Dean Rusk on Cold War US-Cuba relations

In his statement on easing U.S.-Cuba relations, John F. Kerry said yesterday:

‘I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba.’

rusk2The comment got me thinking who might’ve been the last Secretary of State to make an official visit. Perhaps Dean Rusk (bust at right), who served from 1970 to 1984 on the Georgia Law faculty, and is the namesake of a Georgia Law building, as well as its 37-year-old Dean Rusk Center for International Law & Policy?

Well, no. Kerry’s reference to “60 years,” plus the timeline of events in Cuba–it was in February 1959 that Fidel Castro became Cuba’s Prime Minister–point to John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State during much of the Eisenhower administration.

Still, there’s much to be gained by reading Rusk on Cuba. His tenure included U.S. entrenchment of policies against Cuba, undertaken as part of a larger policy aimed at containing Soviet communism. (That larger policy led to Rusk’s subsequent, controversial role in escalation and maintenance of the U.S.-Vietnam War.)

► Rusk’s State Department succeeded in persuading the Organization of American States to expel Cuba from taking part in inter-American affairs–a 1962 exclusion that remained in place till 2009.

► Rusk was part of the Executive Committee, or ExComm, that helped President John F. Kennedy find a way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (indeed, Rusk is sometimes credited with arranging the promised withdrawal of U.S. missiles in Turkey, a key component in the defusing of that crisis).

► And it was on Rusk’s watch that the United States aided exiles’ unsuccessful 1961 invasion of Castro’s Cuba. “The Bay of Pigs disaster was one hell of a way to close out my first hundred days as secretary of state,” he wrote at pages 216-17 of As I Saw It (1991), the memoir he co-authored with his son. According to the son, Richard Rusk (pp. 196-97):

‘Rusk privately opposed the abortive Bay of Pigs operation. “I knew it wouldn’t work … But I served President Kennedy very badly. … I didn’t oppose it forcefully. … I was too busy sitting on my little post of responsibility.”‘

Dean Rusk wrote of his surprise over eventual disclosures of CIA efforts to assassinate Castro. He did cite other plots, of which he was apprised (p. 216):

‘Following the Bay of Pigs, the CIA tried harassing Cuba with various dirty tricks. I vetoed some as being foolish or unproductive. For example, the CIA once proposed contaminating shipments of Cuban sugar with a chemical to render the sugar inedible by the time it reached foreign ports. I thought that was just damned nonsense.’

On other countries’ reaction to the Bay of Pigs debacle, Dean Rusk wrote (p. 216):

‘I have always marveled that the Bay of Pigs fiasco did not inflict greater damage upon the Kennedy administration than it did. We survived that episode better than we had any right to expect. The international community and the United Nations could have really nailed the United States for violating international law. But most governments were sorry that we had failed; regret, not outrage, seemed to mark their reaction.’

This instance of “violating international law” had at least one consequence, Rusk wrote: in the year following the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy administration placed a greater emphasis on constructing “[t]he legal case” supporting the U.S. response to the Cuban Missile Crisis (p. 233).

Concluding his memoir, Dean Rusk suggested that the Cold War was nearing its end, that “events now seem to be moving toward the West” (p. 616). More than 2 decades have passed since his words were published. It is only now, with President Barack Obama’s announcement on Cuba yesterday, that there appears to be movement toward the Cold War’s final thaw.

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