fla., fighting erupted in Yemen and the U.S.-Soviet relationship deteriorated precipitously.

After Secretary of State Cyrus Vance resigned, "David was continuity factor," said Casimir A. Yost, director of Georgetown's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. "All that was built on a very distinguished career as a diplomat in hotspots around world. I think that was a pivotal moment in American history, and David was right at the center of it."

He had traveled the world for a generation, acquiring expertise that allowed him to see what other societies and governments needed and how they must act and how the United States could approach them, said Roscoe Suddarth, a former ambassador to Jordan who worked with Mr. Newsom. Tall and thin, with a reputation for keeping calm amid turmoil, Mr. Newsom "was considered a kind of model diplomat," Suddarth said.

That made his decision to speak out publicly after he left government more notable. Mr. Newsom was one of the 27 retired diplomats and military officers who signed a statement in June 2004 criticizing the Bush administration's conduct of foreign policy. In October 2001, he was one of 28 former ambassadors and envoys who asked President Bush to continue working with Arab and Muslim allies in the war against terrorism.

The author of six books, a regular columnist for the Christian Science Monitor and founder-editor of the Diplomatic Record annual, he recently completed his memoirs. "During the period covered by this memoir," he wrote, "significant changes have taken place in the international scene. I have been a witness to most and a participant in many."

David Dunlop Newsom was born Jan. 6, 1918, in Richmond, Calif., and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. He worked briefly as a newspaper reporter, then spent a year on a traveling fellowship in 1940, sailing to Japan, China, India, Africa and South America.

He returned to reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle before entering the Navy in 1942 and was stationed in Hawaii during World War II. After the war ended, he and his wife published a small newspaper in California until Mr. Newsom entered the Foreign Service in 1947. He was in the first class of officials who graduated from the Foreign Service Institute. In 1950, he received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York.

Mr. Newsom served in Karachi, Pakistan, Oslo, Baghdad, London and Washington. In 1965, he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be ambassador to Libya. He helped evacuate 6,000 Americans from Libya when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967 and finessed an attempt by the Libyans to shut down a U.S. air base there.

Four years later, he returned to Washington as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In an extensive, three-part profile of him in the New Yorker magazine in 1980, Mr. Newsom told writer Robert Shaplen that this was the most interesting job he had had because of the birth of new nations on the continent and because it allowed him to create policy.

But he considered it important that Foreign Service officers understand that they are servants of elected leaders, his friend Suddarth said. "He wanted the Foreign Service to be a useful member of government without being partisan. He was in favor of great debate before a decision, and then carry it out -- no leaks, no undermining of policy."

From 1973 to 1977, when he was ambassador to Indonesia, he was able to persuade the Indonesians to release most of their political prisoners. But it was also the period when President Gerald R. Ford and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger gave Indonesian President Suharto the go-ahead for Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor, which left at least 200,000 dead, documents declassified in 2001 showed.

For six months in late 1977 and early 1978, he was ambassador to the Philippines. Mr. Newsom then became undersecretary of state for political affairs.

He retired from the State Department in 1981, at the rank of career minister, the highest regular senior Foreign Service rank, and turned to academia. He became director of Georgetown's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. In 1991, he was the first to hold the Hugh S. and Winifred B. Cumming Memorial Chair in International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Jean Newsom of Charlottesville; five children, John Newsom of Seattle, Daniel Newsom of Boston, Nancy Dulguerov of Geneva, Catherine Pastuszek of Swarthmore, Pa., and David K. Newsom of Potomac; and nine grandchildren.


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