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updated 12/14/2010 6:43:05 PM ET 2010-12-14T23:43:05

Few U.S. diplomats had the breadth, depth or length of service of Richard Holbrooke, who wrote part of the Pentagon Papers, was the architect of the 1995 Bosnia peace accords and served as President Barack Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Holbrooke's unexpected death Monday at 69, following surgery for a tear in his aorta, marked the end of a storied career. He served through defining eras in U.S. diplomacy, witnessing the end of European colonialism and the Cold War and the rise of international terrorism as the greatest threat to America.

Calling Holbrooke "a true giant of American foreign policy," Obama paid homage to his crisis expert as "a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country and pursuit of peace." Holbrooke deserves credit for much of the hard-won progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the president said.

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Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Holbrooke's presence would be especially missed this week as the Obama administration finishes its review of the Afghan war, expected Thursday. Mullen said Holbrooke helped write and "deeply believed in" the war strategy.

"That we have been making steady progress in this war is due in no small measure to Richard's tireless efforts and dedication," Mullen said. "I know he would want our work to continue unabated. And I know we will all feel his bully presence in the room as we do so."

The Washington Post quoted family members as saying that as Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, his final words were to his surgeon: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said there was "a lengthy exchange with Ambassador Holbrooke and the medical team" before his surgery.

Crowley said that when the medical team told Holbrooke to relax, he responded, "I can't relax, I'm worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan." Crowley said that after more back and forth, the medical team finally said, "We'll tell you what, we'll try to fix this challenge while you're undergoing surgery." Crowley said that Holbrooke joked, "Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war."

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Crowley said there is no transcript of this exchange, and that it is based on Crowley's conversations with several people who were in the room at the time, NBC News reported.

Crowley joked that this said two things about Holbrooke: "Number one, he always wanted to make sure he got the last word," and secondly, "it showed how he was singularly focused on pursuing and advancing the the process and the policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bring them to a successful conclusion."

Holbrooke served under every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy. He brought a lion's appetite for difficult work, from Indochina and the Pacific to Europe, Africa and, in his last incarnation, South Asia.

Supremely self-confident, brash and instantly dismissive of critics, Holbrooke entered the foreign service in the early 1960s at the height of what critics called the State Department's "pale, male and Yale" phase.

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Video: Holbrooke 'tenaciously committed to positive outcomes' (on this page)

It was a time when the dictum of former Secretary of State Henry Stimson — "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail" — still rang through the corridors of Foggy Bottom, the State Department's Washington neighborhood.

At the time of his death, Holbrooke — an Ivy League graduate of Brown University, not Yale — was serving a vastly different agency. The State Department in recent years has been led by an African-American man and three women, one of them African-American.

And, quite far from Stimson's admonition, the department instructed its diplomats to seek out personal information about foreign leaders and politicians, according to leaked classified documents released by the WikiLeaks website.

Holbrooke had a forceful style that earned him nicknames such as "The Bulldozer" and "Raging Bull."

His career began with a posting in Vietnam in 1962 and included time as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam.

His sizable ego, tenacity and willingness to push hard for results won him both admiration and animosity.

"If Richard calls you and asks you for something, just say yes," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said. "If you say no, you'll eventually get to yes, but the journey will be very painful."

The bearish Holbrooke said he had no qualms about "negotiating with people who do immoral things."

"If you can prevent the deaths of people still alive, you're not doing a disservice to those already killed by trying to do so," he said in 1999.

Born in New York City on April 24, 1941, Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke had an interest in public service from early on. He was good friends in high school with a son of Dean Rusk and he grew close to the family of the man who would become secretary of state for Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

At the Johnson White House, he wrote one volume of the Pentagon Papers, an internal government study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was completed in 1967.

The study, leaked in 1971 by a former Defense Department aide, had many damaging revelations, including a memo that stated the reason for fighting in Vietnam was based far more on preserving U.S. prestige than preventing communism or helping the Vietnamese.

After stints in and out of government — including as Peace Corps director in Morocco, editing positions at Foreign Policy and Newsweek magazines and adviser to Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, Holbrooke became assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs from 1977-81. He then shifted back to private life — and the financial world, at Lehman Brothers.

A lifelong Democrat, he returned to public service when Bill Clinton took the White House in 1993. Holbrooke was U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1993 to 1994 and then assistant secretary of state for European affairs.

