Vance's first government assignment came in 1957 as special counsel to the Senate Preparedness Investigation Committee chaired by majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1961 Vance became general counsel to the Department of Defense, in which post he negotiated the release of Cuban prisoners after the abortive 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, implemented a major restructuring of departmental organization, and modernized weapons and personnel systems.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara appointed Vance secretary of the army in 1962, and in that capacity he advised President John F. Kennedy to deploy federal troops to quell growing civil rights violence in the South. From January 1964 until June 1967, Vance was deputy secretary of defense, serving primarily as a troubleshooter in efforts to resolve difficulties with Panama in 1964 and the Dominican Republic in 1965 and to mediate the 1967 civil war in Cyprus.
Vance was initially a hawk on Vietnam. By mid-1966, however, he was skeptical of continued American air and ground escalation, and he left office disillusioned with American Vietnam policies. As one of the senior advisors, or "Wise Men," with whom President Johnson consulted after the communist Tet Offensive in January 1968, Vance recommended that the United States cease bombing and open peace negotiations. He then served as deputy to chief negotiator W. Averell Harriman in the fruitless 1968 Paris peace talks.
In 1971 Vance met future president and fellow Trilateral Commission member Jimmy Carter. Vance then served as a foreign policy advisor to Carter's 1976 presidential campaign and became his secretary of state. Suspicious of grand theories of geopolitical and strategic designs and of attempts to discern linkages between different aspects of foreign policy, Vance believed that the international situation no longer fit the early Cold War bipolar model. Instead, he sought to adapt U.S. diplomacy to a more complicated and less schematic world. He was strongly committed to continuing the two previous administrations' policies of arms control and détente with the communist world, but he soon clashed with Carter's assertive national security advisor, the fiercely anti-Soviet Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Vance negotiated the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union, imposing ceilings on the number of nuclear missiles and delivery vehicles and banning the introduction of new missile and antimissile systems. His other major accomplishments included the negotiation of the 1977–1978 treaties returning the Panama Canal to Panamanian ownership and operation, the 1978 Camp David Accords, the full normalization in 1978 of U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the conclusion of a settlement in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) that brought black majority rule in 1979.
On other issues, however, Brzezinski undercut Vance, especially after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused a dramatic cooling between the two superpowers, and Carter increasingly favored Brzezinski's advice. In early 1980, Vance urged direct talks with the Soviets in an effort to resolve the Afghan crisis, but Carter refused. Vance's early hopes to normalize American relations with Cuba also fell victim to the deteriorating U.S.-Soviet situation and to revelations that Cuban troops were deployed in Ethiopia. After Vietnam signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union in November 1978, American efforts to reopen relations with Vietnam also stalled in part due to a massive outflow of refugee boat people and because of Vietnam's failure to resolve to America's satisfaction the issue of soldiers still missing in action.
In Iran, where growing popular discontent threatened the government's stability, Vance unsuccessfully advised the autocratic Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi that the introduction of genuine reforms was the best means to counter growing domestic unrest. In January 1979 the shah fled Iran, and an anti-American fundamentalist Muslim regime took power. Ten months later, on 4 November 1979, Iranian students sacked the American embassy in Tehran and took fifty-three Americans hostage. Vance believed that quiet diplomacy was the best means of freeing them, but Brzezinski insisted that the United States mount a dramatic rescue. On 11 April 1980, the National Security Council (NSC) met during Vance's absence and authorized a rescue mission, a decision that Vance unavailingly protested upon his return as foolhardy and poorly planned. In protest, he submitted his resignation on 21 April, becoming only the third secretary of state to resign over a matter of principle. Three days later the rescue mission was aborted at the loss of eight American lives.
Vance returned to his law practice and in 1983 published his memoirs. He also accepted several further diplomatic assignments from the United Nations (UN). During the 1980s he helped to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and a peaceful end to white rule in South Africa. In the early 1990s he helped to broker a cease-fire in Croatia. Vance died in New York City on 12 January 2002.
Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.; Houghton, David Patrick. US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.; Jordan, Hamilton. Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency. New York: Putnam, 1982.; McLellan, David S. Cyrus Vance. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985.; Muravchik, Joshua. The Uncertain Crusade: Jimmy Carter and the Dilemmas of Human Rights Policy. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Press, 1986.; Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.; Strong, Robert A. Working in the World: Jimmy Carter and the Making of American Foreign Policy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.; Vance, Cyrus. Hard Choices: Critical Years in America's Foreign Policy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.