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Statesman Joseph Sisco major figure on international diplomatic scene
A Morton Junior College graduate and a German immigrant was one of the most dynamic diplomatic duos during the 1970s.
Henry Kissinger greatly depended on Joseph J. Sisco, a 1939 graduate of Morton College, during the Secretary of State’s Middle East shuttle diplomacy missions.
“My father and Henry Kissinger were a duet,” said Dr. Carol Sisco, the daughter of Joseph Sisco, who died in 2004 at the age of 85. “Dr. Kissinger would go to one area of his diplomacy shuttle. Dad would go to another. They were true partners.”
Sisco’s daughter remembers Kissinger’s remarks during her father’s funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery.
“He started out by saying, I love Joe Sisco,” Carol Sisco recalled. “It was very emotional.”
Kissinger also made reference about how he and Sisco were first-generation immigrants, according to Carol Sisco. Kissinger was a German and Sisco, Italian.
“Dr. Kissinger talked about this being a common experience and that they shared a love for the United States and their military and diplomacy service to the country,” Carol Sisco added.
Sisco’s State Department career spanned four presidential administrations under Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. He was an expert on the Soviet Union and Middle East, and rose to become the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, one of the State Department’s highest-ranking positions.
He also served as the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizational Affairs and the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. In Sisco’s role with International Organizational Affairs, he often had an important role in American involvement in the work of the United Nations.
The Washington Post’s obituary on Sisco attributed his involvement in diplomatic hot spots that included Syria’s invasion of Jordan in 1970, the India-Pakistan war in 1971, and Egypt and Israel’s peace negotiations in 1974.
The German-born Kissinger, speaking at the American Academy of Diplomacy’s annual diplomatic awards luncheon honoring Sisco shortly after his death, credited the Berwyn native for helping manage the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the diplomacy that followed as well as “contributing decisively” to prevent an outbreak of war between Greece and Turkey over the island of Cypress.
“Whether people agreed with him on an issue, they trusted and respected my dad,” Carol Sisco said. “He hated when people made idle threats. He felt that was not the way to do business.”
Sisco’s diplomatic legacy lives on through the American Academy of Diplomacy, an organization he served as chairman from 1999 to 2004. In Sisco’s memory, the Academy started a yearly forum of public discussions on U.S. foreign policy issues.
Carol Sisco described her father’s views on the peace process at the Academy’s first memorial forum for Sisco in 2005.
“Somehow, we American people have an affinity for characterizing problems as crises,” said Carol Sisco, drawing from her father’s remarks that are part of the Congressional Record for March 10, 1965.
“At the same time, we tend to expect each problem and crisis to be resolved by some single convulsive act, a summit meeting or some kind of a showdown with a yes or no, fish or cut bait answer….The job of peace is a hard day-by-day, nuts and bolts process that requires patience and prudence, firmness and resolve.”
Sisco, though, knew when to put his foot down and be blunt such as the time in 1974 when he was dispatched to find a solution to a crisis in Cyprus that erupted after a Greek-inspired coup deposed the country’s president.
“There is little doubt Greece would have responded to Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus with its own invasion of Turkey were it not for Undersecretary of State Joseph Sisco’s backstage pressure in Athens,” wrote columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. “In most undiplomatic language, Sisco told the Greek generals that the U.S. would abandon them to inevitable destruction if they attacked Turkey. Jolted by this unexpected threat, the military dictatorship backed down and thereby guaranteed its own fall.”
“He started every discussion by yelling at me,” said Kissinger with a smile in Sisco’s New York Times obituary. Sisco’s nickname around the State Department was “Jumpin’ Joe,” a reflection of his high-energy personality.
Sisco brought a personal touch to diplomacy, entertaining visitors with his homemade Italian meals. Dignitaries treated to Sisco’s culinary skills included Jordan’s King Hussain, Israel’s Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, and UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg,
“My dad, being of Italian decent, loved to cook,” Carol Sisco said. “He did all the shopping and the cooking. Our idea of entertaining was that dad did all the cooking, mom made the table and the flowers, and my sister, Jane, and I waited on the tables.”
Sisco once took Rabin to a Washington Redskins’ football game. While Rabin had no understanding of the sport, Carol Sisco said the Israel leader, a general, was able to view it through military strategy.
