Dean Rusk (1909-1994), secretary of state under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, is the namesake of Davidson’s international studies program and was the school’s sixth Rhodes Scholar.
Rusk was born on a farm in Cherokee County, Georgia, the son of Davidson alumnus Robert Hugh Rusk, Class of 1894. At age four, his family moved to Atlanta, where Rusk spent his boyhood and attended high school.
In the fall of 1927, two years after graduating high school, Rusk entered Davidson College. Rusk writes in his memoir As I Saw It that Davidson was his “first and only choice.” He arrived in Davidson with little else besides an eager mind and an urgent drive to succeed. Rusk must have been one of the busiest students in college history. An excerpt from his collegiate resumes demonstrates his unprecedented industriousness: “President of the Y.M.C.A., Cadet Major of R.O.T.C., four year letterman in varsity basketball, manager of the Students’ Store, staff of Quips and Cranks, member of Kappa Alpha fraternity.” To earn money for tuition, Rusk worked six days a week balancing the books at a local bank and waiting tables at a college boardinghouse. As Rusk recalls, “not even my years in government were busier.” Rusk attributes much of his career successes to the education he received at Davidson, which he calls “an exciting place intellectually, a broadening place.”
Though Rusk gave much consideration to entering the Presbyterian ministry, he was eventually won over to the side of foreign policy and international law by Professor Archibald Currie. He writes that “This aspiration to do well and improve one’s life was part of the campus environment. Davidson clearly sought to prepare its young men for lives of service.” Rusk received the Rhodes in 1931 and entered St. John’s College of Oxford University. There he took degrees in history and political science, and after teaching at Mills College of California in the 1930s, Rusk served in Burma during World War II.
Rusk’s public service began in the years just after World War II, when he joined the State Department’s division for Far Eastern Affairs, where he was instrumental in mediating the United State’s involvement in the Korean War. In the 1950s Rusk headed the Rockefeller Foundation, a private philanthropy group, where he stayed until he was tapped to be the nation’s top diplomat by President John F. Kennedy. Davidson College recognized his achievements by awarding him an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree in 1950.
Beginning in 1961, Rusk began an eight year stint as Secretary of State, the second longest in U. S. history, in which he was party to some crucial policy decisions of the early Cold War, including the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, and the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. As a diplomat Rusk attempted to diffuse the mounting tensions between Arab nations and Israel, supported aid to developing nations, and helped broker some of the earliest arm control agreements between the U. S. and the Soviet Union. In 1969, after shouldering the American reputation abroad through some of the most tumultuous years in its history, Rusk retired from politics for good. In 1970 he accepted a job teaching international law at the University of Georgia, a position which he held until his retirement in 1984.
In October of 1985 Rusk returned to Davidson College to give the keynote address at the inauguration of the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies. The purpose of this $10 million mission was to incorporate discussions of international issues in life at Davidson. Rusk’s remarks at the convocation, which are available at the Davidson College Archives, centered upon his belief that nuclear war could yet be averted; “I do not believe that we are on this earth to reach out and grasp the power of the sun to burn ourselves off of it,” he told the students and faculty of his alma mater.
When Rusk passed away in 1994, the Cold War was over and the threat of nuclear had receded; the once-maligned diplomat was eulogized by many who could only wonder at his resolve during a time brimming with international crises. Former Ambassador Jack Perry, director of the Dean Rusk Program at Davidson, wrote in the Charlotte Observer: “When Dean Rusk died Tuesday, the Cold War became less accessible to today’s students, more a part of history. He had become a living embodiment of the complexities of that dangerous period. Now we must look to the books for our answers, and hope that the historians give us the complexities with all their thorns and give us Dean Rusk in all his stature.”
Dean Rusk – Works Cited
Dean. As I Saw It. New York: Norton, 1990.
Rusk, Dean. “Remarks made at
Davidson College Fall Convocation and the Inauguration of the Dean Rusk Program
in International Studies in Davidson, North Carolina, October 24, 1985.”
TS copy. Property of Davidson College Archives.
Perry, Jack. “Memories of Dean
Rusk.” Charlotte Observer. 22 December 1994. p. A12
Author: Wilson McBee
Date: January 2006
Cite as: McBee, Wilson. “Dean Rusk” Davidson Encyclopedia January 2006