May 22, 2013
James Blight on McGeorge Bundy
Posted on Dec 19, 2008
By James Blight
In early February 1965, LBJ sent Bundy on his first trip to Vietnam as part of an overall evaluation by the administration as to whether they should “get in or get out” of Vietnam—whether they should send combat troops to Vietnam in large numbers, or find a way to exit the deteriorating situation as soon as possible. While Bundy was in Vietnam, the insurgents struck a base in Pleiku, in the Central Highlands, killing several Americans, wounding more than 100, and destroying U.S. helicopters and airplanes under the jurisdiction of the South Vietnamese allies of the United States. Bundy flew immediately up to Pleiku from Saigon to view the damage and visit with the wounded American advisers. In a book to be published soon, LBJ aide (now PBS journalist) Bill Moyers is quoted as he describes (at an April 2005 conference in which Gordon Goldstein also participated) his own reaction to listening to Mac Bundy’s phone call to LBJ from Vietnam on Feb. 7, 1965.
Moyers: McGeorge Bundy was a different man after Pleiku. … I guess it has something to do with when you hear the firing of the shells. When you are present, something happens to you. He was a different man after that. … I was actually in the room when Mac called from Pleiku and told the president.
Goldstein: And did you sense a great depth of emotion in his recounting those events?
Moyers: Yes. … He was always crisp, collected and composed, but there was a timbre in his voice that day on the phone. Granted it was a military phone with poor reception, but I had never heard such emotion in his voice. I had never heard it, even after the assassination. When he came back, he had recovered, but he was different. (Quoted in James G. Blight, janet M. Lang and David A. Welch, “Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK,” to be published in January 2009 by Rowman & Littlefield.)
On the flight back to Washington, Bundy and his aides drafted a memo that recommended to LBJ that he order at once “sustained reprisals” against North Vietnam. LBJ agreed. Within a month, the first U.S. Marines had arrived in Vietnam, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to follow. This time, Bundy agreed with his president, a fact he would regret to the end of his life.
In Retrospect: Why Bundy Didn’t Get It
The most moving and interesting sections of “Lessons in Disaster” are those Goldstein devotes to Bundy’s struggle to discover why he didn’t get it. Why did he not understand that JFK was not going to have an American war in Vietnam? Why did he not grasp what McNamara and Taylor understood by October 1963, that the U.S. under JFK was pulling out of Vietnam? And why did he find himself agreeing with LBJ in 1965 on what may have been the most disastrous presidential decision in American history prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq—LBJ’s decision to send in the U.S. military to take over the war from the South Vietnamese?
Why, Goldstein asks over and over again in this book, did Bundy advise his presidents so badly—so consistently badly—on Vietnam? Regardless of one’s view of Bundy and his role in the war, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for him. One can almost see him squirming in his desk chair, scribbling to himself, as he peers into the abyss of his own culpability.
Goldstein does give us a few clues. The Bundy of the 1960s that emerges in “Lessons in Disaster” is given to what seems to be a variant of performance art. He seems to be performing even in memos, which are often filled with a “hi-ho” cheerfulness that may belie an unwillingness to probe the darker recesses of the horrors and consequences of a war he repeatedly asks his presidents to escalate. Sometimes it even appears that to Mac Bundy, deciding whether to go to war in Vietnam is largely a game. For example, Goldstein tells us that Bundy heard from his aide Jim Thomson in December 1964 that going to war in Vietnam would be a disaster. Bundy responds jovially: “Well, James, that’s a good point. You may well be right. Thank you so much.”
Bundy’s retrospective defense, according to Goldstein, was that Thomson’s view did not matter, just as Bundy’s own view didn’t matter, because “Johnson had decided to have his war.” But, one wonders, how would Bundy know, since he himself seems never to have recommended otherwise.
In order for the “lessons” in disaster really to apply to the world as it is now, and may be in the future, we need to know more about why Bundy was unable to grasp in real time what was obvious in retrospect. After all, history will continue to unfold in real time, not recollected time. While Goldstein’s book is not primarily an effort to explain Bundy’s obtuseness, he does provide a tantalizing clue as to a possible conclusion Bundy might have reached, if he had lived to complete the book.
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