The president described Holbrooke, who died Dec. 12 after collapsing during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as a "leading light in the generation of diplomats who came of age in Vietnam." He said Holbrooke's experience in Vietnam taught him both the limits and possibilities of U.S. power.
The memorial was held in the Kennedy Center. Obama said it was appropriate because President John F. Kennedy's "call to service" inspired Holbrooke to join the Foreign Service after he graduated from Brown University in 1962.
Obama announced an annual Richard C. Holbrooke Award for excellence in diplomacy.
Those at the memorial included Vice President Joe Biden, Clinton and her husband, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, The Washington Post reported. Holbrooke's last post was as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Former ABC News correspondent Kati Marton, Holbrooke's wife, said she learned from him that "a life of meaning is more important than a life of ease." His son, Anthony Holbrooke, said he understands now that when his father was missing during his childhood "thousands of lives were saved."
The president detailed Holbrooke's career and his qualities as a diplomat. He also celebrated him as a human being.
"Like the country he served, Richard contained complexities," Obama said.
"So full of life, he was a man both confident in himself and curious about others, alive to the world around him."