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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Interviewee: Dean Rusk
Interviewer: Michael V. Gannon
This is an interview with Dean Rusk, former secretary of State in the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations. The interview was conducted in 1981 by Michael V. Gannon,
retired Distinguished Service Professor of History and former director of Early Contact
Period Studies, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville.
Dean Rusk appeared on Dr. Gannon's television program, Conversations.
pp. 1-2: Gannon opens the discussion by presenting Rusk's educational, military, and political
background. When serving as secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson, Rusk had to deal
with world confrontations such as Cuba, Berlin and the escalating war in Vietnam. Gannon asks
Rusk to compare the problems in El Salvador today  with those he faced in the early years
of American involvement in Vietnam. Rusk sees a difference in the two situations: location,
size, population, internal problems, nature of the opposition. But on the political side, Rusk can
see where Americans would say "no" to El Salvador, just as they said "no more Vietnam." He
thinks El Salvador is a hemisphere problem and the Organization of American States should take
an active role.
pp. 2-3: Rusk feels that members of the media are looking for stories in El Salvador. He is
aware that Americans are reluctant to become involved in armed conflict in El Salvador, but also
recalls that contributors to World War II were isolationism and pacifism in the 1930s. After the
war, the world resorted to collective security, he says, but that idea has eroded today because
hundreds of thousands have died in the name of collective security. Rusk says that the question
remains about how to prevent a World War III if we cannot depend on some type of collective
security. If there is a third world war, he believes that all questions and answers would be
meaningless after a nuclear war.
pp. 3-4: Rusk discusses the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, past and present, saying it has
achieved the purpose for which it was organized in 1949. He thinks N.A.T.O.'s very success has
caused "a sag in public interest." Europeans feel they are caught as innocent bystanders between
the United States and the Soviet Union, but the Europeans are, in fact, the issue between the U.S.
and U.S.S.R. Rusk holds that there are no hot spots in the world today that would lead the U.S.
into a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He also points out that no nuclear bombs have been
used since August 9, 1945, when the second one was dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World
pp. 4-5: Regarding President Reagan's seemingly inconsistent policy in the Middle East, the
former secretary of State believes that it is difficult to be "coherent about an incoherent
situation." He does not think that peace can be made in Washington, the United Nations or the
U.S.S.R., only by those who live in the area of contention. But the problem remains, according
to Rusk, that those in a position to make concessions for peace cannot stay in power for long. He
thinks that it will be a wait-and-see kind of situation, and the younger generation may say that it
is time to live together peacefully. Rusk adds that the president has to make sure that his cabinet
officers are "singing the same tune" on foreign policy in reference to a question about Caspar
Weinberger, the secretary of Defense, and Alexander Haig, secretary of State, contradicting each
other regarding Middle East policy.
pp. 5-6: Rusk says that the Arab nations will not fall in line behind the United States in a bloc
against the Soviet Union because they are too preoccupied with their own internal problems and
dealing with Israel. He contends that it would be a mistake for the U.S.S.R. to invade the rich oil
fields of the Middle East because that crisis would involve the U.S. and Western Europe. The
interview then turns to the question of conflict between the national security advisor, who is the
secretary of State's counterpart in the White House. Rusk maintains that the national security
advisor is seeing the president through the business of foreign policy, that is, "organizing the
president's own part in this process." The national security advisor should be a staff person, but
it is the cabinet officer who testifies in Congressional hearings, who conducts discussions with
foreigners, who makes the speeches and answers the questions. The national security advisor
performs none of these tasks. Rusk criticizes David Halberstam's book, The Best and the
Brightest, about what the author wrote about him. He also expresses his feelings about members
of the press who like to depict conflict where none exists.