"He could always be counted on for his imagination, dedication and forcefulness," Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Monday.

One of his signature achievements was brokering the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.

Holbrooke's efforts would later lead to controversy when wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic told a war crimes tribunal in 2009 that Holbrooke had promised him immunity in return for leaving politics. Holbrooke denied it.

Holbrooke left the State Department in 1996 to take a Wall Street job with Credit Suisse First Boston, but was never far from the diplomatic fray, serving as a private citizen as a special envoy to Cyprus and then the Balkans.

In 1998, he negotiated an agreement with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, where they were accused of conducting an ethnic cleansing campaign.

"I make no apologies for negotiating with Milosevic and even worse people, provided one doesn't lose one's point of view," he said later.

When the deal fell apart, Holbrooke went to Belgrade to deliver the final ultimatum to Milosevic to leave Kosovo or face NATO airstrikes, which ultimately rained down on the capital.

Holbrooke returned to public service in 1999, becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

With his long-standing ties to Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Holbrooke was a strong supporter of her 2008 bid for the White House. He had been considered a favorite to become secretary of state if she had won.

"Richard Holbrooke saved lives, secured peace and restored hope for countless people around the world," Bill Clinton said in a statement. Hillary Clinton called him one of America's "fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants."

When her presidential campaign ran out of steam, Holbrooke began reaching out to Obama.

Reflecting on his role as Obama's special envoy, Holbrooke wrote in The Washington Post in March 2008 that "the conflict in Afghanistan will be far more costly and much, much longer than Americans realize. This war, already in its seventh year, will eventually become the longest in American history, surpassing even Vietnam."

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, called Holbrooke "our diplomatic wingman" and said he was "a great American and a good friend."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Holbrooke's death "a big loss for the American people." In neighboring Pakistan, President Asif Ali Zardari said: "His services will be long remembered. The best tribute to him is to reiterate our resolve to root out extremism and usher in peace."

Holbrooke is survived by his wife, author Kati Marton, and two sons from a previous marriage, David Holbrooke and Anthony Holbrooke.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Remembering a relentless diplomat

  1. Transcript of: Remembering a relentless diplomat

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Fifteen years ago today, the peace treaty was signed ending the war in Bosnia . It was negotiated by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke , who died just last night in Washington . The president of the United States called him a giant. General David Petraeus called him a titan who was larger than life. It is true that the death of Richard Holbrooke leaves no one even remotely like him in the business of diplomacy. It was by far his greatest success, ending the war in Bosnia , a gruesome conflict that introduced the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to the world looking on. It took American bombing to bring all sides to the table. But then, it was widely agreed, Richard Holbrooke simply wore them down.

    Mr. RICHARD HOLBROOKE: And I combative by nature? Well, I've read that. But it's really -- in my view, it's inherent in the job. This is a -- this is a job that involves combat.

    WILLIAMS: He was New York City born, Ivy League educated, and lived in Manhattan and Washington and on airplanes. He flew into hot spots often and without fear, and was shot at more than once while he also navigated the much cooler world of New York and DC society. A friend of Kissinger , Kerry and both Clintons , he served under every Democratic president since JFK ; his most recent assignment as President Obama 's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan . And in that job he was constantly reminded of his first job as a young man in Vietnam .

    Mr. HOLBROOKE: The American public needs to be clear on why we're in Afghanistan . This is not Vietnam . This is not the Balkans . It's not Iraq . This is quite different. This one relates directly to our safety at home.

    WILLIAMS: At different times he was a journalist, a banker, an ambassador to Germany and the UN , mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize , mentioned as secretary of state, mentioned often in the media thanks to his vast contacts. He strongly believed in America as a force to lead the world. He could be abrupt, abrasive and charming all at the same time. Holbrooke often led with a combination of brains and heart, until the latter gave out. A torn aorta, 20-plus hours of surgery, 40-plus units of blood, a three-day struggle to survive until his death last night at the age of 69. And he spoke until the end about what motivated him.

    Mr. HOLBROOKE: We have American men and women putting their lives at risk every day, giving their lives, being wounded. And we who are working on this issue owe it to them to do the best we can. And time is precious here, and I don't want to see it slip away.

    WILLIAMS: Richard Holbrooke leaves behind his wife, the author and journalist Kati Marton , two children and two stepchildren. When our broadcast

Timeline: Richard Holbrooke 1941-2010

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