TERRY GROSS, host:

Richard Holbrooke had some extraordinary experiences during his career as a U.S. diplomat. We're going to hear about one that he described in our 1998 interview.

Holbrooke died yesterday after surgery for a torn aorta. He had been serving as President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He worked for every Democratic president since the late 1960s. His greatest accomplishment was as the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, negotiating an end to the war in Bosnia in 1995.

The Balkan War had shocked the world with the siege of Sarajevo, and the forced relocation and slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia in what was described as ethnic cleansing.

I spoke with Richard Holbrooke in 1998, after the publication of his memoir "To End A War."

When the times that you've dealt with Milosevic, the head of Serbia, have you felt that you were dealing with evil incarnate - which is often the way he's been portrayed.

Mr. RICHARD HOLBROOKE (Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.): I - you know, I've dealt with so many leaders over the last 25 years who represented things alien to the American tradition. And with Milosevic, I felt I was dealing - and continued to deal - with a person whose behavior and style and activities are just totally incompatible with those that we believe in. But the word evil is a very powerful word, and I want to depersonalize it. There is evil in the world. It's something that we have to confront.

But the time that I felt I was in the presence of evil, I - incarnate evil -was the extraordinary 13-hour negotiation we had to have in September of '95, outside Belgrade, with Mladic and Karadzic, the two indicted war criminals who led the Bosnian Serbs. These were hands-on murderers. It was like spending a day with Pol Pot. And having spent most of my career in Asia, I was acutely aware of the sense that this was the Pol Pot of Europe.

GROSS: Well, before you even met with them, you had to decide whether it was morally justifiable to actually meet with them as part of the peace talks -because after all, they were indicted war criminals. So what made you decide that it was the appropriate thing to do, to meet with them?

Mr. HOLBROOKE: We debated this on the plane, flying into Belgrade. I said to my team, look, sooner or later, we're probably going to end up meeting with these two terrible men: Radovan Karadzic, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Ratko Mladic, the murderous general who runs the military. And each of you has a choice here: Do you want to meet with them or not? Do you want to shake hands with them or not? We unanimously concluded, as had previous negotiators, that's it's better to deal with these men to save the lives of people still alive, as the best way of honoring those who had already died, rather than get up on one's high moral horse and refuse to meet with them.

However, because they were indicted war criminals, we made clear to them, and to Milosevic, that they couldn't enter the United States or any European country -Western European country - without facing immediate arrest under U.N. resolutions.

Now, in making the decision to meet with them, I happened to have been very influenced personally by two books that my wife, Kati Marton, had written: one on Bernadotte, and one on Wallenberg. Both those men, both Swedes, had met in 1944, '45 with Eichmann and Himmler to save hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout Central Europe - by meeting with these horrendous people. And they had saved lives. And I thought that was a valid model. So in the end, we met with these people. I chose not to shake hands with them. Some of my colleagues did. But I think that the historical record shows that the decision to meet with them was correct.

I might also add that everyone else had met with them routinely and not even felt it was a moral dilemma. But I thought it was.

GROSS: Richard Holbrooke, recorded in 1998. He died yesterday; he was 69.

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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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