Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2091
Reversing his long-standing decision not to write his memoirs, Dean Rusk has produced a combined autobiography and memoir. The book’s genesis is unusual, as it was told to his son Richard, who provides a foreword as well as general introductions to each of the book’s major divisions, and edited by Professor Daniel S. Papp of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Although the book was Richard Rusk’s idea, the collaboration was the result of Dean Rusk’s failing eyesight, which made it necessary for him to tape his comments for later editing. Because he had left all of his official papers with the government, Rusk had no access to them except for the ones printed elsewhere, such as the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. Richard Rusk admits polishing and changing numerous sentences in the tapes, and the tapes themselves have been preserved at the University of Georgia, where, doubtless, a future scholar will examine them for any discrepancies or alterations.
Richard Rusk informs the reader that the book represents an effort to reconcile the spirits of a father and son separated by their differences over the Vietnam War, an opportunity for each to understand and accept the position of the other. If that was the goal, then the effort may have produced enlightenment and understanding, but, as Richard acknowledges, it produced no change of opinion on his father’s part. It may have produced within the son a better understanding of what his father attempted. The book hardly represents an attempt at self- exoneration or at self-justification, however, for Rusk is willing to let history judge his performance. The book’s primary value is that it offers a firsthand account of the experiences of a major world leader during the Cold War period and his reflections on those experiences.
Of the seven major sections, three (approximately one-half of the text) cover Rusk’s experience as secretary of state under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. One additional section is largely concerned with his work in the State Department under his mentor, General George C. Marshall, and later under Dean Acheson; yet another deals with his reflections on making and implementing foreign policy. The first section narrates his early life and education, and a final section recounts his experience as an endowed professor of international law at the University of Georgia. Even when writing about his early life in Georgia and his education at Davidson College and Oxford, Rusk is inclined to center upon subjects with bearing on his diplomatic career. The book is, in essence, the testimony of a professional diplomat.
Rusk’s rise from an obscure and impoverished background came about through his energy, ambition, and native intelligence. Born of Irish-German parents, he showed academic promise in high school and at Davidson College earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and a Rhodes scholarship. As a Rhodes scholar at St. John’s College, Oxford, during the early 1930’s, he was able to observe Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the British reaction to it. After a brief career as a professor and dean of Mills College, he served in World War II in the China- Burma-India theater, where he became acquainted with the logistical and political problems of waging war in Asia. His military experience also enhanced his knowledge of Third World nations and spurred his inclination, as president of the Rockefeller Foundation, to increase foundation support for underdeveloped areas of the world. From the standpoint of foreign policy, it demonstrated to him the price of indecision and ambiguity at the top levels of government. An American policy vacuum regarding the return of colonial authority to Asia encouraged its allies to reimpose colonial control and contributed to the armed conflicts that ensued. His experiences in Asia further influenced his willingness as secretary of state to give more attention to Third World nations than his Eurocentric predecessors. A colonel at the war’s end, he was assigned first to the army’s intelligence division and then to the State Department under General Marshall.
Like many other distinguished public servants, Rusk became a protege’ of General Marshall, whom British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the architect of victory during World War II and President Harry S. Truman declared the greatest living American. Rusk declares, without any qualification, “They both were right.” Marshall, who possessed a self-effacing but entirely self-assured manner, stood for simple ideals such as honor; magnanimity, service to the nation, and self-control. His influence on Rusk emerges in numerous ways throughout the book. Once at a dinner, Jacqueline Kennedy remarked to Rusk that she found it interesting that her husband called him “Mr. Secretary.” Rusk does not record his reply; instead, he recalls the view of General Marshall that men who make important policy decisions should not have their judgments clouded by personal relationships.
Rusk became secretary of state under Kennedy and served through the Johnson presidency as well. Far from regarding the Kennedy years as Camelot, he remembers them as a time of recurring crises, which continued through the Johnson years. Appropriately, the book’s organization reflects that viewpoint, for Rusk’s account of his term is structured around seven major crises, from the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to the Pueblo Affair in 1968. These conflicts had to be managed and somehow resolved, but the most important, Vietnam, remained unresolved at the end. Were it not for Rusk’s reliance upon principles and his ability to portray a calm at the center of the storm, one would have the impression that throughout his term he lived under a state of siege. The reader discovers how the Cold War forced American policymakers to look over their shoulders, to examine carefully all options and all likely consequences, and to take every possible step to avoid nuclear war. Because Rusk is too modest to claim very much credit for policy decisions, it is significant that he does claim one success: He helped to avoid the firing of a nuclear weapon in anger.
