The Tet Offensive and the Media
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Dean Rusk

U.S. State Department official, later secretary of state. Born into a modest household in Cherokee County, Georgia on February 9, 1909, David Dean Rusk attended Davidson College in North Carolina and, after graduating in 1931, became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He studied and later taught government and international relations at Mills College between 1934 and 1940. Rusk also briefly attended the University of Berlin in 1933. While there, he witnessed Adolf Hitler's rise to power, which had a profound impact on his life and worldview. Later he equated Communist aggression in Europe and Asia with Nazi expansion in Europe. The timid response to Hitler by the Western democracies at the 1938 Munich Conference appalled him. Rusk later advocated meeting Communist expansion with strength.

A strong military heritage and experience in Asian affairs also affected Rusk's outlook. Both his grandfathers had served in the Confederate Army, and Rusk followed the military tradition by joining the Reserve Officers Training Corps in high school and college, where he served as a cadet commander. During World War II Rusk was chief of war plans for General Joseph Stilwell in the China-Burma-India theater. In 1945 he accepted a position with the Pentagon, where, working in the operations division, he and Charles H. Bonesteel III were largely responsible for the United States position promoting the 38th parallel as the line dividing Korea between U.S. and USSR occupation forces.

After the war Rusk left the Pentagon and joined the Department of State. He first worked for Secretary of State George C. Marshall, whom Rusk greatly admired. In 1947 Rusk became the State Department's director of special political affairs and then deputy secretary of state in 1949. In 1949 and 1950 the State Department fell under tremendous scrutiny. The "loss" of China and the conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury led conservative critics and Senator Joseph McCarthy to attack the State Department. Rusk had little role in developing President Harry S. Truman's China policy, working instead on United Nations affairs. In 1950, however, he became assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, volunteering for what was arguably the most difficult job at the State Department.

In May 1949 Rusk worried about U.S. policy in South Korea. He believed that the United States had an "implied commitment" to the South, and he fretted over President Truman's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea. Rusk also became an advocate of the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), saying in 1950 that although the Syngman Rhee government was not democratic it was progressing in that direction. Moreover, Rusk believed that ROK military forces could repel an "unlikely" attack from the North.

When word came that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) had invaded the South, Rusk and Secretary of State Dean Acheson closely monitored the situation for the rest of the night. At 3:00 A.M. on June 25, Rusk and Acheson formally requested a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. For the rest of the morning Rusk worked with Acheson in forming policy options for President Truman.

During two days of meetings at the Blair House, Rusk was heavily involved in planning the response to the DPRK attack. Drawing on lessons he learned from World War II, Rusk believed that the United States had to act to defend the ROK. He also insisted the matter be taken to the United Nations. With the successful U.S. Inchon landing and the liberation of the South, Rusk and the State Department were confronted with the decision of whether to cross the 38th parallel. Some at the State Department worried that not crossing the 38th parallel would leave open the possibility of a future attack from the North. Others believed that the aggressor nation should be punished. Many feared, however, that crossing the 38th parallel and trying to liberate the North would mean a wider war with China and/or the Soviet Union. Beijing had warned that China would fight if U.S. forces invaded the North. Nonetheless, Rusk supported the decision to cross the 38th parallel and advocated the liberation of all Korea. Rusk did not seek a wider war but believed that Chinese military intervention was only a remote possibility.

United Nations commander General Douglas MacArthur also did not believe that China or the Soviet Union would intervene. During a meeting with Truman at Wake Island in October 1950, MacArthur told the president that there was "very little" chance that Soviet or Chinese forces would join the fray. In the midst of MacArthur's assessment, Rusk handed Truman a note in which he urged the president not to risk a wider war with either the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China. Rusk strongly supported Truman's decision to fire MacArthur over the general's insubordination.

Before leaving government in 1952, Rusk held primary responsibility for shaping the peace treaty with Japan, working closely with future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In 1952 Rusk became president of the Rockefeller Foundation. He returned to government in 1961 as secretary of state in the Kennedy administration and remained in that capacity under President Lyndon Johnson.

Under Johnson, he took a much more active role. He quickly became one of Johnson's most trusted advisors. As antiwar sentiment intensified, many of Johnson's advisors, such as Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford, began to mirror the public's exasperation. Rusk steadfastly supported Johnson's position. He backed Pentagon calls for larger troop commitments to Southeast Asia and the bombing of North Vietnam. He urged Johnson to stay the course, despite mounting pressure to end U.S. involvement in the war. Rusk did not, as is often suggested, oppose negotiations with Hanoi. He constantly warned against the appearance of weakness in the face of Communist aggression, but in 1967 suggested that Johnson pursue negotiations. Rusk left office in 1969 when the Republican administration of Richard Nixon took office.

Throughout his career, Rusk displayed marked ability and an intense loyalty to his superiors. Though admirable, his loyalty proved damaging as, with the exception of Johnson, no other political figure became more closely associated with America's failure in Vietnam than Rusk. He was also an outsider. A southerner among Ivy League easterners, he never fell in with the "Wise Men." Rusk also found himself an outcast. Shunned by more prestigious academic institutions, he eventually accepted a position at the University of Georgia, where he taught international law until his retirement in 1984. His memoir, As I Saw It, was published in 1990 to much less hoopla than Robert McNamara's subsequent effort. Rusk died at his home in Athens, Georgia, on December 20, 1994.

Mark A. T. Esposito and David Coffey


Further Reading
Cohen, Warren I. Dean Rusk. Totowa, NJ: Cooper Square, 1980.; Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.; Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made; Acheson, Bohlen, Harriman, Kennan, Lovett, McCloy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.; Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Press, 1983.; Rusk, Dean. As I Saw It. Edited by Daniel S. Papp. 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.
 

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