Born February 9, 1909
Cherokee County, Georgia
Died December 20, 1994
U.S. secretary of state, 1961–69
As U.S. secretary of state from 1961 to 1969, Dean Rusk was one of America's major Vietnam War policy makers. Rusk supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam because he viewed the conflict as an important test of America's determination to contain communism around the world. As the war's popularity diminished, though, Rusk's steady defense of U.S. actions in Vietnam made him a controversial figure. After leaving public life in 1969, he continued to consider the American effort in Vietnam to have been honorable and right.
Escapes poverty through education
David Dean Rusk was born in February 1909 in Cherokee County, Georgia. His parents were Frances (Clotfelter) Rusk, a schoolteacher, and Robert Rusk, who worked as a farmer and postal worker after throat problems forced him to retire from the ministry. Rusk's parents struggled to provide their five children with clothing and shelter, but they taught their children to value education as a tool that could lift them out of poverty.
Rusk took this message to heart. After completing high school in Atlanta in 1926, he used saved earnings and scholarship assistance to enroll at North Carolina's Davidson College. Rusk excelled in his course work at Davidson, where he also joined the country's Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC) program. He graduated from Davidson with honors in 1931. He then received a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which enabled him to earn a master's degree in international relations from Oxford University in England in 1934.
In 1934 Rusk returned to the United States and accepted a faculty position with Mills College in California. Three years later, he joined the faculty of the University of California. That same year, he married Virginia Foisie, with whom he eventually had three children.
Military service brings new opportunities
In December 1940 Rusk was drafted into military service by the U.S. Army. An eight-year member of the ROTC, he was initially made an infantry captain. As World War II (1939–45) progressed, though, Rusk was transferred to posts that took greater advantage of his abilities as an administrator and analyst. From 1941 to 1943, he worked in Army Intelligence in Washington, D.C. He was then transferred to India, where he became an important member of General Joseph Stilwell's staff.
By the time Rusk was discharged from military service in 1946, he had gained a considerable reputation as a dedicated and talented administrator. He spent the next several years moving up through the diplomatic ranks in both the State Department and the War Department (now known as the Department of Defense). During this period, he emerged as an important voice on such issues as the Korean War, United Nations policies, and other international affairs. In addition, he became a recognized expert on European-Asian relations. Rusk was sympathetic to Asian peoples who wanted to be free of European colonialism, and he played an important part in President Harry Truman's decision to support Indonesian independence in 1949. Finally, Rusk became known during this period as a firm anti-Communist who believed that the United States should take the lead in defending the world from Communist aggression.
In 1952 Rusk left the State Department to accept the presidency of the Rockefeller Foundation, a charitable trust. He led the foundation for the next eight years, overseeing a variety of health, education, and economic programs within underdeveloped and impoverished countries. During this time, his reputation as one of the United States' leading foreign policy experts continued to grow.
Joins President Kennedy's cabinet
In 1960 John F. Kennedy (see entry) won election to succeed Dwight Eisenhower as president of the United States. As Kennedy prepared to take office in January 1961, he asked Rusk to join his administration as secretary of state. Rusk gladly accepted the invitation, which made him one of the nation's most powerful foreign policy makers.
After joining the Kennedy White House, Rusk once again proved his skills as a manager and administrator. In addition, he advised Kennedy on a host of major foreign policy issues, including the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. (This was a dangerous episode in which the United States and the Soviet Union moved to the brink of war after the U.S. discovered that Soviet missiles capable of showering nuclear warheads on many American cities had been installed in Cuba. The crisis passed only after the Soviets agreed to remove the missile threat in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Communist Cuba). But Kennedy became frustrated with Rusk's cautious style, and as time passed it became clear that the president placed greater value on the counsel of some other cabinet members, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy (see entry), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (see entry), and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (see entry).
Rusk's visibility and influence increased during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (see entry), who succeeded Kennedy after he was assassinated in November 1963. Rusk's steadiness, loyalty, and Southern background appealed to Johnson, a Texan. As a result, the secretary of state soon emerged as one of the Johnson administration's primary architects of U.S. policy toward the troubled nation of South Vietnam.
South Vietnam had been formed in 1954, after Vietnamese fighters known as Viet Minh had forced France to give up its colonial claims on the nation. But the Geneva Accords that ended the French-Vietnamese conflict created two countries within Vietnam. North Vietnam was headed by a Communist government under the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (see entry). South Vietnam, meanwhile, was led by a U.S.-supported government under President Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry).
The Geneva Accords provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 so that the two sections of Vietnam could be united under one government. But U.S. and South Vietnamese officials refused to hold the elections because they feared that the results would give the Communists control over the entire country. This decision greatly angered North Vietnam's leadership, which responded by launching a guerrilla war against the South with the help of Communist allies in the South known as the Viet Cong. The Communists started this campaign with the aim of eventually reuniting the country by force. The United States, however, fiercely opposed the Communist political philosophy. It sent military and financial aid to South Vietnam to help the country defend itself from the Viet Cong and their partners in the North.
