Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Diplomat, Dead at 69

VIDEO: Martha Raddatz on the last message from the veteran
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Richard Holbrooke, a forceful presence in American diplomacy for more than 45 years, died tonight in Washington, D.C. He was 69.

His death, after emergency surgery Friday for a torn aorta, was confirmed by sources to ABC News White House Correspondent Jake Tapper.

Holbrooke, who served in the Obama administration as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was putting the finishing touches on a major report on American military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan, due to be released on Thursday.

Family members said his last words before he headed into surgery were: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan," according to the Washington Post.

President Obama was at a dinner in the East Room of the White House when the news came, said a senior administration official. He called Holbrooke's widow, the best-selling author and journalist Kati Marton, to express his condolences. At the dinner, he toasted him as "a public servant in the truest sense."

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Holbrooke one of America's "fiercest champions" in a statement. "He was one of a kind -- a true statesman -- and that makes his passing all the more painful," she said.

Holbrooke had been in Clinton's office on Friday when he collapsed. He was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where he went through 20 hours of surgery. His wife, along with their children and other family, were in the hospital room when he died. Just an hour before, they had had a private meeting with Obama at the State Department. The president praised him as "a tough son of a gun."

Holbrooke joined the Foreign Service in 1962. Vietnam loomed large in his early career. He served a tour there in the mid-1960s, including time in the Mekong Delta for USAID. In 1966, he began working on Vietnam issues in the White House under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He later wrote a portion of the Pentagon Papers -- the secret internal history of the Vietnam War that was leaked to and published by the New York Times. Holbrooke saw the Vietnam War come full circle: he was part of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks with the North Vietnamese that ended the war.

Holbrooke's career took him to all corners of a changing world. He served as director of the Peace Corps in Morocco in the early 1970s and later, under President Jimmy Carter, tackled issues in Asia as the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He served as chairman of the Asia Society from 2002 to 2009.  

During President Clinton's second term in office, Holbrooke was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Beyond his roles in the State Department, Holbrooke also served as managing editor of Foreign Policy, in leadership roles at two Wall Street banks and, prior to joining the Obama administration, as vice chairman of Perseus LLC, a private equity firm. He also served in leadership roles at a number of non-profits and authored a memoir, "To End a War," about his time in the former Yugoslavia.

Richard Holbrooke

U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen who is currently traveling overseas said in a statement, Holbrooke "never lost his sense of loyalty to country, to friends or to his family.

"He never lost time fighting for ideals he believed in. He never lost touch with the problems faced by millions of people he never knew. And he never lost hope that those same people could live in peace, security and safety. Indeed, he shared their vivid aspirations," Mullen said in a statement.

It was there that Holbrooke had some of his most dramatic moments of diplomacy and statecraft. In the mid-1990s, he served as assistant secretary of state for Europe, where he brokered peace in the Balkans, crafting the Dayton Peace Accords that ended years of brutal fighting in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama's Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dies at 69

In The Washington Post, he recalled a tense negotiation in 1995 to open the besieged city of Sarajevo with three war criminals: Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Reacting to an outburst by Karadzic, who got up to leave the negotiating table, Holbrooke told him that he could leave and make a phone call, but if he did, Holbrooke and the Americans would depart and "the bombing would intensify."

Karadzic sat back down. After 10 hours of negotiations, the siege of Sarajevo was lifted.

"Two months later," Holbrooke wrote in the Post, "the war would end at Dayton, never to resume."

Holbrooke is survived by his wife, two sons and two stepchildren.

ABC News' Kirit Radia and Jake Tapper contributed to this report. Additional reporting from The Associated Press.