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Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 11:01am

Late Secretary of State Dean Rusk's Children On Their Father's Legacy

Updated: 6 months ago.
Georgia native Dean Ruck served as secretary of state and for President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

On May 27, GPB premiered a documentary about Dean Rusk. The Georgia native served as secretary of state and for President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Two of Rusk’s three children-- Peggy Rusk- Smith and Rich Rusk-- joined GPB All Things Considered host Ellen Reinhardt for a conversation about their father’s legacy.

Here is the transcript below:

Ellen Reinhardt ( Host, All Things Considered): Thank you for being here. How would you describe your father?

Peggy Rusk-Smith: My father was brilliant and very dedicated to the country.

Ellen Reinhardt: And Rich, what would you say?

Rich Rusk: He really loved this country, in part, I supposed because he came off a 40-acre farm in Cherokee County, Georgia. And never forgot it. He was astonished that a boy from that background could go on and be Secretary of State.

Peggy Rusk-Smith: Both my father and my mother were very good at not pressuring us or pushing us in any particular direction.

Ellen Reinhardt: So Peggy, you got married when you were 18. And you married a wonderful man named Guy Smith, who is African-American. And you did that in 1967, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ban on interracial marriage.

Peggy Rusk-Smith: He was in Georgetown. He has just graduated from Georgetown. He was in ROTC, so we was scheduled to go on active duty soon. And we wanted to be married before he did.

Ellen Reinhardt: But then your wedding photo is on the cover of TIME magazine.

Peggy Rusk-Smith: (laughter) That was a big shock. We weren’t trying to make any kind of statement. It has really nothing to do with our relationship. The fact that everyone else was making a big deal about it was their issue.

Ellen Reinhardt: Your father was colorblind. But at the same time, he offered to step down as Secretary of State because he was worried that some of the public reaction to your marriage was going to impact President Johnson. Johnson, of course, refused his resignation. Did you know about that at the time?

Peggy Rusk-Smith: He gave me lots of reasons why he thought it would be not a good idea for us to get married. One was my age. One was the fact that I hadn’t finished school. One was the fact that they guy was probably going off to Vietnam. I mean, he definitely believed in equality for all and integration. And he taught me that, obviously. But, he never brought up race as a reason not to marry, although he did point out that he was afraid that a lot of the senators and congressmen who were in powerful positions -- {it} might somehow influence their vote on supporting President Johnson’s policies.

Rich Rusk: They had a terrific marriage. Guy died two years ago. He went from that marriage to fly a Huey Helicopter gunship in Vietnam.

Ellen Reinhardt: When you were in Cornell, you opposed that war. What was that like for you? You felt strongly about that war and your father was the voice of that war for the Johnson administration.

Rich Rusk: I became so obsessed with all the death and the destruction. All ended with me in a nervous breakdown at Cornell in January 1970.

Ellen Reinhardt: And what about your relationship with your father at that time? I mean, he was hesitant to get into that war, but then once he was, he was committed to it.

Rich Rusk: Yeah, deeply opposed the war in Vietnam. And he heard about it over the dinner table of course. And I never got involved publically with the anti-war movement because I didn’t want to embarrass him. But I’d bring home classmates from Cornell University. Everyone I knew at Cornell was against the war and they would be coming down to Washington for some massive, anti-war rally and oftentimes they would stay right at our house. And my dad would see them coming down the sidewalk and he’d say ‘Well fellas, you’re welcome to stay here but you park your signs in the umbrella rack at the front door.

I never heard him say that that war was a mistake. But I think he died believing that we had tried to do the right thing there.

Ellen Reinhardt( Host, All Things Considered): Thank you both for talking with me. I’ve been talking with Peggy Rusk-Smith and Rich Rusk. Thank you both for being here.

Peggy Rusk-Smith, Rich Rusk: Thank you.

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