Rusk, (David) Dean

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Rusk, (David) Dean

(b. 9 February 1909 in Cherokee County, Georgia; d. 20 December 1994 in Athens, Georgia), fifty-fourth secretary of state, serving from 1961 to 1969 in the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson; he was the most articulate defender of United States participation in the Vietnam War and thus became a major target of the antiwar protest movement.

Rusk, whose paternal forebears had emigrated from Northern Ireland around 1795, grew up in poverty, later often vying jocularly with Lyndon Johnson as to which of them came from the poorer household. Rusk’s mother was Elizabeth (”Fanny”) Clotfelter, whose father came from the Black Forest region of Germany and whose mother was born in Ireland, attended a normal school in Milledgeville, Georgia, and was a teacher. His father, Robert Hugh Rusk, attended Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, but did not graduate. Later he enrolled in Louisville Theological Seminary and was ordained a Presbyterian minister; however, a throat ailment prevented him pursuing a career in the pulpit. After a disastrous period as a farmer, he became a postman in order to support his family.

Rusk was the second youngest of five children. He liked to say that the name Dean, by which he preferred to be called, was taken from that of the horse which had carried to the Rusk house the doctor who delivered him. When Rusk was a young boy the family moved to Atlanta, where he graduated from Boys’ High School. He graduated magna cum laude from Davidson College in 1931. As a Rhodes scholar at Saint John’s College at Oxford University, he took a master of arts degree in 1934. This had been a formative time for the young “southern Yank,” as he would style himself, for he traveled to Germany and witnessed some of the shattering events of the 1930s, including the rise of Hitler. In Berlin in March 1933 he watched the burning of the Reichstag building by the Nazis. Returning to the United States, he taught government and the relatively new subject of international relations at Mills College in Oakland, California, from 1934 to 1940, and became dean of the faculty in 1938. At the same time he studied law at the University of California at Berkeley. Meanwhile, he was courting Virginia Wynifred Foisie of Seattle, one of his students, to whom he was married on 19 June 1937. They had three children. Although Rusk participated in the American peace movement and felt an affinity to the Quakers, he held a reserve army commission as a result of eight years of ROTC training. In December 1940 he was called to active duty as a captain. After brief service with the Thirtieth Infantry Battalion of the Third Division, he was ordered to Washington and assigned to the military intelligence branch of the army general staff, where his focus was on Asian issues. In 1943 Rusk, now a major, was sent to New Delhi, India, to join the staff of General Joseph W. Stilwell, commander of the China-Burma-India Theater. By the end of the following year Rusk had been designated deputy chief of staff for the entire theater, and was a full colonel. He remained in the army until February 1946, concluding his tour of duty in the Operations Division of the War Department General Staff in Washington, D.C. He had been awarded the Legion of Merit medal with oak leaf cluster.

In 1946 while still at the War Department, Rusk was posted briefly to the Department of State as assistant chief of the division of international security affairs. He then became special assistant to the secretary of war, Robert P. Patterson, who was immersed in postwar defense issues. At the invitation of the secretary of state General George C. Marshall, Rusk joined the Department of State in 1947 to head the Office of Special Political Affairs, commonly called “the UN desk.” Rusk regarded Marshall as “the most extraordinary man I ever knew.” From him, he learned the art of delegating authority and of relying on well-chosen staff for analysis and proposals. Under Marshall, Rusk also reinforced his belief in liberal internationalism and his obstinate faith in what the United States could provide in leadership and substance to the rest of the world. Rusk was unshakably committed to the idea that in a nuclear age, survival required absolute dependence on international law. Against some of the hardheaded “realists” in the department, Rusk remained an idealist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson. Above all, as the cold war developed, he came to believe that unless Communism was confronted with firm and active commitment, the world would once again face what he called “the sorry experience of the 1930s.” He recalled from his days at Oxford the fierce debates over how to deal with fascist aggression, and ever in his mind was the lesson that timid leadership, including especially the sellout of Czechoslovakia to Hitler at Munich in 1938, had opened the way to world war. This history would provide the framework for his view that the North Vietnamese assault on South Vietnam was a replay of a shameful story that this time must have a different ending.

On the eve of the Korean War in 1950, after a brief period as deputy undersecretary of state, Rusk became assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs. He resolutely supported the war while opposing General Douglas MacArthur’s stated fervor to expand the conflict across the Yalu River into China. The outcome of the conflict was inconclusive. In time, however, a prosperous South Korea allied to the United States offered a claim of success, and a few years later encouraged policymakers to think that the struggle in Vietnam provided a repeat opportunity. In conversation, Rusk himself would occasionally say “Korea” when he meant “Vietnam.”

