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Dean Rusk — A “Silent Buddha” Amidst Chaos

Dean Rusk served as Secretary of State for eight controversial years, from 1961 through 1969, when public discomfort over his daughter’s interracial marriage prompted him to offer his resignation. (LBJ refused to accept it.) He ended up serving through the end of Johnson’s term. Born February 9, 1909, David Dean Rusk spent his early years in Cherokee County, Georgia, but relocated to North Carolina to study at Davidson College. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Rusk studied in England as a Rhodes Scholar at St. John’s College, Oxford. Following a few years as a staff officer in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II and a brief stint in the War Department, Rusk joined the Department of State in February 1945.

Secretary Rusk’s term extended through the darkest days of the Cold War and included such conflicts and crises as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, the Six-Day War and the Biafra famine. Remembered by his Special Assistant, Emory C. Swank, as “even-tempered, considerate, and kind….with natural reserve and reticence and no fondness for small talk” and by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s as Buddha-like in ”A Thousand Days,” Dean Rusk was an interesting antithesis to the violent and unpredictable times in which he lived. Both valued and condemned for his reticence and equanimity, Secretary Rusk directed his skills at cementing compromises and avoiding the type of diplomatic fiasco which would trigger nuclear warfare. In this interview with Paige E. Mulhollan beginning back in July 1969, Mr. Rusk interprets his time in office, highlighting his respect for President Lyndon B. Johnson, his opinions on various regions and his predictions for the future.

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LBJ and Vietnam –“We did not create a war psychology in the United States”

Q: Suppose we begin with just a general question–the type of man that you found President Lyndon Johnson to be.

RUSK: To begin with, he had an all-consuming commitment to his job as President. He had become President through the great tragedy of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it was as though he felt that since he had not been the first choice for President, he was going to do everything that he possibly could to be a good President and to be a great President. He worked late at night, he worked early mornings, he took his evening reading to his bedside with him, and that kept him up frequently most of the time until one or two o’clock in the night. He would wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning and call the Operations Room of the Department or the White House to see how things were going in Vietnam….

[A]s far as Vietnam is concerned, President Johnson was his own desk officer. He was actually the Commander-in-Chief…. [T]here were times when the President would simply look around the room and say, “Now, gentlemen, I’m not going to do this so just don’t fret me about this, because I’m not going to do it.”

Q: Why do you think that Mr. Johnson never allowed his subordinates to really go out and sell the Vietnam policy?

RUSK:  Oh, I don’t think that he imposed limitations on us in that regard. I made more speeches than any Secretary of State….What we did not do was to take steps to create a war psychology in the United States. Now, that was an important decision. It was not made all at once, but it was a matter that we talked about on a number of occasions. We did not lay on big military parades. We did not put on big bond drives or [have] movie actors going around the country whooping up war-fever, and things of that sort. The reason we didn’t was because there’s too much power in the world to let the American people become too mad….We did not go out to whip up the anger of the American people over Vietnam….

Some people had the view that somehow the United States unilaterally could make peace in Vietnam, regardless of what Hanoi did. That on the face of it is an absurdity, but it’s not apparent as an absurdity to some critics….Well, a good deal of it was wishful thinking, hoping that somehow the problem would just go away if we got out of it; that maybe Laos and Vietnam and Cambodia and Thailand would survive whether we did anything about it or not; that Ho Chi Minh was just a good old Nationalist and that all he was wanting to do was to set up a kind of Yugoslavia out there, free from China, and free from the Soviet Union….

Then, as the war dragged on, and it was a slow-bleed, there was no clear indication that the war was going to come to a finite conclusion. So some people just got weary of the war and wanted to bring it to an end and to bring the casualties to an end, and that led them to embrace points of view that, in calmer moments, they would not have embraced….

“The tragic price”

Q: If you had known what the ultimate cost of lives and resources and dollars and public opinion was going to be with our activity in Vietnam, do you think looking back that you would have advised any differently? 