pp. 6-8: Rusk answers those who criticize the United Nations, saying it is an "utterly
indispensable organization." The U.N. has affected our daily lives, he contends, and cites certain
examples, such as the U.N. eliminating small pox. The organization has kept small conflicts
from spreading, brought about cease-fires, and sent in observation teams to troubled areas.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he says the U.N.'s Security Council created a much needed
cooling-off period for both sides. Rusk believes that if the United Nations did not exist today,
we would have to create one. He hopes Americans are not moving toward isolationism again
because the country cannot solve its own problems without "a high degree of international
effort," such as in the areas of energy, food, and trade balances.
pp. 8-9: Rusk is concerned about the undocumented numbers of immigrants entering the U.S.
and argues that this country cannot absorb the excess population of other countries. He wants a
clearer, more effective immigration policy and enforce it. He contends that the U.S. cannot be
responsible for the unlimited population growth of the rest of the world. When asked if he has
enjoyed returning to academia, Rusk replies that it has been a "marvelous experience." He likes
the freedom from dealing with Washington's official responsibilities that he had for several
decades, and he likes being able to change his mind. He relishes being a private citizen again and
enjoys teaching international law. He trusts the younger generation to solve some of the
problems that his generation created for them.
G: This Dr. Michael V. Gannon, director of Early Contact Period Studies, CLAS] and
this is Conversation. Dean Rusk is a former United States Secretary of State in
the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Born in Cherokee County, Georgia, he became a Rhodes Scholar [one who
receives a Rhodes Scholarship which is an educational grant to the University of
Oxford in England] and later taught government at Mills College in [Oakland],
California. As a colonel during World War II, he was deputy chief of staff for the
China, Burma, India Theater. In the post-war years, he served in various posts
in the state department until 1952 when he became president of the Rockefeller
Foundation from which position President Kennedy chose him for his cabinet.
As secretary [of state] in two administrations, he had to contend with numerous
crises including the abortive invasion of Cuba, the erection of the Berlin Wall,
and the escalating war in Vietnam. In these and other events over the course of
eight years, he became known for a calm, rational approach to international
problems and for a personal dignity maintained in the face of often obstreperous
critics. Since 1970 he has been the Professor of International Law in
the College of Law of the University of Georgia. Mr. Rusk's expertise and
experience in foreign affairs provide him with a unique insight into world events
of the present day. We shall have an opportunity to learn from these insights
when I return in a moment for a conversation.
Mr. Rusk welcome to the campus of the University of Florida and welcome to
R: Thank you, I am glad to be here.
G: The question that I would like to ask you straight away if I may, sir, is when you
read the reports coming out of El Salvador and read and see the reports coming
out of Washington about El Salvador, do you have a sense of deja vu? I ask
that because many people see a parallel between the El Salvador case, which is
developing, and the early years of American involvement in Vietnam. Do you
see such a parallel?
R: If you were to make a checklist of the so-called objective factors in those two
situations location, size of country, population, internal problems, nature of the
opposition, strength of the opposition they would be very different indeed.
Now suppose that the two are linked somewhat politically, because the very idea
that people would think no more Vietnam [in reference to the El Salvador
situation] is a linkage. But there are some other linkages that we ought to have
in mind. For example, in the summer of 1964, the foreign ministers of the
Organization of American States met in Washington to take up the question
caused by the landing of Castro men and arms on the coast of Venezuela. At
that time the Organization of American States imposed upon Castro all of the
sanctions that are available under the Rio Pact with the exception of the use of
armed force. But they also warned Castro that if these activities were to
continue, the OAS would not exclude the use of armed force. Now to me this
problem in El Salvador is one for the hemisphere as a whole to take a look at
and study. The facts, I think, are not entirely clear about exactly what is
happening there, but this is a hemisphere problem, and I hope very much that
we would not let it become a unilateral problem for the United States.
G: The rhetoric that one finds in the press seems to resemble the same kind of
reporting or analysis that was done during the middle and final years of the
Vietnam War. Does this show a certain defensiveness about the American
nation? Are we concerned, as expressed through our media, that we are getting
into the same kind of problem that we found ourselves in Indo-China?
