The Fighting Ambassador
Remembering Van Galbraith.


National Review’s dear friend Evan Griffith Galbraith, Jr. died after a 15-year battle with cancer on Monday night. Galbraith was former United States ambassador to France under Ronald Reagan; one-time candidate for governor of New York, special representative for the Pentagon to NATO, businessman, and Navy vet, among other things. A former chairman of the board of directors of National Review, Galbraith was a college and lifetime friend of NR founder William F. Buckley Jr. A man of kindness, intelligence, and diplomacy, National Review Online pays tribute to a life well lived, through the eyes of some who knew him best.

Van Galbraith’s good humor and keen intellect won him many friends and admirers over the years. For some three decades, I have considered myself privileged to be one of them. I worked with Van when he served under President Reagan as ambassador to France, and most recently, when in 2001, Van graciously agreed to return to Europe to serve as the U.S. Department of Defense representative in Brussels.

Van’s unfailing vigor belied his age. He sailed the world’s oceans and traveled to far-flung outposts on military transports with the enthusiasm and energy of a man who was fascinated by the world — and relished playing no small part in its history. He was a strong intellectual force behind the once-derided and today-deployed U.S. missile-defense system. As chairman of the board of National Review, he was a dedicated advocate of American conservatism. And proving that such a thing was possible for a man of his background and views, he also spoke near-fluent French.

He lived life with élan — élan that even his counterparts in the Quai d’Orsay must have envied. He despised Communism and worked successfully to convince the then-president of France, Francois Mitterrand, to confront it by deploying Pershing intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Van was not one to dabble in the niceties of his fellow diplomats. From time to time, his frank words earned him enmity from some quarters in the U.S. bureaucracy and some European foreign ministries. Yet for many of us, Van’s straight-forwardness and unflinching loyalty to the presidents he served earned him our deep admiration and appreciation.

Van Galbraith was, as one French newspaper dubbed him, “the fighting ambassador.” That newspaper may not have intended the title as a compliment, but I can think of no better way to remember Van. He loved and fought tirelessly for his country.

Farewell, dear friend.

– Donald Rumsfeld is the former U.S. secretary of defense.

Richard V. Allen

I met Van Galbraith in London, November 1978, while Peter Hannaford and I and our wives were accompanying Ronald and Nancy Reagan on a three-nation visit to Europe. Prime Minister Callahan declined to meet with Reagan, suggesting instead that he meet with Foreign Secretary David Owen who, much to Reagan’s amusement, asked Reagan his opinion of ”Mr. Ping,” referring to Deng Xiaoping. On that visit, Reagan met Margaret Thatcher, then opposition leader, for the second time, and drove a few more permanent nails into relationship that would become historic. Van also knew Lady Thatcher, and was able to comment in detail on the prospects of change in British policy if Mrs. Thatcher became prime minister.

Probably at the suggestion of Bill Buckley, Van organized a meeting of U.S. expats for an evening session with Reagan. Van merited special attention by his thorough knowledge of crucial issues and an obvious steely determination to argue with depth and conviction. By 1981 Reagan never blinked when Buckley suggested Van as U.S. ambassador to France.

It was just what the doctor ordered — in June 1981 François Mitterrand scored a stunning upset over Valery Giscard d’Estaing, ushering in a socialist era for France. Mitterrand, a sly fox, included a couple of Communists in his cabinet, sparking alarms in Washington and elsewhere. Arriving in Paris, Van wasted no time in delivering opinions about Mitterrand’s Commies. When asked later by AFP about Van’s “interventions in French domestic matters,” Reagan answered, simply, “I look forward to seeing Van Galbraith again.”

We have lost a great warrior who served his country repeatedly and faithfully. He once was quoted as saying, “Living your life day-to-day and just doing your best can have enormous repercussions in areas we just don’t understand…we can all make a difference.”

He made a difference.

–Richard V. Allen is president of the Richard V. Allen Company and a senior fellow at the Hoover Insitution.

First, the eyes. Twinkle has become a cliche, but Van’s eyes had a small fiery glitter. It came from their light-blueness; from the the crinkle of the ocular muscles, and from our anticipation of what we had learned to expect — the coming joke, often at his own expense.

