May 22, 2013
James Blight on McGeorge Bundy
Posted on Dec 19, 2008
By James Blight
Spurred on by Goldstein, Bundy annotated documents, tape-recorded dozens of hours of comments, wrote out original fragments to be used later in the book he and Goldstein were planning, and generated, all told, a substantial body of commentary by Bundy on the war. Now, a dozen years after Bundy’s death, and following a long and complex negotiation with the Bundy family over the right to publish the new material, Gordon Goldstein has written his own book about Bundy and the war. This is Goldstein’s book, not Mac Bundy’s. But in addition, Goldstein has arranged and supplemented Bundy’s original contributions so that McGeorge Bundy, a key architect of the war in Vietnam, in effect speaks from the grave about the war that, in the eyes of many, came to define his life.
“Lessons in Disaster” is not primarily a book about the Vietnam War, although it is well anchored in the literature of U.S. decision-making on the war. Instead, it is foremost the story of a quest—personal, historical and even moral—of a major public figure searching for the roots of his own mistakes and his own culpability. Goldstein does not review the major developments in the war, because such surveys can be found in hundreds of other books, and because making the book top-heavy with Vietnam-era context would also have distracted readers from Goldstein’s central mission, which is to tell the story of Bundy’s quest. The annotated cast of characters at the beginning of the book is helpful. An appendix containing a basic chronology of the war would also have been helpful to readers who lack a thorough grounding in the Vietnam War.
Bundy’s reading of the documentary evidence led him, according to Goldstein, to two conclusions: First, JFK was not going to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam, because he didn’t believe that such a guerrilla conflict could be won by introducing large numbers of foreign combat troops. Second, virtually nothing could have prevented LBJ from sending combat troops to Vietnam, because LBJ was unwilling to face the political fallout he believed he would have encountered if he had withdrawn, as JFK had already begun to do in late 1963. This became the point of departure for Bundy and Goldstein: The Vietnam War was Lyndon Johnson’s war, not John Kennedy’s war.
Bundy, by his own admission in marginalia, fragments and interview material he produced with Goldstein, understood none of this in real time. Here are three examples of Bundy’s cluelessness—his habitual inability to understand the presidents he served with in regard to the conflict in Vietnam.
By November 1961, JFK had told his senior advisers nearly a dozen times on the record, in meetings whose minutes we have, that he was not sending combat troops to Vietnam. Bundy was foremost among those who did not get it, who failed to understand JFK’s reasoning—which was that guerrilla wars could not be won by large foreign armies that would eventually go home and leave the guerrillas in charge. In 1961, Bundy apparently did not believe Kennedy was serious about letting South Vietnam go, if it came to that. On Nov. 15, just before a pivotal meeting of JFK with his national security team, Bundy wrote to Kennedy in a tone more often reserved for asking someone if he is free for lunch, rather than in a memorandum to a president having to address the gravest matter he can face, which is whether to commit the nation to a foreign war. Bundy began, “So many people have offered their opinions on Vietnam that more may not be helpful. But the other day at the swimming pool you asked me what I thought and here it is.” As Goldstein reports, Bundy was retrospectively appalled by the content and tone of his memo: so clueless about his president, so flippant about matters of war and peace, life and death.
Transcripts are now available of audiotapes made secretly by JFK during meetings of his advisers on Oct. 2 and 5, 1963. McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have just returned from South Vietnam. McNamara recommends to Kennedy that the first 1,000 U.S. advisers (out of roughly 16,000) be pulled out by the end of 1963 with most of the remaining advisers to be withdrawn by the end of 1965. Taylor concurs. Bundy does not. Bundy asks McNamara, “What’s the point of doing it?” McNamara responds, “We need a way to get out of Vietnam. This is a way of doing it.” JFK responds affirmatively, and the order is given to announce the 1,000-man pullout in a public statement a few days later. Again, JFK follows through on his intention not to get bogged down in a war in Vietnam, but Bundy still does not get it. He is again on the wrong side of the argument. He is at odds with his president. He is also at odds with history, for we know what happened after Kennedy’s death. Johnson would prove far more amenable to Bundy’s proclivity toward the introduction of combat troops.
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