R: The media are out there burrowing in for the story, and if they could find stories
that win Pulitzer Prizes or Peabody Awards, they will go for them. Very seldom
do you find these things shown in context. The lieutenant colonel who was
pictured the other day carrying an M-16 rifle was not in field uniform, had no
ammunition around him, had no battle gear on, was carrying a briefcase in the
other hand, and the fighting was some twenty kilometers away, but that got to be
a very big story. So it is not easy for us private citizens to get the detailed facts
that we really ought to have to make a considerate judgement, but we are free to
make a judgement without those if we want to.
G: Are you surprised by the size and vigor of popular resistance to American
involvement in El Salvador? I am thinking particularly of polls that have been
taken within the last two weeks which show a significant number of American
people opposed to any escalation of our involvement in that troubled country,
and I am thinking as well of the number of announcements that have been made
by major religious leaders including the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.
Does this surprise you?
R: It does not surprise me because the American people are peace-loving people.
They are very reluctant to become involved in armed conflict, and they are very
impatient about bringing armed conflicts to a conclusion as quickly as possible.
But at the heart of it is an unanswered question. My generation of students was
led down this into the catastrophe of a World War II which could have
been prevented. One of the contributors to that war was the sense of pacifism
and isolationism that was so widely and deeply spread through this country in
the 1930s. So we came out of World War II thinking that collective security was
the key to the prevention of World War III, but that idea has eroded, and we
should understand why that should be true among the American people. We
have taken over 600,000 casualties in dead and wounded since the end of
World War II in the name of collective security. So when someone says to me,
look, if collective security requires 50,000 dead every ten years and is not even
collective, maybe it is not a good idea. I have profound respect for that reaction.
That still leaves us with a question: how do we propose to prevent World War III,
because now there is a difference. Throughout human history it has been
possible for people to pick themselves up out of the death and destruction of war
and start over again. We shall not have that chance after World War III because
if that war should come, it not only would eliminate all the answers, it would
eliminate all the questions. We still have hope within us. When we think about
Vietnam or we think about the attitude of the bishops and others about non-
violence, we still have the question before us, how do we propose to prevent
World War III? And that is a very complicated and difficult question for which
each generation must find its own answer.
G: At this present juncture in the nation's history, we seem to perceive strains and
stresses within the NATO alliance. I would venture to guess that there were
similar strains within that alliance during your time as secretary.
R: It is curious to me that when you mention the word NATO these days, the very
next word that comes to mind is disarray. This [happens] despite the fact that
NATO has brilliantly achieved the purpose for which it was organized. No
member of NATO has been subjected to external aggression since 1949, but the
very success of an alliance of this sort tends to cause a sag in public interest. It
gives us a chance to enjoy the luxury of quarreling with each other on lesser
matters. Then I think in Europe there are some illusions growing up similar to
some of our own illusions. For example, I gather that in Europe there are a good
many people who look upon themselves as innocent bystanders in a great
struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, and they say, oh, dear
me, isn't this too bad. They are not innocent bystanders; they are the issue
between us and the Soviet Union. We are not going to fight the Soviet Union
about polar bears in the Arctic. If Western Europe were genuinely safe, it would
be very hard to imagine a situation that would bring the United States and the
Soviet Union into nuclear war with each other.
G: Do you consider the state of Western Europe [to be] in a safer condition now
than it was twenty years ago?
R: I commented recently in a little piece for one of the eastern newspapers that I
thought that we were further away from a nuclear war today than we have been
in thirty years. But I had some rather indignant calls from three or four reporters
who called and said, how would you dare make such a statement? I asked them
to look at the real world as distinct from their flights of fancy and to point to a
single issue in the real world which they thought could lead us into a nuclear war
with the Soviet Union, and they were unable to do so. Sometimes things of great
importance escape notice. Last August 9 was the anniversary of the dropping of
the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and a good many people noted that. But
no one here, in Western Europe, or in Japan take note of the fact that on last
August 9, we had put behind us thirty-six years since a nuclear weapon has
been fired in anger. Now that is the important thing to say about August 9,
particularly when you look at all the crises we have had since 1945. So there is
an asset of the greatest importance on which these young people can build as
they think about their own lives. The world is simply not full of crazies when you
get into this business of nuclear weapons.
