By Donald Kursch
Mark Palmer, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 1986-1990 during that country’s transition from Communism to democracy, died in Washington DC on January 28, 2013, after a long struggle with cancer. He was 71 years old.
From his undergraduate days, during a 26-year career in the Foreign Service from 1964-1990, and throughout a post Foreign Service career as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Mark was always an energetic, outspoken and effective advocate for democracy and human dignity. As a student, he was the head of Yale’s chapter the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing and participating as a “freedom rider” to promote civil rights for African Americans in the American South. Following initial Foreign Service assignments in New Delhi and Moscow, Mark’s creativity and penchant for action led to a position in the Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served as a primary speechwriter for Secretary Kissinger. From here he advanced quickly, serving as Political Counselor in Belgrade and then returning to Washington where Mark again put his speechwriting talent to use, most notably as the co-drafter of President Reagan’s historic 1982 Westminster speech to the British Parliament. This speech led, among other things, to the realization of another of Mark’s ideas, the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, of which he was a co-founder and became long serving board member.
As Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1983-1986, Mark became Secretary George Shultz’s point person for developing and executing initiatives to deal with the Soviets and their client states. While a fierce opponent of Communism, he consistently sought opportunities to reach out to the Communist half of Europe, particularly through cultural and trade initiatives and exchange programs. Though forward progress of this new “differentiation” approach was generally incremental, his combination of creativity and persistence proved to be effective and won him the respect of Secretary Shultz who noted Mark’s exceptional ability to “bounce back” from setbacks and find innovative ways to move forward again. With Gorbachev’s ascension to power in 1985 opportunities in East-West relationships expanded significantly and Mark found himself in the midst of this process, playing a leading role in the planning for the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, held in Geneva in November of that year. Mark’s superior performance led to his nomination as Ambassador to Hungary in 1986.
Budapest of 1986 was a perfect stage for Mark’s talents; he was clearly “the right man, in the right place at the right time.” Of all the countries in the Soviet bloc, Hungary at that time was pushing the edges of the envelope the furthest in testing the possibilities offered by the Kremlin’s new leadership. As Ambassador, Mark tirelessly reached out to all elements of Hungarian society. He encouraged the leaders of emerging democratic movements and civil society and inspired their confidence by appearing at their events. Among his creative ideas were the establishment of a MBA program in Hungary in cooperation with a U.S. university to assist entrepreneurs and the growing private business sector, persuading the Peace Corps to develop programs for and deploy to Eastern Europe, and encouraging Hungarian émigrés in North America to help support these changes, including assistance to Hungary’s long suffering Jewish community. Mark’s high profile and unfailing optimism was well received by the new generation of Hungarians and was an important factor in turning a nation of hard-core pessimists into agents of change. His outstanding performance as Ambassador led to his promotion to Career Minister in 1988, probably the youngest in the Foreign Service at that time.
For those of us who had the privilege to work for him at this time, Mark was a wonderful boss. His creativity and energy sparked us all, especially his management style of being uncommonly accessible and open to recommendations from his staff. Junior officers from that era fondly recall how he made a special effort to make them feel included, among other things, by routinely including them in the ambassador’s dinners for high ranking visitors. One of Mark’s most memorable team building efforts was his early initiative to “close” the Embassy for two days and take staff and family members off on a retreat in the bucolic Hungarian countryside to restore morale and community spirit.
By the end of 1989 major changes had occurred in Hungary. Opposition political parties had been formed, the private sector had greatly expanded and the border with Austria had been opened to allow the departure of thousands of East Germans to the West. Meanwhile, changes had taken place also at top levels of the State Department, which no longer appeared to be as comfortable as before with Mark’s activist, high-profile style, apparently now regarding it as unbecoming to a career officer. As it became increasingly clear to Mark that a challenging onward assignment would not be forthcoming, he decided to take early retirement from the Foreign Service to begin a new career. As I was his DCM at the time, he informed of this decision and provided me with letters of recusal, which had been cleared with the State Department’s legal advisor’s office, to avoid potential conflicts of interest with possible future employers.
Mark’s announcement at a Budapest press conference in January 1990 of his decision to leave the Foreign Service at the conclusion of his Ambassadorship in order to seek trade and investment opportunities in the new Eastern Europe with a North American business consortium hit the front page of the New York Times. It also landed in the State Department like a bombshell. State’s furious leadership demanded his immediate resignation and departure from Hungary, the Legal Advisor made imprudent statements accusing him of conflicts of interest, and an inspection team was quickly dispatched to Budapest. The inspectors found no evidence of impropriety, but the cloud on Mark’s reputation generated by this sequence of events was, sadly, never entirely cleared up.
While abandonment by many former friends and colleagues must have stung badly, Mark kept moving forward, true to his character, and never complained. His business ventures in the region met with many successes as he relocated to Berlin as head of the Central European Development Corporation and with partners established some of the first independent television stations in the former Communist bloc, as well as the highly symbolic Business Center and Museum at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie.
Meanwhile, Mark’s passion for promoting democracy and freedom never waned. He became a founding member and Vice-President of the Council for a Community of Democracies as well as Vice-Chairman of Freedom House. His international work to oppose dictators and tyranny also included his 2003 book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil; and a Diplomat’s Handbook for democracy development support. The latter inspired the establishment of the Mark Palmer Prize for working diplomats, sponsored by the Council for a Community of Democracies. Upon his return to Washington DC he became actively involved with the city, serving on board on UDC and setting up a corporation to provide affordable housing in Anacostia. And he never let go of the effort to establish a viable opposition political party in the District of Columbia.His final years were marked by his ongoing encounter with the aggressive return of the deadly illness which he had defeated once before during his Hungarian tour. A group of his former Budapest colleagues had regular lunches with him periodically as his battle continued with a variety of experimental treatments. He somehow managed to retain his positive outlook in the face of the most pessimistic prognoses, continuing his political, social – and even physical - interests apace, without a murmur of self-pity. As he had inspired us in Hungary over 25 years before, we were consistently moved by his determination to continue to be highly productive and to develop new ideas while seeking out every available option, however unpleasant, to fight this relentless foe. This courageous determination gave him years of additional life, against all medical odds, and he put this time to good use. At what turned out to be our final luncheon, just before Christmas, 2012, the physical toll of his ordeal was unmistakable and it was apparent to us all that the end was truly near. But we have considered ourselves fortunate to share for the last time his lively personality and sense of humor, which remained as youthfully robust as always.