Malcolm Toon Made Waves as a Diplomat, but His Death Went Largely Unreported


Outside of local coverage, The Foreign Service Journal, published by the American Foreign Service Association, reported his death in its April 2009 edition, but its readers are largely diplomatic professionals.

No national news organization carried his obituary. The New York Times, for one, was never informed of his death, either by the family or the State Department, though it had prepared an obituary in advance three years earlier. His death was confirmed after a Times editor chanced upon an online reference to it.

Mr. Toon’s son, Alan, reached on Friday, said he did not recall anyone in his family having notified the State Department of his father’s death.

Mr. Toon was fluent in Russian, and his appointment in the last weeks of President Gerald R. Ford’s administration was in line with a tradition of experienced diplomats serving as the American envoy in Moscow. But the Russians considered him hostile and delayed formally approving his appointment. In his first months in office, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter backed off from Ford’s selection of Mr. Toon, but then went ahead with it.

Mr. Toon was characterized in The Times in December 1978 as becoming “one of the most influential of the postwar ambassadors in shaping the policy of the United States toward the Soviet Union.”

He considered his steely image to be a simplification, but in his nearly three years in Moscow he displayed a penchant for hard-edged remarks.

Photo

President George Bush, right, with Mr. Toon in the Oval Office in 1992.

Credit
Dennis Cook/Associated Press

Robin Knight, the Moscow bureau chief of U.S. News & World Report during most of Mr. Toon’s tenure there, recalled in a Foreign Service Journal article in 2011 that Mr. Toon had told American correspondents at his first briefing, “I think my job is to teach these guys how to act like a great power instead of some two-bit banana republic.”

His briefings were off the record, but Mr. Toon could be outspoken in public settings as well. Annoyed by the absence of senior Soviet officials at a 1979 Fourth of July embassy reception (it was also Mr. Toon’s 63rd birthday), he told Americans gathered there, “Sometimes over the past 20 years I have had the impression that we’re dealing with a bunch of clods.”

Two years before, the Soviet government had refused to allow Mr. Toon to deliver the American ambassador’s traditional Fourth of July talk on Russian television because his text — in line with the Carter administration’s concerns about human rights violations — stated that Americans hoped “violations of these rights, wherever they may occur, will end.”

Notwithstanding Mr. Toon’s toughness toward the Russians, he was cautious at the same time. He was disturbed when the Carter administration used strong language toward Moscow, and he was wary of Washington’s supporting Soviet dissidents too strongly.

Mr. Toon took part in negotiating SALT II with the Soviet Union, an agreement that limited offensive strategic weapons, but he was dismayed when Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance bypassed him in negotiating the pact’s final details with the longtime Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly F. Dobrynin.

When the treaty was signed in Vienna in June 1979 by President Carter and the Soviet leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev, Mr. Toon angered the White House by publicly questioning whether it provided a sufficient means to verify Soviet compliance. But he soon announced his support for the treaty, saying the Pentagon had eased his fears. In the end, the Senate voted not to ratify it.

When Mr. Toon had arrived for the SALT II summit meeting, he was stunned to learn that President Carter planned to appoint Thomas J. Watson Jr., a former chairman of I.B.M., to succeed him. Mr. Toon had planned to retire soon, and he would do so that October, but he further irritated the White House when he was openly critical of the practice of giving ambassadorships to political supporters and others who had no background in the Foreign Service.

“For me and others at the embassy, Toon was a fearsome presence,” James Schumaker, a Foreign Service officer who worked under him in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, wrote in a memoir of his time in Belgrade. “Everyone at that post seemed to be a little bit afraid of him, myself included.”

Malcolm Toon was one of four children of George Toon, a stonecutter, and his wife, Margaret. He was born on July 4, 1916, in Troy, N.Y., a few years after his parents had emigrated from Scotland. The Toon family returned there when he was 6, then came back to the United States and settled in Northborough, Mass., about 35 miles west of Boston.

Mr. Toon graduated from Tufts University in 1937 and received a master’s degree from its Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1938.

Photo

Malcolm Toon in 1982. In his nearly 35 years as a Foreign Service officer, he served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Israel and the Soviet Union.

Credit
George Tames/The New York Times

He commanded a PT boat in the Pacific during World War II, then joined the State Department. He served in Poland, Haiti and Hungary, received Russian-language training and had stints in the Moscow embassy in the 1950s and ’60s.

Mr. Toon was the third-ranking embassy official in Moscow in 1965 when a Communist publication accused him of heading an American spy ring, evidently a response to Washington’s previous expulsion of Russia’s No. 3 diplomat there in a spy case. The accusations were denied, and Mr. Toon was not expelled. In the late 1960s, he headed the State Department’s office of Soviet affairs.

President Richard M. Nixon named Mr. Toon ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1969. He became ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1971 and helped promote American investments there. He later told of forging a close personal relationship with the Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito.

Mr. Toon was named ambassador to Israel in the spring of 1975 by President Ford. A few months later, in an interview with Israeli Army radio, he advised Israelis to “tighten your belts and temper your appetites” before seeking large aid packages from America.

The remark brought a flurry of letters to The Jerusalem Post, some criticizing Mr. Toon but others backing him. Israel’s foreign minister, Yigal Allon, remarked that Mr. Toon was “the kind of ambassador we want”: a professional with influence at the State Department. The Times quoted one Israeli official as saying, “He’s a most undiplomatic diplomat, and I like him for it.”

Mr. Toon drew a rebuke from the State Department in October 1975 over a speech he had given in Haifa, Israel, two days earlier, when he said that the Egyptian president, Anwar el-Sadat, “had chosen to embarrass the president of the United States” with anti-Jewish remarks at a Washington luncheon. He also speculated about the possibility of American intervention in Lebanon over Muslim-Christian strife. But a Reuters report from Washington said a department spokesman had not specified how Mr. Toon had departed from United States policy.

In the 1990s, Mr. Toon was co-chairman of the American delegation to the newly created United States-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs, which was charged with investigating the fate of American prisoners of war and those missing in action from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

Mr. Toon was survived by his son, Alan; his daughters Nancy Toon and Barbara Lindenbaum; and three grandchildren. His wife, the former Elizabeth Jane Taylor, died in 1996 at 77. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside her.

While Mr. Toon was ambassador to the Soviet Union, his daughters presented him with a T-shirt embroidered with the word “Hard-liner.”

But in a speech in Philadelphia in September 1977, he expressed a more nuanced view. On the one hand he defined the thaw in American-Soviet relations known as détente as “a growing sense in this nuclear age of the need to cooperate on some matters, to regulate competition on others and to agree on the means of defusing tensions which could lead to dangerous confrontation.”

On the other, he said, “I do not hold with the fuzzy-headed notion that all we have to do is sit down and reason with the Soviets and everything will be all right.”

Correction: May 1, 2017

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this obituary misstated the given name of Mr. Toon’s wife. She was Elizabeth, not Margaret. Because of another editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the year that Mr. Toon received a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. It was 1938, not 1939.

Correction: May 2, 2017

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the distance between Boston and Northborough, Mass., where Mr. Toon grew up. It is about 35 miles, not about 50.

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