UNA Mourns the Passing of a True UN Champion

February 9, 2015

John_Whitehead_2To John Whitehead (1922-2015), the words “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” were more than just a passage from the UN Charter.  Whitehead, who would later serve as Chair of the United Nations Association of the United States (UNA-USA), learned the importance of those words while piloting a landing craft on D-Day at Omaha Beach.

As Chair of UNA-USA, Whitehead helped rebuild UNA’s finances, promote youth outreach, and forge a partnership between UNA-USA and the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University that continues to this day.  As he said in 1993, “the relationship between the United States and the United Nations is more than that of a government and a multinational organization; it is a relationship between the American people and the organization that serves all the people of the world.”

Born to modest means in Evanston, Illinois, Wall Street would provide the launching pad for Whitehead’s extraordinary career.  Joining Goldman Sachs soon after his wartime service, then a modest investment house with roughly 300 employees, Whitehead would rise to Co-Chairman and preside over the growth of the firm into one of America’s leading investment banks.  He left Wall Street in 1985 to serve as Deputy Secretary of State under George Schultz, forcefully advocating for the importance of the UN to US foreign policy. 

In 1988, with the US withholding nearly $500 million in dues and the UN nearing bankruptcy, Whitehead appealed to First Lady Nancy Reagan to convince the president not to let the UN go bankrupt on his watch.  When the President agreed to allow limited payments of arears, Whitehead flew to New York to personally deliver the first $65 million installment to a relieved Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar. 

UNA-USA was but one of many causes that benefitted from Whitehead’s leadership, from advancing human rights through the International Rescue Committee to rebuilding New York in the wake of 9/11 as Chair of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. In the words of UNA-USA’s current Chair Ambassador Tom Pickering, “John Whitehead was a tower of strength and a master of good common sense throughout his life and in all he did. His generosity enabled many good things to happen. He will be sincerely and sorely missed.”