Dean Rusk Remembers World War II, 1968

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Dean Rusk served as Secretary of State from January 1961 to January 1969, the second longest tenure in that job in U.S. history.  As with many men of his generation, he saw military service during World War II.  Indeed, his military service began a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor when he was called to active duty.  Having completed the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) program while in college, he became a captain in command of A Company of the Thirtieth Infantry Battalion of the Third Infantry Division. This is how he described their readiness in his memoirs.

Our Third Division was one of only two divisions in the entire U.S. Army rated “ready for combat.”  This was sheer fantasy, and we all knew it.  When I took command of Company A, we had 100 men in our company instead of the 225 called for by the Tables of Organization.  Many of these “soldiers” were World War I veterans, too old for actual field duty as infantrymen.  We had a few machine guns, and little else; during training exercises we used cardboard tubes instead of mortars. Ammunition was scarce; my company was limited to ten rounds per man per year on the rifle range. . . . .[i]

He hearkened back to that experience almost thirty years later when, as Secretary of State, he was communicating with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in Saigon.  In March 1968, the United States was considering asking President Thieu of South Vietnam to give a speech about Vietnamese military mobilization to support a speech on American mobilization that President Lyndon Johnson was considering.  The U.S. wanted “A strong assertion by Thieu that the South Vietnamese accept their full responsibility for the struggle and are going all out to meet it . . . .”[ii]  Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker replied that he foresaw no obstacles and that Thieu was “eager to do whatever he can to help us in the present situation.”  The ambassador noted that “one of the major emphases would certainly be the . . . efforts to beef up their military capacity.”[iii]

To supplement his earlier telegram explaining the need for a speech and what the U.S. hoped Thieu would say, Rusk personally drafted the following telegram to Bunker.  He refers to “wooden tubes” here, but the point he is making is the same.[iv]


[i] Dean Rusk (as told to Richard Rusk), AS I SAW IT (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1990), p. 99.  Rusk later served in the War Department in Washington and then in the Chine-Burma-India Theater during the war.

[ii] Department of State to U.S. Embassy Saigon, Telegram 131330, March 16, 1968, file POL 27 VIET S, 1967-69 (NAID 594728) Subject Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Secretary Rusk personally drafted this telegram.

[iii] U.S. Embassy Saigon to Department of State, Telegram 22276, March 16, 1968, file POL 27 VIET S, 1967-69 (NAID 594728) Subject Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[iv] Department of State to U.S. Embassy Saigon, Telegram 131744, March 17, 1968, file POL 27 VIET S, 1967-69 (NAID 594728) Subject Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

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