G: That is a very hopeful statement about the condition of the world generally and
about Western Europe in particular. I want to ask, if I may, your reaction to the
Reagan administration's approach to the Middle East. The question has been
asked of late is there really a Middle East policy in the Reagan administration?
It seems to many critics that [Reagan's] Middle East policy is the result of
decisions made on an ad hoc basis from week to week. Just within the last three
weeks, for example, two secretaries in the [Reagan] administration, Secretary of
Defense Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, have gone
to the Middle East. It appears that Secretary Weinberger made statements
which encouraged the Arab states and Secretary Haig made statements, if not in
contradiction, at least designed to encourage Israel. Do we have in the face of
the apparent divergence of these two secretaries a coherent Middle East policy
as you see it?
R: It is very hard to be coherent about an incoherent situation. I think we start from
the fact that peace can only be made by those people who live out there in the
area. It cannot be made in Washington or at the United Nations or between
Moscow and Washington combined. It can only be made by those who live
there. Now for many years I am afraid I felt that the feelings on both sides are
so strong and so deep that the governments of the area cannot make the
concessions necessary to make peace and remain in power. On the Arab side,
they will talk to you about assassination and coup d'etat, and you cannot tell
them they are wrong. We know that the can throw out an Israeli
government with a snap of the finger. So I profoundly hope that I am wrong, but
I felt for a long time that it may be that real peace is beyond the reach of those
who live in the area, and yet they are the only ones who can make peace.
Generally, we try to find some balance between the two sides. We have some
important differences with Israel and territorial questions on the state of
Jerusalem, but perhaps all we can do at the moment is to do what we can to
prevent another major round of fighting and to see if in time longer thoughts
might prevail and give these people out there a chance to make some peace
with each other. There seems to be some growing feeling among young people
on both sides that the time has come to find a way to live together. If members
of an administration seem to be saying different things and acting like unguided
missiles in this rather turbulent scene, only a president can get that straightened
out. The first sentence of Article II of the Constitution is apparently a mystery to
most people; it reads: the executive power shall be vested in a president of the
United States of America. It is up to the president to be sure that cabinet officers
are singing the same tune, otherwise sometimes these people will stray from an
G: I want to return to that particular problem in a moment, but before I do, and
staying with the Middle East for a moment, do you think that Secretary
Weinberger has much of a chance to unite the Arab nations with the United
States in an anti-Soviet strategic consensus?
R: I do not think so, because for those countries such problems as exist [for us] with
the Soviet Union are not the uppermost problems on their minds. Most of them
have very insistent internal problems, and also they have their long-standing
problem with Israel. I think it would be a mistake for us to think that 160 other
nations in the world are going to snap their heels, salute, and fall into our
particular pattern of our concept of relations with the Soviet Union. These other
nations have a great many more things on their mind, and they will not, in effect,
become our puppets in this relationship. They are all individual, unique nations,
and we ought to deal with each one of them uniquely.
G: Do you think that in the long view there is likely to be a major Soviet thrust
towards the oil fields in the Middle East?
R: I would doubt it very much, because they must surely know that that [action]
would precipitate an extraordinarily dangerous crisis, not only with the United
States, but with Western Europe. It would be very foolhardy on their part to
make any such move, and the effort that we would make would cost more oil
than we would get in the Middle East after we got there. So I would be very
surprised, but I could be wrong; I have been wrong before.
G: I would like to return now to the problem of administrations speaking with a
single voice, and I would like to address the question of the place in government
of the national security advisor. Going back to your own tenure in office as
secretary of state, your counterpart at the White House was McGeorge Bundy
who was, if I remember correctly, special assistant to the president [both
Kennedy and Johnson] on national security affairs. You may have had a very
good working relationship with him, and I am sure you will tell me if that was the
case, but the popular image of the relationship was one of conflict. David
Halberstam's work [The Best and the Brightest], for example, [comes to mind].
