Adam Yarmolinsky, who died last week at age 77 after a long struggle with leukemia, was one of those rare Washington types--an ideologue with irony and a sense of humor.
He showed it in 1965, when the United States sent some crack troops to the Dominican Republic to put down a popular uprising in favor of--of all things--democracy. I was the regional director of the Peace Corps at the time, and the volunteers, who lived with and took sides with what the U.S. media invariably called "the rebels," were giving the Johnson administration considerable heartburn. I was dispatched to see if they could be kept from actively joining the revolution.
In due course, President Johnson sent down a delegation, of which Yarmolinsky was a key member, to try to extricate us with some honor from a situation in which we were firmly on the side of the bad guys. Adam convened a meeting; present were some embassy types, a few U.S. generals and a Peace Corps official--namely, me. Adam began by asking what were the people's chief concerns, beyond the fact of a military dictatorship led by Gen. Elias Wessin y Wessin. I offered what I had heard from our volunteers, that there was a terrible shortage of cooking oil. Adam wasted no time with that one--"I would assume," he said dryly, "General Wessin could take care of that problem."
Adam didn't suffer fools gladly, or indeed, at all. I first encountered him in the '50s in Los Angeles, where he had come to work with Commonweal editor John Cogley on a book about blacklisting in the movie industry. We became friends, and I was not surprised, a few years later, to see he was functioning as a recruiter for the administration of newly elected John F. Kennedy. He wound up as one of the original "Whiz Kids" at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. I imagined him an odd fit there, firmly liberal, bow-tied and a full 5 feet 4 inches tall when he sought to tower over an opponent, but when he asked me to join him in the reorganization of the defense establishment, I spent a day with him and his colleagues.
By the end of it, having tried in vain to absorb the ongoing dialogue among Adam, Undersecretary Charles Hitch, McNamara and the other "kids," I was ready to turn tail and run. I told Adam I knew every word they were using but hadn't the faintest idea what they were talking about. By the next day, I had accepted an offer to go to Latin America with the Peace Corps. Adam said, with an ill-concealed smile, that he understood.
A few years later I was in Washington to testify for the Peace Corps appropriation when I read that Director Sargent Shriver had been named the provisional head of the War on Poverty as well. Shriver asked me to come to his office that evening to talk about setting up a task force for the new assignment. After a few days, during which I wondered how people got paid and how furniture got requisitioned, Shriver saw the need for a real deputy, and Adam Yarmolinsky appeared to get things organized--to run things. He did it superbly, never losing his sense of equanimity or humor, and it was clear that Adam would be the deputy director of what was to be called the Office of Economic Opportunity.
But trouble soon arrived. At the Pentagon, Adam typically took seriously his directives to speed up (and, in too many cases, begin) the racial desegregation of the armed forces. He went so far as to propose that bases only be staffed near desegregated cities and towns, so soldiers and airmen would not leave their integrated barracks only to be forced to the back of the bus. But some of the more powerful Southern congressmen threatened to kill the whole program unless the president forced Adam out, and Shriver had little choice.
Admittedly bitter over the event, Adam continued to write and teach, always fighting for the things his parents had taught him, unfailingly a friend and--despite his reputation as a bomb-thrower--a decent and gentle man. It must have pleased him to know that across America, countless lives were more hopeful because of what he had done.