If he does not accept credit for many successes, neither does Rusk blame others for policy failures. On the other hand, he is quite willing to accept blame for his own part in policy matters. Rusk possessed a talent that obviously served him well throughout his public life: the ability to work harmoniously with leaders of all political hues. His assessments of national and world leaders provide some of the book’s most interesting insights and are almost uniformly generous. He clearly had high esteem for the presidents he knew and served under, for most of the diplomats he knew, and for many political leaders of both parties. His son Richard hints that he had policy differences with John Kennedy, but Rusk never aired them in public, nor does he air them in print. He has especially generous and illuminating comments about Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. He points out that although Gromyko at times misled him by not revealing all that he knew, he always kept his word when he gave it and adhered to any agreements he made, which are important virtues to Rusk. Although reluctant to criticize anyone, he reveals annoyance with a few leaders, including French President Charles de Gaulle, U. S. Attorney General Robert E Kennedy, United Nations Secretary General U Thant, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, whom he regards as the major cause of the Cold War.
Throughout, it is clear that honor, that is, keeping one’s word, should apply to nations as well as to people. It is clear also that Rusk believes in national strength derived from military capability. His experience as a Rhodes scholar during the rise of Hitler impressed upon him the need to check aggression early, and he views American demobilization following World War II as a grave mistake, pointing out ruefully that in 1946 the United States possessed not a single combat-ready division.
Rusk’s thoroughgoing pragmatism and his focus upon crisis management leave the principles that drove American policy obscure, yet the basic policy assumptions and principles nevertheless emerge from his account. Once the United States had abandoned its isolation between the wars, American statesmen forged a policy that put a premium upon national self- determination, upon the integrity of national boundaries, upon extending and expanding individual freedom—wherever and whenever pragmatically possible—and upon free trade and commerce. To those who demanded to know what America’s policy in Asia was, Rusk responded that there was no Asia policy because that region comprised many nations. Similarly, he looked askance at de Gaulle’s vision of France as the dominant power in Europe. Insistence upon the integrity of national borders, a basic United Nations principle, represents a legacy from Hitler’s attempt to redraw the map of Europe prior to World War II. Although Rusk is quite aware that America cannot impose its view of liberty worldwide, he believes that the nation has a role in steering the world toward it.
The nature of the book’s composition leads to interesting problems. Its style reflects a sharply honed intellect with the gift of vivid diction—this despite the fact that during his long career Rusk wrote little for publication, apart from a few articles and speeches. An approach that requires taped interviews leads to awkward repetitions at several points, however, occasionally on the same page, a flaw that might have been avoided with greater editorial care. Unfortunately, when Rusk feels strongly about something, as he does about public figures who cannot keep confidential information confidential, he lapses into colloquialisms such as “shooting his mouth off”
Having the book revolve around major crises leads to the impression that managing foreign affairs was merely pragmatic and improvised. Accustomed to dealing with immediate problems, Rusk reveals little patience with the idea of systematically studying a question, stressing that he was often forced to make decisions on the basis of inadequate information. Commissioning a Ph.D. dissertation on a subject on Friday at 5:00 P.M. would not help anyone decide what to do on Monday at 9:00 A.M. Adding to the crisis atmosphere was the sheer volume of matters to be addressed. Rusk observes that more than two million cables were sent out bearing his signature in his eight years and that he could not have seen more than one percent of them. Although he maintained a fourteen-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week schedule, Rusk took only one ten-day period off duty, this while ill, during his entire term as secretary of state. He left office exhausted but far from broken by the experience.
Many years will pass before a just assessment of Rusk’s contribution to world peace can be accurately determined. One discovers no startling new revelations in his book, though there are minor corrections of the record. For example, Rusk, who was present at the meeting between Truman and General Douglas MacArthur at Wake Island in 1950, denies that the General deliberately showed disrespect for the president by keeping his aircraft from landing first. He attributes the report to President Truman’s failing memory in old age. Numerous anecdotes about major world leaders entertain and delight, though names are sometimes judiciously omitted when the humor might prove embarrassing. Yet one is struck by the consistency of American foreign policy throughout Republican and Democratic administrations. Time after time, Rusk cites policy initiatives under one president that came to fruition under another. One must also be impressed with Rusk’s trust and confidence in the American people. This overrides any frustration he may have experienced concerning their impatience with the Vietnam War and their reluctance to support foreign aid. As the memories of the Cold War recede, it will become increasingly difficult to grasp the complications that it imposed on all foreign policy decisions. Rusk’s book illuminates the difficulties inherent in the conduct of foreign affairs during an important period of American history. He leaves the impression that, since World War II, the management of the nation’s foreign policy has been in good and able hands.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. July 1, 1990, XIV, p.5.
Foreign Affairs. LXIX, Fall, 1990, p.184.
Library Journal. CXV, June 1, 1990, p.138.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 24, 1990, p. 13.
The New Leader. LXXIII, May 14, 1990, p.9.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, August 16, 1990, p.29.
The New York Times Book Review. XCV, July 1, 1990, p.3.
Newsweek. CXV, June 18, 1990, p.54.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, April 27, 1990, p.47.
Time. CXXXVI, July 30, 1990, p.62.
The Washington Post Book World. XX, July 8, 1990, p.4.
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