The Greatest Humanitarian You’ve Never Heard Of

The Greatest Humanitarian You’ve Never Heard Of

Bob Gersony was a mostly anonymous U.S. diplomat—and his country’s best model for creating change in the world.

Glory is not always won under the klieg lights. The novelist Graham Greene wrote that “true glory is a private and discreet virtue, and is only fully realized in solitariness.” Likewise, the golden age of U.S. diplomacy was not only a matter of celebrated victories, such as Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China in 1971 or James Baker’s negotiations to reunify Germany in 1990. It was also about the many small and lonely achievements that occurred in the far-flung corners of the globe by the middle ranks of a talented and dedicated foreign service.

For nearly 40 years, during the Cold War and after, Robert Gersony, a son of Jewish Holocaust refugees, a high school dropout, and a Vietnam veteran, worked as a State Department consultant in virtually every war and disaster zone on Earth. Living alone out of a sleeping bag, he conducted dozens to hundreds of interviews with refugees in each place, drafting reports that always made foreign policy smarter and more humane, often dramatically so. His reports from the bush and from the deserts of the developing world reached the highest levels of the bureaucracy. Never seeking promotion, he was a solitary individual battling the vast, impersonal forces of conflict and bureaucratic inertia—and often succeeding at it.