RUSK:  Well, every American casualty takes a little piece out of those who carry the responsibility, and I’ve felt that it was a great tragedy that it was necessary to ask our young men to undertake this fighting after all that has happened in the last four decades. On the other hand, the overriding problem before all of mankind is to prevent World War III. We learned the lessons from World War II and wrote them into the United Nations Charter and into our great security treaties. The principal lesson we learned from World War II is that if a course of aggression is allowed to gather momentum…it continues to build and leads eventually to a general conflict….I said we learned the lessons of World War II, but no one is going to learn any lessons from World War III. There won’t be enough left….

There’s another point that is highly relevant. Two-thirds of the world’s people live in Asia. Half of them are free; half of them are in Communist China. During this period in which we have made a stand in Vietnam, the free nations of Asia have made remarkable progress, not only in terms of what is happening in each particular country but in the cohesion which has been developing among the free nations themselves in regional activities, such as the ASPAC grouping of Pacific powers, and such as the ASEAN grouping of the Southeast Asian powers, and the Asian Development Bank, and the initiatives taken by Japan to stimulate agricultural production. All sorts of things have been happening out there, so that behind the cover of our resistance in Vietnam has been a steady strengthening of the forces of free Asia.

Now, they face the prospect of living next to a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons and proclaiming a doctrine of militant Communism–militant world revolution. It was my hope that the Vietnamese experience would give them some time in which they could strengthen themselves to be able to survive the implicit pressures of a Communist China and maintain some peace in Asia of the sort that is conformable to the national interests of the United States….[I]f the free nations of Asia ten years from now are surviving as independent nations—making their own decisions about their own national life and their own orientation in world affairs— then the Vietnamese experience will have been worth the tragic price that has been paid for it. If, on the other hand, we are moving down the chute—the chute toward World War III— then at least we can say that we tried to stop it by stopping it in Vietnam….

Stalemate in Asia

Q: The rest of Asia sometimes, I’m afraid, gets overlooked in the emphasis on Vietnam. Was there a major attempt during the Johnson Administration to move toward regularizing our relations with Communist China?

RUSK:  We repeated the effort made by the Eisenhower Administration to bring about an exchange of newspapermen. We proposed the exchange of scientists, scholars, of professional men–doctors. We proposed the exchange of weather information….Peking always came back with the answer that there was nothing to discuss until we are ready to surrender Taiwan. This has been the great problem about improving relations with mainland China. They insist that Taiwan, sometimes known as Formosa, is a part of China–their China. They don’t recognize that China was split in a civil war and that the Republic of China on Taiwan has an existence of its own….This simple attitude forces everyone to ask themselves what they’re prepared to do about Taiwan, because if you’re not prepared to surrender these thirteen million people on Taiwan to mainland China, then you’re not in business with China—with Peking [Beijing]. Peking won’t talk to you, won’t do anything….

Q: What about Korea? When did the renewed tensions along the armistice line in Korea become serious again?

RUSK:  When the North Korean leaders began making militant speeches about unifying the country by 1970 and making very bellicose statements about their own policy and attitude, we became very much concerned because we had fifty thousand American troops in Korea. We had a very flat and direct security treaty with Korea. A renewal of the Korean War would be something that we would look upon with the greatest dismay because we had enough of a struggle going on in Southeast Asia. We didn’t want a second struggle up in Korea. But throughout ’67 and ’68 we were very much concerned about North Korea.

I will never fully understand just why the North Koreans seized the Pueblo. It’s one of those situations where a small belligerent country can act with a lack of responsibility simply because other countries don’t want war. The Pueblo was in international waters.

[President Johnson] was, of course, furious with the North Koreans, and, like me, [he] failed to understand just why they went out of their way to be so disagreeable about it. Nevertheless President Johnson did not want a war with North Korea. He made a prompt decision to try to get the ship and its men back by diplomatic means rather than by military means. We were faced with the fact that if you tried to use military force to rescue the men you might pick up dead bodies, but you wouldn’t pick up live men and that you might well start a war….

So we decided to swallow hard and try to get these men back by diplomatic means, and that took a great deal of doing. We had meeting after meeting that made no progress and we finally released the men by a device which I described at the time as being without precedent in international affairs. We signed a statement which the North Koreans insisted we sign, but at the very time we signed it we made a statement saying that we denounced the signature and the statement itself was false.

