Vance succumbed shortly after 4 p.m. EST to pneumonia and other health problems at Mount Sinai Medical Center Saturday in New York, a hospital spokesperson told United Press International.
"America depended on Cy Vance," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday night.
Vance "laid aside his private career to serve three presidents," he continued. "He was a man of principle, whose quiet contributions were often the difference between success and failure, as at the historic Camp David Conference of 1979."
Vance, as President Jimmy Carter's secretary of state, had the task of dealing with the hostage crisis in Iran, and resigned in protest against the idea of a commando raid to liberate the captive Americans by force instead of through negotiation.
Ultimately the mission failed but he had intended to go whether or not it succeeded, as Carter appeared to pay increasingly more attention to the advice of national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
But Vance, a respected international lawyer, was called back into duty in later years several times by other presidents as envoy and negotiator, at one point heading the United Nation's effort to negotiate an end to violence after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early '90s.
It was on April 24, 1980, that eight American commandos died in the desert east of Tehran when one of their helicopters collided with a transport plane as they prepared a secret flight aimed at snatching 52 remaining hostages from the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital.
Vance submitted his resignation four days later, saying rescue of the hostages could be accomplished only through diplomatic efforts backed by political and economic sanctions.
Vance was succeeded a day later by Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine).
The hostages remained captive until Jan. 20, 1981, President Reagan's inauguration day.
Through his tenure at the State Department Vance presented a contrast in styles from that of his predecessor Henry Kissinger. After being confirmed, he said he would not rely on Kissinger's frenetic shuttle diplomacy.
Where Kissinger thought in terms of long-term global strategy, Vance made it clear that he felt his job was to assemble solutions case by case to international problems as they revealed themselves.
Vance was born March 27, 1917, in Clarksburg, W. Va., and was educated at Yale University, where he graduated in 1939. He earned a doctorate in law from Yale in 1942.
He entered the Navy that year as a midshipman and and rose to lieutenant, serving in the Pacific.
Vance between 1957 and 1960 was a consulting counsel to the Preparedness Investigation subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. After serving as special counsel to the Department of Defense in 1961-62, he became secretary of the army in 1962 and secretary of defense in 1964.
In 1967 Vance became a special presidential representative in the Cyprus crisis, shifting his focus to Korea the following year. He was the U.S. negotiator at the Paris peace conference on Vietnam in 1968-69.
Vance, who became secretary of state in 1977, married Grace Elsie Sloane in 1947 and had four daughters and a son.