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William H. Sullivan
The Shah with Atherton, Sullivan, Vance, Carter and Brzezinski, 1977.jpg
The Iranian Shah meeting with Alfred Atherton, William Sullivan, Cyrus Vance, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1977.
United States Ambassador to Iran
In office
President Jimmy Carter
Preceded by Richard Helms
Succeeded by Bruce Laingen
United States Ambassador to the Philippines
In office
August 6, 1973 – April 26, 1977
President Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter
Preceded by Henry A. Byroade
Succeeded by David D. Newsom
United States Ambassador to Laos
In office
December 23, 1964 – March 18, 1969
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard Nixon
Preceded by Leonard S. Unger
Succeeded by G. McMurtrie Godley
Personal details
Born William Healy Sullivan
(1922-10-12)October 12, 1922
Cranston, Rhode Island, U.S.
Died October 11, 2013(2013-10-11) (aged 90)
Washington, D. C., U.S.
Residence Washington, D. C., U.S.
Alma mater Brown University

William Healy Sullivan (October 12, 1922 – October 11, 2013) was an American Foreign Service career officer who served as Ambassador to Laos from 1964–1969, the Philippines from 1973–1977, and Iran from 1977–1979.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Sullivan was born in Cranston, Rhode Island, and graduated from Brown University at salutatorian and Class Orator of the class of 1943. His senior address was on America’s duty to “aid in repairing not only the damage suffered by our Allies, but also that sustained by our enemies.”[2] After graduation, he entered the Navy and served as a gunnery officer on a destroyer, the USS Hambleton. The Hambleton escorted North Atlantic convoys, and served off North Africa and Italy before participating in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the invasion of Okinawa. He had the senior watch on the Hambleton when it entered Yokohama harbor for the Japanese surrender.[3]

After obtaining a joint graduate degree from Harvard University and the Fletcher School at Tufts University under the GI Bill, Sullivan joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Bangkok, Thailand. During that tour, he was in brief communication with the Viet Cong, who were in exile in northern Thailand. His subsequent assignments were to Calcutta, India, Tokyo, Japan, Naples and Rome, Italy, and The Hague, Netherlands.

Sullivan served as Averell Harriman’s deputy at Geneva negotiations about the future of Laos in 1961 and 1961 and during the Cuban Missile Crisis.[4] When the Vietnam War heated up, he served briefly as deputy chief of mission to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.[5]

Ambassador to Laos[edit]

In 1964, Sullivan began his tenure as Ambassador to Laos. During his service in Laos, Sullivan broached negotiations with the North Vietnamese, capitalizing on his prior contacts with the Viet Cong in Thailand nearly 20 years previously, for the initiation of the Paris Peace Talks that ended the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.[6] Pursuant to an order by President Kennedy, all U.S. military operations in Laos were under the direct supervision of the Ambassador.[7] As Ambassador to Laos during Project 404, and as a former gunnery officer he also personally directed the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in order to minimize civilian casualties. This civilian control and the restriction on military operations rankled the military.[1]

After he left Laos, Sullivan returned to Washington to coordinate the U.S. participation in the Paris Peace Talks.[8] Thereafter, he was appointed Ambassador to the Philippines. South Vietnam fell while he in the Philippines, and Sullivan orchestrated the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people through that nation. He was able to convince President Marcos to permit the fleeing South Vietnamese navy to land, despite a demand from the new Communist Vietnamese government for its return, by arguing that the ships were in fact U.S. property after the fall of the South Vietnamese government, as a result of the terms of their sale to that state.[9]

Ambassador to Iran[edit]

Sullivan next served as U.S. Ambassador to Iran, arriving just before President Jimmy Carter’s visit to the Shah of Iran in December 1977. In the 1970s, America had extremely close military and economic links with Iran. However, in early 1978, growing unrest due to inflation and other economic hardships fueled by the growing tide of fundamentalist Islam led to demonstrations against the Shah. During the next year, however, as the domestic situation in Iran was rapidly unraveling, Washington had few instructions for the Embassy in Iran.[10] In late 1978, Sullivan cabled Washington that it might be necessary to consider policy options if the military proved unable to assure the shah’s continuance in power and the shah should depart from Iran.[11] In January 1979, the White House instructed Sullivan to inform the shah that the U.S. government felt he should leave the country.[12]

On February 1, 1979, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran and on April 1, 1979, Iran officially became an Islamic Republic.

On February 14, 1979, the US Embassy in Teheran was overrun by several different armed groups.[13] The Embassy staff was briefly taken hostage, but later released to the caretaker Iranian government.[14]

He wrote in his autobiography: "I had recommended that we accept the fact that a revolution was in progress and seek to use our not inconsiderable influence to steer its success toward its more moderate protagonists." This view, however, was not shared by Washington.