Rusk and Vietnam
Rusk viewed the Vietnam War as an important test of America's determination to contain communism and maintain its position as the world's leading democracy. In fact, he warned that if the United States broke its commitment to defend South Vietnam from its Communist neighbors, China or Russia might invade other countries in the belief that America would not intervene. He thought that such an invasion might then trigger a nuclear war between the United States and either China or Russia.
This belief led Rusk to support more aggressive U.S. military policies toward Vietnam in the mid-1960s, when it appeared that the South was in danger of falling to the Communists. He abandoned his previous opposition to using American troops in the conflict and joined McNamara in advocating a military strategy of gradual escalation toward North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Persuaded by this advice, Johnson committed large numbers of American troops to the South's defense. He also launched bombing campaigns and other new operations against the North. Before long, the United States had assumed primary responsibility for defeating the Communists in Vietnam.
From 1965 to 1969, Rusk carried out Johnson's instructions regarding the Vietnam War. But deepening U.S. military commitments failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the war dragged on with no end in sight, and the American public became bitterly divided about continued U.S. involvement in the conflict. As one of the Johnson administration's major architects of Vietnam policy, Rusk became a frequent target of the American antiwar movement and political leaders who opposed U.S. involvement. But Rusk never wavered in his defense of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. "We believe that the South Vietnamese are entitled to a chance to make their own decisions about their own affairs and their own future course of policy . . . without having them imposed on them by force from North Vietnam or from the outside," he declared in one 1965 appearance before a Senate foreign relations committee.
In fact, Rusk eventually became one of the administration's leading spokesmen on the war effort. He even offered strong public defenses of policies he privately disagreed with, such as Johnson's decision to bomb cities in North Vietnam. "In innumerable congressional hearings and press conferences, Rusk expressed his certainty that an unconditional American withdrawal would be a fatal sign that the United States had lost its resolve to combat communism," pointed out the editors of The Cold War, 1945–1991. "He frequently acknowledged that there may have been flaws in this or that aspect of American policy, but he never waved in his support of the overall strategy the Johnson administration pursued."
By the late 1960s Rusk's pro-war statements had transformed him into a favorite target of the antiwar movement. In fact, large antiwar demonstrations and protests became commonplace whenever the secretary made a public appearance. Around this same time, Rusk's son Richard publicly condemned him for his role in continuing an "immoral" war. These developments led Rusk to curtail his public appearances dramatically in the last year or so of his tenure.
Rusk retired from public life in 1969, when Richard Nixon (see entry) became president and established a new Republican administration to run the country. By the time he departed, Rusk had served as secretary of state for eight years, the second-longest stint in that office in American history. But despite his years of service and his widely acknowledged skills in managing the affairs of the State Department, he left the U.S. government as a deeply controversial figure whose name triggered strong negative reactions in many Americans. "Inevitably, he will be remembered as the man who defended the long and unpopular war in Vietnam," wrote Warren Cohen in Dean Rusk.
In 1970 Rusk joined the faculty of the University of Georgia at Athens, where he taught international law for more than two decades. He also reconciled with his son Richard, and the two worked together to produce Rusk's memoir As I Saw It (1990). In this memoir and in other remarks, Rusk remained steadfast in his belief that American military intervention in Vietnam was just and necessary. "I have not apologized from my role in Vietnam," he wrote in As I Saw It, "for the simple reason that I believe in the principles that underlay our commitment to South Vietnam and why we fought that war."
Cohen, Warren I. Dean Rusk. Totowa, NJ: Cooper Square, 1980.
Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.
Johnson, Lyndon B. The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency, 1963–1969. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
Rusk, Dean, as told to Richard Rusk. As I Saw It. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Schoenbaum, Thomas J. Waging Peace and War: Dean Rusk in the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson Years. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Rusk Defends American Policies in Vietnam
As American involvement in the Vietnam War deepened in the mid-1960s, Secretary of State Dean Rusk became a leading defender of the Johnson administration's war policies. In February 1966 he testified before the U.S. Senate that America's position toward North Vietnam was actually quite reasonable:
"We are not asking anything from Hanoi except to stop shooting their neighbors in Laos and South Vietnam," he declared. "We are not asking them to give up an acre of territory. We are not asking them to surrender a single individual, nor to change the form of government. All we are asking them to do is to stop sending armed men and arms, contrary to specific agreements and contrary to international law, into South Vietnam for the purpose of shooting somebody. . . . We are not asking them to surrender a thing except their appetite to take over South Vietnam by force."