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Dean Rusk: Kennedy Years

Served as U.S. Secretary of State (1961-1968) and member of the Georgia Law faculty (1970-1984)
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The Kennedy Presidency, 1960-1963

1960 - Rusk's article The President, 38 Foreign Aff. 353 (Apr. 1960), is published. This article caught the eye of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. In the article Rusk makes the "case for a strong president, served by a secretary of state who would remember that he was an adviser to the president. Kennedy had apparently read the article." (Rusk, 202)

The first time the two men met they talked about what qualities make a good secretary of state and about various other candidates, never about Rusk himself. The next day Kennedy offered Rusk the job. They talked about the appiontment the following day and Rusk agreed to accept for one term only.

The relationship between the two remained at arm's length. President Kennedy always called him Mr. Secretary and their conversations were always about business, never small talk. Rusk had instant 24-hour access to Kennedy and later President Johnson. In the Nixon White House calls went through various layers of staff, this would have been inconceivable to Kennedy, Johnson, and Rusk. (Rusk, 293-4)

Even Jacqueline Kennedy noted the significance of the President always calling Rusk, Mr. Secretary. Rusk took it as a compliment and a sign of respect. (Schoenbaum, 281)

He made a number of changes to the department, a department that was twice the size it had been during his previous service in the Truman administration. One new initiative was a 24-hour operations center. "An unavoidable consequence of the world being round, is that, at any given moment, only a third of the world is asleep. The other two-thirds is awake and up to something." (Schoenbaum, 280)

Rusk's letter of resignation was presented to Kennedy the day he took office and could have been accepted at any time. (Rusk, 296)

April 17, 1961- Fourteen hundred anti-Castro Cuban exiles, trained, armed, and transported by the Central Intelligence Agency, land at the Bay of Pigs. They intended to overthrow the Castro regime, believing that members of the Cuban military would defect and there would be a popular uprising. Neither defections nor an uprising took place.

Rusk had learned about the plan on his second day on the job when top members of the administration were briefed on Cuba. At that time he believed it was a contingency plan initiated by President Eisenhower the year before. (Schoenbaum, 291)

The invasion was one of the worst kept military secrets and when the exiles, known as Brigade 2506, waded ashore they were pinned down by Cuban fighter planes. Eight  American B-26s were to give the men air cover but pulled out after only forty minutes. The brigade held on for two days but after being pounded by Cuban militia, tanks, and fighter planes, they surrendered.

Seventy-seven brigade members were killed, the rest were interrogated for twenty days, given show trials, and sentenced to life in prison. After 20 months of negotiations, the prisoners were exchanged for $53 million worth of food and medicine.

The failure of the Bay of Pigs mission embarrassed the United States and left the young president looking vulnerable and indecisive. Castro was able to solidify his power in Cuba and became a hero to many for his stance against U.S. interference and imperialism. Additionally Castro received additional military aid from the Soviet Union.

I myself did not serve President Kennedy very well. Personally I was skeptical about the Bay of Pigs plan from the beginning. Most simply, the operation violated international law. There was no way to make a good legal case for an American-supported landing in Cuba. Also, I felt that an operation of this scale could not be conducted covertly. That landing and our involvement would become publicly known the moment the brigade started for the beach. We didn't grapple with that reality at all. Finally, having never seen actual evidence that Cuba was ripe for another revolution, I doubted that an uprising would spring up in support of this operation. But I never expressed my doubts explicitly in our planning sessions. (Rusk, 209-10)

Although I deeply regretted not forcefully opposing the Bay of Pigs, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, I didn't let any blue sky show between me and the president. My opposition was not known even within the Department of State. Many of my colleagues, ..., believed that I favored the invasion. But when it came time to close ranks with the President, that I did. (Rusk, 212)

According to son Richard, Rusk believed that publicly a secretary of state should never express any disagreement with the president, blue sky as he termed it. Any policy differences must remain confidential, and that failure to do so weakens an administration. (Rusk, 197)

While Rusk had opposed the invasion and had tried to convince President Kennedy not to approve the plan, after the failure he closed ranks with the President. Afterward the President knew that Rusk was someone he could trust and Rusk's position as a trusted adviser was strengthened. (Schoehnbaum, 276)

October 16, 1962 - President Kennedy and foreign policy and national defense officials are briefed on photographs showing a ballistic missile complex under construction in Cuba. The military aid received from the Soviet Union included medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles. These missiles have a range of between 600 and 3400 miles .

During the first week of the crisis Rusk intentionally took no specific position as he did not believe that was his role. He asked questions and debated the possible courses of action. He did advocate using the Organization of American States to press Cuba to get rid of the missiles. The OAS gave unanimous support for a resolution demanding immediate withdrawal.

Both Rusk and the President maintained their schedules in order not to arouse suspicions. At this point in time Rusk was unsure what action to take. He was not alone and the time allowed discussion and examination of all options. (Schoenbaum, 309) Of greatest importance to Rusk at this time was to avoid  revealing to the Soviets that we knew about the missiles.

October 20, 1962 - President Kennedy decides to implement a naval quarantine, the term "defensive quarantine" is first used; ships will be inspected but allowed to continue if they are not carrying offensive weapons. On October 22 the President goes on television to inform the American people about the crisis. View the address.

Rusk supported the quarantine as the least violent option and one which would give the Soviets a face-saving way out. (Schoenbaum, 314) One hour before the speech Rusk met with the Soviet ambassador to tell him the U.S. knew about the missiles and what action was planned. After the President's speech, Rusk met with the ambassadors of sixty-five nations to show them the photographic evidence and ask for their support and understanding. (Schoenbaum, 316)

Negotiations continue for another week. On October 27 it is agreed that the Soviet Union will withdraw the missiles from Cuba under United Nations supervision in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba. In an additional secret understanding, the United States agrees to eventually remove the medium-range ballistic missiles from Turkey. The next day the agreement is announced on Radio Moscow. The crisis had ended.

Of John Kennedy's many fine qualities, I most respected his courage. His performance during the Cuban missile crisis particularly impressed me. We have never had a crisis as dangerous as that one, and yet the calm way in which Kennedy handled that crisis filled me with admiration. He was a cool as a block of ice during those thirteen days of October, carefully weighing the dangers of each policy option and making the decisions that led to its resolution. (Rusk, 295)

The Cuban Missile Crisis may have been a defining moment of the Cold War but Rusk had seen its beginning. At the end of World War II the U.S. and its allies began their immediate and total demobilization. This gave Stalin the opportunity to bring other nations, even parts of surrounding nations, under Soviet control and to support Communist efforts in other areas of the world including approving the invasion of South Korea by the north. (Rusk, 363)

Some may look look upon me as a dinosaur of the Cold War, but these are the facts. Revisionist historians can write until their pens run dry of ink, but these—the adventures of Joseph Stalin—were the events that started the Cold War. These confrontations came about through Soviet initiatives. We were disarmed. The Americans had gone home. Not until 1950 did we begin to build up our armed forces. The implications of the past for American policy are clear. The simple fact is that the Cold War will end when those who declared it decide to abandon it. (Rusk, 364)

June 11, 1963 - President Kennedy's address on civil rights. The speech is in reaction to the use of Alabama National Guardsmen to protect two African-American students who want to attend the University of Alabama. The President began the legislative process which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by meeting with the Republican congressional leaders to discuss the legislation before his television address to the nation.

Text of speech and video, Miller Center, University of Virginia

November 22, 1963 - President John F. Kennedy is assasinated. At the time of the President's death, Rusk and other cabinet members were flying to Tokyo. He made the announcement to everyone onboard that the President was dead.

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