Thompson, Llewellyn E., Jr. ("Tommy")

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THOMPSON, Llewellyn E., Jr. ("Tommy")

(b. 24 August 1904 in Las Animas, Colorado; d. 6 February 1972 in Bethesda, Maryland), diplomat who played a key role in resolving several U.S.–Soviet crises during the 1960s.

Thompson was born the son of Llewellyn E. Thompson, Sr., a sheep rancher, and Lula L. Butcher. He graduated from Bent County High School in 1922 and afterward spent two years earning money for college. During this period he met a retired diplomat who instilled in him the dream of serving his government overseas. Thompson went on to work his way through the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned a B.A. in economics in 1928.

After attending a foreign-service training program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., while working as an accountant for Price, Waterhouse, Thompson received an appointment as a foreign-service officer in January 1929. After a posting to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), that lasted through 1933, he was sent to Geneva, Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of the 1930s. In 1940 he attended the Army War College in Washington, D.C., and was sent to the Soviet Union as second secretary and consul in 1941.

Arriving in Moscow during the prolonged German siege of World War II, Thompson elected to stay in the capital even as many other diplomats and dignitaries evacuated for the safety of eastern Russia. This act earned him the admiration and respect of the Russians who knew him, a benefit of his experience in 1941 and 1942 that would prove at least as valuable as his knowledge of the Russian language, which he acquired at this time. A posting to London followed (1944–1946), after which he returned to Washington. On 2 October 1948 he married Jane Monroe Goelet, with whom he had two children. Thompson also had a stepchild, a daughter from his wife's first marriage.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Thompson gained valuable experience as a diplomatic liaison. For example, he was present at the Potsdam conference in July 1945, where the Allied leaders Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Harry S Truman met to discuss the postwar structure of Europe. He attended virtually every major U.S.–Soviet conference thereafter. Postings to Rome (1950) and Vienna (1952) followed. In Austria, Thompson helped make possible two important pieces of cold war diplomacy: the Trieste settlement of 1954, which ended a border dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia, and the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, which ensured Austrian independence. The Austrian accord marked the first time in postwar history that the Soviets had willingly withdrawn their troops from territory they had gained during World War II.

Thompson's career entered an important new phase with his appointment, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to serve as ambassador to the Soviet Union in July 1957. There he developed a professional and personal relationship with Nikita S. Khrushchev, and he was instrumental in arranging the first visit by a Soviet leader to the United States. Khrushchev's 1959 tour of the country was a success, and on the heels of it, Thompson arranged a summit with Eisenhower, which was scheduled to occur in Paris in mid-May 1960.

Just eleven days before the summit, however, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, over Russian airspace. An angry Khrushchev demanded that Eisenhower apologize, but when the president merely stated that the United States had discontinued the U-2 flights, the Soviet leader called off the summit. It was indicative of Thompson's relationship with Khrushchev that the latter publicly exonerated the U.S. ambassador for any responsibility with regard to the spy-plane incident. Appointed career ambassador in June 1960, Thompson further gained the trust of the Soviets by his refusal to grant interviews to the U.S. media or to write about his insights on the Soviet leadership.

A new international crisis emerged in August 1961, when the East Germans built the infamous Berlin Wall around West Berlin. A new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, called on the aid of his Moscow ambassador, seeking Thompson's advice regarding how to deal with the Soviets. For his part, Thompson kept a close watch on his hosts, maintaining open lines of communication to ensure that neither side misinterpreted the comments of the other. Once again, his handling of the situation won the admiration of Khrushchev, who praised Thompson for his efforts and even drank a toast to him at a gathering of Soviet leaders.

In the summer of 1962 the career of the fifty-eight-yearold Thompson seemed to be winding down. He left Moscow and returned to Washington, where in June he received the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, the highest civilian honor granted by the federal government. He planned to retire thereafter, but at Kennedy's request he agreed to remain in Washington as ambassador at large. This was a decision that would have repercussions for the entire world.

