Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I would like to bring to the attention of colleagues the recent passing of long-time U.S. diplomat George Southall Vest, III, a long-time resident of Bethesda, Maryland. He was 102 years old. His career with the State Department spanned the Cold War era, from 1947 to 1989. As Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I want to draw particular attention to Ambassador Vest’s representation of the United States at the initial multilateral discussions of 35 countries that led to an historic summit in Helsinki, Finland, from July 30 to August 1, 1975, where the Helsinki Final Act was signed.
An all-European summit was not a priority for the United States in the early 1970s. Indeed, it was a long-standing Soviet proposal, and Washington was wary of its use to confirm the division of Europe, give added legitimacy to communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and provide an opportunity for Moscow to divide the United States from its European allies. Washington agreed to engage but saw little value in the effort. As Ambassador Vest himself was quoted as saying, “This was the first time after World War II where all the Eastern European countries, all the Western European countries, together with Canada and the United States, sat down to talk about security and cooperation… I had very, very few instructions. I was left pretty much to feel my own way.”
The early work of Ambassador Vest and his team, and that of his immediate successors, led to the Helsinki Final Act, which included 10 principles guiding relations between states that serve as a basis, to this day, of our response to events in Europe, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and other neighbors. The Final Act provided a comprehensive definition of security that includes respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the basis for us to address today’s brutal crackdown on dissent in Belarus and authoritarianism elsewhere. It also provided for a follow-up to the Final Act with regular reviews of implementation and development of new norms, a multilateral effort now represented by today’s 57-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with its important institutions and field missions.
Ambassador Vest, left pretty much to feel his own way, may not have intended to make such an impact on European security. Keep in mind that he represented the United States in these negotiations during the tumultuous time of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, an oil crisis on the horizon, the growing Watergate scandal at home, and a rising Soviet threat across the globe. Nevertheless, his initial efforts contributed to an end of the Cold War division of Europe rather than a confirmation of it. That is quite a turnaround. I should add that the Congress later played a major role in shaping the U.S. contribution to this result when it created the Helsinki Commission in 1976. While things have changed since then, the Commission does now what it did in the late 1970s: ensure that human rights considerations are central to U.S. foreign policy and U.S. relations with other countries.
Given the challenges we face today, I hope it is useful to remind my colleagues of Ambassador Vest’s legacy as a diplomat. Both before and after the negotiations, he served in positions in which he worked to strengthen ties with Europe, including through the NATO alliance and dialogue with a growing European Union. He was also a mentor to new generations of American diplomats. All of this followed his combat service as a forward artillery observer in Europe during World War II.
George Vest joined the Foreign Service in 1947, after using the G.I. Bill to earn his master’s degree in history from the University of Virginia (U-Va), where he had received his B.A. in 1941. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs under President Carter and as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union from 1981 to 1985. His last assignment at the State Department was as Director General of the Foreign Service. He retired in 1989 as a “career ambassador,” a rank requiring a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.
George Vest’s father was an Episcopal priest and Vest graduated from the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, before attending U-Va. He was as dedicated to his church as he was to our Nation. He served on the vestry at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and volunteered in its Opportunity (thrift) Shop, both located on the Close of Washington National Cathedral. He also tutored students in D.C. public schools. Two sons, George S. Vest, IV of Fairfax, Virginia, and Henry Vest of Broomfield, Colorado, and two granddaughters survive him. I send my condolences to his family and thank them for his life of service. Let us be inspired by Ambassador George Vest and plant our own seeds for a better world tomorrow.