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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

by Gordon M. Goldstein


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"A compelling portrait of a man once serenely confident, searching decades later for self-understanding."—Richard Holbrooke, The New York Times Book Review

"I had a part in a great failure. I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution. If I have learned anything I should share it."

These are not words that Americans ever expected to hear from McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. But in the last years of his life, Bundy—the only principal architect of Vietnam strategy to have maintained his public silence—decided to revisit the decisions that had led to war and to look anew at the role he played.

In this original and provocative work of presidential history, Gordon M. Goldstein distills the essential lessons of America's involvement in Vietnam, drawing on his prodigious research as well as interviews and analysis he conducted with Bundy before his death in 1996. Lessons in Disaster is a historical tour de force on the uses and misuses of American power, and offers instructive guidance that we must heed if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805090871
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 314,101
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Gordon M. Goldstein is a scholar of international affairs who has served as an international security adviser to the United Nations secretary-general and as a Wayland Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt



In my meetings with McGeorge Bundy, time seemed to stop and reverse course, back to the years of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, as Bundy would recall the storied cast of characters with whom he had served three decades earlier—men like Robert McNamara, the Ford Motor Company president whom Kennedy tapped to run the Pentagon; Dean Rusk, the former Rhodes Scholar and famously reserved foundation president who served as secretary of state; and Richard Bis-sell, Bundy’s old friend from the Yale economics department, who led the CIA’s so-called Black Operations to overthrow foreign leaders in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Bundy would ruminate out loud, reconstructing the power structure of the two different administrations and the proximity of the key players to the president. He revisited bureaucratic and policy turf battles, elucidating the tactics that won influence with the president or preempted rivals. Bundy would test various historical propositions about the Cold War or American politics, circuitously weaving his observations back to the question of Vietnam. He would continually return to the theme of personality, which he treated as an intangible variable of the decision-making pro cess. The real state of play, Bundy often reminded me, could not be discerned by the documentary record alone. He advised me to be wary of the "paper trail way of missing the political point."1 Throughout all of these varied discussions, Bundy seemed content to follow a subject of interest until it yielded some insight of value or, perhaps, until it yielded nothing at all. No phones would ring. No interruptions would be allowed. Outside, the business of Manhattan bustled but the traffic below on Madison Avenue would glide by silently. Inside, free of distraction, the hours would pass, the two of us simply talking.

These initial meetings, although untethered to a formal agenda, were nonetheless instructive, producing a checklist of questions, themes, events, and personalities that Bundy would want to elaborate on in the course of our work together. But these first discussions had a deeper value as well. They captured something impalpable and difficult to distill—a sensibility specific to Bundy, a quality of perspective, a basic orientation of how he conceived of Vietnam as a subject of historical inquiry.

While the McGeorge Bundy who reigned as a legend of the Establishment was reputed to be brisk, quick, calculating, and overconfident, the retrospective Bundy of thirty years later was in many ways the opposite: patient, reflective, curious, and humble. In fact, on the question of Vietnam Bundy appeared tentative and unsure—maybe on some level even mystified. Although he never said so explicitly, he seemed to be as perplexed by the disaster of Vietnam as any of the historians who studied the decisions in which he had been a central participant. How did Bundy, the star of his generation and the preeminent mind of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, get Vietnam so terribly wrong? And how would he explain his failures of judgment three decades later?

It was clear from the beginning that Bundy was distinctly uninterested in the topics of Vietnamese nationalism and the origins of the communist insurgency. Early in our collaboration Bundy’s friends and colleagues from Brown University, James Blight and Janet Lang, lobbied him strenuously to chair an American delegation with McNamara that would travel to Hanoi in 1997 for a historic meeting with the surviving members of the Vietnamese political and military leadership. The purpose of the exercise was to revisit the origins of the war from both American and Vietnamese perspectives and to fill the gaps in the historical record about the key inflection points that fueled the war’s escalation in the mid-1960s. While McNamara was driven to seize the historical opportunity of an unprecedented dialogue with America’s former enemy, Bundy had no enthusiasm for examining the Vietnamese calculus of interests that contributed to war with the United States. The decision to Americanize the Vietnam War in 1965, Bundy told me, was a decision made in Washington and not in Hanoi. It was inherently a presidential decision, he argued, and thus had to be studied through the prism of the two men he served who held ultimate authority for questions of war and peace—President Kennedy and President Johnson.

