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Published: October 28, 2013
William H. Sullivan, a career diplomat who spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in volatile parts of the world — notably Laos, where he oversaw a secret bombing campaign, and Iran, where he was the last United States ambassador before militants took embassy employees hostage in November 1979 — died on Oct. 11 in Washington. He was 90.
He had been ill and in hospice care for many months, said his daughter Anne Sullivan, who confirmed the death.
Mr. Sullivan, a Navy gunnery officer in World War II whose ship, the U.S.S. Hambleton, was involved in the invasion of Normandy and the surrender of Japan, joined the Foreign Service in 1947 and spent the next several years moving through increasingly prominent State Department posts in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
He worked under Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce in Rome. He was a close aide to the diplomat W. Averell Harriman during the Cuban missile crisis and talks with the Soviet Union about limits on nuclear testing. In 1973, he was a top adviser to Henry A. Kissinger during the Paris Peace Accords, which led to the United States’ withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.
These roles were in addition to his prominent and complicated turns as an ambassador in politically charged areas — first in Laos, then in the Philippines and, finally, in Iran. He was appointed by presidents of both parties.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Mr. Sullivan ambassador to Laos as tensions with neighboring Vietnam were rising there. Though Mr. Sullivan was a civilian, he oversaw a covert bombing campaign in Laos that targeted North Vietnamese forces traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings were conducted by the C.I.A., and Mr. Sullivan initially concealed them even from visiting members of Congress.
When lawmakers learned of the bombings in 1969, many questioned whether Mr. Sullivan and the executive branch had the authority and expertise to carry them out. An aid worker in Laos, Ronald J. Rickenbach, told a Senate subcommittee that many of the attacks appeared to be “indiscriminate bombing of population centers.”
Mr. Sullivan, who was called numerous times to testify before Congress, defended the covert bombings and insisted that his knowledge of Laos allowed him to monitor them closely and to minimize civilian casualties. He later said that civilian deaths rose after the military took control of the bombing campaign.
Mr. Sullivan left Laos in 1969 and spent much of the early ’70s as the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He worked closely with Mr. Kissinger in lengthy negotiations with North Vietnam that produced the Paris accords.
Even as Mr. Kissinger praised him for his assistance in Paris, it was disclosed that Mr. Sullivan had been one of 13 government officials and four journalists whose phones were wiretapped from 1969 to 1971 with the approval of President Richard M. Nixon. The stated goal was to halt leaks to the news media. Mr. Kissinger provided the list of those to be tapped; he later said that he did so only to prove that officials were not leaking information.
Also in 1973, President Nixon appointed Mr. Sullivan ambassador to the Philippines, where he negotiated with the government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos to handle the flow of refugees fleeing Vietnam and, later, to close two military bases. Four years later, in a move Mr. Sullivan said surprised him given his extensive experience in Southeast Asia, President Jimmy Carter named him ambassador to Iran. Within months after his arrival, a rebellion began growing against the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whom the United States supported.
By the fall of 1978, debate was raging within the Carter administration over what to do about the volatile situation. Mr. Sullivan clashed with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the president’s national security adviser, and complained that the administration was unresponsive to his repeated requests for clear instructions. Some criticized Mr. Sullivan for not seeing the seriousness of the threat to the shah, and thus to American political interests in the country. He argued later that the shah could have preserved power in a new coalition had the White House been more responsive.
In February 1979, a month after the shah had fled, the United States Embassy in Iran was briefly overtaken by Iranian militants, and Mr. Sullivan and several other Americans were taken prisoner. The Iranian government quickly freed them, but the episode prompted Mr. Sullivan to begin reducing the number of United States government employees in Iran, to fewer than 100 from more than 1,000.
Mr. Sullivan’s exchanges with the White House became increasingly bitter. In a 1981 memoir, “Mission to Iran,” he recalled receiving “a most unpleasant and abrasive cable” that “contained an unacceptable aspersion upon my loyalty.”
“When I was told by telephone from the State Department that the insulting message had originated at the White House,” he wrote, “I thought that I no longer had a useful function to perform on behalf of the president in Tehran.”
He left Iran that spring and retired from government service later that year. On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants scaled the walls of the United States Embassy compound and took 66 Americans hostage, holding 52 of them until January 1981. The United States has not had an ambassador in Iran since Mr. Sullivan left.
William Healy Sullivan was born on Oct. 12, 1922, in Cranston, R.I. His father, Joseph, was a dental surgeon, and his mother, the former Sabina Foley, was a schoolteacher. He received his undergraduate degree from Brown University and, in 1947, a master’s degree in international law and diplomacy jointly from Harvard and the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
From 1979 to 1986, Mr. Sullivan was president of the American Assembly, a public affairs forum at Columbia University. After 1986, he served on the boards of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and other organizations.
In addition to his daughter Anne, his survivors include three other children, John, Mark and Peggy Sullivan, and six grandchildren. His wife of 62 years, the former Marie Johnson, died in 2010.