Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who went "eyeball to eyeball" with Moscow during the Cuban missile crisis and helped oversee America's ill-fated buildup in Vietnam, died Tuesday at 85.

Rusk, the son of a poor Georgia farmer who became the nation's highest Cabinet officer in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, died at his home in Athens, the University of Georgia said Wednesday. He taught at the university's law school after leaving Washington in 1969.He had suffered from heart disease in recent years.

Rusk was appointed secretary of state by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, enforcing the young president's Cold War policy of containing communism. After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson insisted Rusk stay on, and Rusk remained secretary until the end of Johnson's term in 1969, despite criticism for Vietnam.

Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who served with Rusk and was also vilified over Vietnam, Wednesday praised him as "the most selfless, devoted servant of our nation that I've ever known."

Johnson's widow, Lady Bird, said Wednesday that Rusk "was one of the greatest men of my lifetime and one of my dearest friends."

In his eight years as secretary, Rusk presided over four major global events: the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the signing of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the Soviet Union and the Vietnam War.

Rusk supported Johnson's policy on Vietnam so strongly that he became a favorite target of anti-war lawmakers and student protesters. Even his son, Richard, called his father "an architect of a war that killed 58,000 Americans and nearly a million Vietnamese."

Rusk defended his role in the Vietnam War in his son's 1990 book, "As I Saw It."

"Because of this nation's commitments, I had a duty to perform; to try to prevent North Vietnam from overrunning South Vietnam by force. That was my job and I tried to do it," Rusk said.

Johnson later credited Rusk with developing the proposal that led to the unconditional halt of bombing of North Vietnam in March 1968.

Rusk said the war contributed to world peace.

But he in a 1974 interview, Rusk conceded that he "underestimated the tenacity of the North Vietnamese (and) I overestimated the patience of the American people."

Early in his tenure in 1961, Rusk was at Kennedy's side when a group of Cuban exiles, supported by the CIA, tried to invade Cuba's Bay of Pigs to oust Fidel Castro. The invasion was a fiasco.

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Rusk was there when East Germany began building the Berlin Wall to separate the east and west sections of the city, and he was in the center of the Cuban missile encounter in 1962.

The world held its breath when Kennedy ordered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to dismantle Cuban missile sites aimed at the United States. Kennedy's advisers were split between reacting harshly or cautiously if Khrushchev failed to respond.

When he sensed that Khrushchev had begun to back down, Rusk summed it up with his quotation: "We're standing eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked."

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Rusk said, "I never thought I'd live to see this day."

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