William Healy Sullivan was an American foreign service career officer who held ambassadorships to Laos, the Philippines, and Iran as well as serving in numerous important advisory posts dealing with major foreign policy issues throughout his lengthy career.
Born in Cranston, Rhode Island to Joseph and Sabina (nee Foley) Sullivan on October 12, 1922, Sullivan went on to attend Brown University where he graduated as the salutatorian and class orator of the class of 1943. After graduation he served as a gunnery officer in the United States Navy aboard the U.S.S. Hambleton, a destroyer whose namesake was Samuel Hambleton (1777 – 1851), a distnguished officer in the War of 1812 and the most trusted officer and confidant of Oliver Hazard Perry of South Kingstown, Rhode Island). The Hambleton saw action on many fronts escorting Atlantic convoys and served off North Africa and Italy before participating in the D-day invasion of Normandy in June, 1944 and then in the siege of Okinawa in April, 1945. Sullivan had the senior watch when Hambleton entered Yokohama Harbor for the Japanese surrender in September, 1945.
Using the new GI Bill (Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944), Sullivan obtained dual graduate degrees in international law and diplomacy from Harvard and the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Sullivan then joined the Foreign Service with initial postings to Thailand, India, Japan, Italy and The Hague, Netherlands. He served as deputy to W. Averell Harriman, President Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary for the Far East in 1961 at the Geneva negotiatons about the future of Laos. He was also Harriman’s deputy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. When American involvement in Vietnam increased in the early 1960s, he served briefly as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
In 1964 Sullivan was named ambassador to Laos by President Lyndon B. Johnson and, while authorized to do so by the Kennedy Administration, received criticism for directing bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail much to the chagrin of the U.S. military. That trail was bringing North Korean troops and munitions southward into the South Korean theater of war.
After leaving Laos in 1969, Ambassador Sullivan returned to Washington, D.C. and spent much of the erly ‘70s as the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs before working closely with Henry Kissinger in the lengthy negotiations with North Vietnam that produced the Paris accords and American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.
Also in 1973, President Nixon appointed Sullivan ambassafor to the Philippines where he experienced considerable difficulties negotiating with President Ferdinand E. Marcos to handle the flow of refugees fleeing from Vietnam and later to close the massive U.S. naval base at Subic Bay and air force facilities at Clark Field in Manila.
In a move that Sullivan said surprised him given his extensive Southeast Asia background and experience, President Carter named him ambassador to Iran where he assumed the post just before Carter’s visit to the Shah of Iran in December, 1977. The close military and economic ties between the U.S. and the Shah were being jeopardized in early 1978 by increasing unrest due to inflation, other economic hardships, and the growing tide of fundamentalist Islam. Washington had few instructions for the Embassy in Tehran and Sullivan, who was known throughout his career for his brash temperment and willingness to speak his mind, was frustrated by the lack of direction given him by the Carter Administration.
Sullivan conflicted with National Security Advisor Zbrgnieu Brzezinski over a resolution that would be acceptable to American interests in Iran. Brzezinski’s position in the matter prevailed, and in January, 1979 the White House instructed Sullivan to inform the Shah that the U.S. government felt he should leave the country. He complied on January 14, 1979. The exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran on February 1, 1979 and two weeks later, on February 14, the U.S. Embassy was attacked by armed demonstrators who took several hostages including Ambassador Sullivan. The hostages were quickly released, however, in what became known as the “Valentine’s Day Open House.”
After this incident, Sullivan began making plans to withdraw large numbers of the American diplomatic staff from Iran fearing the worst. Largely for his continuing disagreements with the Administration’s policy in Iran, Sullivan was recalled in March,1979 and not replaced in the post . He retired from government service later in the year. On April 1, 1979, Iran became an Islamic republic and, on November 4, 1979 the U.S. Embassy was stormed by Islamic militants who seized 52 Americans holding them hostage for 444 days in what would become one of the most ingominious events in the history of American foreign policy. Thus, Sullivan holds the distinction of being the last U.S. ambassador to Iran, a post which continues vacant to this day.
From 1979 to 1986, Mr. Sullivan served as president of the American Assembly, a public affairs forum at New York’s Columbia University and also served on the board of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy established in 1946. The institute is a non-profit, private operating foundation which seeks to improve the quality of life through the effective use, taxation, and stewardship of land.
Following retirement from these endeavors, Sullivan lived a quiet life in Cuernavaca, Mexico and later in Washington, D.C.
Sullivan and his wife of 62 years, Marie (nee Johnson) who predeceased him in 2010 had four children and six grandchildren. William Healy Sullivan died one day shy of his 91st birthday on October 11, 2013.
In recognition of his distinguished contributions to the Foreign Service of the United States, Ambassador William H. Sullivan was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1978 in the midst of one of his most challenging diplomatic assignments.
Books by Aambassador Sullivan: :
Sullivan, William H. Mission to Iran. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981.
Sullivan, William H Obblicato, 1939-1979: Notes on a Foreign Service Career. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984