LYNDON JOHNSON ONCE SAID THAT Dean Rusk was "tough as a Georgia pine nut." Indeed, Rusk, who died of heart failure on Dec. 20 at age 85, had to be tough to withstand the pillorying he endured during the Vietnam War. As the second-longest-serving Secretary of State in U.S. history, he stood so closely behind President Johnson's policies that the divisive conflict became known in some circles as Rusk's War.
The Georgia-born son of a Presbyterian minister, Rusk won a Rhodes scholarship while at Davidson College in North Carolina and later taught political science at Mills College in California, where he met his wife of 57 years, the former Virginia Foisie. After World War II Army service, Rusk spent six years in the State Department. In 1952 he left to become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Nine years later, President Kennedy brought him back to Washington as his Secretary of State, and after Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson asked him to remain in the post. During his eight years in the cabinet, Rusk played a part in key moments of the Cold War conflict, including the abortive 1961 Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion (which he ultimately opposed), the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and negotiation of the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty with the Soviet Union.
But the war in Vietnam became a career albatross he could not shed, and his own son Richard, now 48, split with his father to become a staunch 1960s antiwar protester. After he left Washington in 1969, it took the elder Rusk a year to find another job—teaching international law at the University of Georgia—a position he held until his retirement in 1984.
The passage of time put a fresh perspective on Rusk's devotion to duty. "I know how highly my brother valued his ability and judgment," says Ted Kennedy. "All of us in the Kennedy family will miss his leadership, statesmanship and, most of all, his friendship." Time also saw him reconciled with son Richard; the two eventually collaborated in writing the senior Rusk's 1990 memoir As I Saw It. "He was a great father, very gentle," said Richard, one of three surviving children, at the funeral in Athens, Ga. "He died with the same courage, grace and dignity with which he lived his life."
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