Dean Rusk Dies; Vietnam War-Era Secretary of State
Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who rose from the poverty of a tiny tenant farm in Georgia to the heights of American diplomacy only to come under savage attack for his role in the Vietnam War, has died at the age of 85.
The University of Georgia, where Rusk had taught international law since 1970, announced Wednesday that Rusk died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure at his home in Athens. His wife, Virginia, and other members of the family were at his side.
Rusk, a man of impressive intellect and a skilled negotiator, was selected by President John F. Kennedy as his chief Cabinet officer after only one meeting and one interview. He held the post under two presidents through eight turbulent years that encompassed the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the signing of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the Soviet Union and the Vietnam War.
As preparation for the foreign policy job, Rusk could cite his previous nine years as president of the Rockefeller Foundation and various high State Department posts. He also had some influential boosters, including Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Harry S. Truman.
Rusk, who was 51 at the time, took office as the nation’s 54th secretary of state Jan. 20, 1961. Despite criticism in later years from anti-war protesters, as well as financial problems, he held the post until Jan. 20, 1969, when Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, left office.
And in the ensuing years Rusk never wavered in his position on Vietnam.
“I have been offered occasional opportunities to present a mea culpa on Vietnam but I have not done so,” he said in an interview with The Times on Oct. 20, 1982. “There is nothing that I can say now that would change in any way my share of responsibilities for the events of those years. I thought at the time that the key decisions made by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were right. They are not here to speak for themselves so I will live with it. . . . I accept and live with my share of the responsibilities.”
Some of Kennedy’s White House advisers were critical of Rusk, calling him too cautious and bland. “His mind, for all its strength and clarity, was irrevocably conventional,” Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a White House special assistant, wrote in his book on the Kennedy Administration. Rusk “was a superb technician: This was his power and his problem. He had trained himself all his life to be the ideal chief of staff, the perfect No. 2 man.”
Despite such condescension among his staff, Kennedy developed a high regard for Rusk’s intelligence and intense loyalty, although relations between the two tended to be formal. Rusk was the only Cabinet officer Kennedy did not address by his first name. It was always “Mr. Secretary.” And even Kennedy was sometimes put off by Rusk’s innate caution.
“The gentle, gracious Rusk . . . deferred almost too amiably to White House initiatives and interference,” Kennedy’s top aide, Theodore C. Sorensen, wrote in his history of the Kennedy presidency.
Kennedy could have avoided one of his major blunders had he listened to Rusk’s words of caution early in the Administration. Rusk had deep reservations about the CIA-sponsored project Kennedy inherited from President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-Communist Cuban exiles.
Rusk told Kennedy that he doubted that the Cuban people would rise up in support of the invasion as the CIA predicted. But advocates of the project were more forceful and Kennedy approved the ill-fated mission in April, 1961.
“I did not protest hard enough,” Rusk said in the interview with The Times in his modest office on the University of Georgia campus.
“I think I served President Kennedy badly in that matter by not insisting that he ask our Joint Chiefs of Staff how they would handle it (the Cuban invasion) with American forces,” Rusk said. “Well, the Joint Chiefs would have come in with a plan involving sustained and large-scale preliminary bombing--not less than two divisions to make the initial landing and a major follow-up with Army, Navy, Marines, air power and the rest of it.
“And when Kennedy got a chance to look at their bill for this operation, it would have been apparent to him that this little (Cuban exile) brigade didn’t have the chance of a snowball in hell.”
Despite his doubts about the Bay of Pigs operation, Rusk was dedicated to the containment of communism.
Just as Rusk and many of his contemporaries believed that appeasement of Adolf Hitler led to World War II, so Rusk was convinced that communism should not be allowed to spread.
“My generation was led into the catastrophe of World War II, which could have been prevented,” Rusk said in The Times interview. “We came out of that war thinking that collective security was the key to the prevention of World War III.”
Warren I. Cohen, Rusk’s biographer, put it this way:
“He had concluded that the United States had a responsibility to counter Communist imperialism wherever possible to preserve the opportunity of all free peoples to choose democracy.”
Nevertheless, Rusk initially was reluctant about sending U.S. troops to South Vietnam when Communist activity increased there in mid-1961.
Instead, Rusk favored sending more U.S. military advisers to help improve the performance of the Saigon government’s army. When that modest effort failed, Rusk went along with other Kennedy advisers who insisted that the cause could not be abandoned.
Even more so than Kennedy, President Johnson valued Rusk’s great loyalty. Whatever doubts Rusk may have harbored about the wisdom of committing U.S. combat forces to South Vietnam in 1965, once the presidential decision was made he supported it fully.
In the earlier days of the war, long before President Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China in 1972, Rusk held that Communist China was as much a menace to world peace as the Soviet Union and that China sought domination of all of Southeast Asia.