“This hemisphere is our home”

Q: Would you like to switch over a world away to Latin America? You mentioned the Alliance for Progress programs.

The Alliance for Progress was an effort to mobilize the resources…of Latin America for development. The American aid was never to be more than about two percent of the gross national product of Latin America….We expected the Latin Americans to take far-reaching steps in their own behalf in terms of investment, tax programs, the elimination of corruption, improvement in the agricultural sector, improvement in education, improvement in public health across the broad iron of development. We wanted them to move fast, but on the other hand we wanted them to move by democratic processes as much as possible….

Now, these Latin American countries also have their internal politics. They have vested interests. They have inertia. They have resistance to social change so that changes did not occur as fast as we hoped they might. Nevertheless the total effect of the Alliance for Progress was very constructive….I think that if you look at what was accomplished during the period of Alliance for Progress in investment, in new tax systems, in education, in public health, in increased agricultural productivity, you can see that it was a period of substantial progress in Latin America….I myself appeared before Congressional committees thirty-two times in public testimony on behalf of foreign aid–four times each year….

President Johnson always looked upon the hemisphere as, in a certain sense his priority area, despite the war in Vietnam and despite our obvious major involvements in Europe. He used to say that “This hemisphere is our home. This is where we live. These are our neighbors. If we can’t get along with our neighbors, with whom can we get along?”

The Six-Day War

Q: Was the President also able to master the details of a problem like the Middle East?

RUSK:  Oh, yes. He worked intensely on the Middle East….[At the time] you had a three-cornered rivalry in the Middle East. You had on the one hand a contest between the so-called progressive Arab States, the extreme Arab States and the moderate and conservative Arab states such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia—the more progressive or more extreme Arab states being primarily Egypt, Syria, and Algeria. So we were interested in peace in the Middle East. In 1967 we became disturbed because we found that the Soviets were circulating rumors of Israeli mobilization against Syria, which did not check out as being factually true when we looked at the situation on the ground. But those rumors excited the grabs and probably had something to do with the formation of the alliance between Syria and Egypt, and later Jordan and Egypt. The Soviets played a considerable role in stirring up the sense of hostility and crisis in the Middle East just prior to the June war.

Then when President Nasser [of Egypt] closed the Strait of Tiran and insisted on the departure of the U.N. forces, I think the Soviets became concerned that the situation was moving too far and too fast. So they then tried to work with the United States to cool off the situation. We and they were in touch with each other, and we tried to get commitments from both sides that hostilities would not begin. They got such commitments from the Egyptians, for example; we got such a commitment from the Israelis. And when the Israelis then launched their attack in June 1967, it was in the face of a commitment to us that they would not do so, so we were very disappointed. The views in the Israeli cabinet were closely divided–there was almost a tie vote on most of these issues. But the so-called hawks in the Israeli Cabinet carried the day and precipitated the hostilities there, which caused the crisis of ’67….

We tried to arrange a cease-fire on the first day. Had we been able to do so, there would not have been any fighting between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Syria. And Israeli forces would only have been maybe thirty miles or so into the Sinai Desert as far as Egypt was concerned. Had we been able to get a cease-fire on that first day, the situation would have been much [easier] to solve than it is today! But the Russians and the Arabs delayed in the Security Council in moves toward a cease-fire; they tried to link it with withdrawal of forces, and they tried to inject other elements into the situation….It was not until about a week had passed that an actual cease-fire resolution succeeded in passing the Security Council. By that time the Israelis were already well-established in Jordan-Syria, as well as Egypt.

NATO, Non-Proliferation and the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

RUSK:  [In Europe] we had long discussions with the Soviets on the key articles of the Nonproliferation Treaty. The chief objective of the Soviet Union was to be sure that the Germans never got their finger on any trigger under any circumstances, or by any combination of voting, or anything of that sort. Now the way the Nonproliferation Treaty eventually wound up was on the basis of the idea that there would be no new entity that had control of nuclear weapons. If the countries of Western Europe were to merge, if they were to create a unified Europe which had control of foreign and military policy, then that Europe would be nuclear by direct succession—by inheritance from Britain and France. Now the Soviets had some objections even to that interpretation of the treaty, and we made it clear to them that we were going to announce that that was our interpretation of the treaty, and if they publicly objected to it then we’d have to go back to the drawing board and negotiate the treaty again; because there would be no treaty if that interpretation were counterbalanced. In fact they did not object to that interpretation; I suppose that the Soviets predict that it’s going to be a long, long time before Europe ever gets to that degree of unity.

Q: The most sensational event I suppose in NATO affairs during the Johnson presidency was General de Gaulle’s demand that the headquarters be moved out of France.

RUSK:  Well, we were disappointed of course that France withdrew from the military arrangements of NATO; it made a big difference in matters of convenience, matters of logistic support, matters of headquarters locations, and things of that sort….

We were very anxious that Europe recover from its tendency to withdraw into itself and assume the role that was waiting for Europe in world affairs. You see, decolonization had been quite a shock to both France and Great Britain, and the tendency to become a little France or a little England was very pronounced. And there grew up in Europe a strong feeling of isolationism in the sense that Europe would look after its own affairs and not pay too much attention to wharfs going on in other parts of the world. We were concerned about this because that would leave the United States more or less alone as great power in the free world able to act in any part of the world where an action was required. We wanted some help in this role….

Q: All the experts say that the big problem in Europe is to settle the German problem.

RUSK:  The settlement of the German problem is basically a problem with the Soviet Union. There isn’t going to be any settlement of the German problem to which the Soviets don’t agree. I talked with [Andrei A.] Gromyko [Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs] many times about the German problem and tried to show him what vast changes in the situation could take place if we got the German problem behind us. And the only thing that the Soviets had to do was to allow the East Germans a chance to choose for themselves whether they wanted to be independent as a separate East German state, or become a part of the united Germany; and that if that question was settled by plebiscite, that then there would be far-reaching opportunities for a disarmament as between the two sides, and for intimate trade relations between the two sides, and a new era of peace in Central Europe.

You see, the German question is probably the only question on which the Soviet Union and the United States might be drawn into a nuclear war….President Johnson did such things as bring the Consular Treaty negotiations to a conclusion, the Civil Air Agreement to a conclusion, the Nonproliferation Treaty, the space treaties; he did his best to get the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] talks started before he left office….[This] was to reduce tensions by trying to find points on which agreement could be reached, whether they were small points or large points, simply because President Johnson wanted to reduce the dangers in the world.

Q: You mentioned the SALT talks that got interrupted by Czechoslovakia. How far had the agreement gone prior to the August invasion of Czechoslovakia?

RUSK:  The Soviets moved into Czechoslovakia on a Tuesday night. It had been agreed between us and the Soviet Union that on the Wednesday morning–the next day–we were both going to announce in our respective capitals a summit meeting to launch the SALT talks. And one of the first things that we had to do when they moved into Czechoslovakia was to cancel that announcement. So we were just on the point of announcing a summit meeting to start the talks on offensive and defensive missiles. So we had gone a long way down that trail. Now one wonders why the Soviets felt that they could go ahead with the SALT talks and at the same time move into Czechoslovakia.

[Of course] we had no commitments to Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was a Communist country that was very active in pursuing the world revolution in terms of interfering in the affairs of other countries and doing things to stimulate dissident groups here and there. Czechoslovakia had been almost as active as Red China and the Soviet Union itself. So we did not feel that we owed any obligation to Czechoslovakia.

Anyhow it was covered by the Warsaw Pact, and any overt move by us to support Czechoslovakia would have meant war, and we were not prepared to go to war over the issue of the internal arrangements in Czechoslovakia….But a move by the Soviets into Yugoslavia would have created a crisis of first-class proportions because the threat of the movement of Soviet armies to the Adriatic would have been of great concern to all of NATO as well as to the United States. So President Johnson tried to warn the Soviet Union against any further Czechoslovakias.

The Famine in Biafra

Q: What about a much more long-lasting and serious, in terms of human costs, problem: the Nigerian difficulties?

RUSK:  We thought this was an African problem that ought to be handled by the Africans in an African way. In general we felt that it would be a great misfortune if Nigeria were to split on tribal grounds. We felt that the repercussions of that throughout Africa would be very severe. If you reorganized Africa politically on the basis of tribes, you might have four or five hundred petty principalities that could not sustain themselves; and you’d have political confusion in Africa that would make it very difficult indeed to sort things out. And this was generally the view of the other African states.

By and large American policy toward Nigeria was the policy of the overwhelming majority of the Organization of African Unity; only four of the more than thirty-five African states recognized Biafra or showed sympathy toward Biafra. The rest of them were in favor of the unified Nigeria, partly because they all shuddered at the thought of breaking up over tribal grounds, you see. So we favored the Federal Republic; we favored the central government of Nigeria.

But in the interest of trying to get the two sides to settle the matter through palaver–through talk–we decided not to send arms in there, and not to involve ourselves in the fighting in any way, but to remain at some distance. I think in retrospect that was the correct policy, although now the federal government of Nigeria looks upon us as somewhat at arms-length because we did not give them the arms that the Russians did and that the British did while they were having their battle with Biafra.

Q: I guess the issue in Africa then that has excited the longest political interest here was the whole complex of issues involving Rhodesia and the U.N. policy.

RUSK:  We had some domestic reaction toward the Rhodesian situation. In general we felt this was a British problem–we tried to stay one or two steps behind Britain in it because we did not want to buy the Rhodesian problem as being one of our own. We have a commitment to human rights that generally makes us feel that the Rhodesians ought to give some sort of political representation to the blacks in Rhodesia; we felt that it would have been desirable for the problem of the blacks to be settled between Britain and Rhodesia before Rhodesia became fully independent. But in general we acted in support of the general attitude in the U.N. on Rhodesia, and our sanctions on Rhodesia were part of U.N. sanctions. But we didn’t crusade on the subject, and we didn’t–what we were trying to do was to keep ourselves from getting very much involved in it….

Peace in a nuclear world

Someone once asked me what I considered to be the most important achievement during my years as Secretary of State, and I answered that I helped to add eight years to the time since the nuclear weapon had been used in anger. Now I think that the historian will probably have other evidence at his disposal; but as it looked to us in the 1960’s and still looks to me in March 1970, the overriding issue for the human race is how to avoid a nuclear war.

We have thousands of megatons lying around in the hands of frail human beings, and if those megatons are fired–if they go off–then there’s a real question as to how much of the human race can survive. Certainly there will be nothing but rubble in most of the northern hemisphere. Everything that you do in foreign policy has to be measured therefore by whether it contributes to or detracts from the possibility of maintaining peace in a nuclear world.

Close behind it are other great problems like the population explosion. By the time this transcript is available to the reader, the impact of the population problem will be clear for everybody to see; but that is something that the human race has got to deal with, and it is not yet dealing with it in an effective way. The relations between the races is another great problem–the white race is a minority race in the world, and it has got to come to terms with the colored races of the world. We are making some progress on that, but we still have not gone far enough. And if we have a division in the world between the colored and the white races, then we’ll have the problems of an enormous impact upon our hands.

Then the gap between the developing countries and the developed countries is a matter of great concern. It has been estimated that the per capita gross national product favors the developed countries at a ratio of about twelve-to-one compared to the developing countries. That gap is widening instead of closing. By the end of the century it might be twenty-to-one, so you may have a great division in the world between the haves and the have-nots that will be a source of friction and maybe even violence before the end of the century….

Q: Did you ever try to answer the question, what was your greatest failure in eight years?

RUSK: I think the greatest mistake was the Bay of Pigs. I think the greatest failure we had was in failing to bring the Vietnam War to a conclusion while we were still in office. The greatest crisis we had was the Cuban missile crisis. But I think the greatest satisfaction comes out of the thousands of little things that were done every week that built toward peace in the world.