To understand his own role in shaping America’s fate in Vietnam, Bundy would have to see it illuminated by the presidents he counseled. We would therefore begin at the point of exposition most logical to Bundy, with a systematic examination of how Kennedy encountered Vietnam in his first year in office, and of the decisions he made about the deployment of American power there in the course of his presidency.

Bundy had, of course, read innumerable histories of the Kennedy administration, but in the decades since he left government he had not read the gradually accumulating body of declassified government documents on Kennedy and Vietnam, many of which were compiled by the State Department and published in the bound crimson volumes known as Foreign Relations of the United States. This voluminous chronological compilation of documents about Vietnam policy—memoranda, meeting summaries, cables, correspondence, intelligence estimates, defense analyses, mission reports—was unexplored historical territory for Bundy. It was here, in the thousands of pages of government documents rather than in a conference room in Hanoi, where Bundy wanted to search for insights into the Vietnam War. For Bundy it was the right course. He learned that sometimes pivotal episodes in history can hide in plain sight.

As I compiled various outlines and research memoranda for Bundy about the history of Kennedy’s first year in office, it became obvious that the prospect of intervention in Vietnam was among the major challenges he confronted. In fact, in the fall of 1961 Kennedy’s most senior advisers almost unanimously warned him that the odds were sharply against avoiding a catastrophic defeat in Vietnam unless the president approved the first increment of a ground combat force deployment that might ultimately reach six divisions, or more than two hundred thousand men. Among the president’s advisers to join that recommendation was McGeorge Bundy. "Remarkable," he told me when I brought the 1961 recommendation to his attention. "I have no memory of this whatsoever." But there it was in the documents for Bundy to see—the narrative of an emerging crisis in Saigon and Kennedy’s struggle with his counselors, including his national security adviser, over how to respond.

Kennedy’s management of Vietnam in 1961 became a central focus for Bundy and an inflection point in his retrospective conclusions about the history of the war. While he did not complete his history of Kennedy’s decisions of that year he left no doubt about the importance he ascribed to them. "The policy I want to consider was in fact adopted by President Kennedy late in 1961, and sustained—though not explained—through his time as President," Bundy explained in a draft fragment. "It was maintained by Lyndon Johnson through the election year 1964, and abandoned as quietly as possible in 1965. It was the course of not engaging American ground combat troops in the war."2

"We would not have called ourselves cold warriors," Bundy observed of the new Kennedy administration. But Kennedy’s men were united in their awareness that the Cold War was a global competition, and they shared a belief that the United States "should play our necessary part." Bundy described the New Frontier mindset as one in which foreign policy was to be guided by considerations of national interest and a calculus of "circumstances and capabilities," which might take the form of a formal alliance, foreign assistance, or—if appropriate—disengagement.3 He added: " To understand the American war in Vietnam we must understand the prevalence of strong political sentiment that it was right to oppose the world-wide expansionist effort of the Soviet Communists and their allies."4

The rising tensions of the Cold War contributed to an anxious political atmosphere in the 1960 presidential race between Senator Kennedy and Vice President Nixon. The election turned out to be the closest of the century. Of more than sixty-four million votes cast, Kennedy’s margin of victory was approximately one hundred thousand, about one-tenth of 1 percent. Pivotal to Kennedy’s victory was his adept and opportunistic positioning on national security. Relentlessly attacking from the right—campaigning aggressively against President Eisenhower’s foreign policy record and, in part, on a mythical "missile gap"—the Democratic challenger crafted a message of toughness. That same message of resolve would be infused in Kennedy’s soaring inaugural address in January 1961, which promised the world, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."