At a press conference in 1967, when asked why the security of the United States was at stake in Vietnam, Rusk said:
“Within the next decade or two, there will be a billion Chinese on the mainland, armed with nuclear weapons, with no certainty about what their attitude toward the rest of Asia will be.”
Rusk’s critics pounced on his remarks as evidence that the Johnson Administration was trying to revive 19th-Century fears of a “yellow peril” as justification for its Vietnam role.
Both Rusk and Johnson vehemently denied the charge and the flap soon subsided. But Rusk, increasingly annoyed with his critics, continued his adamant defense of the U.S. role even when some other presidential advisers were turning sour on the war.
For this, Johnson always was grateful. He once called his secretary of state “one of the greatest in our history” and in a note to Rusk’s wife shortly before his presidency ended, Johnson wrote: “The man who has served me most intelligently, faithfully and nobly is Dean Rusk.”
Johnson’s widow, Lady Bird, said Wednesday that Rusk “was one of the greatest men of my lifetime and one of my dearest friends.”
Rusk paid a high price for his loyalty and his convictions. Because of the war, he became the target of scorn and abuse in liberal-dominated academia, where his own career had begun. It reached the point where he could venture onto a college campus only at the risk of physical harm.
A man of modest means, Rusk existed on his Cabinet salary of $35,000 a year during his government service. He was broke when he left office, and it was almost a year before he found an acceptable job--at the University of Georgia Law School.
Rusk’s appearance belied the “warmonger” label his enemies tried to pin on him. A tall, heavily built man with a pleasant round face, he had a balding head with a fringe of hair that gave him something of the look of a tonsured monk or a benign Buddha. He once described himself as resembling “the friendly neighborhood bartender.”
He smiled easily and his politeness was legendary, even in the face of angry and badgering questions by hostile congressional committees.
Chain-smoking all the while, Rusk once spent more than 11 hours over two days sparring with war critics at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He did not yield an inch, nor did he once lose his composure. In the end, his foes gave up in frustration.
“There are times when a secretary of state has to say nothing at great length,” Rusk said in the 1982 interview.
Rusk’s fluency also was legendary. He could talk for hours without a grammatical mistake, without groping for a word. One of his most impressive performances was in 1963 when he testified before a Senate committee on behalf of President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. His two-hour presentation was so eloquent that spectators ignored Senate rules and applauded when he finished testifying.
Rusk had a talent for the colorful phrase. It was he who said at the height of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis: “We’re eyeball to eyeball--and I think the other fellow just blinked.”
Once when discussing the difficulty in getting Vietnam peace negotiations started, he said, “We want to talk but the other side won’t pick up the phone.”
David Dean Rusk was born on a poor, 40-acre rented farm in Cherokee County, Ga., on Feb. 9, 1909. His father, Robert Hugh Rusk, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but a throat ailment forced him to leave the ministry for farming.
The family moved to Atlanta in 1913 and Rusk attended public schools there. In high school and later at Davidson College in North Carolina, he compiled an outstanding record as a student, as an athlete and as a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. In his senior year at Davidson, he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship which enabled him to attend Oxford university for three years.
Rusk returned to the United States from England in 1934 at the height of the Depression and had the good fortune to be hired by Aurelia Reinhart, president of Mills College in Oakland, Calif. At Mills, Rusk taught government and international relations and became dean of the faculty.
Rusk was married in 1937 to one of his students, Virginia Foisie of Seattle. They subsequently had three children.
In World War II, Rusk, an Army captain, became deputy chief of staff to Gen. Joseph W. (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell in the China-Burma-India theater.
In 1947, Rusk joined the State Department, then headed by George C. Marshall, whom Rusk revered for the rest of his life as a role model. Rusk later became a top aide to Marshall’s successor, Acheson.
In 1967, there occurred one of those paradoxes in the life of Rusk, the Georgia-born liberal who was vilified by many liberals for his Vietnam role.
His only daughter, Margaret Elizabeth, an 18-year-old sophomore at Stanford, was married to a black Army Reserve officer, Guy Gibson Smith, 22, of Washington.
Amid tight security against possible anti-war protests, Rusk and his wife attended the wedding at the Stanford Chapel and Rusk escorted his daughter to the altar. He later pronounced himself “very pleased.”
Rusk reportedly offered to resign from the Cabinet if President Johnson thought the marriage might damage him politically, but Johnson apparently was unconcerned.
However, the marriage was cited by segregationists when Rusk was being considered for the teaching job at the University of Georgia late in 1969. The university’s Board of Trustees overrode the protests and awarded him the $45,000-a-year position, and Rusk held it until his death.
In adhering to his Vietnam policy, Rusk declared that U.S. forces in Vietnam could have won the war if they had not lost the support of the American people.
“I underestimated the tenacity of the North Vietnamese and I overestimated the patience of the American people,” Rusk said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Rusk is survived by two sons, David of Washington and Richard of Bishop, Ga.; and six grandchildren.