Dean Rusk: Celebrate or Protest?

Emma Brentjens ‘21

Staff writer

Estimates place the Vietnam War’s death toll at over one million casualties, including civilian and military deaths on both sides, between 1955 and 1975. Known as one of the staunchest defenders of the war, Dean Rusk ‘31, then the Secretary of State, returned to campus ten years after the war ended to give a speech at Fall Convocation.

According to the Davidson College archives, he spoke about international relations, nuclear warfare, and the arms race between the United States and Russia before introducing Davidson’s new international studies program.

Most students at Davidson have interacted with Dean Rusk’s name at some point, whether through Rusk Eating House, the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, or conversations around campus. However, many students do not know the person behind these organizations.

Rusk was involved in a variety of activities during his college years. He was active in the Student Government Association, serving as the president of his first year class. During his sophomore year, Rusk was on the Court of Control, an organization created after the school abolished hazing to “retain some form of control over the Freshmen.” The following year, he was the vice president of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha. Finally, his senior year, Rusk served as the president of the YMCA.

Rusk also played for the varsity basketball and tennis teams and participated in several clubs, including the international relations club. Rusk graduated from Davidson with a degree in political science. In 1930, he became the college’s sixth Rhodes scholar. Rusk maintained close ties to Davidson, and his name is widely recognized on campus nearly nine decades after his graduation. 

The Dean Rusk International Studies Program provides funding for lectures on international topics, travel grants, cultural events, and independent projects. It is separate from the study abroad office. Dr. Jonathan Berkey, a history professor and the program’s interim chair, said, “the work that the program does is really wonderful… There are not many places that have something quite like this.”

Much of the controversy surrounding Rusk concerns his involvement in the Vietnam War as the Secretary of State during the Kennedy administrations (1961-1969). According to Dr. Daniel Aldridge, who teaches 1960s U.S. history, Rusk was not Kennedy’s first choice for Secretary of State. “It’s sad to say that he was not a particularly influential Secretary of State,” said Aldridge. As he explained, other people including National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara were more significant in the war.

While Kennedy, Johnson, and other cabinet members took the lead in foreign relations during their presidencies, Rusk was instrumental in implementing the use of Agent Orange, a potent herbicide, in Vietnam. In fact, he told Kennedy “I recommend that you approve the undertaking of such operations” with regards to using herbicides [1].

The herbicides used during the Vietnam War resulted in adverse health effects for many people. Dioxin, a byproduct of the herbicide, lasts for a decades in the environment. Short-term exposure can lead to liver problems and chloracne, a skin disease [2]. Vietnam continues to suffer the impact of Agent Orange [3]. The herbicide is possibly linked to Hodgkin disease, respiratory cancers, prostate cancer, and leukemia and birth defects in the children of veterans [4].

When asked about Rusk’s name in association with the international studies program, Berkey said, “Dean Rusk himself is a kind of a controversial figure because the war in which he is indelibly connected was a controversial war.” The war involved “well-meaning, intelligent folks who just got Vietnam horrifically wrong, and Dean Rusk was one of them.”

Although Aldridge considers the war “a tragedy in our history and a great mistake,” he also said, “I don’t think it’s a crime.” Because most Americans supported the war during his term, he sees Rusk as “a very honorable, conscientious, honest public servant.” We should put his name on our stuff and our buildings,” he added.

Julia Tayloe ‘21, a history major, has a different perspective. “Frankly, I think it’s shameful that the face of our international program is a war criminal,” she said of Rusk. “Authorization of the use of [Agent Orange] was a war crime,” in her opinion. Tayloe, who is also a tour guide, stated that she often “[brags] about how Davidson will help you get where you need to go.” However, she feels that the naming of the program after Rusk is “problematic to say the least.”

Tayloe added that because Davidson has “a reputation for not necessarily responding quickly to human rights abuses on and around our campus [including the campus’s history of slavery]… it’s so crucial that we examine things like this in our recent past that have had lasting and damaging effects on the world.”

[1]https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v01/d275

[2]https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/agent-orange-1

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/opinion/agent-orange-vietnam-effects.html

[4] https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/agent-orange-and-cancer.html

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