Dean Rusk and the dissent channel

March 18, 1967. Afternoon. Secretary of State Dean Rusk conducts a briefing on Vietnam for state governors in the Fish Room of the White House.

At White House, with President Lyndon B. Johnson in attendance, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk briefs US governors on the US-Vietnam War. The briefing took place March 18, 1967, not long before Rusk set up a “dissent channel” for State Department diplomats frustrated by US foreign policy. (photo credit)

 

In my current role as leader of the 38-year-old Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia School of Law, I tend to take a close look at any reference to our Center’s namesake, Dean Rusk, who served as the only Secretary of State to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

And so it is with the US diplomatic topic du mois, the “dissent channel” at the Department of State.

This channel is much in the news these days, on account of a Page 1 New York Times story leaking a dissent-channel letter by 51 diplomats at State who want more use of force in Syria than President Barack Obama to date has authorized. (Worth-reading questions about the “leak” here.) And then there was yesterday’s Times story by Ellen Barry, about a dissent-channel “Blood Letter” that forestalled career advancement for the eponymous letter-writing diplomat.

Quite a surprise, amid all this, to read this explanation of the dissent channel, in a transcript of the June 17 Daily Press Briefing by a State Department spokesperson:

“This procedure, this vehicle has been in place since Secretary of State Dean Rusk was in office in 1971.”

Why a surprise? Because by 1971, Rusk was regaling Georgia Law students as the revered Sibley Professor of International Law.

At the briefing, an unnamed reporter took immediate issue with the spokesperson’s account:

QUESTION: And just – can we be clear about when it actually began? Because Rusk, I think, was gone by ’69 when the Nixon Administration came in. So I don’t think he was Secretary of State in 1971, but I could certainly be mistaken.

[ANSWER]: I think it was 1971 and —

QUESTION: Okay.

[ANSWER]: — my reading of the history said that Rusk had something to do with it. But I’m not going to quibble with you —

QUESTION: No, no.

[ANSWER]: — over the history of the program.

Uncharacteristic of these kind of transcripts, the spokesperson’s assertion is supported by a footnote [1]. It says only “William P. Rogers.” That’s the name of the man who became Secretary of State in 1969, after Rusk left government service for the last time. But a quick look at Rusk’s bio on the Department’s site would have confirmed the premise of the reporter’s question.

So what’s right, and wrong?

On the small point of timing, the spokesperson is wrong. But on the larger point of establishing a channel for dissent, unique among the world’s diplomatic services, the account is spot on. To quote a memorial published the year that Rusk died, in the Department’s own publication, Dispatch:

Dean Rusk left his mark not only on the nation and the world, but also on the Department of State as an institution. At a time of tremendous domestic social change, he encouraged minorities and women to enter the Foreign Service. He established the Dissent Channel and the Open Forum to give members of the Department alternative ways to make their foreign policy views known.

 

(Cross-posted from our Center’s Exchange of Notes blog)

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