Following your time in office, presidents formed similar arrangements. [Henry]
Kissinger [adviser for national security affairs and secretary of state under Nixon
and Ford] was the White House counterpart of [William P.] Rogers [secretary of
state under Nixon], and then [Zbigniew] Brzezinski [national security adviser to
Carter] was the White House counterpart of [Cyrus Roberts] Vance [secretary of
state under Carter] and today in the Reagan administration, we have [William
Patrick] Clark [national security adviser to Reagan] who is, and before him
[Richard Vincent] Allen [national security adviser to Reagan replaced by William
Clark] who was, counterpart to Secretary of State Haig. Overall, is this sort of
relationship healthy? It appears to the public [that there are] two secretaries of
R: On any working day throughout the year, 3,000 cables will go out of the
Department of State bearing the secretary's signature. The handling of foreign
relations is a massive business. On any working day, we may be attending
anywhere from twelve to twenty-five multilateral intergovernmental meetings
somewhere in the world, ranging from the control of nuclear weapons to the
control of The role of the national security adviser in the White
House seems to me to be to assist the president in organizing the president's
own part in this process. There is a constant flow of paperwork. There are
differences of views among departments of the government, which that person in
the White House can help resolve by mediation, negotiation, or whatever it might
be. But the president has to organize his own time to look at the paperwork, to
receive callers, to confer with members of his own administration. So that
person [the national security adviser] should be a staff person, and I am biased
on this, of course, because of my lurid past. But I do not think that White House
staff people ought ever to be put in the chain of command, because it is the
cabinet officer who testifies before congressional committees, who conducts
most of the discussions with foreigners, who goes out around the country making
speeches and taking questions, who holds press conferences and takes
questions. It is the cabinet officer who helps the president to bear the
constitutional burdens of the executive branch of the government. These White
House staff people do not do that sort of thing. We did not have problems of this
sort during the 1960s. I would not take Mr. Halberstam as a witness because he
put a lot of words in my mouth and thoughts in my head. While he was writing
his book, he did not try to confirm any of this with a postcard, a telephone call, or
anything else. Among other things, that was not a very good job of reporting.
G: That is an interesting response, and it does clear up in my mind a problem that I
think has worried many people in the United States. [And that is] when the media
has tended to present conflict as [being] larger than, I suppose [in this case], it
R: Let me tell you a secret about the media. They need the stories, and one of the
best ways to get the stories is to use the "sic 'em, Fido" technique. There is
nothing that they like better than to stir up a feud somewhere because that
means stories. So they play their own role in this kind of thing.
G: Speaking of "sic 'em, Fido," the United Nations has come in for hard criticism
within the last two weeks, first from Jeane Kirkpatrick, the United States chief UN
delegate [1981-1985], and then from New York Mayor Edward Koch. I wonder
what your reaction is to that criticism, and what you would say about the role and
value of the United Nations in world events today?
R: That kind of passing criticism, I think, is relatively trivial. But as far as I am
concerned, the United Nations is an utterly indispensable organization; we could
not do without it. Now it has changed in some respects, particularly the general
assembly. We started out with fifty-one members; it now has 157. They are
taking in new members now [that have] a population [comparable to] Gainesville,
Florida, and have the same vote in the general assembly as the United States.