Rusk became president of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1952, calling it “the best job in America.” While sympathetic to a variety of creative proposals, he aimed especially to direct funds to third world countries, which he considered to constitute “a time bomb for the whole human race.” He remained at the foundation until President John F. Kennedy appointed him secretary of state in 1961. Kennedy did not know Rusk before naming him but was taken by his reserved, gentlemanly manner. Kennedy acted upon Dean Acheson’s strong recommendation of Rusk for the post. The president had also concluded that he would aim to unofficially be his own secretary of state anyhow.

During his earlier service at the Department of State, Rusk’s peers had known him as a splendid administrator, a remarkably deft explainer of policy, and a man able to testify brilliantly before congressional committees. Rusk was also somewhat of a loner who, in discussion, showed a unique ability to give people the impression that he agreed with them, even as he kept his counsel, reluctant to show his own hand. It would infuriate Rusk later when the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a member of the Kennedy administration, described Rusk as sitting at policy meetings silent “like a Buddha.” Kennedy and Rusk came to work together harmoniously, although they were never close. The president relied for advice more on his special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, who carefully avoided seeming to usurp Rusk’s authority.

The first great crisis of the administration was the disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961 by Cuban exiles backed by the United States. Rusk later said that even though he publicly supported the undertaking out of loyalty to the new president, in advising him privately he opposed it. Playing the good soldier, he restrained himself from afterwards making this fact public. Later that year he earned Kennedy’s respectful admiration as a negotiator by helping defuse the Berlin crisis created when the Soviet Union, in a tense showdown between the president and Nikita Khrushchev, aimed to limit Western access to the former German capital by erecting what would become the infamous Berlin Wall, cutting off the western and eastern portions of the city from each other.

In the even graver crisis in the fall of 1962, when the installation by the Soviet Union of missiles in Cuba appeared to threaten a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers, Rusk did not provide the leadership expected of him. In the deliberations of ExCom (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), the ad hoc group of advisers that Kennedy assembled to counsel him in that moment of agonizing decision, Rusk appeared notably passive. To the dismay of some of those present, including Dean Acheson, Rusk refused to commit himself as to the course of action he favored, and was absent from some of the meetings—possibly to convey to the public that the State Department was in a business-as-usual mode.

Rusk later insisted that his place was to weigh all options before taking a stand, or, as he further explained, to “hold himself in reserve” before making a recommendation. It is noteworthy that the president never expressed dissatisfaction to Rusk over his performance. In the end, Rusk supported the proposal of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara to put a partial naval blockade around Cuba. When the emergency was resolved on 28 October 1962, even as the nation and the world held its breath, Rusk whispered words to his confreres that earned him a place in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: “We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.” Subsequently, Rusk helped to bring about the partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

The accession of Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency in 1963 significantly changed Rusk’s role. Johnson liked and admired Rusk both as a fellow southerner and as a loyal servant; the two had a warm and trusting relationship. Both had felt like outsiders in Kennedy’s brief era, and often were treated as such. Kennedy was known to be displeased with Rusk’s administration of the State Department and was said to be planning to replace him in a second term. Rusk, for his part, had been uncomfortable with Kennedy’s style of governing. Kennedy, he said, “sought ideas from any source,” so that cabinet meetings were “seminar-like discussions.” On the other hand, Rusk was pleased to note, Johnson relied “on the statutory responsibility of cabinet officers.” Leaning heavily on each other for support as the American involvement in Vietnam—begun under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and expanded under President Kennedy—became full-fledged war in the summer of 1965, Johnson and Rusk defended the American effort unequivocally.

Although Johnson privately had misgivings about the war almost from the beginning of his presidency, Rusk never wavered in his position, private and public, that the waging of the war was indispensable to America’s future. Memorably, he made this argument in February 1966 before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations chaired by Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who had broken with the administration on the Vietnam issue and become one of the most vocal critics of the war. Rusk’s contention was that the United States was obligated under the Southeast Asia Treaty to be fighting in Vietnam. “When you go into an alliance,” he argued, “you have to mean it.” At risk, he said, was not only the word of the United States, which must remain inviolable, but also the grim possibility of a larger and wider war with China or the Soviet Union. At the weekly Tuesday lunches that Johnson held in the private quarters of the White House with his chief aides—now often known as the Tuesday Cabinet—where Vietnam strategy was planned and sometimes even bombing targets were designated, Rusk was a powerful presence.

