Defending the American Mission Abroad
By Thomas W. Zeiler
(Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2000.
Pp. xvii, 235. $17.95 paper.)
IN HIS USEFUL bibliographical essay at the end of this book, the author, a history professor at the University of Colorado, mentions earlier biographies of Dean Rusk and writes: “Too young to remember the Vietnam War of Rusk’s service, I provide a certain objective distance in contrast with the others.”
With regard to Rusk, this “objective distance” is important. Those of the Vietnam generation seem unable to see Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of state except as an ogre or hero depending on one’s view of the war. Those of the post-World War II generation have tried — unsuccessfully — to convince younger Americans that other facets of U.S. foreign policy were of equal or greater importance than Vietnam. Now, more contemporary scholars like Zeiler are discovering that indeed that tragic conflict was part of a much bigger picture.
Historian John Lukacs wrote in Revising the Twentieth Century: “History is revisionism. It is the frequent — nay, the ceaseless — reviewing and revising and rethinking of the past.” In doing that for the role of Dean Rusk in his era, Zeiler has begun the process of reducing Vietnam to a sensible perspective and giving Rusk his due for long and courageous service during hard times. Indeed, his treatment of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations is more balanced than those of the New Left historians. According to the author, “To call Rusk a hawk on Vietnam or to accuse him of narrow-minded anticommunism . . . belies the complexity of his views. To argue that this wise statesman was an unreconstructed hard liner is simplistic.”
While the author devotes much space and weight to Rusk’s role during the Vietnam War, he gives proper attention to the future statesman’s intellectual formation, particularly to the scars left by the appeasement of Hitler, which Rusk saw first-hand in England and Germany while a Rhodes Scholar. (Rusk had a long memory for foreign policy mistakes. He once said, “In avoiding the sins of our fathers, we must be careful not to repeat the sins of our grandfathers.”)
Zeiler has given us a full-length portrait of Rusk from his upbringing in North Georgia and college years at Davidson and Oxford through his career in public service, including his eight years as secretary of state. Perhaps the author is too obsessed with fitting his subject into the all-too-confining box he labels “neo-Wilsonianism,” but it will be useful particularly for younger students of American foreign policy to see the push-me-pull-you struggle between the hard and soft approaches to diplomacy that were debated daily in the presidencies of JFK and LBJ. And if categorizing is necessary, maybe Zeiler is not too far off the mark when in his concluding chapter he labels Rusk “the liberal missionary.”
As historians in our post-Cold War era continue to reevaluate the West v. East contests over Berlin, Cuba, Korea, and Vietnam in their larger context, it is altogether fitting to commend Zeiler’s much-needed rehabilitation of this able, honorable, much-suffering, albeit complex giant of a man from Cherokee County, Georgia.