Journal of Cold War Studies 4.2 (2002) 150-152
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Defending the American Mission Abroad
Thomas W. Zeiler, Dean Rusk: Defending the American Mission Abroad. Wilmington, DL: Scholarly Resources, 2000. 235 pp. $50.00 cloth; $17.95 paper.
To understand the American experience in Vietnam, one must understand Dean Rusk. Not Lyndon Johnson, who inherited the war in Vietnam and always begrudged it even on those rare occasions when it seemed to be going well. Not Robert McNamara, who likewise came late to the table of American foreign policy and whose passions lay in managing the Pentagon rather than understanding the world. Not McGeorge Bundy or Walt Rostow, who kept the paper flowing but never fully appreciated the difference between academic politics and the real thing. No, the man to understand is Dean Rusk—the taciturn Buddha of foreign policy in the 1960s, who knew fewer things than the glitterati of Camelot but who knew one thing very well.
Of course, that one thing was wrong—which is precisely what makes his story so significant, and so revealing of larger themes. Thomas W. Zeiler casts Rusk as an idealist who was chastened by Munich and woke up a Cold War realist. "Neo-Wilsonian" is Zeiler's term, and although at times the concept seems rather expansive (covering almost everyone who mattered in Cold War America), it serves Zeiler's purpose of connecting the Cold War to what went before.
This book is the third in the Scholarly Resources series of Biographies in American Foreign Policy, edited by Joseph A. Fry. Like its predecessors (on Jefferson and John Foster Dulles), it is both more and less than a biography. It includes little on Rusk's private life, even those aspects of his life that might help explain how he came to the views he held. It includes a substantial amount on American foreign policy that is essentially unrelated to Rusk's life and career. In fact, the book is an interpretive introduction to American foreign policy in the 1960s, with Rusk as the linchpin and humanizing hook.
On its face—and perhaps on his stolid face—Rusk is an unlikely vehicle for such a venture. In contrast to some of Johnson's advisers who were privately torn regarding [End Page 150] Vietnam, Rusk was the unyielding, unquestioning rock of containment certitude, both during his tenure and until his death in 1994. He refused to tip his hand in meetings with the president's other advisers. Zeiler (knowingly) repeats the apocryphal anecdote about a one-on-one discussion between Rusk and John Kennedy. When the president asked Rusk what he really thought, Rusk replied that there were still too many people in the room. Not in public, neither then nor later, did Rusk indicate the slightest doubt that the United States was right in trying to prevent the takeover of South Vietnam by the Communist North.
This is what makes Rusk so important, especially for the student audiences whom Zeiler (like the other authors in this series) is targeting. Knowing what we do about how things turned out, it is often difficult to recapture and convey the moral self-confidence with which the United States entered Vietnam. The never-wavering Rusk is just the man for the job.
Nor was Rusk without the occasional flash of wit. Zeiler cites an exchange between Rusk and Nikita Khrushchev in which the Soviet leader said that his country would not risk a nuclear war over Berlin and therefore did not believe that the Americans would, either. Rusk replied: "Mr. Chairman, you will just have to take into account the possibility that we Americans are God damn fools" (p.49). Zeiler also includes Rusk's riposte to the intellectuals in the Kennedy White House: "Ideas are not policies. Besides, ideas have a high infant mortality rate" (p.35). And of course there is the famous eyeball-to-eyeball quotation from the Cuban missile crisis.
Readers who know Rusk will be familiar with these bon mots, but Zeiler's student readers...