May 19, 2013
James Blight on McGeorge Bundy
Posted on Dec 19, 2008
By James Blight
And isn’t it ironic … don’t you think?
—Alanis Morissette, “Ironic” (From the album “Jagged Little Pill,” 1995)
The irony of the Vietnam War—the best men leading us to the worst disaster—acquired a shorthand referent with the publication of David Halberstam’s 1972 masterpiece, “The Best and the Brightest.” Post-Halberstam, “the best and the brightest” has become one of the most ironical phrases in the English language. “The best and the brightest” led the U.S. into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, according to Halberstam, by their peculiar brand of hubris, derived from good breeding, excellent education, youthful energy and conviction, and the belief that they, acting as proxies for the entire United States of America and the Free World led by Washington, could prevent the world from “going communist.”
In the pre-Halberstam sense, the very brightest and the very best of these men was McGeorge “Mac” Bundy. A super-achiever before the phrase came into common usage, his achievements were equaled only by the supreme ease and apparent nonchalance with which he defeated every competitor in every contest he chose to enter. First in his class at Groton. First in his class at Yale, class of 1940. Dean of Harvard College at the preposterously young age of 34, without even having taken the time and trouble to earn a Ph.D. Witty, erudite, given to quoting Shakespeare and Austen, prone to finishing the sentences of colleagues before they could do so themselves, and more articulately. At age 41, special assistant for national security affairs—what is now called “national security adviser”—to President John F. Kennedy, his former schoolmate at the Dexter School in Brookline, Mass.
Now, more than 35 years after the publication of Halberstam’s devastating critique, it is possible to move beyond the finger-pointing irony of Mac Bundy and the Vietnam War, thanks to Gordon M. Goldstein’s important, poignant and troubling new book, “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam” (New York: Times Books, 2008). Goldstein shows us a McGeorge Bundy in old age and in declining health desperately trying to understand where he and his colleagues went wrong on Vietnam. We encounter not the haughty, know-it-all of the Bundy legend who used words like a rapier, but a rather melancholy old man often at a loss for words to describe the depth of his own failure.
For those familiar with his reputation only from the writing of Halberstam and the Vietnam ironists who followed him, the portrait of Bundy that emerges from Goldstein’s book is shocking. For those of a certain age who feel they still hate him for his role in the Vietnam War, their capacity to hate will be challenged by Goldstein’s Bundy, asking himself what he should have done different to avoid the war.
It is, on balance, a stroke of good fortune that a book planned by Bundy and Goldstein was never written, for what we get is not the elevated stentorian prose we associate with Bundy’s published writing, but a kind of uncorrected proof of an elderly man struggling to get closer to an explanation of his culpability for the war—a Mac Bundy seeking to unravel the irony that hounded him for the 30 years he lived after leaving the administration of President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
Bundy died in the midst of his struggle. We have waited a dozen years since his death for Goldstein’s book. It is worth the wait.
Why Bundy Decided to Write a Book on the Vietnam War
Nothing in Mac Bundy’s post-government career betrayed any clue that he would deal with Vietnam before he died. For although Bundy had not altogether avoided commenting publicly on the Vietnam War after leaving office in 1966, his occasional remarks on the conflict never included any analysis of his own personal role. Following his resignation from the Johnson administration, he became president of the Ford Foundation, where he stayed until 1979, when he joined the history department at New York University. At NYU he devoted himself mainly to issues of nuclear danger. During his tenure at NYU, he occasionally referred to Vietnam in lectures, but only rarely, and seemed to studiously avoid any mention of his role in the escalation of the war in 1965, the year it became an American war. Occasionally, he would be heckled about Vietnam by audiences at one of his many lectures on the nuclear threat, and very occasionally he would respond briefly, saying that he would get to that subject in his own good time. But mainly he avoided the subject altogether in public.
Why then did Bundy, after nearly 30 years of virtual silence on Vietnam, decide to write a book—and a very personal book at that—about his own role regarding Vietnam under both Kennedy and Johnson? Gordon Goldstein tells us that the short answer may be given in just two words: Robert McNamara.
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