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Office of the Historian

Kennedy and the Department of State

John F. Kennedy chose Dean Rusk to be his Secretary of State, convinced that Rusk would not challenge presidential control of foreign policy. A former Rhodes Scholar, professor of government, college dean, senior Department official under Secretaries Marshall and Acheson, and president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Rusk had impressive qualifications. Quiet, self-effacing, and supremely loyal without being a “yes” man, Rusk never became part of Kennedy’s inner circle and failed to establish a close rapport with the young President. Rusk served for eight years as Secretary of State, but he found fellow southerner and self-proclaimed “self-made man” Lyndon Johnson a more compatible boss than Kennedy.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk

The new administration hoped to infuse a new energy into the Department of State, but Kennedy made some appointments that he came to regret. For example, Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles, an old-line New Deal liberal, was not well suited to run the Department of State, as his job required. Bowles was a thinker and a grand conceptualizer, but he was not an administrator. In late November 1961, Kennedy replaced Bowles with Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs George Ball, who was the principal Europeanist in the Kennedy team at State. Walt W. Rostow transferred from the White House to be Counselor and head of the Policy Planning Staff, while Rusk’s friend George McGhee replaced Ball, and Ambassador-at-Large W. Averell Harriman became Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. The reshuffle was meant to improve both the Department’s administration and its policy role.

The Department did improve its performance somewhat in Kennedy’s eyes over time. Secretary Rusk was a key adviser during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and other Department officials, including Llewellyn E. Thompson, played a key role as an adviser on the Soviet Union and as a drafter of letters to Khrushchev. But as a general trend during the Kennedy years, the National Security Council increased in prominence at the expense of the Department of State, and McGeorge Bundy's role as National Security Adviser grew proportionately. Although he sought to be neutral on policy matters, laying out the bureaucratic and policy options for the President, increasingly he and his active NSC staff began to shape the agenda and orchestrate the dialogue of policy debate.