Politics & Policy

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?

It wasn’t my idea, though. It was WFB who called me with the suggestion. I passed it on enthusiastically at our daily afternoon meeting with Baker, Meese, and Deaver. The proposal was well-received…until a few weeks later when the milk punch spilled and concern flowed. It took WFB, with a bit of help from me, to close the deal soon after under a redwood tree at the Bohemian Grove.

Needless to say Ambassador Galbraith did a splendid job.

I already miss him sorely but just thinking about him makes me smile.

Viva la Van.

– William H. Draper, III is general partner of Draper Richards.

Victor Frank

Any tribute to my beloved friend Van Galbraith must start by stressing his infectious humor.

“That would be novel,” he quipped when I piously stated that we must be honest in giving a judgment to a friend.” “A’h just told you all I knows when I said hello,” was the punch line of one of his stories.

Underneath that humor was a fertile inventive mind always at work. No sooner had Van arrived at our six year home in the Philippines than he hatched a plan to reduce that country’s debt. Not long too for him to write a book while in France which stressed Le Reve- French preeminence in nuclear energy and aerospace technology. Or while in Brussels to analyze using U.S. gold reserves as security to help NATO raise money.

But a tribute doesn’t stop with his humor and brilliance. It mentions his model of a fighting spirit against cancer and quickly turns to his support and love of family and friends

On his last day, it was easy to sense the reciprocal affection poured upon him by his surrounding family. Daughter Christina sought to offset any perceived pain. Sons Evan and John paternalistically cared for him and guests. So did wife Bootsie, who took care of just about everything.

He lavished care on his friends. Lucky for me I was one of those recipients. He made life fun for me at Yale and everywhere else. More than that, he was my confident, my friend and my best pal. I shall miss him dearly.

 – Victor Frank is former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.

Frank Gaffney Jr.

Word that Evan Galbraith passed away brought immediately to my mind three enduring images of him: the ambassador, the patriot, and the friend.

I first met Van when he was America’s ambassador to France in the 1980s. Although he was certainly sophisticated, debonair, and culturally savvy enough to serve as a world-class diplomat, he was not the State Department’s man in Paris, let alone an apologist/advocate for France in Washington.

Rather, he was a man who represented Ronald Reagan’s United States in a capital long accustomed to finding and expressing its identity in opposition to America. In that capacity, he helped achieve a remarkable feat — forging a partnership between his president and then-French president Francois Mitterand. That relationship contributed materially to what was, arguably, the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union: Franco-American cooperation in securing the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in five Western European countries.

After the Reagan years, Van returned to his international business dealings, long-distance sailing excursions and cosmopolitan globe-trotting. Yet, he never lost his interest in and engagement on the national security issues of the day. In particular, he played an important if behind-the-scenes role in making the case at home and abroad for the development and deployment of U.S. defenses against ballistic-missile attack.

During his years out of government acting as an unofficial ambassador literally without portfolio, Van found ways to forge alliances between governments and business sectors that advanced his nation’s interests. I will always remember the twinkle in his eye as he conspired to get important things done, never seeking credit but taking quiet satisfaction in missions accomplished. Such abilities were much in evidence in his last tour of public service in the George W. Bush administration as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s personal emissary to NATO.

Finally, I will always be grateful to my friend, Ambassador Galbraith, who, together with his cherished ship- and soul-mate, Bill Buckley, recognized 20 years ago the need for, and helped arrange the seed money that allowed the founding of, the Center for Security Policy.

– Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security.

Bob McLean

He came from the Ottawa Hills High School in Toledo, Ohio, and joined 1,800 of us who entered the Yale freshmen class in the fall of 1946. His presence and indomitable spirit were immediately felt by his classmates, first on the football field where he prospered, until injuries caught up with him, and then at DKE where there was nary a party that he wasn’t the center of attraction for his brothers and their lady friends.

His love of life was contagious and his capacity for friendship was immeasurable. Van was totally at home with himself and made the people around him feel the same way.

He loved a caper or two. In the fall of 1949 The Harvard Crimson was promoting a full expose of secret societies at Yale, and Van and his henchmen intercepted the delivery of the 1,000 copies to Yale Station the Friday evening before the game, gagged and tied up the Crimson delegation trying to make the scoop, and hid the copies in the Tomb.

His sense of merriment, his humor, his mental agility will be sorely missed by us all.

– Bob McLean was a member of the Yale Class of 1950.

John O’Sullivan

Van Galbraith’s career was a very distinguished one in intelligence, finance, diplomacy, and politics. But when I think of Van, those are not the things that come to mind. Instead, I think of someone who was cheerful, good-natured, adventurous, and a natural rebel.

He wrote an article for National Review when I was its editor about his experience in the CIA sending agents into Eastern Europe after the war. Some of the pilots, usually emigres or former RAF people, would fly on their return down the main streets or under the bridges of the capital city to annoy the Communists.

“They weren’t supposed to do that,” he said, a bit needlessly. But I never got the impression that he had issued any reprimands. A buccaneer himself, he liked other buccaneers.

Long before I met Van, I heard about him from friends in the U.S. government. He was then Reagan’s ambassador to Paris. The scuttlebutt was that Van had set out to present to the French his boss’s undiluted conservative positions that more conventional diplomats wrapped in soothing bafflegab. As a result, of course, the perverse French loved him.

When we did meet, he had returned to Wall Street. But he took on the job of chairman of the board of National Review as a favor to Bill. It is not an onerous job, but with so many rootless conservative intellectuals wandering around the magazine looking for a fight, it requires some diplomatic skills. He was a constant source of encouragement to me and (I believe) later to Rich. He provided the board and the magazine with excellent business advice. He was one of a small team that guided NR’s growth and transformation into its present prosperity. He hosted NR dinners when Bill was out of town. And as chairman of Moet and Chandon in the U.S., he helped us to surmount obstacles in the right spirit.

Underneath Van’s amiable facade, there was a shrewd mind and a kind heart — and also a quixotic imagination. Before cancer began to slow down his adventures, Van ran for the governorship of New York. He had no prospect of success. His friends told him so. And in a sense they were right — he got nowhere. But I think Van regarded it as an adventure. He had missed his chance to fly a spy plane down the main street of a Communist capital. But he could run for the governorship — and, hey, you never know.

His friends on National Review have only pleasant things to remember about him.

–John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

Peter Rodman

I first met Van in Paris when he was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador and I was visiting as head of the State Department policy-planning staff. Since I was coming from Foggy Bottom, he looked me over with legitimate suspicion. He was one of those ambassadors with the peculiar notion that his clients were (a) the president of the United States, and (b) the American people, rather than the foreign government to which he was accredited. Since France had just come under a socialist government, under Francois Mitterrand, it was particularly important that we have in Paris a strong ambassador committed to the principles of his president. This earned him the respect of the French, and he did a superb job. I must have passed Van’s stern test, because we became friends ever after. I saw him frequently at NR, and again when I was at the Pentagon and he was Donald Rumsfeld’s representative at NATO. He served his country with grace, flair, good humor, and conviction. I will miss his counsel, and his friendship.

Peter W. Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international-security affairs at the Department of Defense from 2001-early 2007, is a senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

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