The president’s gratitude to Rusk was unbounded. But Rusk became a leading target of the antiwar protests that erupted on college campuses and elsewhere around the country. By the end of Johnson’s time in the White House, Rusk was a reviled symbol of the debacle in Vietnam and he hardly ever left Washington, lest he stir up violent demonstrations. Rusk would say, though, that as a government official he had always been treated respectfully wherever he went, and had even autographed a protester’s placard reading “Rusk, go home.” As the war increasingly offended people everywhere, Rusk’s loyalty to Johnson remained unflinching. When it was time to end the war, far short of America’s stated goal of establishing a non-Communist South Vietnam, it was Rusk who helped maneuver the president to opt for an end to the bombing of North Vietnam, which opened the way at last to negotiations ending the combat. Rusk never wavered in his conviction that the principles for which the war was fought were right, and he would in the end declare: “There is nothing I can say now that would diminish my share of responsibility. I live with that, and others can make of it what they will.”

When Rusk left Washington in 1969 as the Republicans and President Richard Nixon took on the Vietnam issue, the former secretary was physically and mentally exhausted. Stomach pains that had beset him since 1965 persisted, and he was clinically depressed. He accepted a position as Sibley Professor of International Law at the University of Georgia, although there was considerable opposition to his appointment. Thus, he was teaching once again—this time a few miles from where he was born. When students addressed him as “Mr. Secretary,” he turned them aside, saying he was simply “Professor.” He retired in 1984.

Rusk stood six feet, one inch tall and weighed 200 pounds. He was a courtly, gracious, and unpretentious man whose broad, bald head was made to order for political cartoonists. His ideals and demeanor had been formed as a boy when he read books in the Rover Boys series and “rags-to-riches” stories. His personal integrity was beyond question and he regarded his word as his bond. As a public servant, his dedication and devotion to duty were legendary. He remains respected for having been a powerful voice of the free world in its long “twilight struggle” with the Soviet Union. If in the end this cold warrior became for a time a political pariah because of his support of the Vietnam War, his democratic liberalism remained undamaged. As a soldier he had earnestly participated in the effort to end segregation in the military and when he lived in suburban Scarsdale, New York, during his time with the Rockefeller Foundation, he refused to join the town’s most prominent country club because its membership was closed to African Americans and Jews. In his days at the University of Georgia, he took a leading role in the Black Students Alliance, serving as its faculty adviser.

In retirement his health gradually declined, and he died of congestive heart failure with his family around him. After services at the Athens First Presbyterian Church he was buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens.

The Dean Rusk collections at the University of Georgia library in Athens, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, contain documents on Rusk’s career and oral histories provided by Rusk himself and some of his contemporaries. Rusk’s speeches, press conferences, and television appearances are contained in successive volumes of the Department of State Bulletin. Some of his early addresses are reprinted in Ernest K. Lindley, ed., The Winds of Freedom (1963). Rusk’s autobiographical account (as told to Richard Rusk), As I Saw It (1990), edited by Daniel S. Papp, is especially rich on Rusk’s early life and career. Three books tell the story of his public life: Warren I. Cohen, Dean Rusk (1980); Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Waging War and Peace: Dean Rusk in the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson Years (1988); and Thomas W. Zeiler, Dean Rusk: Defending the American Mission Abroad (2000). Cohen is somewhat more critical of Rusk’s handling of the Vietnam War than is Schoenbaum. Zeiler offers the advantage of a post—cold war perspective. Important collateral books are Henry F. Graff, The Tuesday Cabinet: Deliberation and Decision on Peace and War Under Lyndon B. Johnson (1970), based on extensive extemporaneous conversations between the author and the president’s principal advisers, including Rusk, and two classics on the war itself: George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (3d ed., 1996), and Robert D. Schulzinger, A Time for War, The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975 (1997). The best censorious account of the Johnson-Rusk policies is Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (1995). More sympathetic is Frank E. Vandiver, Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson’s Wars (1997). Robert S. McNamara, with Brian VanDeMark, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (1995), tries—with more than a little mea culpa by the former secretary of defense—to explain what went wrong in the making of policy. On the missile crisis, the best source is Robert A. Divine, ed., The Cuban Missile Crisis (second edition, 1988). But to see the Soviet viewpoint, consult James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (1990). Indispensable are the transcribed proceedings of ExCom meetings in Ernest D. May and Philip D. Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, although the glaring inaccuracy of some of the important transcriptions is pointed out in Sheldon M. Stern, “What JFK Really Said,” Atlantic Monthly (May 2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Dec. 1994).

Henry F. Graff