My favorite Van Galbraith story is also my favorite Pat Buckley story. Miss Taylor paid a visit to New Haven to meet her new fiance’s friends, and met Van, and others, at the Fence Club for lunch. “Bill tells me you’re all drunk half the time,” she announced. “Oh no,” said Van, “we drink twice as much as that.”

This calls to mind Churchill’s famous estimate of FDR, that meeting him was like having a glass of champagne. But lest this tribute become too vinous, let me change the metaphor. Seeing Van was like seeing the sunrise. In two senses: The sunrise is thrilling; and afterwards, the sun puts in a full day.

I have never known a man as upbeat, and as hard-working as Van Galbraith. He expected to win, and he hoped to have fun, and he knew neither would happen if we just sat around — so let’s go. During the Reagan years, he was our ambassador to France. Rather than sneer at our oldest enemy, he took his fluent, though American-accented French, relentlessly to the local media, making the case for resolution against the Soviet threat. In his last years, he was defense secretary’s representative to NATO in Brussels — and more. He told his NR colleagues many times that he was making side-trips to Amman to talk to Sunni sheiks from Iraq. “They want order, and they want to make money,” he said. It sounded like worthy stuff, though what would be the pay-off? Evidently he was doing his bit for what we now call the Anbar Awakening.

As a director of National Review, he performed the task of host (on those occasions when WFB was out of town) with unfailing aplomb. The most memorable dinner chez Van had to be the evening when Conor Cruise O’Brien, the leftist-turned-rightist Irish writer on, among other subjects, the American Revolution, began pounding the table and shouting, “Jefferson was a s***!” until he overturned his red wine. Our host was not phased. In domestic politics, Van was a happy warrior, traveling to Iowa on caucus night in 1996 to make the forlorn case for Phil Gramm, assuring us all more recently that of course Rudy would win the Republican nomination and beat Hillary in New York.

A visit my wife and I paid him in Brussels was typical of the man. Vermeer, he said, was from Delft. Why didn’t we drive there and see his pictures? Off we went, realizing only on the way (from my wife reading a guide book) that there are no longer any Vermeers in Delft. We had a pleasant lunch on a canal boat all the same, and drove on to Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, where we got our Vermeers (and Rembrandts and Halses).

A true American, a great guy. R.I.P.

— Richard Brookhiser is an NR senior editor.

Christopher Buckley

I still have somewhere a button that says, “VAN’S THE MAN!” This artifact dates from his 1994 run for governor in New York. Van was so absolutely and utterly and totally convinced that he would win, that after listening to him for ten minutes, you came away scratching your head but thinking, By gum, he’s going to make it.

History records that he didn’t, quite, but I fasten on that quixotic episode as representative of Van The Man. He was the consummate Enthusiast, the Eternal Golden Boy, and there was no way not to be swept up in his enthusiasms. Among his passions were (in somewhat scrambled order): the vast right-wing conspiracy, his beautiful wife Bootsie, his handsome children, his friendship with WFB, and his country, which he served in the Navy, CIA, as ambassador, and finally as the Pentagon’s Man in Europe. It occurs to me only now that one of his final enthusiasms was the Iraq War, which he insisted, athwart a thousand contrary voices, could and would and must be won.

“But Van,” one would say despairingly, “it’s all screwed up.”

“No, no,” he would say, his face — still elfin, somehow even in his late seventies — crinkled and smiling, eyes ashine with passion and (always) humor, “we’re gonna do it! You watch!”

Goodbye, dear E-van (as I called him), beloved friend of over a half-century, shipmate. You were The Man. Give ‘em hell in heaven, and, as you yourself always said, “Keep your pecker up.”

– Christopher Buckley is editor of Forbes FYI.

Bill Draper
Van was one of my closest friends in the Class of 1950 at Yale. He was known to be very bright and very much the hell-raiser (he brought a cow into an elegant house for a “milk punch party”).

Thirty years later, his reputation as a financial wizard was well-established, having creatively concocted many brilliant financial solutions for a plethora of companies in the U.S. and Europe as a partner of Dillon Read in New York and Morgan Stanley in Paris. At that time I was working in White House personnel as Penn James’s deputy, trying to place outstanding people in the right jobs to overhaul the government of the United States for Ronald Reagan. With his many years of living in France, his cracker-jack mind, his extraordinary wit, and his dedication to President Reagan — who else but Van for ambassador to France?