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Dean Rusk Dies; Vietnam War-Era Secretary of State

December 22, 1994| From a Times Staff Writer

ATHENS, Ga. — 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:

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