Manfred Woerner, the former West German defense minister who led the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for six crucial years that spanned the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, died Saturday following a long battle with cancer.
A statement issued at NATO headquarters here said Woerner, 59, died at his home in Brussels.
"Under his skillful and strong leadership, he has led the transformation of the alliance from an era of confrontation during the Cold War to the present period of cooperation and partnership," the statement said. "He was the driving force behind NATO's transformation."
As NATO secretary general from July, 1988, until his death, Woerner presided over the alliance's search for a new role in European security, helping former adversaries enter into formal working relationships with the alliance.
He was a key figure in turning President Clinton's idea of building links to these nations into a successful initiative, known as "Partnership for Peace."
Despite Woerner's visible loss of strength and prolonged absences from his office at NATO headquarters here in recent months, the announcement of his death came as a shock.
Only last month, he had informed ambassadors from the alliance's 16 member nations that he was recovering and planned to resume a normal schedule next month.
His passing marks the first time that a NATO secretary general has died in office, and it leaves the alliance without strong leadership at a time when its future is filled with question marks, for many of the changes that Woerner helped initiate are only now being implemented.
Until a successor is found, the alliance will be headed by Deputy Secretary General Sergio Balanzino, an Italian career diplomat with virtually no experience in military affairs who arrived at NATO only last January.
Observers say Woerner's possible successors include Norway's Thorvald Stoltenberg, a former foreign minister and currently U.N. peace mediator in the Balkans, and former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato.
Tributes to Woerner followed quickly after the announcement that he had lost his fight with cancer.
"He was a true and loyal friend of the United States," Clinton said in a written statement. ". . . Manfred Woerner's heroic leadership made an enduring contribution to democracy and security in Europe."
U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali lauded Woerner's "wisdom, integrity and humanity," while Chancellor Helmut Kohl called him "a guardian of Western steadfastness at the time of the Cold War."
Although he lacked the political stature and the easy humor of his immediate predecessor, Britain's Peter Carrington, Woerner relied on an iron will, personal courage and an unwavering commitment to the transatlantic relationship to steer NATO through the swiftly changing currents of the immediate post-Cold War era.
"When I began, I wasn't even allowed to receive an ambassador from the Warsaw Pact," he once commented, referring to the Soviet-led alliance of Communist nations that opposed NATO for more than four decades.
From his office in the sprawling NATO headquarters here, he would witness the end of the Warsaw Pact and welcome not just the ambassadors but the leaders of pact nations.
In early 1992, he began a struggle against cancer of the intestine that gradually sapped his strength and radically curtailed an active lifestyle that had combined flying, sports and consistent 16-hour workdays.
His handling of this illness reflected his personal courage.
Although he had lost nearly 40 pounds and was suffering intense pain, twice this year, in February and April, he defied doctors' orders and chaired important NATO meetings that committed the alliance to enforce certain U.N. resolutions in the former Yugoslav federation.
"I saw there was finally a chance to do something and not just talk," he later explained to an interviewer. "What the effort did to me was immaterial."
According to those who worked with him, Woerner viewed the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a chance for the alliance to prove it could play an active, constructive role in the post-Cold War era.
He reportedly became first enraged, then deeply disappointed, at the United Nations' reluctance to use NATO air power to enforce weapons exclusion zones around the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and the eastern town of Gorazde.
It was under his stewardship that NATO engaged in offensive military action for the first time in its history when, on Feb. 28, 1994, alliance F-16s first challenged, then shot down four Serbian aircraft that had violated a U.N.-declared "no-fly" zone over Bosnia.
"People will learn to respect NATO," Woerner said on the night of the attack.
Although serious differences between NATO and U.N. commanders blunted the alliance's role in its first major mission outside a member country, Woerner is credited with keeping NATO's reputation and internal unity largely intact.
"He absolutely refused to let the alliance get bounced into that conflict until the individual governments were committed," the ambassador of one member nation said.
But many argued that his greatest single achievement was to nurture the consensus among the alliance's 16 partners that allowed NATO to survive its own success--the defeat of communism in Europe--and remain a key stabilizing factor in the less certain world of the 1990s.
"East or west, north or south, everyone in Europe is still convinced that NATO is the only military alliance of any importance," noted Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. "And that's not a small feat."
Woerner was born in the southwest German city of Stuttgart on Sept. 24, 1934. Although too young to fight in World War II, he experienced the war as a preteen, huddled in underground shelters during Allied bombings of Nazi Germany.
As a young adult, he once thought of going into the clergy but instead studied law in Munich. He quickly became active in politics, joining the conservative Christian Democrats at age 22.
Woerner found work as a legal adviser to the legislature of his home state of Baden-Wurttemberg and eventually entered the federal Parliament at age 31.
Although he initially specialized in education policy, he soon became involved in defense matters. He earned his wings as a jet fighter pilot in the mid-1960s and by the mid-1970s had become his party's main spokesman on defense matters.
When the Christian Democrats toppled Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's center-left coalition and regained power in West Germany in late 1982, Woerner was named defense minister in Kohl's first Cabinet.
It was a job he held throughout the tumultuous demonstrations in Germany that accompanied the stationing of American medium-range nuclear missiles in the country.
Woerner backed the missile deployment and later became a rare European backer of former President Ronald Reagan's controversial Strategic Defense Initiative--positions that caused frequent street protests against him.
But it was scandal, not protests, that nearly ended Woerner's political career. His decision in late 1983 to summarily dismiss one of the armed forces' most senior generals, Guenter Kiessling, amid accusations that he had frequented gay bars backfired when the charges proved false.
Woerner had brushed aside the general's strenuous rejection of the accusations and sacked Kiessling, claiming he was a security risk.
Woerner survived only because Kohl refused to bow to public calls for his resignation.
Years later, East German secret police records were found suggesting that the allegations may have been planted by the Communists in hopes of undermining the hard-line defense minister.
Woerner relished his image as an unbending hawk and ardent cold warrior--an image he gained mainly when he became a prime target of his country's powerful peace movement in the 1980s.
Once at NATO, however, he became an effective consensus builder, constantly searching for the middle ground needed to keep the alliance together, yet still moving it forward.
"I think he was a great secretary general," Eyal said. "He was one of the first to grasp the alliance needed to change, but knew that if he pushed too hard, too quickly, it could all break apart."
While the alliance's structure changed considerably during Woerner's years at the helm, there was much he failed to alter.
Although he liked to joke that his weight loss made him "leaner and meaner"--much like the new NATO--he never really managed to get rid of the organization's unwieldy central bureaucracy despite sharp post-Cold War defense cuts among member nations.
He was also unable to persuade the alliance's 16 member nations to coordinate their military cutbacks to maintain the maximum possible strength. Instead, each reduced its forces according to its individual needs.
Still, until the end, he remained a tough, respected leader of the alliance.
After a recalcitrant Russian ambassador kept a meeting of NATO and its eastern partners bogged down this June for hours in petty debate during one of the long spells when Woerner was hospitalized, one frustrated alliance representative emerged from the room and muttered, "Woerner never would have let him (the Russian) get away with this."