Among cold war crises, none compares to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which began with the building of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. As a result of this act, which would place Soviet warheads just ninety miles off the U.S. coast, the two superpowers came closer to open war than ever before or since. As leaders in Washington scrambled to make a response, Kennedy proposed to his advisers—including Thompson—that he demand Soviet withdrawal of the missiles and offer in return the U.S. withdrawal of outmoded warheads in Turkey. Thompson advised against this, maintaining that while the president should by all means call for the removal of the Soviet missiles, he should not offer the abandonment of the silos in Turkey as a quid pro quo. In the end the Soviets withdrew their missiles, a superpower war was averted, and the United States ultimately did remove its missiles from Turkey—but not as a contingency to any agreement with the Soviets.

In the period leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had come to believe that Thompson had grown too close to the Soviets and would always urge concessions. Therefore, Thompson's aggressive response to the Cuban crisis helped the Moscow ambassador regain trust with the White House. His knowledge of Khrushchev's personality stood Thompson in good stead; by advising the National Security Council Executive Committee that Khrushchev would not willingly take on the risk of nuclear war, he may have helped avert World War III. Furthermore, Thompson wisely advised the U.S. leadership to allow the Soviets to save face in the aftermath of the incident and therefore not to make a great show of celebrating a diplomatic victory.

After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson kept Thompson on as ambassador at large and, in 1965, appointed him deputy undersecretary of state for military-political affairs. Then, in 1966, Johnson named him ambassador to the Soviet Union. Back again in his old post, Thompson found a much different situation from the one he had faced a decade earlier. Khrushchev was gone, ousted in large part because of his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis; in his place Thompson found a much less amicable figure. Unlike his predecessor, Leonid I. Brezhnev was not inclined to spend long hours with the U.S. ambassador, and therefore Thompson found himself shut out of the Soviet inner circle. This change of leadership, combined with rancor over the U.S. participation in Vietnam, made it difficult for Thompson to do business in Moscow. He did, however, manage to arrange a March 1967 meeting between Johnson and the Soviet Premier Aleksey N. Kosygin. Although as general secretary of the Communist Party, Kosygin played a secondary role to that of Brezhnev, the meeting was an important one. As a result of discussions with Johnson, Kosygin indicated a willingness to begin talks for strategic arms limitation, a move that helped pave the way for détente in the 1970s.

Thompson ended his second term as ambassador to the Soviet Union in January 1969, having served longer than any U.S. ambassador in Moscow up to that point. He then retired but continued to remain active in diplomacy during the years that remained. President Richard M. Nixon appointed him a delegate to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), in part an outgrowth of the earlier Johnson-Kosygin summit. Thompson was present at SALT talks in Helsinki, Finland, during November and December 1969 and again in Vienna in April 1970. A series of meetings thereafter in Helsinki and Vienna led to the SALT accords of May 1972, which marked the first U.S.–Soviet agreements to limit nuclear armaments. Ironically, Thompson died of cancer at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, just three months before the SALT accords. He is buried at Las Animas Cemetery in his hometown.

In a career that spanned the most desperate days of the cold war, Thompson saw at least three phases of that conflict: the sullen antagonism of the late 1940s and 1950s; the risky brinksmanship of the early 1960s; and the exhaustion of the late 1960s, which led to the nuclear accords and uneasy peace of the 1970s. At least once, and probably many more times, he helped avert serious conflict between the two superpowers. It is indicative of his contribution to U.S. national security that he spent his last days attempting to bring about a reversal of the mad escalation in arms development that had characterized so much of the period in which he lived and worked.

Papers relating to Thompson's role as diplomat are housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as well as in the libraries of the presidents under whose administrations he served: the Harry S Truman Library in Independence, Missouri; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas; the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts (which also contains an oral history transcript); the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas; and the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. Tributes by Charles Bohlen (11 Feb. 1972) and Dean Rusk (24 Feb. 1972) are in the New York Times, and obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 7 Feb. 1972).

Judson Knight