The Passing of A Diplomatic Legend and a Master of Grand Strategy

Charles Hill was George Schultz's closest aide.

Six short weeks after the passing of George Shultz, we have now lost his closest State  Department aide and a legendary co-founder of the Yale Grand Strategy Program, Charlie Hill. Hill is perhaps the greatest foreign service officer who never served as an ambassador, despite being something of a legend in the American diplomatic corps and a mentor to many others. (Full disclosure: Hill was one of my first bosses in the foreign service when I served at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in 1980.)

Hill was quiet and reserved to an unnerving degree. When I worked for him it was six months before I realized he didn’t think I was totally incompetent. I discovered his regard for me only when, having drafted a telegram about public perceptions of the post-Camp David Autonomy Talks between Israel and Egypt, I found myself under attack from the public affairs section of the Embassy. The group maintained that it alone was qualified to opine on public opinion in Israel and that a first-tour junior officer working for the U.S. Middle East Delegation to the West-Bank Gaza Autonomy talks had no business writing a dispatch to Washington reflecting on the subject.  I feared that my then nascent career might be hitting an unanticipated speed bump, but Charlie put a cover note on their memo to then-Ambassador Sam Lewis in his meticulous handwriting dissecting and dismissing their fatuous arguments and defending me. I instantly became a lifelong fan.

Charlie’s laconic manner belied a fierce intellect and a wry, cutting wit. He delighted in tormenting people with his own political incorrectness. When serving as the country director for Israel and Arab-Israeli relations in the State Department’s Near East Bureau, the home of the Foreign Service’s famed “Arabists,” he sent around an article that had recently appeared in Commentary by a very young and precocious Robert Kagan announcing that he hoped everyone in the bureau would welcome the office’s new summer intern. Kagan, of course, went on not only to deserved fame as a scholar and commentator but along the way found time to become a speech writer for George Shultz, much as Charlie had served as a speechwriter for Henry Kissinger. 

It was while he was serving as a deputy assistant secretary for the Near East that Charlie first got to know George Shultz, who entered office in the midst of the Israeli-PLO war in Lebanon in 1982. Charlie helped Shultz manage the mission of Special Envoy Phil Habib and his deputy Morrie Draper, then assisted in the design of the so-called Reagan Plan that was meant to revitalize the stalled negotiations over Palestinian autonomy and provide a means for bringing Jordan along. Although the effort did not bring immediate results, it set the stage for the Israeli-Jordanian peace deal a decade later. He also was a key participant in Shultz’s shuttle diplomacy that led to the ill-fated Lebanon-Israel May 17 Agreement in 1983.

Shultz was so impressed with Charlie’s calm and judgment that he first made him executive secretary of the Department of State and then brought him into the secretary’s office in 1985 as his executive assistant, the role now known as chief of staff, for the rest of Shultz’s time in office, during which the secretary ably supported and executed President Reagan’s policies charting the path that led to the end of the Cold War. Charlie was Shultz’s closest colleague in that endeavor. Along the way his careful, precise note-taking in his almost perfect handwriting preserved a record of the events of the Iran-Contra scandal that eventually kept Shultz out of legal trouble when Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, with a Javert-like determination to punish senior officials, focused his attention on the secretary of state.

Nonetheless, the less than friendly transition between the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations brought an abrupt and premature end to Charlie’s career. Charlie’s previous career—serving as a special assistant to Ellsworth Bunker in Vietnam (an assignment he received after he tried to resign from the Foreign Service in protest over the war), as a Mandarin-speaking China watcher in Hong Kong (when the U.S. had no diplomatic presence in Beijing) where he served with other renowned foreign service colleagues like Mort Abramowitz and Alan Romberg, as a speechwriter for Kissinger, and political counselor in Tel Aviv would certainly have warranted an ambassadorial posting that was not to be. Despite numerous superior honor awards and receiving the rarely awarded Secretary’s Medal for Distinguished Service, he simply had made too many enemies while serving at Shultz’s side, and the tensions between Reagan appointees and the newly ensconced Bush team were too much to overcome.      

He joined George Shultz at Stanford and helped him organize materials for Shultz’s voluminous memoir of his time as secretary. He ultimately moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and Yale University where he became, along with John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy, one of the co-founders of the Yale Grand Strategy program where he taught continuously until his passing this weekend. His book Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order serves as a reminder of his capacious intellect and his writing skill—a craft he remarkably honed in his 20-plus years as a diplomat, a reminder perhaps of the very founding of diplomacy when cultivating the art of conversation and the writing of dispatches to sovereigns were the order of the day. At Yale over the course of 20 more years he left his mark on the innumerable students who have passed through the Grand Strategy program and had the benefit of his learning, experience, and wisdom. He was also a fellow at the Hoover Institution and with the late Fouad Ajami launched its Working Group on the Middle East and the Islamic World.

During the past four decades he remained close to both Shultz and Kissinger and helped both of them with writing projects, including many of the op-ed articles that the senior statesmen penned on a variety of subjects (although he maintained very healthy skepticism about their nuclear abolitionism). With his passing only Kissinger remains, and the nation is a lot poorer for having lost a diplomat of enormous skill, a scholar of immense erudition, and a teacher with incalculable impact on his students.

I count myself enormously privileged to have known him, to have worked for and with him, to have benefited from his continuing mentorship over the course of my own career, and to have enjoyed his friendship for four decades. They don’t make diplomats like him anymore.

Eric Edelman was a foreign service officer for 29 years and served in Israel, the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Turkey. He is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.