The Iran Raid Claims One Political Casualty: Secretary of State Vance

updated 05/12/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1980 01:00AM

For three years Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had been locked in a power struggle with the President's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski—and for months he had been losing. He was overruled during SALT negotiations, eased out of the peace talks between Israel and Egypt, and blamed privately by Carter for the confusion that resulted in the anti-Israel vote in the U.N. last March. (The President thinks that snafu lost him the New York presidential primary to Senator Kennedy.) Increasingly, Vance found himself a lonely voice for détente and patient negotiation in an Administration increasingly beckoned to the hard line. His growing isolation did not sit lightly with him. Although he customarily limited himself to one drink at the end of the day, Vance began extending his cocktail hours, subsisting on peanuts while the dinners his cook prepared for him grew cold. Three weeks ago he returned from a short vacation to find that the hostage rescue mission, which he had strongly opposed, had been approved in his absence. Thirteen days later he resigned. "He was tired of losing," one observer says. "It wasn't just the rescue mission, but that was the last straw."

Despite Vance's many grievances, one of his top aides insists the Secretary would never have quit except for the mission. He reportedly considered its chance of success highly doubtful. "When it comes to military action," one observer says, "Vance is like a reformed alcoholic. As Deputy Secretary of Defense he went through it all during the Vietnam war and now he wants to pursue things by diplomatic negotiations. His mind may be a bit closed there." Vance was also deeply concerned about the reaction of allies, whose support had been encouraged on the implicit promise of military restraint, and that of the Muslim world, whose anger over the raid could, he feared, push some Arab nations into a closer alliance with Moscow. Finally, he was reported to be unsettled by what he believed was a dubious motivation for the raid. The afternoon he resigned, Vance met with an old friend and senior U.S. senator and confided his view that the mission was "a highly dangerous operation done under domestic political pressure." Predicts one high-level Senate staffer: "Other resignations will be coming soon, and the story will drift out. None of it will be favorable to Carter."

The public amiability of Vance's departure thus seems remarkable—but graceful team playing under pressure has been a hallmark of his career. The son of a West Virginia insurance executive and a newspaper heiress, he was raised in New York and after prep school went to Yale. There "Spider" Vance loyally did his part as equipment manager of the football squad and traveling chaperon for the Yale bulldog before rising to glory as captain of the hockey team. He went on to become a Wall Street lawyer, adviser to Senate committees and Secretary of the Army. Dispatched to the Paris peace talks in 1968, Vance struck co-negotiator Averell Harriman as "a keen mind and an original thinker. Assertiveness is not his strong suit. His strength is that he's an absolutely straight shooter."

Some witnesses to Vance's tug of war with Brzezinski trace the conflict to character differences. "It's gossip versus integrity," says one Washingtonian who knows them both. "In public Zbig always said he had a 'high regard' for Vance, but in private he often belittled him. Deep down, there was a lot of animosity between the two men." Others insist that policy disagreements were overriding, and that the very structure of the Administration made a Vance-Brzezinski showdown inevitable. As Henry Kissinger, the National Security Adviser who managed to depose then Secretary of State William Rogers and take the job himself, wrote in his memoirs: "If the security adviser becomes active in the development of policy, he must inevitably diminish the Secretary of State and reduce his effectiveness."

Vance, 63, is expected to retreat with his wife, Gay, to their West Virginia home and then to Antigua before he returns to his old Wall Street law firm. His mood was much improved the minute he announced his resignation, aides said. At Jimmy Carter's side during the announcement that Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie would succeed him at State, Vance seemed positively ebullient. Muskie was presumably chosen in part because he has the strength of character and political stature to be an effective check on Brzezinski. The President was said to have dismissed immediately any thought of appointing the emotional and impetuous Brzezinski as Secretary of State. Although Brzezinski was once thought to covet the title, he had changed his mind by last week. "Who the hell," he asked, "wants the job?"

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