Dean Rusk--enigmatic, influential, controversial--has always been an interesting if personally remote figure in American life. There has been only one previous book about his public life, and that was limited to his time as secretary of state. Thomas J. Schoenbaum's book, "Waging Peace and War," is much more ambitious and will certainly stand as the definitive work on Rusk for some time to come. The author, a professor of international law, is not in a class with Tom Wolfe as a storyteller, and his book is unlikely to provide inspiration for a movie script. But not even Schoenbaum's sometimes ponderous style can suppress the drama of the lively, bright, lower-class white boy from the wrong side of the tracks in then-provincial Atlanta who, by dint of brains, physical vitality and a shrewd and relentless strategy of applying low-key tactics to high-powered ambition, came to have enormous power. Rusk was smart, tough and a very serious man (who always had a good sense of humor).
Rusk was for a time a leading figure in the American Eastern Establishment--when there was such a thing--but the book makes clear that he experienced many of his greatest successes, and failures, on the West Coast, and in Asia and the Pacific. In his early years, he met and married his wife while he was on the faculty at Mills College in Oakland, attended law school at the University of California at Berkeley, and served at Army bases in California and Washington. In his middle years, he was a senior Army staff officer in the China-Burma-India theater of World War II, was active in the effort to prevent the communist takeover of China, played decisive behind-the-scenes roles in the Truman Administration before and during the Korean War, and was instrumental in promoting (when he was president of the Rockefeller Foundation) the "Green Revolution," so important to agriculture in Mexico, the Philippines and India. His greatest failure was in Southeast Asia in Vietnam, during the Kennedy and Johnson years.
The failures and the tragedies of Vietnam, and of Rusk's part in those events, had many dimensions, and this book illuminates most of them. His successes were two. First and foremost--and this is a thread which runs through the whole book--Rusk worked and pleaded always and everywhere for U.S. policy in pursuit of American political interests to be shaped by the contours of international law. When he succeeded, the outcomes were usually to the good, at least in the short term. For example, Schoenbaum asserts that one of Rusk's main successes regarding Vietnam was passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August of 1964: "After it passed Congress with only two dissenting votes in the Senate, Rusk believed that the war in Vietnam had legal sanction under both domestic and international law." (In retrospect, the resolution came to be viewed as having given the Johnson Administration too much of a blank check.)
Rusk's other Vietnam success was more precise and came 3 1/2 years later. It was to persuade President Johnson, on the one hand, and the North Vietnamese, on the other, to say and to do the things that made possible the beginning of negotiations aimed at ending the war. This was in the latter half of March, 1968; the Vietnam War had been ravaging not only Vietnam itself, but also American society and politics, at higher and higher levels of intensity, for at least three years. Clark Clifford had replaced Robert McNamara as secretary of Defense on March 1. Rusk, who thought it was extremely important to deal with Hanoi in ways that would improve the chances for a stable post-war situation in Vietnam (how right he was), had to outmaneuver those in Washington who, like Clifford, felt it was more important to get out of Vietnam quickly, because of domestic political considerations.
The Washington meetings of the last 10 days of March, 1968, have been reported in many books and in many ways, but this book provides a somewhat different, and quite credible, insight on the subtle and powerful way Rusk was able to maneuver President Johnson, the federal bureaucracy, and what then remained of the Establishment into a bombing halt (easy to do) as part of a package that would also maneuver Hanoi into beginning negotiations looking to an end of the war (very difficult to do). According to this book, it was Rusk, not Clifford or the so-called Wise Men, who masterminded this critical policy shift at a meeting on March 28--a decision that culminated in President Johnson's March 31 speech announcing the bombing halt as well as his decision not to seek re-election. In fact, Clifford is quoted in the book as having said, several years later, "I don't understand what was going on that day (March 28)."
The book is much richer, however, than a hagiography of Dean Rusk. The author makes clear that: