Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1998, Page 62

In Memoriam

Ambassador Parker T. Hart (1910-1997)

By Andrew I. Killgore

Ambassador Parker Thompson Hart, who died Oct. 15 at age 87 at his home in Washington, DC, was one of the most admired and best-liked American professional diplomats of the past several decades. A Middle East expert, he combined an easily approachable personality—a "people person," some said—with a solid dedication to scholarship. For these reasons his peers—Foreign Service Arabists and others with Middle East experience—regarded him with a mixture of deep affection and great respect.

An unassuming New Englander with what one reporter called a "Boston Brahmin" accent, Ambassador Hart was instinctively courteous and polite. At the same time, the colorful tales that he related to friends, from his unique Foreign Service career had a powerful immediacy.

In Vienna, Austria after the 1938 Anschluss with Germany, young Vice Consul Hart witnessed at first hand the deep fear the incoming Nazi regime inspired among the city's large Jewish population. For the rest of his life he was particularly proud of his personal role in helping some of these gravely imperiled residents escape to the United States and to Palestine.

A Pioneering Assignment

After Vienna, Ambassador Hart, universally known as "Pete" by his legion of friends, served in Brazil. Then, in 1944, he opened the first American consulate in Saudi Arabia at Dhahran, site of the newly discovered oil fields that were to change the history of the Arabian peninsula—and the world.

In 1952 he became the State Department's Middle East director in Washington, DC where, in 1954, he helped this writer into hard-to-get Arabic language studies.

He moved rapidly up the career ladder to deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East, ambassador to Saudi Arabia and then ambassador to Turkey from 1965 to 1968.

Pete Hart earned a place in world history during his Ankara assignment for preventing war between Turkey and Greece, both of them members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, over sectarian strife in Cyprus.

Next, from 1968 to Feb. 1969, Ambassador Hart served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, the highest position in that geographic bureau. He was the first Arabic-speaking foreign service officer to serve in that position. He was replaced when Richard Nixon became president and Henry Kissinger, as national security adviser, followed Israeli-leaning Middle East policies that, in the opinion of many area specialists, accelerated a downward slide for U.S. national interests in the area from which the nation has never recovered.

Ambassador Hart's final assignment before retiring from the Foreign Service was as director of the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department's "university," for several months in 1969.

For two years thereafter he served as president of the Middle East Institute, a private foundation, in Washington, DC. Then, for 18 years, from 1972 to 1990, he was a consultant with offices in Washington, DC for the Bechtel Corporation.

Pete Hart always seemed to be available when things blew up in the Middle East. He was a counselor of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo during the Suez War in 1956 and was U.S. minister in Damascus in 1958, when the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown and simultaneous civil war in Lebanon led to the landing of U.S. Marines in Beirut.

Some of his most amusing reminiscences dated back to his three tours of duty in Saudi Arabia. There he frequently had matters to discuss with the legendary governor of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, Abdul Mohsin bin Abdallah Al-Jiluwi. No matter how urgent the American emissary's business, the pattern of his visit was in conformity with Bedouin tribal tradition. Pete Hart would spend three days in a comfortable government guest house. Only then would he be invited to an audience with the traditional tribal sheikh, who felt that he would be lax in his hostly duties if his guest had not enjoyed his generous hospitality for the requisite three days.

Ambassador Hart graduated from Dartmouth College in 1933 and earned a master's degree in diplomatic history from Harvard. He also earned a diploma from L'Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, and in fact originally came into the Foreign Service as a French-language translator. Later he also completed a one-year course of study at the National War College.

Two NATO Allies at the Threshold of War, Ambassador Hart's book on the Cyprus crisis during his ambassadorship in Turkey, was published by Duke University Press in 1990. His second book, Saudi Arabia and the United States, will be published in 1998 by Indiana University Press.

Ambassador Hart's widow, Jane Constance Smiley, who was herself in the Foreign Service when the Harts met while both were serving in Cairo, relates that in his final years her husband was driven to finish his last book despite his failing health.

Ambassador and Mrs. Hart had two daughters, Margaret Hart Espey of Lafayette, California and Judith Hart Halsema of Karachi, Pakistan; and four grandchildren.

In addition to his family, Pete Hart leaves dozens, perhaps hundreds of associates from his many years in and out of government for whom he served as friend, mentor and role model. He truly personified the best traditions of the U.S. foreign service during a period when disease, accidents and isolation made the hazards as great as those posed by violence today, and the rewards, in terms of making a personal impact on world events, were even greater.


Andrew I. Killgore is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Additional information