McGeorge Bundy, a lifelong Republican, had spurned Nixon in 1960 to support Kennedy. The candidate was pleased to have his endorsement, said Bundy, "although reinforcement in Massachusetts was hardly his most urgent need."5 In the weeks following Kennedy’s razor-thin victory, prospective senior administration recruits—a talent pool drawn primarily from the Establishment waters between Washington and Boston—waited expectantly for an overture from the president-elect. Bundy was no exception. Sargent Shriver, the president-elect’s brother-in-law, queried Bundy about his interest in joining the new administration. "For an interesting job," Bundy told him, "I would indeed be interested." About a week later Kennedy and Bundy met in New York. Bundy was offered the chance to work with the new secretary of state, Dean Rusk, as the third-ranking official in the State Department, undersecretary for political affairs. Bundy had already expressed to Kennedy his high esteem for Rusk, noting that a Harvard dean who did not know the president of the Rockefeller Foundation "was not doing his job." Bundy called Rusk "bright, experienced, and straight—I said he would be a good boss." Bundy returned to Cambridge "full of hope" but soon heard from Kennedy that the job they had discussed in fact did not exist.6

The snafu was the result of a Kennedy staff error. It was assumed that the State Department hierarchy would remain the same as it was in the Eisenhower administration, in which the number-two slot, held by the financier C. Douglas Dillon, was responsible for economic affairs. Kennedy explained that his nominee to serve as the number-two official at the State Department, Chester Bowles, would claim the politics portfolio rather than economics, meaning that the number-three slot would be filled by the undersecretary for economic affairs. "Neither you nor I could get away with that," Kennedy said, but he closed the call by promising he would get back to Bundy at some later date.7

Bundy remembered an interminable period of waiting following that telephone call with Kennedy, although it may not have lasted more than a week. Throughout he was comforted by the attentive telephone operators assisting the president-elect, who continually asked where the Harvard dean could be reached on short notice. They finally tracked Bundy down at a Manhattan restaurant where he and his wife were having dinner with their friends Kingman and Mary Louise Brewster. The president-elect had a new proposal. Unfortunately, it was even less appealing: Kennedy now offered Bundy the fourth slot at the State Department, the inglorious post of deputy undersecretary for administration. Bundy recalled that it was a perfectly dreary position, "the guy who watches the promotions and tends to the foreign service and goes up on the Hill and explains how the department doesn’t cost as much as the Hill thinks it does, and so forth—terrible job." He had to find a politic way to decline. He asked Kennedy for ten minutes to mull over the offer and rushed back to the table.

"What the hell do I say?" Bundy asked Brewster, his college classmate who was now the provost of Yale University.

"I take it you don’t want the job?" queried Brewster.

"I don’t," Bundy declared.

"I take it you’re perfectly willing not to get any job rather than take that job?" continued Brewster.

"That’s right," Bundy said. "But I’ve got to have a good reason. I can’t just say, ‘It’s not important enough for me.’ "

"I tell you what you say," advised Brewster. "You call him up and say, you’ve had it with administration" and have been doing it for years.

Bundy called Kennedy to deliver the news. "I can’t do it," he told the president-elect. "I’ve just had it with administration."

"Well, I can sure understand that," replied Kennedy. "We’ll see what else we’ve got."

The next call from Kennedy came two days later, with an offer to serve as special assistant to the president for national security affairs.8 Although Bundy did not know it at the time, he was not Kennedy’s first choice for that position. The president-elect had already offered it to Paul Nitze, a veteran government official who had been the architect of NSC-68, a government strategy document drafted in 1950 for President Truman that became the foundation of America’s Cold War containment policy. Doubting the influence he would have as a White House staffer, Nitze declined that post and instead accepted a senior assignment in the Pentagon. Kennedy confided to John Kenneth Galbraith that he had also considered offering the position of national security adviser to Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.9 Looking back, Bundy said he was fortunate that the State Department job Kennedy originally offered him did not exist and that Nitze had declined the White House position. "Paul really honestly thought that the special assistant’s was a paper-pushing job," Bundy said, "and that the line departments were where the serious business got done."10 Bundy was ultimately shrewder in crafting a path to power. "I wanted to join the Kennedy administration and I got the best job in sight," he said.11

