Sisco, Joseph John (“Joe”)

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Sisco, Joseph John (“Joe”)

(b. 31 October 1919 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 23 November 2004 in Chevy Chase, Maryland), management consultant, corporate director, university president (1976–1980), chair of the American Academy for Diplomacy (1999–2004), and career diplomat (1951–1976).

Sisco was born in 1919 in Chicago to a poor Italian immigrant family. He and his four siblings were raised by his father, a tailor, after his mother’s early death. In modest surroundings, he was able to graduate from high school in 1937; briefly attend Morton College, a junior college in Cicero, Illinois; and then transfer to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He graduated magna cum laude with a BA in history and election to Phi Beta Kappa.

Sisco was drawn toward government service in the defense of his country, viewing it as a foundation for future endeavors, so he joined the U.S. Army during World War II (1939–1945), serving as a first lieutenant with the Forty-first Infantry Division in the Pacific. It was not until he completed his military service that he was able to resume his education. With government financial support he enrolled in graduate school, receiving both an MA (1947) and a PhD (1950) from the University of Chicago, specializing in Soviet affairs.

While studying for his doctoral degree Sisco married Jean Churchill Head, who was also a student at the University of Chicago, on 26 March 1946. The marriage produced two daughters.

Initially Sisco’s training ideally prepared him to serve in a new government agency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After serving there for one year he moved in 1951 to the Department of State, where he would make his mark for the next twenty-five years. He was able to put his training, preparation, and skills to great use. His first assignment was as a foreign affairs officer working on United Nations (UN) affairs (1951–1965). As recognition for his work Sisco was appointed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk as assistant secretary of state for international organizations, a position he held until 1969. He also held other diplomatic positions during this era: officer in charge, UN political affairs (1951–1958); deputy director (1958–1960) and director (1960–1962), Office of UN Political and Security Affairs; deputy assistant secretary (1962–1965); assistant secretary of state, Near Eastern and South Asian affairs (1969–1974); and undersecretary of state for political affairs (1974–1976). He also served as a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN General Assembly (1952–1968).

Sisco’s career as a diplomat spanned twenty-five years, during which he held a series of foreign-policy positions in the Ford, Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Most critical of these positions was his work with Henry Kissinger on the “shuttle diplomacy for the Middle East.” His strong and solid negotiating skills emerged and were highlighted during his tenure as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs and as undersecretary of state for political affairs. In the position as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, he wrote a policy paper that served as the basis of President Richard Nixon’s Middle Eastern policy. His work focused on using two strategies, one of containment of the Soviet Union’s influence in the Middle East and another of convincing Arab states that the Nixon administration was indeed coaxing Israel to withdraw from Arab territory. Although these strategies were strong and solid, they did not accomplish the goals as planned. In 1974, as the undersecretary of state for political affairs and while serving as Kissinger’s chief deputy, Sisco shuttled between Athens, Greece, and Ankara, Turkey, and ultimately diffused talk of war between the two countries concerning the disputed territory of Cyprus. Other issues that he worked on closely with Kissinger were Syria’s invasion of Jordon in 1970, the India-Pakistan war in 1971, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations in 1974.

Upon leaving the diplomatic service, Sisco launched a second career. With his resignation from the Department of State in 1976, he took on the position of president of a major academic institution, American University. This opportunity nurtured his initial desire to be an educator. He engaged in government service initially as a means to be better prepared to teach and lecture on international affairs. Although he served as university president for only five years, Sisco introduced beneficial academic reforms such as improved undergraduate admissions standards. He also oversaw the construction of a library and athletic arena. His extensive and lucrative speaking engagements and board memberships assisted the university but were not viewed favorably by the trustees or the student body. He resigned in 1981 citing his displeasure with fundraising.

Sisco then launched a third career as a management consultant and partner in Sisco Associates, which had been formed by his wife in 1979. As a consultant, a role he held from 1981 until just before his death, Sisco served as director on numerous private company boards such as Geico, Raytheon, Gillette, Tenneco, Interpublic Group of Companies, and Government Systems. In 1996 he was named to the board of advisers of Private Sector Council, an organization dedicated to assisting the federal government with efficiency, productivity, and management. He was greatly admired and appreciated for the direction and guidance he provided through economic and political analysis to both U.S. and foreign companies.

Sisco received many awards for his various arenas of service. Posthumously in 2004 the American Academy of Diplomacy honored his stewardship as chairman (1999–2004) and his overall contributions to American diplomacy with the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Award for Excellence in Diplomacy. Other awards for public service included the Department of State Superior Service Award, Top Ten Career Service Award of the Civil Service League (1966), Rockefeller Public Service Award (1971), and Silver Helmet Peace Award for Middle East Negotiations, American Veterans Committee (1971).

Sisco died at age eighty-five at his home in Chevy Chase of complications from diabetes. He was survived by his two daughters, his wife having died in 1990.

Having received Kissinger’s praise as a formidable and capable diplomat as well as a valued friend, Sisco was remembered for helping to avert political crises in the Middle East during his years in diplomatic service, along with his work as university president and management consultant working in the private sector.

Information about Sisco can be found in numerous books. Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (1982), explains “shuttle diplomacy” and Middle East negotiations. Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (1992), explains Sisco’s demeanor as a diplomat. William P. Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (1998), explains the value of Sisco’s knowledge to the diplomatic arena. Kissinger, Years of Renewal (1999), discusses the value placed on Sisco’s position as undersecretary of state and his value in the Greece-Turkey crisis. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (24 Nov. 2004), New York Times (25 Nov. 2004), and American Weekly (30 Nov. 2004).

Ann E. Pharr

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