Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Gen. Shalikashvili was the first enlisted man to become Joint Chiefs chairman. Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., who served as chairman from 1982 to 1985, also began his career as an enlisted man.
John M. Shalikashvili, 75, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the post-Cold War era of the 1990s extended the military’s mission beyond armed might to diplomatic and humanitarian concerns, died July 23 at an Army medical center in Tacoma, Wash. He had complications from a stroke.
The Polish-born Gen. Shalikashvili, a four-star general in the Army, was the first immigrant to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the highest military council in the United States. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and succeeded Colin L. Powell as chairman.
At the time, the Soviet threat was receding, and the U.S. defense budget was decreasing. Inevitably, though, troubles broke out around the world, most notably in the Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia.
Before being named chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Shalikashvili had commanded NATO and U.S. forces in Europe. He coordinated U.S. troop interventions in Bosnia, Haiti and Zaire (now known as Congo) in the 1990s but left his greatest mark by making the military a powerful force for humanitarian relief worldwide.
From 1992 to 1994, he oversaw an effort in which U.S. troops maintained security and distributed food to famine-stricken Somalia.
Mindful of his history of living through World War II in Poland, Gen. Shalikashvili was particularly sensitive to the plight of people displaced by war and famine. In 1991, when he was NATO commander, he led Operation Provide Comfort, a large humanitarian effort in which 23,000 Allied troops provided aid to more than 500,000 Kurdish refugees fleeing the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
The job required sensitive diplomatic skills in dealing with Turkey, Iraq and Iran, but, above all, Gen. Shalikashvili sought to return the Kurds to their homes.
He deliberately had the refugee camps built from flimsy materials so they would not survive the winter, which meant that the settlements would not become permanent. Most of the refugees returned to their original homes in northern Iraq within 90 days.
“That was the first time that I saw firsthand what an enormous capacity the armed forces have for doing good,” Gen. Shalikashvili told writer Tad Szulc for Parade magazine in 1994. “If you make them permanent, they will be there — and we will have created another Gaza Strip. Today, there isn’t a single camp anywhere. That, to me, is probably as satisfying as that we returned them to their own towns and villages.”
John Malchase David Shalikashvili was born June 27, 1936, in Warsaw, where his family had settled after fleeing the Soviet Union.
His ancestors were from the onetime Soviet republic of Georgia, and his maternal grandfather had been a general in the army of the Russian czars. His grandmother had been an attendant to the royal court in St. Petersburg.
“As I was growing up,” he told New York Times magazine in 1995, “my mother told me vivid stories about court life in St. Petersburg, about Rasputin, and about the family’s flight from St. Petersburg after the Communists took over.”
During World War II, his father, a onetime member of the Polish cavalry, returned to Georgia, ended up fighting under German command and was taken prisoner by the British. Gen. Shalikashvili did not learn of his father’s collaboration with the Nazis until his confirmation hearings for Joint Chiefs chairman in 1993.
The future general spent most of the war in Warsaw with his mother and brother.
“I remember moving through sewers because you couldn’t get from one side of the street to the other,” he said 50 years later. “I remember being bombed in Warsaw and the building collapsing over us.”
He and his family were shipped by cattle car to Germany in 1944 and lived with wealthy relatives for several years before coming to the United States in 1952 and settling in Peoria, Ill.
Gen. Shalikashvili learned English from John Wayne movies, graduated from Bradley University in Peoria in 1958 and was drafted into the Army. He received a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1970.
He retired from the Army in 1997 and had a severe stroke in 2004.
His first wife, Gunhild Bartsch, died in 1965. Survivors include his wife of 44 years, the former Joan Zimpelman of Steilacoom, Wash.; and a son from his second marriage, Brant Shalikashvili of the District.
In recent years, Gen. Shalikashvili supported the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gays from serving openly in the military.