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Laurie Kellman, Associated Press
Laurie Kellman, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Jimmy Carter had been impressed with the views of foreign policy expert Zbigniew Brzezinski well before he won the presidency in 1977. That he immediately liked the Polish-born academic advising his campaign was a plus.
“He was inquisitive, innovative and a natural choice as my national security adviser when I became president,” Carter said in a statement following Brzezinski’s death Friday.
“He helped me set vital foreign policy goals, was a source of stimulation for the departments of defense and state, and everyone valued his opinion,” Carter said. “He played an essential role in all the key foreign policy events of my administration.”
Earnest and ambitious, Brzezinski helped Carter bridge wide gaps between the rigid Egyptian and Israeli leaders, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, leading to the Camp David accords in September 1978. Three months later, U.S.-China relations were normalized, a top priority for Brzezinski. He also had a hand in two other controversial agreements: the SALT II nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviet Union and the Panama Canal treaties ceding U.S. control of the waterway.
“He was brilliant, dedicated and loyal,” said Carter, who awarded Brzezinski the Presidential Medal of Freedom days before leaving office in 1981.
Brzezinski’s death at age 89 was announced on social media Friday night by his daughter, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. She called him “the most inspiring, loving and devoted father any girl could ever have.” Also surviving Brzezinski were his wife, Emilie, and their sons Ian and Mark.
“His influence spanned several decades,” former President Barack Obama said in a statement Saturday, “and I was one of several presidents who benefited from his wisdom and counsel. You always knew where Zbig stood, and his ideas and advocacy helped shape decades of American national security policy.”
Brzezinski spoke with the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown in 2012. Watch the interview here.
Born in Warsaw and educated in Canada and the United States, Brzezinski was an acknowledged expert in Communism when he attracted the attention of U.S. policymakers. In the 1960s he was an adviser to John F. Kennedy, served in the Johnson administration and advised Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. He was the first director of the Trilateral Commission, an international discussion group, serving from 1973 to 1976.
In December 1976, Carter offered Brzezinski the position of national security adviser. Brzezinski had not wanted to be secretary of state because he felt he could be more effective working at Carter’s side in the White House.
Brzezinski often found himself in clashes with colleagues like Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. For the White House, the differences between Vance and Brzezinski became a major headache, confusing the American public about the administration’s policy course and fueling a decline in confidence that Carter could keep his foreign policy team working in tandem.
The Iranian hostage crisis, which began in 1979, came to dramatize America’s waning global power and influence and to symbolize the failures and frustrations of the Carter administration. Brzezinski, during the early months of 1980, became convinced that negotiations to free the kidnapped Americans were going nowhere. Supported by the Pentagon, he began to push for military action.
Carter was desperate to end the standoff and, over Vance’s objections, agreed to a long-shot plan to rescue the hostages. The mission, dubbed Desert One, was a complete military and political humiliation and precipitated Vance’s resignation. Carter lost his re-election bid against Ronald Reagan that November.
Brzezinski went on to ruffle the feathers of Washington’s power elite with his 1983 book, “Power and Principle,” which was hailed and reviled as a kiss-and-tell memoir.
“I have never believed in flattery or lying as a way of making it,” he told The Washington Post that year. “I have made it on my own terms.”
The oldest son of Polish diplomat Tadeus Brzezinski, Zbigniew was born on March 28, 1928. He attended Catholic schools during the time his father was posted in France and Germany.
The family went to Montreal in 1938 when the elder Brzezinski was appointed Polish consul general. When Communists took power in Poland six years later, he retired and moved his family to a farm in the Canadian countryside.
At his new home, the young Brzezinski began learning Russian from a nearby farmer and was soon bitten by the foreign policy bug.
Brzezinski’s climb to the top of the foreign policy community began at Canada’s McGill University, where he earned degrees in economics and political science. Later at Harvard, he received a doctorate in government, a fellowship and a publishing contract — for his thesis on Soviet purges as a permanent feature of totalitarianism.
Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski arrives to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 1, 2007. Photo by Jim Young/File Photo/Reuters
He made frequent trips to Eastern Europe and wrote several books and articles on Communism in the 1950s. Throughout his career, he would be affiliated with moderate-to-liberal groups, including the Rand Corp., the Council on Foreign Relations, Amnesty International and the NAACP.
Cautioning in lectures of fractures within the Communist movement, Brzezinski emerged in the mid-1960s as a defender of the American presence in Vietnam. Unless the United States put up an effective resistance there, he argued, communist nations such as China would be emboldened to engage the West by fomenting trouble in politically unstable regions.
Still, Brzezinski characterized himself as a “dawk,” suggesting that he might have had reservations about other aspects of American policy in Southeast Asia.
Impressed nonetheless, the Johnson administration appointed him to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council in 1966. Though he was low on the White House totem pole, the position gave Brzezinski entre to the highest circles of White House decision-making.
After Carter left office, Brzezinski returned to lecturing, writing and serving on commissions, boards and task forces. He took part in the long-awaited reunification of Europe as a delegate to proceedings designed to bring the former Soviet republics into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
It was a triumph for the allies, he said, over a brutal secret non-aggression deal hatched during World War II — “the final undoing in Europe of the legacies of the Stalin-Hitler pact.”
He remained engaged and opinionated, tweeting for the last time early this month: “Sophisticated US leadership is the sine qua non of a stable world order. However, we lack the former while the latter is getting worse.”
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