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James Blight on McGeorge Bundy
Posted on Dec 19, 2008
By James Blight
In a fragment dated Feb. 3, 1996, Bundy wrote: “What can we say is most surprising? The endurance of the enemy.” When I read that passage, roughly two-thirds of the way through the book, I stopped and read it again, then read it a third time. I thought to myself: Bundy is actually admitting in this fragment that he did not understand the enemy. Who knew that the Vietnamese communists would withstand the heaviest bombing campaign in history and still retain the capacity to fight the Americans successfully? Who knew that they were so committed to their cause of uniting the country under Hanoi’s leadership that nothing, short of genocide, would have dissuaded them? The answer is that a lot of people inside and outside the U.S. government knew, but Mac Bundy wasn’t interested. He didn’t understand the enemy because, frankly, he didn’t think they warranted his attention. It is a remarkable admission.
Yet Bundy was inconsistent on this point, even in retrospect. On Aug. 28, 1996, my wife janet Lang and I had an extended encounter with the Mac Bundy of old, who could not bring himself to inquire deeply into the motives and capabilities of the Vietnamese communists. We spent the day with Mac and his wife, Mary, at their summer home in Manchester, Mass. Our purpose was to recruit Bundy to our conference in Hanoi the following spring, the first ever at which former high-level North Vietnamese and U.S. decision-makers would discuss the escalation of the war in the 1960s. Bundy’s close friends Bob McNamara and former Deputy Secretary of State Nick Katzenbach would be leading the U.S. team to Hanoi. We finally popped the question, toward the end of a lively, meandering three-hour discussion of the briefing notebook for the conference, which we had sent to him a month or so before our visit.
Instantly, his answer was “no.” After three hours of genteel banter about Vietnam between the three of us, he was suddenly interrogating us. What on Earth, he wondered, did we expect to accomplish by going to Hanoi? Did we really expect the communist Vietnamese government in Hanoi, with its tradition of total secrecy about its decisions, to reciprocate our own efforts to produce critical declassified documents and the forthright testimony of former top-level decision-makers? And why did we expect the Hanoi government to admit mistakes, to admit to having missed opportunities to avoid the war or lessen its damage, when Hanoi had won the war—at a terrible cost, of course, but still, as Mac repeatedly reminded us, they had won it. Why, therefore, would former members of the Hanoi government want to look back on the war in search of their own shortcomings?
He suspected, he said, that the former North Vietnamese officials would gleefully talk about U.S. mistakes, but not their own, leading to the conclusion that the Americans missed all the opportunities to avoid or reduce the impact of the war. Looking for missed opportunities in Hanoi, Mac told us, was “like looking into an empty box.” There was nothing there.
With the end of the lecture, we headed to lunch. On the way from the porch to the dining room, he told us he thought we should go ahead and hold the conference, but we should count him out. He reminded us, apparently without irony, that, after all, he was really interested in Kennedy and Johnson and the war, not the Vietnamese communists.
Thus to a significant degree, it seemed to janet Lang and me in late August 1996 that Mac Bundy was still clueless after all these years. For why was Kennedy right and Johnson (and Bundy) wrong? Because Kennedy understood “the endurance of the enemy,” while Johnson and Bundy did not. By August 1996, the evidence from the fragments that Goldstein provides suggests Bundy was starting to get it, intellectually. Yet he still would not trouble himself to gather some firsthand data on an enemy whose tenacity and skill would leave an irreparable blot on his reputation and legacy, even if someone else was willing to set everything up for him in advance.
A Lesson for Obama
In the Dec. 18, 2008, issue of The New York Review of Books, Joan Didion warns of a potential danger faced by Barack Obama celebrants who chose to enter what she calls “the irony-free zone.” She worries that when the Obama campaign slogan “yes we can” meets the hard reality of “no you can’t” after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, it may be tempting for many Obama supporters to cling to their much-loved slogan rather than to confront head-on our inability to avoid many unsavory possibilities.
Since Didion sent her piece off to The New York Review, television commentator and former Clinton White House communications director George Stephanopoulos has reported on his Web site (on Nov. 24) that “one Obama adviser told me the Obama cabinet is shooting for a combination of a Team of Rivals and the Best and the Brightest. …” This drew the following response from PBS commentator Mark Shields: “It’s the same description of the team which led us into Vietnam. … I guess he didn’t read the end of the book” (“The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” Nov. 28, 2008).
It is not premature to ask even now, several weeks before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, whether Obama’s advisers in foreign affairs will come to see themselves as the best and the brightest, without the quotation marks and, if they do, whether they and their new president will continue to insist, as they have throughout the campaign, that the “problem” of Afghanistan can be solved via the introduction of tens of thousands of additional combat troops.
No country in modern times has introduced large numbers of troops into Afghanistan and not regretted having done so. The Russians, to take a recent example, suffered 100,000 casualties and left humiliated in defeat. The lesson of lessons to be derived from Gordon Goldstein’s instructive and timely book is this: Keep the quotation marks around “the best and the brightest.” Stay in the irony zone in real time and avoid having to revisit it, like Mac Bundy, retrospectively.
James G. Blight is a professor of international relations at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, and author or co-author of half a dozen books on the Cuban missile crisis. He is the author most recently of “Vietnam, If Kennedy Had Lived: Virtual JFK” (with janet M. Lang and David A. Welch), to be published in January by Rowman & Littlefield. He is also a producer of the Koji Masutani film based on the book.
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