Skip to main content

In Memoriam: William Van Cleave, 77

The former professor of international relations in USC Dornsife is remembered as a Cold War expert with a warm heart.

William Van Cleave directed the Strategic Studies Program in USC Dornsife's School of International Relations, where he was professor of international relations, from 1967 to 1987. Here, he teaches in his earlier years. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Van Cleave.
William Van Cleave directed the Strategic Studies Program in USC Dornsife's School of International Relations, where he was professor of international relations, from 1967 to 1987. Here, he teaches in his earlier years. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Van Cleave.

William Van Cleave, former senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan, the United States Department of Defense, Department of State, and former professor of international relations in USC Dornsife, has died. He was 77.

Van Cleave died of natural causes at his Idyllwild, Calif., home on March 15.

Professor of international relations and director of the Strategic Studies Program in USC Dornsife from 1967 to 1987, Van Cleave had vast experience in, and influence upon, U.S. defense policy.

He served in numerous policy-advisory positions. For example, he was a delegate to the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and a member of the “Team B” review of intelligence estimates on the Soviet military, both in the 1970s. From 1979 to 1981, he was senior adviser to Ronald Reagan and director of the defense transition team for Reagan’s new administration.

Robert English, associate professor of international relations and director of USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations (SIR), recalled Van Cleave’s intensely loyal following at the U.S. Department of Defense.

English joined the Defense Department straight out of graduate school from Princeton University in 1982. English’s position as a junior analyst quickly brought him into contact with Van Cleave’s former students working in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, D.C.

While English didn’t always agree with their positions, “I have to say that Van Cleave’s protégés were among the best informed, hardest working and most dedicated to the national interest that I knew in nearly a decade of defense policy analysis,” English said. “Looking back over the years, William Van Cleave was probably one of the USC professors whose influence on national policy was greatest. From the late-1970s through the mid-1980s, his impact on foreign policy debates and decision-making was such that few academics in any area had more direct influence on U.S. policy than he did.”

The author of 200-plus publications, Van Cleave helped to place many of his graduate students in important executive-branch, Congressional staff and think-tank posts. He stirred controversy with hardline positions favoring a large U.S. military build-up, one that some credit with accelerating the USSR's global retreat in the late 1980s and ultimately ending the Cold War.

 


Former USC Dornsife International Relations Professor Van Cleave served as senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan and director of the defense transition team for Reagan’s new administration. This photo was taken a few years ago while Van Cleave served on a commission in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Van Cleave.

Van Cleave was admired for his passion for ideas and dedication to his students, many of whom are acknowledged as among the best that SIR has produced — including Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Michael Donley, former Deputy National Security Adviser J.D. Crouch and many top State and Defense department officials.

Keith Payne, director of the National Institute for Public Policy and former deputy assistant secretary of defense, recalled Van Cleave as “an incomparable mentor, friend and constructive critic.”

“Professor Van Cleave believed that the formulation and direction of government policy should benefit from rigorous scholarly analysis,” Payne said. “He did not simply talk that talk; his integrated career of academic excellence and public service will have a positive impact for generations as his students and their students carry on his example of scholarly rigor and public service.”

Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations Peter Berton was Van Cleave’s close colleague. The two had many of the same students.

“William Van Cleave’s security program at the School of International Relations helped to put USC on the map,” Berton said.

Riki Ellison, former USC and NFL linebacker, now director of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, remembers his former professor as a surrogate father.

“It was a match made in heaven and a bond that never has, never will be broken,” Ellison said. “Like father and son we shared the same passions, loved the same things. We set our principles beyond reproach and above the minutia, climbed together those impossible dreams, yet fell together when we slipped. He was the one to pick you up like a father and put you back on that white horse to fight the good fight.”

Born, Aug. 27, 1935, in Kansas City, Mo., Van Cleave was a U.S. Marine, earned his bachelor’s degree in political science summa cum laude from Cal State Long Beach, now called California State University, Long Beach, and his master’s and Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate University.

Van Cleave is survived by daughter Cynthia Van Cleave, sisters Linda Schooler, Patricia Lamport and Marcia Donnelly, and granddaughters Amber Van Cleave and Monica Gibson, and grandson Christopher Gibson.

His family is organizing a memorial service to be held in Washington, D.C., in late April.