John Gunther Dean, U.S. Ambassador as Cambodia Fell, Dies at 93

It was one of the most memorable images of American defeat in Southeast Asia — John Gunther Dean, ambassador to Cambodia, clutching an American flag under his arm while being evacuated from Phnom Penh.

Mr. Dean would later call that day, April 12, 1975, one of the most tragic of his life, the day the United States “abandoned Cambodia,” he said, “and handed it over to the butcher.”

The butcher was the Khmer Rouge regime, led by the Marxist dictator Pol Pot, which ousted the pro-American government and would in the end be responsible for the genocide of two million people, one quarter of the Cambodian population.

“We’d accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise,” Mr. Dean told The Associated Press in 2015, 40 years after the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. “That’s the worst thing a country can do.”

Mr. Dean, a career foreign service officer who favored diplomacy over military action, died on June 6 at his home in Paris, his family said. He was 93.

A refugee from Nazi Germany, he served as the American ambassador to five countries — Cambodia, Denmark, Lebanon, Thailand and India. His tours of duty included several harrowing incidents, from his helicopter being shot down in Vietnam to at least two assassination attempts in Beirut.

His highest-profile role came during the fall of Cambodia, a wrenching time for him after his pleas to the Ford administration for more time and resources to work out a diplomatic solution had been rejected.

Before his evacuation by helicopter to Thailand, he took the American flag that had flown at the United States Embassy, wrapped it in a clear plastic bag and tucked it under his arm. A photograph of him carrying it out appeared on front pages around the world and on the cover of his memoir, “Danger Zones: A Diplomat’s Fight for America’s Interests” (2009).

“Why I took the flag down was my Boy Scout way of protecting it from desecration,” he told The New York Times in 1991.

He kept that flag for the rest of his life.

Mr. Dean was born Gunther Dienstfertig on Feb. 24, 1926, in Breslau, Germany, now part of Poland, to Josef and Lucia (Ashkenaczy) Dienstfertig. His father was a corporate lawyer, banker and industrialist as well as a leader of the Jewish community in Breslau.

On the eve of World War II, the family fled Germany, first to Holland, then to England before sailing on the Queen Mary to the United States, where they changed their name to Dean. They settled in Kansas City, Mo., where his father took a teaching job.

At his public school, Gunther was renamed John by the principal, who said it would smooth his transition to American life; he was officially John Gunther Dean by the time he became a naturalized citizen in 1944.

At 16 he enrolled at Harvard, then enlisted in the Army, where his skill at languages — German, English, French and Dutch — landed him in military intelligence. After the war he returned to Harvard, studied international law and relations and graduated in 1947.

He earned a law degree from the Sorbonne in 1949 and a master’s in international relations from Harvard in 1950.

That year, he went to work for the Marshall Plan at its European headquarters in Paris. There he met Martine Duphenieux, the daughter of a prominent family; she was working in the French Foreign Office at the time. They married in 1952. She survives him, along with their daughter, Catherine Curtis; their sons, Paul and Joseph; and seven grandchildren.

Mr. Dean was subsequently sent to Saigon, where he oversaw United States development projects in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He was then posted to Laos. After tours in Africa and a stint in Washington, he went back to Vietnam in the early 1970s, where he led a so-called pacification program.

The goal was to “win hearts and minds” by providing enough services like electricity so that the South Vietnamese would resist entreaties by the North. He had 1,100 civilian advisers and military officers under his command.

During the battle at Quang Tri City in 1972, Mr. Dean led a helicopter mission to rescue 100 Americans trapped by the North Vietnamese. His helicopter was shot down, and he “dropped to the ground like a bag of potatoes,” he said in a 2000 oral history interview for The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. He was not injured, and the Air Force later rescued the Americans and many South Vietnamese. Mr. Dean was decorated for his actions.

He returned to Laos for a second tour later that year. As chargé d’affaires, he worked successfully behind the scenes to negotiate a coalition government between the Royal Lao government and the insurgent Communist Pathet Lao, averting more bloodshed in Laos.

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“It was one of the great moments in my life, having been instrumental in helping people find a controlled, negotiated solution rather than continuing military confrontation,” he said in the oral history.

The coalition ended two decades of intermittent civil war but fell apart 19 months later as the Pathet Lao assumed control.

As ambassador to Cambodia from 1974-75, Mr. Dean sought to bring about a negotiated “controlled” solution to the Cambodian war, much as he had in Laos. But this put him openly at odds with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, who saw no reason to negotiate.

Mr. Dean continued to seek support for a peaceful solution. But Congress — and the American public — wanted out. President Gerald R. Ford ordered the closing of the embassy and the evacuation of all remaining American personnel, for their own safety. The war in Vietnam ended three weeks later.

Mr. Dean never accepted the abandonment of Cambodia.

“You don’t walk away and leave people to this kind of fate, when one knew what that fate was,” he told The Times in 1991, referring to the genocide. “I was loud and clear in saying at the time what those consequences would be.”

Mr. Dean’s next assignment was as ambassador to Denmark and then Lebanon, where he survived at least two assassination attempts. Mr. Dean believed that one of them, in 1980, was carried out by Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service. He said in the oral history that Israel had perceived him as a protector of the Palestinians and wanted him out. The accusation was never proved.

In that incident, he and his family were riding in a motorcade when they were fired upon. But his car was bulletproof, and when the tires appeared to be blown out, they automatically reinflated, and the car drove on to safety.

Mr. Dean later used his contacts within the Palestine Liberation Organization to help secure the release of some of the more than 50 hostages taken by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979 at the American Embassy in Tehran.

He was forced to retire in the late 1980s over differences with American policies toward Israel.

But it was his experience in Cambodia, compelled to leave people behind, that remained most anguishing for him.

“I failed,” he told The A.P. in 2015. “I tried so hard. I took as many people as I could, hundreds of them, I took them out, but I couldn’t take the whole nation out.”

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