While mostly remembered for his career in government, Dean Rusk was also a distinguished university professor and an influential president of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF).
Dean Rusk was born in Cherokee County, Georgia, in 1909. He attended Davidson College and was selected as a Rhodes Scholar. Upon graduation, he began a career in teaching as an associate professor of government at Mills College, where he was later named Dean of Faculty. While at Mills, he simultaneously pursued a law degree at the University of California, Berkeley Law School and graduated in 1940.
In 1940 Rusk jointed the United States Army as an infantry reserve captain. He participated in the Burma campaigns during World War II and was promoted to Assistant Chief of Staff in the Operations Division of the General Staff. Following the end of the war, he joined the State Department as Assistant Chief of the Division of International Security Affairs, before going on to become Assistant to the Secretary of War and Director of the Office of United Nations Affairs in the State Department. In 1949 he was named Deputy Under Secretary of State, and in 1950 he was named Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs under President Harry Truman. He held this position during an era of tense international relations in the Far East, including the outbreak of the Korean War.
In 1952 Rusk left government service to preside over the RF. He had served on the Foundation’s Board of Trustees since 1950. During his tenure as president, the RF devoted more and more of its resources to the problems of the developing world, at a critical moment when many nations were emerging from colonial rule. Work in agriculture began to supplant the foundation’s long-standing interests in global health.
Rusk left the RF in 1961 when he was offered the position of Secretary of State under President John F. Kennedy. From the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Cuban missile crisis and the beginning of the Vietnam War, he influenced some of the defining political moments of the twentieth century. Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he continued to serve as Secretary of State under Lyndon Johnson. He held the post for a total of eight years, leaving at the end of the Johnson administration.
Following his departure from the Department of State, Rusk returned to the RF as its first Distinguished Fellow. This year-long position gave him the freedom to purse his own academic interests and time to redirect his career.
Rusk eventually returned to academia, becoming a professor of international law at the University of Georgia from 1970 to 1984. He died in Athens, Georgia in 1994. Dean Rusk’s papers from his time as RF President are held at the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC).