Dec 11, 2013
James Blight on McGeorge Bundy
Posted on Dec 19, 2008
By James Blight
It may at first seem odd that McNamara’s “In Retrospect” would provoke Bundy into writing his own book on Vietnam. For while McNamara’s book became a best-seller, he was savaged from both the left and the right for having the gall, as many saw it, to come forward after 30 years of silence about his role in the escalation of the war in Vietnam. But McNamara forthrightly stated that he blew it on Vietnam, that the documentation showed why and how he blew it, and he even expressed his sympathy with the very individuals who reacted to the book with such anger toward him. As McNamara correctly says in the poignant conclusion to Errol Morris’ Academy Award-winning 2004 film, “The Fog of War,” “a lot of people think I’m a son of a bitch.” One might think that Mac Bundy, in observing the savaging of his friend Bob McNamara, would have vowed never to give the public an occasion to attack him in a similar manner by publishing a book on his own role in the war.
Yet Goldstein is clear: McNamara’s example was decisive. McNamara’s example was the one Bundy sought to follow. In a memorable passage, Goldstein describes the moment when Bundy probably decided to write the book.
On April 17, 1995, Bundy appeared on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on public television as one of a panel of commentators invited to discuss the fierce national argument that McNamara’s book had generated. “I think Bob McNamara has tried very hard to tell it as he now understands it,” Bundy said. “It’s an honest contribution and it will be a very much valued one.”
The anchor, Jim Lehrer, asked about McNamara’s retrospective appraisal, “ ‘We were wrong, terribly wrong.’ Would you accept that yourself?” he asked Bundy.
“Sure,” Bundy replied with a shrug. An awkward beat followed before he added: “I think it’s very unlikely that we were right, looking at the evidence as we now have it.”
Another panelist, the then-Los Angeles Times columnist [and Truthdig co-founder] Robert Scheer, quickly seized on the significance of Bundy’s admission. “You have a guest on your program, McGeorge Bundy, who was certainly as complicit as McNamara,” he told Lehrer. “I don’t know why McNamara should take all the heat.”
The camera cut away for a reaction shot. Scheer’s attack appeared to rattle the 76-year-old Bundy. His sharp blue eyes darted back and forth behind his thick glasses with the clear plastic frames. When his gaze finally steadied, Bundy appeared to betray an emotion utterly inconsistent with his cool, Vietnam-era persona. It was not a look of fear, exactly, but something related to it: a thinly suppressed expression of sudden alarm. The fierce anger directed at McNamara had suddenly been focused on him, and for an instant he appeared uncharacteristically vulnerable. Within days of his television appearance, however, I received a call from Bundy seeking my help in composing his own memoir and retrospective analysis of America’s path to war in Vietnam. Bundy wanted to commence work as soon as possible.
What was it about McNamara’s book and the public reaction to it that led Bundy to want to break his 30-year silence on his role in the war? Knowing that upon publication he too would be excoriated by many for having said too little, too late, and to the wrong audience, why would Bundy want to proceed? Did he feel that some of the verbal abuse to which McNamara was being subjected actually ought to be directed at him? Did he feel his days were numbered, that dead men tell no tales, and that if he wanted his own perspective on Vietnam to be part of his legacy he had no time to lose? Goldstein confesses that he does not know.
Bundy, Goldstein and the Book
Now, more than a dozen years after Mac Bundy asked for Gordon Goldstein’s help, we have Goldstein’s “Lessons in Disaster.” He began as Bundy’s research assistant on the Vietnam book project, but eventually Bundy asked him to become the co-author of anything they might publish. In fact, Goldstein seems to have become something of an alter ego to the man who was formerly so supremely confident that David Halberstam referred to him as “the dean of the world.” By the late spring of 1995, a relationship of equals was established between Bundy and Goldstein.
It was Goldstein’s job to hold a multifaceted mirror of historical reality up to a man who had once seemed able to justify anything and everything he had ever done by the sheer force of his intellect and biting wit—he was, in his youthful prime, said by many to have been a virtuoso of the put-down.
Goldstein also provided Bundy with books, articles and analyses of the scholarly state of the art on the war and Bundy’s role in it. It would have been easy for Bundy to overwhelm Goldstein, fresh out of graduate school. But he clearly did not want to do so. It would also have been understandable if Goldstein had buckled under the famously intimidating glare and the ever-present threat of a peremptory verbal barrage of Bundy, but Goldstein seems to have stood his ground, even when he and Bundy disagreed.
They formed an unusual but highly successful partnership, two members of a team whose common objective was to produce a book, rooted in the documentary record, and containing Bundy’s deepest reflections on the tragedy in Vietnam. It cannot have been easy for either Bundy, who defied the wishes of his family in resurrecting the ghosts of the Vietnam War yet again, or for Goldstein, less than half Bundy’s age and, at the outset, with almost no background in the vast literature of the Vietnam War.
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