Thomas L. Hughes, a prominent voice in U.S. foreign policy for decades, first as a high-ranking official at the State Department in the 1960s, where he forcefully if futilely argued against the escalation of the Vietnam War, and later as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, died Jan. 2 at a hospital in Washington. He was 97.
His wife, Jane Casey Hughes, confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
Mr. Hughes was a Rhodes scholar and Yale-trained lawyer and spent the early years of his government career, in the 1950s, as legislative counsel to Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D) of Minnesota, Mr. Hughes’s home state.
“In a city of towering egos, Hughes was a midwesterner with a modest demeanor and a sly wit,” a biographer, Bruce L.R. Smith, wrote in the 2021 volume “The Last Gentleman: Thomas Hughes and the End of the American Century.”
“He was always near the center of the action,” Smith wrote, “but as an adviser rather than the ultimate decisionmaker.”
Mr. Hughes was most consequentially an adviser to Humphrey, who served as vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson during part of Mr. Hughes’s tenure at the State Department.
Mr. Hughes led the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR — essentially an intelligence arm of the State Department — from 1963 to 1969. Based on the analyses of his office, Mr. Hughes reached what journalist David Halberstam, writing in his 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest,” described as “an extremely pessimistic appraisal of the chances for success in Vietnam and a rather positive estimate on the vitality of the enemy.”
Humphrey shared Mr. Hughes’s doubts. Their views put them in conflict with officials including Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, who were pushing Johnson to deepen American involvement in the conflict.
In February 1965, as Johnson contemplated expanding the war with a major bombing campaign, known as Operation Rolling Thunder, and by committing U.S. ground troops to the war, Mr. Hughes rushed to meet Humphrey in Georgia, where the vice president was hunting quail.
Together they drafted an emergency memo seeking to persuade Johnson to back off. Humphrey saw the moment, Mr. Hughes later reflected, as “his last clear chance to forestall the Vietnam escalation.”
The memo, dated Feb. 17, 1965, and signed by Humphrey, argued that “a full-scale military attack on North Vietnam … would risk gravely undermining other U.S. policies,” including by distracting from Johnson’s Great Society agenda.
Further, it noted, Johnson, having just won a resounding victory in the 1964 election, was in “a stronger position” to extricate the United States from Vietnam “than any Administration in this century. 1965 is the year of minimum political risk for the Johnson Administration.”
If Johnson went forward with the escalation, the memo said, he risked damaging “the image of the President of the United States — and that of the United States itself.”
Johnson reacted angrily to the vice president’s letter and essentially “exiled” him, in Mr. Hughes’s description, for the rest of the year, until Humphrey publicly reversed himself on the matter of Vietnam.
Fredrik Logevall, a professor of history and international affairs at Harvard University, said in an interview that he considers the memo “one of the most remarkable documents” in the history of U.S. policy in Vietnam, one that argued “powerfully, presciently against a major U.S. escalation.”
Mr. Hughes remained in office at the State Department until 1969, the year Johnson was succeeded by President Richard M. Nixon. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. By the end of the war, the conflict had resulted in the loss of millions of Vietnamese lives and the deaths of nearly 60,000 American troops.
Mr. Hughes had a short stint as the second-ranking officer at the U.S. Embassy in London before returning to the United States to run the Carnegie Endowment beginning in 1971. According to Smith’s book, he turned down two overtures from President Jimmy Carter to serve as CIA director.
Under Mr. Hughes’s leadership, the Carnegie Endowment consolidated in Washington operations that had previously been spread among the District, New York City and Geneva. Mr. Hughes remained at the helm until 1991, through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, as the organization became one the most influential think tanks in Washington and cultivated new generations of diplomats. Mr. Hughes also served for years as chairman of the board of the magazine Foreign Policy.
Thomas Lowe Hughes was born in Mankato, Minn., on Dec. 11, 1925. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Hughes showed early on an interest in public policy and government. He was a state high school debate champion and, at 18, became president of the Student Federalists, a group founded by future Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) that advocated a federal world government to maintain peace after World War II.
Mr. Hughes studied government and international relations at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., graduating in 1947. He then studied politics as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford in England before receiving his law degree from Yale in 1952. He began his government career after service in the Air Force.
In addition to working for Humphrey, Mr. Hughes served as an aide to Rep. Chester B. Bowles (D-Conn.), a former Connecticut governor and U.S. ambassador to India, and followed him to the State Department when Bowles became an undersecretary of state under President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Hughes served as deputy director at INR for two years before being named to head the office.
Mr. Hughes’s first wife, the former Jean Reiman, died in 1993 after 38 years of marriage. He and Jane Casey Kuczynski were married in 1995.
Besides his wife, of Chevy Chase, Md., survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Thomas “Evan” Hughes of Brooklyn and Allan Hughes of Athens, Ga.; three stepchildren, Carolina Kuczynski Reid of Austin, Alex Kuczynski of New York City and John-Michael Kuczynski of Fayetteville, N.C.; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Hughes’s off-the-record speeches while serving in the State Department were collected in the volume “Speaking Up and Speaking Out,” published in 2013. The same year, he published the book “Anecdotage: Some Authentic Retrievals,” about his life in Washington and beyond.
“Those of us who worked [at INR] on Vietnam in the 1960s have the ironic satisfaction of knowing that most of our forecasts have been vindicated by history,” wrote in an essay published by the nonprofit National Security Archive. “We can only lament that, while we were heeded, we were unable to persuade, sway, or prevail when it came to the ultimate decisions.”