John Whitehead—soldier, diplomat, philanthropist, and financier—died peacefully this month at the age of 92. Whitehead has been remembered for his long career, which brought him from Wall St. to the State Department, and his commitment to philanthropy, particularly his efforts leading the Manhattan Development Corp. in the wake of the September 11th attacks. But obituaries in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal omit one major aspect of this remarkable man’s life: his opposition to communism.
Whitehead was among the brave American soldiers who fought on D-Day, commanding one of the many landing crafts that touched down on Omaha Beach in 1944. After the war Whitehead took a position at Goldman Sachs, helping to grow it from a tiny company into the global investment giant it is today; over 37 years at the firm Whitehead built a reputation as a straight shooter and an honest man. He retired from Goldman in 1984 when President Reagan tapped him to become Deputy Secretary of State under George Shultz.
He served in this post for four crucial years, overseeing American relations in Eastern Europe during the final phase of the Cold War. During his time at State, Whitehead was a particularly energetic advocate for the Polish Solidarity movement and its leader Lech Walesa, decorating his office with the trade union’s banner. The roots of Whitehead’s anticommunism ran deeper than his tenure in Foggy Bottom, however. Years earlier, while still at Goldman Sachs, Whitehead was in Vienna at the time the 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out—the first successful strike against Soviet domination behind the Iron Curtain.
Whitehead was so taken with the bravery of the Hungarian freedom fighters that he raised the money to buy communications and medical supplies to fill a jet airplane and three boats, which were delivered to the rebels. Recalling the episode, he would say, “Did we make a difference? I don’t know, but we had to do something.” Whitehead would continue to support the growth of Hungarian democracy and civil society through his support of groups like the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund, the Citizens Democracy Corps, and the Hungarian-American Coalition. In 2011, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation presented its Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom to Whitehead at a special ceremony at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington.
John Whitehead’s long list of notable achievements stands as a testament to his public-spiritedness and humanity. It was this humanity that led him to oppose the cruelty and threat of communism. As a policy-maker and private citizen, he provided clarity to the often fuzzy calculations behind détente and US-Soviet relations. VOC salutes John Whitehead’s many achievements, chief among them his consistent opposition to global communism.