331. Letter From Secretary of State Rusk to Ralph Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference1

Dear Dr. Abernathy:

At our meeting on May 1,2 I took note of the grievances which were expressed and to which I felt this Department could respond. I am writing now to convey my response and to transmit to you selected background information on the subjects of concern to representatives of the Poor People’s Campaign.

A number of the representatives demanded an end to the war in Vietnam. As you know, the President on March 31 took a major unilateral action to de-escalate the conflict and, as a result of this initiative, talks with representatives of North Vietnam have now begun in Paris.

One of the representatives stated that United States relations with South Africa, Rhodesia, and Portugal support racist societies abroad and thereby serve to undermine national goals and policies of racial equality. A careful reading of our policies toward these countries, which are explained in Attachment A,3 will not support that view.

The United States has supported fully, and will continue to support, the Security Council program of economic sanctions directed against the white minority regime in Southern Rhodesia.

The United States has maintained that the people of Portuguese territory in Africa are entitled to the right of self-determination and has constantly urged Portugal both publicly and privately to accept this principle. Department regulations for a number of years also have forbidden the supply of military equipment for use in Portuguese Africa by either public or private American sources and have prohibited Portugal from diverting to Africa any of the small quantities of military equipment which we sell or provide for use in the NATO area.

The United States has taken every opportunity both in international forums and in bilateral relations with South Africa to express the view that the apartheid practices of that government are damaging to human relations in South Africa and to South Africa’s own interests. [Page 580] Since 1963, the United States has stopped all sales to South Africa of arms, military equipment, and materials for their manufacture and maintenance. The Department has supported self-determination for the inhabitants of the former mandated territory of Southwest Africa and has expressed the view that proposals presently before the South Africa parliament to apply de facto apartheid to this territory are illegal.

In sum, our policies in Southern Africa are based on support for majority rule, human rights, and self-determination. We are constantly seeking ways to strengthen the application of these principles.

A series of grievances were aimed at our program of foreign economic assistance. It was stated that assistance should not be given to the poor in other countries when there is so much poverty at home. As explained in Attachment B, we do not believe that economic aid programs to the poor nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America (which now account for 1.5% of the federal budget) are conducted at the expense of programs to help the poor in the United States. Close to 90% of foreign aid appropriations are spent at home, creating jobs and expanding domestic production.

You will understand that just as the majority of affluent in this country cannot isolate themselves from the minority of poor Americans, so the United States as one of the small minority of rich nations cannot isolate itself safely from the aspirations of the desperately poor majority.

It also was stated that aid funds were being used to support dictators in Latin America. There is a popular misconception, discussed in Attachment C, that Latin America is a land of dictatorship when, in fact, 21 of the 24 governments now in office in Latin America were freely elected.

United States assistance programs have given and will continue to give, overwhelming priority to economic and social development. As explained in Attachment D, less than four per cent of our aid consists of military assistance. Both the percentage of gross national product expended in defense budgets (1.7%) and the percentage of the population in the armed forces (.34%) in Latin America are among the lowest in the world.

U.S. aid policy toward Latin America will continue to be carried out under the terms of the Alliance for Progress which call for serious efforts on the part of nations there to undertake social reforms and develop political and economic institutions which are responsive to the will and needs of the people.

A third grievance relating to aid policy concerned the use abroad of fortified foods which are not available to the poor people at home. A memorandum examining this question is enclosed as Attachment E. [Page 581] It has been and will continue to be our policy, that no food (fortified or otherwise) will be sent abroad until distribution requirements of existing government domestic programs are met.

Several representatives of Mexican American interests stated that land rights guaranteed to them by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo have not been enforced. This and related grievances are discussed in the letter to me from Mr. Vicente Ximenes, Chairman of the Inter-Agency Cabinet Committee on Mexican American Affairs, which is enclosed as Attachment F.

These same representatives also expressed concern over immigration policies and the regulation of Green Card holders. In recent years the influx of both seasonal and permanent alien workers has dropped sharply. Green Card holders who commute from their homes in Mexico to jobs in the United States are being strictly controlled by recent regulation. Controls over resident Green Card holders would require legislation.

On the general subject of Mexican American affairs, it should be noted that President Johnson has undertaken significant new measures, strongly supported by this Department, to improve the quality of life of Mexican American citizens. I am enclosing a brochure and statement of the President about these programs as Attachment G.

One of the representatives, speaking on behalf of Indian interests, stated that the Department was not protecting Indian fishing rights guaranteed by treaty. With the exception of an article in the North Pacific Fur Seals convention, we cannot identify special Indian fishing rights guaranteed by international treaty.

The Department endeavors to protect the fishing interests of Indian and Eskimo fishermen as explained in Attachment H. For example, continuing pressure has been maintained on Japanese fishing operations north of the Bering Strait which present a threat to the livelihood of natives of Northwest Alaska. As a result, the Government of Japan has not permitted the expansion of those operations.

A special question was raised concerning Department of Defense employment of natives in Alaska. I can report, on the basis of information provided by the Defense Department and enclosed as Attachment I, that intensified efforts are being made by the Alaskan Command to locate a maximum number of Alaskan natives for anticipated job vacancies. The Defense Department is represented on the Committee on Alaskan Hire which is developing plans to overcome the difficulties of recruitment in remote areas and the lack of training of Alaskan natives. The proposal currently being considered by the Committee calls for establishing a number of training positions roughly equivalent to 10% of the current Federal work force in Alaska.

[Page 582]

Grievances concerning the draft have been referred to the Deputy Director of the Selective Service System who is preparing a response which will be transmitted to you shortly.

I sensed throughout our meeting that the specific grievances to which I am now responding were symptoms of a much deeper, more general grievance concerning the allocation of this country’s resources as between domestic and foreign affairs. In the parlance of the day, your representatives were concerned, as we all are, about “priorities.”

In light of emerging domestic problems this nation will be debating anew what proportion of our resources should be allocated to the dual national purposes of protecting security and promoting our welfare. I hope that as this debate takes place it will be remembered that without security there can be no welfare, that our past investment in security has brought us all safely, through a dangerous passage, into the present day, and that it is neither easy nor inexpensive to help organize an enduring peace in the world.

I hope you find this letter, and the materials we have taken care to prepare, responsive to the grievances which were directed to this Department. I will be transmitting additional materials to you and will be pleased to respond to any further inquiry or request that you may have.4


Dean Rusk
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1967–69, SOC 14 US. No classification marking. A typed note at the bottom of the first page reads, “This is a revised version of 9/22/68 delivered to WH by Peter Kreogh. Original of this letter to Mr. Kreogh for delivery to Justice Department. (Letter Delivered to Justice Undated).” A handwritten notation next to this text reads, “5/23/68.”
  2. See Document 330.
  3. None of the attachments is printed.
  4. An enclosure to a June 14 letter from Marian Wright on behalf of Ralph Abernathy expressed the dissatisfaction of the Poor People’s Campaign with the Department’s answers: “Besides reiterating time-worn policies which have guided our foreign policies for the past few years, Secretary Rusk gave to us no evidence that he is willing to seriously consider the demands of the poor people of this nation.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Records of the Department of State, Central Files, 1967–69, SOC 14 US)