After Sullivan left Iran, the Embassy drew down to a skeleton staff, under the direction of Charge' d'Affaires Bruce Laingen, who later became one of 52 Americans held hostage by militant Iranian students. He headed the American Assembly at Columbia University, which had been briefly headed by General Dwight Eisenhower before he was elected President, from 1979 to 1986. In 1981, Sullivan published Mission to Iran, a memoir of his time as ambassador. His autobiography, Obbligato: Notes on a Foreign Service Career, was published in 1984.[15]

Later career[edit]

He later served on the boards of the Lincoln Center, the International Center, and the U.S.- Vietnam Trade Council.

In 1988 he received an overture to begin steps towards U.S.-Vietnam normalization from his former North Vietnamese negotiations counterpart Nguyen Co Thach, who had become Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Sullivan first traveled back to Vietnam in May 1989 to meet with Minister Thach, founded the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council, and from then continued to work on steps towards the historic normalization.

Following retirement, he lived a quiet life in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and later, Washington, D.C.

William H. Sullivan died on October 11, 2013, one day before his 91st birthday.[1] He is survived by 4 children and 6 grandchildren.


  1. ^ a b c William Branigin (2011-02-22). "William H. Sullivan dies at 90; veteran diplomat oversaw ‘secret war’ in Laos". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  2. ^ Obbligato: Notes on a Foreign Service Career, William H. Sullivan. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. New York, 1984, p. 21
  3. ^ Obbligato, pp. 73 -76.
  4. ^ Obliggato,pp.162-172.
  5. ^ Obbligato, pp. 197- 208
  6. ^ Obbligato, p.228.
  7. ^ Thecrimson.com/article/1971/2/23/air-war-in-laos
  8. ^ "Interview with William H. (William Healy) Sullivan, 1981 - WGBH Open Vault". Openvault.wgbh.org. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  9. ^ Obbligato, p. 254. See also, The Lucky Few, Jan Herman, U.S. Naval Institute ISBN 9780870210396
  10. ^ Mission to Iran, Norton 1981, pp. 154—193. See also, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/11/30-years-after-the-hostage-crisis.html
  11. ^ Mission to Iran. Pp. 203-204.
  12. ^ Mission to Iran, pp. 227–230.
  13. ^ "US Embassy stormed by Tehran mob | 1970-1979 | Guardian Century". Century.theguardian.com. Retrieved 2013-10-23. 
  14. ^ Mission to Iran, pp. 257 – 268. See also, pbs.org/egbh/frontline supra.
  15. ^ Obbligato: Notes on a Foreign Service Career, William H. Sullivan, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 1984. ISBN 0-393-01809-1.

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Sullivan — Please support Wikipedia.
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46 news items

Washington Post

Washington Post
Tue, 22 Oct 2013 19:18:54 -0700

William H. Sullivan, a veteran diplomat who oversaw the “secret war” in Laos, later helped negotiate the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and served as the last American ambassador to Iran, died Oct. 11 at the Grand Oaks assisted living ...

New York Times

New York Times
Mon, 28 Oct 2013 17:02:49 -0700

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 ...
Chicago Tribune
Wed, 06 Nov 2013 00:01:42 -0800

He arrived in Iran in late 1977, just before the visit of President Jimmy Carter to that country and the president's famous New Year's Eve toast to the shah, "Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the ...
Los Angeles Times
Wed, 23 Oct 2013 22:11:37 -0700

William H. Sullivan, a veteran diplomat who oversaw the "secret war" in Laos, aided in negotiations to end U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and was the last American ambassador to Iran, died Oct. 11, one day before his 91st birthday. lRelated Vo ...
Sydney Morning Herald
Thu, 07 Nov 2013 19:33:45 -0800

William H Sullivan 1922-2013. William H Sullivan was 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 ...

Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral Daily Breeze
Thu, 06 Mar 2014 17:56:58 -0800

William H. Sullivan, 78, of North Fort Myers, previously of Franklin, Mass., died Monday, March 3, 2014. Born June 7, 1935, he was one of D. Lorraine (Johnson) and William H. Sullivan's five children and was raised in Charlestown, Mass. He was a 1953 ...

New York Times

New York Times
Mon, 06 Oct 2014 17:24:07 -0700

The same year, he testified before Congress opposite William H. Sullivan, the American ambassador to Laos from 1964 to 1969 and one of the overseers of the bombing campaign. Mr. Sullivan, who died last year, told Congress that Mr. Branfman and others ...

Foreign Policy (blog)

Foreign Policy (blog)
Wed, 11 Feb 2015 08:40:14 -0800

By the summer of 1978, when Amb. William H. Sullivan was telling his superiors that Iran was “stable,” his embassy on Takht-e Jamshid Ave. was processing between 600 and 700 non-immigrant visas each day. The State Department responded by ...

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