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Thomas Halsted, writer and advocate for nuclear disarmament, dies at 83

Handout

Tom Halsted.

By Marvin Pave Globe Correspondent 

Tom Halsted was a 28-year-old intelligence officer and photo interpreter assigned to the State Department in October 1962 when he received a telephone call before breakfast to report to the office.

“Something was up,” Mr. Halsted would later recall.

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That “something” turned into the Cuban missile crisis. He shuttled among several agencies and offices — including the State Department, the Kennedy White House, the Pentagon, and the Central Intelligence Agency — during the tense “13 days” showdown between the United States and Soviet Union.

“Like many other players in the drama,” he wrote in a letter to the Gloucester Daily Times, he shared “the same dread of unknown horrors to come” and was relieved when the Soviet Union removed the missiles from Cuba. He added he “will always look upon it as one of the pivotal events in my life.”

Mr. Halsted, who served as special assistant in the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Johnson administration and as its director of public affairs during the Carter presidency, died of kidney cancer Oct. 7 in his Gloucester home a day before his 84th birthday.

He worked and lectured, in and out of government, on intelligence, national security, and arms control issues, including the SALT I and II negotiations, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the nuclear test ban treaties.

“What drew people to Tom was his sincerity,” said his friend John Tierney, a former congressman who is executive director of the Council for a Livable World and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C. “He was smart and engaging, passionate and knowledgeable, and never did anything halfway.”

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Mr. Halsted, a staunch Democrat who was the Council for a Livable World’s national director from 1967-71, supported Tierney’s campaigns when Tierney served as the US representative from the Sixth Congressional District. The council endorses congressional cand-idates who are arms control advocates and support its outlook on national security issues.

After leaving Washington in 1981, Mr. Halsted was executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He then managed the Curtis/Hopkinson family estate in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he served on the Conservation Commission, chaired the Board of Selectmen, and joined the town’s Democratic Committee.

A prolific writer of letters to the editor, he also published a blog called Beam Reach, which was subtitled “Musings from a life ashore and at sea,” and explored topics ranging from sailing to politics to cancer treatment.

In 1999, Mr. Halsted moved to Gloucester, where he was a member of the Gloucester Democratic City Committee and was a docent at the Cape Ann Museum.

“He could envision all too well the dangers of a nuclear war and the arms race, and shared his views on nuclear proliferation in a variety of settings,” said Karen Bell, who chairs the committee. “In a world where weapons have again become an urgent and even frightening issue, I am only one among many who will miss his wise counsel and his sense of moderation tempered by history.”

At the museum, Mr. Halsted was highly regarded for his knowledge of Cape Ann, including its artists and paintings, and sailing ships and maritime life. He was also a contributor to its magazine.

Ronda Faloon, the museum’s executive director, praised his work on an advisory board that was involved in the installation of the museum’s first formal Maritime/Fisheries galleries. “Tom had an inquisitive mind. His interests and enthusiasms knew no bounds,” she said.

“The sea has always been a part of my life,” Mr. Halsted, who loved sailing the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia, wrote in an August blog post. “Every summer, from the time I was an infant, I could hear the boom of surf bursting on the rocks below our grandparents’ house, the sifting of tumbling pebbles and the louder clatter of larger stones as a just-broken wave drew back before rolling forward again. . . . Salt was in the air I breathed.”

Born in Cambridge, Thomas Addison Halsted grew up in Dedham, a son of Dr. James A. Halsted, a leading researcher in nutrition, and the former Isabella Hopkinson, the daughter of renowned portrait artist Charles Hopkinson.

Mr. Halsted’s parents’ marriage ended in divorce, and his father married Anna Roosevelt, the daughter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“I knew Anna was extraordinary from the moment I met her,” Mr. Halsted wrote in an unpublished memoir. “I discovered in her a good friend and caring person who genuinely wanted to help me grow up into a responsible and productive adult.”

He graduated in 1950 from Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was art editor of the yearbook and a member of the dramatic and yacht clubs. Mr. Halsted served in the Army and attained the rank of captain while working as a photo interpreter specializing in Soviet strategic weapons programs. He completed his degree in international affairs in 1965 at George Washington University.

“A few times in my life I have worked almost to exhaustion in order to complete a task that I wanted to do right, no matter how trivial,” Mr. Halsted wrote. “Once it was leading a patrol in Panama and carrying a sick soldier seven miles down a mountain; once it was struggling to help bring a legislative victory in the US Senate.”

Mr. Halsted married Joy Appel in 1955. Among their favorite activities were sailing and cross-country drives. “When we met I felt he was enchanting and totally engaging,” said Joy, a professional artist. She recalled that during the Cuban missile crisis, when her husband was rarely home, “I painted the kitchen table.”

In a memoir titled “Twenty Six Random Things About Myself,” Mr. Halsted said he married Joy “because she had the most wonderful laugh, amazing creative talent and an insatiable curiosity about everything . . . and because she saw something in me, too.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Halsted leaves his daughter, Beth Paddock of Gloucester; his son, Thomas Jr. of Bellingham, Wash.; his sisters, Elinor Moore of Belfast, Maine, and Isabella of Amherst; and his brother, Charles of Davis, Calif.

A private celebration of his life will be held during the Christmas season at the Cape Ann Museum.

“He valued and taught me to value integrity, honesty, loyalty, and friendship,” his daughter said, “and showed me that intellectual curiosity was to be pursued whenever possible.”

His son said that he inherited from Mr. Halsted “an insatiable curiosity about the world, a love of languages and of culture. He deeply cared about his country and he wanted to make sure that free speech and honest dialogue were available to everyone.”


Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.