The Rusk Family War--And Peace

The diplomat sits behind a professor's desk, an old man in a gray suit and maroon tie, working quietly under photographs of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. The trucker sits behind the wheel of an International tractor-trailer, a young man in a sweat-stained cap, T shirt and work pants, hauling cigarettes, candy and soda pop across the South. Both men are Rusks. Dean, the father, helped design and defend a conflict in Southeast Asia that killed 57,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese. Richard, the son, has spent the past 20 years brooding over how such a decent man could have ensnared himself in such a lousy war. Now they have collaborated on a fine exercise in reminiscence and self-redemption: As I Saw It (672pages. Norton. $29. 95), an honorable, no-apologies defense of Dean Rusk's career--and America's lost crusade in Vietnam.

On leaving office, Rusk said he would never tell his story. His son swore never to let him forget it. For 15 years he nudged his father about a book, then they spent five years talking and writing. In their style and temperament--and their positions on Vietnam--the two men couldn't have been more different. There before the tape recorder in a sunny office at the University of Georgia sat the discarded secretary of State--dignified, formal, speaking in complete sentences and whole paragraphs. His interlocutor was the Rusk family's black sheep, taking nothing at face value. It was as if Waylon Jennings had sat down to talk history with Cordell Hull. Make it simple, direct, honest, Richard Rusk thought: "Nothing worse than a dull book, man."

Although Dean Rusk made himself into a well-shod member of the American establishment, he started barefoot on a red-clay . farm in Georgia. He developed a soldier's nerve and a diplomat's gift for self-disguise. As a Rhodes scholar during the Depression he watched the smug twits of the Oxford Union resolve that "This House will in no circumstances fight for King or Country." He was made of sterner stuff. Robert E. Lee and George Marshall were his heroes. During World War II, then the cold war, he shot upward through the Army and State Department as a brilliant operations and policy man. Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles became his diplomatic role models. He came to believe in collective security the way some people believe in the holy Trinity: without it we had fallen into World War II; with it we might avoid World War III.

When John Kennedy decided that the best place to draw the line against the long-range purpose of Ho Chi Minh would be South Vietnam, Rusk cautioned him that if the United States ever did go into Vietnam, it would be very hard to turn back. After the war came, he defended U.S. policy no matter what it cost him. Crude ideas like the domino theory disgusted him. But he believed the United States had a moral duty to keep its treaty commitments and that the president's word and the country's honor were not just empty abstractions. "What might have happened," he asks in the book, "had Nikita Khrushchev not be' lieved John Kennedy during the Berlin crisis... or the Cuban missile crisis?"

If Rusk was a public servant, he was the most private and taciturn of men. His son, a Marine Corps reservist and student of political science at Cornell, was a hell raiser who preferred bush planes and 18-wheelers to limousines of state. Sometimes he took antiwar friends home. "Dad would say, "Well, park your signs in the umbrella rack'," he remembers. That was all. To extract his father's story, he reviewed the past with Rusk's colleagues and wrote short prefaces to Rusk's first-person sections. His hardest problem was to get his father to connect emotions to the events that dominated the Kennedy and Johnson era. The day JFK was killed, Rusk was on a plane over the Pacific. The memory prompted a testy exchange between the diplomat and the trucker:

"What were your thoughts, Pop?"

"Well, I never tried to put it into words."

"Damn it, that's exactly what we're trying to do now. Take a stab at it."

"What do you want me to do? Slobber all over the place?"

"Yeah. That's exactly what I want you to do." But Rusk kept quiet.

During other sessions, the son challenged many of his father's assumptions on Vietnam. Rusk now admits to doubts about the wisdom of the policy of gradualism and leading a democracy into limited war. He says he overestimated the patience of the American people and underestimated the persistence of the North Vietnamese. The concessions didn't satisfy his son. "Well Pop, what lay behind that persistence?" Richard pressed. "Why did they never stop coming" Rusk started talking about communist ideology, fanaticism, social controls. "Do you really believe what you are saying?" Richard burst out. "Who were these people? Why did they fight so hard?" Looking back lamely, Rusk said, "I really don't have much to offer on that, Rich."

The younger Rusk was trying to get at emotions, the element of the irrational that determined the outcome in Vietnam far more than than the cocky rationalism of State and Defense Department systems analysts. After North Vietnam's Tet offensive in 1968, the exhausted secretary of State weathered the fall of the Johnson administration on aspirin, Scotch and four packs of Larks a day. Along the way, he had developed a mysterious pain in his abdomen. Often, Richard came home to find him lying on the floor. "What's the matter, Pop?" he asked. "My gut hurts," Rusk replied. To this day, doctors at Walter Reed Army Hospital and the Mayo Clinic have not been able to account for the pain. Ask the old diplomat whether the symptom could be like those that strike people who bottle up their misery. "Probably," he says. Then he corrects himself: "Possibly. "

Fugue state: The tension of trying to reconcile what Richard Rusk felt about the Pop he loved and the war he loathed tormented him. One day his heart started pounding, he nearly blacked out, then fell into a six-day fugue state. Drugs had nothing to do with the trip. Years later a psychiatrist suggested to him that he had suffered his father's nervous breakdown.

In 1970, Dean Rusk withdrew to the quiet campus of the University of Georgia. Richard Rusk split for Nome, Alaska. "It was as far away as I could get from Washington, D.C., and still keep my American citizenship," he recalls. The older Rusk built a new life teaching international law. The younger man fished for salmon, taught school to Inuit kids and founded a weekly tabloid called The Bering Straight. He took up carpentering and plumbing, got into wiring, hung &eetrock. After 14 years in exile, he came down to Athens, Gal, to sort things out with his father and write the book.

They met each other halfway. While the collaboration brought them closer as father and son, neither converted the other on Vietnam. Richard Rusk is 44 now. A wisp of hair trails across his own bald spot. The trucker loves the diplomat, but makes no apologies for him on Vietnam. "Whatever rap he took, he probably deserved," he says. "He never doubted in public the way the war was conducted; he didn't in private, either." That isn't the entire story. Others who were even fiercer than Rusk in pushing the war later fell to wringing their hands in spasms of guilt. Rusk has stuck by his guns. "I have never wasted time on regrets," he says. "Kennedy and Johnson are not here to speak for themselves. I won't draw away from my share of responsibility in the decisions they made because I agreed with them at the time."

For a time, until the University of Georgia made him a professor, the war made him almost unemployable. "He surprised a lot of people when he moved down here," Richard Rusk recalls. "They speculated on which Colonial mansion he would move into, how big a team of servants he would install." Instead he moved into a small apartment, where he has lived ever since with his wife, Virginia. No one invited him to hit the lecture circuit at $20,000 a night, like certain secretaries of State who followed him. No one offered him millions for book contracts and consulting fees. The five-figure advance for his reminiscences came to less than $50,000, and Richard says he spent it. Rusk is 81 now. A stroke has left him walking with a cane, but his mind is clear and so is his conscience. In a sense, he is the last Viet vet. No one welcomed him home. This book might change a few minds.