Less than 10 percent of the world's population and less than 2 percent of the
financial contributions to the UN, can now cast two-thirds of the votes in the
general assembly. That means that at times the general assembly is going to be
irritating, and we will be frustrated and angered by it. But the work of the UN
goes ahead in ways that affect our daily lives. We are able to announce that
small pox has disappeared from the human race. We could not be having these
broadcasts without the proper allocation of frequencies among the nations of the
world. The safety of life at air and in the sea [is affected by the UN] as are these
controversial matters affecting war and peace. If you look at those problems in
the post-war world in which the United States and the Soviet Union were not at
each other's throats, in a fumbling bumbling kind of way the United Nations has
been able to keep these smaller conflicts from spreading and to bring about
cease-fires and observation teams and things of that sort. But even at the
moment when we and the Soviet Union were at each other's jugular veins in the
Cuban Missile Crisis, it was of the greatest importance that the UN Security
Council be there to which this matter could be referred for a few days of
discussion within which it was less likely that either side would lash out in fury,
[thus] giving the principal parties a chance to put their heads together and find a
solution. As a veteran of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I can say that as far as I am
concerned the UN Security Council earned its pay for many years to come by
the role it played during that crisis. So I think we ought to be really careful about
passing criticisms that simply reflect our annpyance, because I still believe in the
old trite saying that if it were not there today, we would have to organize it
G: When Kirkpatrick and Koch make the kinds of criticisms that they did, do you
think that they are appealing to a growing isolationist temper in American
R: It is possible that we are moving somewhat in that direction, but I would deeply
regret it if we were, because we are not going to be able to solve our own
national problems without a high degree of international effort, whether it is in
energy, food, our own economy, or our trade balances. It is just too late in
history for that kind of isolationism. If we started going down that trail, my guess
is that we not only will be much poorer as a nation, but we will find ourselves in
deadly danger someday.
G: It was recently reported that in 1980, 1.5 million undocumented immigrants
entered the United States, including 125,000, mostly by boat, from Cuba. Are
you concerned about the size and momentum of that influx?
R: I am very much concerned about it because we know that by the year 2000,
regardless of what is done now, there are likely to be about 6.5 billion people on
this planet. And before these present college students get to be my age, they
face the prospect of a world population of 12 to 15 billions of people. I do not
believe that the United States can make itself responsible for this population
explosion; we cannot absorb the excess population of other countries. I have
had the prime minister of one of our neighbors to the South tell me that unless
we could take 30,000 of his people every year, his country would simply sink
under the sea. [But] we cannot do it. Under our regular immigration laws, we
take about 400,000 immigrants each year. We make special provision for
considerable numbers of refugees related to special situations. Then we have
this very large number of illegals coming in. I personally think that we must
adopt a clear, simple policy in this matter and do our best to try to enforce it, but
we cannot make ourselves residually responsible for the unlimited population
growth of the rest of the world.
G: Mr. Rusk, [I would like to ask you] a personal question. What has it been like
being a professor again? You were a professor of government at Mills College
in California for a time, and you were also dean of faculty in that institution.
What has it been like returning to the groves of academia?
R: It is a marvelous experience. Teaching international law was what I wanted to
do before World War II, and after a thirty year detour, I finally made it. It is also
great to be a private citizen again without the kind of official responsibility that
people in Washington have to carry. The world of opinion is a luxurious world.
Today I do not have to have an opinion, or I can have one opinion today and
exactly the opposite opinion tomorrow and nothing happens.
G: You will not be called to task for it.
R: There is a freedom in being a private citizen. After twenty years of government
service, I thoroughly enjoy it.
G: What kind of seminars or classes do you have?
R: I teach international law at the law school and also Constitutional law as it
relates to the conduct of our foreign relations. These young people we have at
the law schools at places like Florida and Georgia are first class people.
Anyone who sells them short is making a great mistake.
G: Many critics say that they are interested only in making the big bucks, as the
phrase runs; they are interested in their own personal advancement. Do you
find in them a certain sense of mission to improve society?
R: I think they are a very thoughtful and responsible group. In ten years I do not
think I have had anyone come to me expressing the hope that they want to
practice law on Wall Street and make a lot of money; they have other things in
mind. Despite the gravity of the problems they have in front of them, I am very
optimistic in these young people because I think they are going to make it.
People like the two of us have gone to special pains to save some interesting
problems for these young people to solve. [laughter]
G: I am sorry that we have not been able to solve them all, at least for the moment
and within thirty minutes time, but Mr. Rusk I thank you profoundly for being on
Conversation and for sharing your thoughts with the audience of this program.
Thank you very much for being in Gainesville and on the campus of our
R: Thank you, I have enjoyed it.