At the time, and perhaps in the years that followed, Bundy may have harbored an ambition to be secretary of state, the one other position he was said to covet. During the transition there was some discussion about nominating him to be America’s premier diplomat, a scenario supported by Walter Lippmann, the influential columnist. Theodore Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s closest advisers, reports that the president-elect openly mused about appointing Bundy, arguing that he was a more dynamic choice than the two other finalists under consideration, Senator J. William Fulbright and Dean Rusk.12 Bundy dismissed as "particularly foolish" the notion that he was a serious candidate for the job, noting that "a forty-three year old President from Massachusetts would not need as his senior Cabinet officer a forty-one year old Academic/Republican/Bostonian with no visible experience of government." He offered a facetious aside that nonetheless betrayed the insularity of his prior experience: "My Yale years might suggest breadth to Cambridge but not to Washington or the country."13

Bundy, of course, had an ideal profile to become one of Kennedy’s men. The president-elect was searching for counselors with whom he felt comfortable but who were "also acceptable to what was then called the Establishment," Bundy observed. (He added that his experience was of limited relevance to the generations that followed, for whom "there is no recognizable Establishment left." Aspiring foreign policy experts "are expected to have battle scars" from experience in government or politics, he said, "and I think it’s better so.") Bundy surmised that Kennedy perceived it advantageous that his prospective national security adviser was not only a Harvard dean but also a Republican who had strong affiliations with Henry Stimson and Dean Acheson.14

While much of the coverage of Bundy’s appointment was fawning, the conventional wisdom was accompanied by another, less flattering perspective on his arrival in the White House. "He was bright and he was quick but even this bothered people around him," David Halberstam wrote. "They seemed to sense a lack of reflection, a lack of depth, a tendency to look at things tactically, functionally and operationally rather than intellectually; they believed Bundy thought that there was always a straight line between two points."15 David Riesman, the sociologist whom Bundy had recruited to the Harvard faculty and considered a friend, was among those who viewed his political ascent with a degree of trepidation. When Bundy left Cambridge, said Riesman, "I grieved for Harvard and grieved for the nation; for Harvard because he was the perfect dean, for the nation because I thought that very same arrogance and hubris might be very dangerous."16

The first major foreign policy decision in which Bundy participated became the signature failure of the entire Kennedy administration.

The new administration inherited a covert plan to topple the Cuban leader Fidel Castro with an invasion force of 1,300 exiles being trained in Guatemala. It was a CIA plot actively incubated under the Eisenhower administration—which had recently broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba—and then presented to the new president for execution within the first months of his administration. The code name for the invasion was "Operation Zapata."

In February 1961, just weeks after the president’s inauguration, Bundy presented Kennedy with two papers on the proposed invasion. The first was from CIA deputy director Richard Bissell, a Groton graduate and Yale economics professor whom Bundy had known and been friendly with for years. Bissell had been one of the principal architects of the overthrow in 1954 of Guatemala’s president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, in a coup that had been actively lobbied for by the United Fruit Company. As he developed his plans for the exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Bissell had reassembled members of his Guatemala team, including the future Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt.17

The second memo Bundy presented to Kennedy was from Thomas C. Mann, the recent assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs and the new administration’s ambassador to Mexico. In a cover memo to the president, Bundy called Bissell and Mann the "real antagonists at the staff level" on the invasion debate. Bissell, who aspired to succeed Allen Dulles as the head of the CIA, was the intelligence community’s champion of Operation Zapata and managed its planning. Mann, who was not part of the intelligence apparatus, was highly dubious of the overthrow plot. He questioned the causal logic of the regime change scenario, doubting that an invasion by the small expatriate force would actually become the catalyst for a vast popular uprising across Cuba.18

Excerpted from Lessons in Disaster by Gordon M. Goldstein.

Copyright 2008 by Gordon M. Goldstein.

Published in First Holt Paperbacks Edition 2009 by Henry Holt and Company.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
The Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1961–65,
INTRODUCTION: Legend of the Establishment,
LESSON ONE: Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide,
LESSON TWO: Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get It Right,
LESSON THREE: Politics Is the Enemy of Strategy,
LESSON FOUR: Conviction Without Rigor Is a Strategy for Disaster,
LESSON FIVE: Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends,
LESSON SIX: Intervention Is a Presidential Choice, Not an Inevitability,
Praise for Lessons in Disaster,
About the Author,

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