Sisco always was prepared. His policy paper on the Middle East became the basis for Nixon’s policy in that area. Sisco specialized in Soviet affairs when earning his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago
“My father was very persuasive,” Carol Sisco recalled. “He did a lot of homework before going into any situation. Dr. Kissinger said my dad drove him crazy at the morning meetings. It was like my dad was shot out of a cannon. Dr. Kissinger felt it was system overload."
“He could wear down any objections by sheer persistence and outwork any aspirations to arbitrary decisions,” said Kissinger, who recalled in a time of crisis that Sisco would move himself as close as possible to his office. That would assure Sisco’s participation in any meeting involving Kissinger.
“From his office, (he) issued a seemingly endless array of policy proposals,” Kissinger added in his 2004 speech at the American Academy of Diplomacy. “Some say he offered more solutions than there were problems.”
Sisco was quite resourceful as well. A PBS News Hour story on his death recalled how Sisco showered Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in flowers to convince her to negotiate with Egypt in 1970. “It won’t work,” Meir said. “I’m leaving no stone unturned,” Sisco said.
His New York Times obituary mentioned a Sunday in early 1966 when Sisco received an urgent call at home concerning a political crisis in South Vietnam. The Washington area was being buried under snow, but Sisco was determined to get to the office. He commandeered the only vehicle in the area that was moving: a snowplow.
Sisco’s original plan was to gain some government experience in Washington and be a college professor. He did fulfill that goal later by teaching a class in international relations while serving as President for four years at American University in Washington, D.C.
Sisco also was responsible in Knox College’s development of its international curriculum. After Morton College, Sisco transferred to Knox and graduated with honors in earning a bachelor’s degree in history.
My father never stopped studying,” Carol Sisco said. “He’d have four books open at a time. He read journals and would underline things. He was a student and always was studying.”
Sisco’s success in the State Department placed his academic dreams on life’s backburner.
“He started out in the CIA and didn’t like that,” his daughter recalled. “He went into the Foreign Service and kept getting plucked for various posts. People like Henry Cabot Lodge, Adlai Stevenson II and Arthur Goldberg wanted him there and he kept on going.”
However, family came first for Sisco. Carol Sisco remembered getting phone calls from her father from a plane to check in how things were going. Sisco and his wife, Jean Head Sisco, who met as graduate students at the University of Chicago’s International House, were married for 54 years.
Sisco’s wife was a power player of her own right in Washington circles. She was the vice president of a retail chain, served on over 20 corporate boards and received the National Association of Corporate Directors’ Director of the Year award in 1999, a year before her death. She also founded Sisco Associates, which specializes in international risk and trade analysis, and served under three presidents on advisory committees for vocational training and international trade.
“It was an incredible partnership,” Carol Sisco said. “Mom was a renowned businesswoman. Both had successful careers and were extremely supportive of each other. My father openly supported my mother all through her career.”
Although Sisco’s success story came out of Washington, Morton College and Berwyn were important places along the way.
“I saw his Morton College yearbook – he kept that,” Carol Sisco said. “Before my dad died, we made a family vacation to Chicago so dad could show us all his old haunts. He showed us Morton and every house he lived in. It was a wonderful, wonderful trip.”
The Morton College yearbook described Sisco as a campus leader and summed him up as “taciturn.” He was freshman class vice president, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, Scholarship Club president and a member of the Statesmen Club, which devoted itself to “promoting legal ethics and giving students insight into the field of law.” Field trips included visits to the country jail and courts, federal courts and state penitentiary in Joliet.
In addition to a love of baseball, Sisco also was a standout tennis player. He played first or second singles and helped Morton College win a conference championship in 1937-38 and tie for the state title the following season.
Sisco, who served as a first lieutenant with the U.S. Army in World War II, grew up the son of Italian immigrants. His mother died when he was 9, and his father, a tailor, raised Sisco and his four other siblings.
“I think my dad got a lot out of Morton,” Carol Sisco said. “It allowed him to get a good education. He didn’t come from a wealthy family. Going to Morton allowed him to work, make money and live at home. There was an appreciation of that being there at that moment in his life. He had a deep appreciation for his roots.”
More on Joseph J. Sisco:
June 30, 2005 discussion on United Nations Reform, a memorial tribute to Joseph J. Sisco
November 13, 1991 panel discussion on peace between Arabs and Israelis on C-SPAN2
April 27, 1991 – U.S.-Israeli Relationships in a Changing World on C-SPAN
United National Oral History link to Joseph J. Sisco. Interview conducted October 18, 1990