RICHARD HOLBROOKE | NYT | November 28, 2008
In 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy brought to Washington a new generation of pragmatic young activists who came to be known as the New Frontiersmen. When the journalist Theodore White later wrote a memorable photo essay about them for Life magazine, he called them the “action-intellectuals.”
The most celebrated were Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, whose title — modest by today’s standards — was special assistant to the president for national security affairs, but whose importance was great (today the position has a more grandiose title — national security adviser). McNamara, of course, became one of the most controversial public servants in modern times, while Bundy got less attention, except for Kai Bird’s excellent 1998 dual biography of him and his brother William (who had served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia).
But in “Lessons in Disaster,” Gordon Goldstein’s highly unusual book, Bundy emerges as the most interesting figure in the Vietnam tragedy — less for his unfortunate part in prosecuting the war than for his agonized search 30 years later to understand himself.
Bundy was the quintessential Eastern Establishment Republican, a member of a family that traced its Boston roots back to 1639. His ties to Groton (where he graduated first in his class), Yale and then Harvard were deep. At the age of 27, he wrote, to national acclaim, the ‘memoirs” of former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. In 1953, Bundy became dean of the faculty at Harvard — an astonishing responsibility for someone still only 34. Even David Halberstam, who would play so important a role in the public demolition of Bundy’s reputation in his classic, “The Best and the Brightest,” admitted that “Bundy was a magnificent dean” who played with the faculty “like a cat with mice.”
As he chose his team, Kennedy was untroubled by Bundy’s Republican roots —the style, the cool and analytical mind, and the Harvard credentials were more important. “I don’t care if the man is a Democrat or an Igorot,” he told the head of his transition team, Clark Clifford. “I just want the best fellow I can get for the particular job.” And so McGeorge Bundy entered into history — the man with the glittering résumé for whom nothing seemed impossible.
Everyone knows how this story ends: Kennedy assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson trapped in a war he chose to escalate, Nixon and Kissinger negotiating a peace agreement and, finally, the disastrous end on April 30, 1975, as American helicopters lifted the last Americans off the roof of the embassy. (Well, actually it was a nearby rooftop, but the myth is somehow more accurate than the literal truth.) Bundy had left the Johnson administration a decade earlier, after a dispute with Lyndon Johnson over process, not policy, and he went on to serve as president of the Ford Foundation. But for five years, he had been present at the most critical moments of the escalation, and he had supported all of them; he was one of the primary architects and defenders of the war.
The columnist Joseph Kraft, a friend of Bundy’s, once described him as “a figure of true consequence” and “perhaps the only candidate for the statesman’s mantle to emerge in the generation that is coming to power.” When Bundy died in 1996, another friend, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., said, “a single tragic error prevented him from achieving his full promise as a statesman.”
Bundy spoke only occasionally about Vietnam after he left government, but when he did, he supported the war. Yet it haunted him. He knew his own performance in the White House had fallen far short of his own exacting standards, and Halberstam’s devastating portrait of him disturbed him far more deeply than most people realized. After remaining largely silent, — except for an occasional defense of the two presidents he had served — for 30 years, Bundy finally began, in 1995, to write about Vietnam. He chose as his collaborator Gordon Goldstein, a young scholar of international affairs. Together they began mining the archives, and Goldstein conducted a series of probing interviews. Bundy began writing tortured notes to himself, often in the margins of his old memos — a sort of private dialogue with the man he had been 30 years earlier — something out of a Pirandello play. Bundy would scribble notes: “the doves were right”; “a war we should not have fought”; “I had a part in a great failure. I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution.” “What are my worst mistakes?” For those of us who had known the self-confident, arrogant Brahmin from Harvard, these astonishing, even touching, efforts to understand his own mistakes are far more persuasive than the shallow analysis McNamara offers in his own memoir, “In Retrospect.”
In the middle of the research for the book, Bundy died, five days after his last session with Goldstein. Left with fragments of a work that would never be written, Goldstein spent years piecing them together and finished a manuscript, based on the interviews, which was approved for publication by Yale University Press. But Mary Bundy, who had at first encouraged Goldstein in his project, withdrew her consent for the book, and its publication was permanently shelved. Goldstein then produced a different book with no involvement from the Bundy family, using his interviews and Bundy’s notes to himself, which are now in the public collection of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Goldstein thus writes from a unique perspective — not quite inside Bundy’s head but not an outside observer. As he says, “In no way is this a book by McGeorge Bundy but rather it is a book about him.”
The result is a compelling portrait of a man once serenely confident, searching decades later for self-understanding. Did he sense that his time was running out? From the evidence in this book, it seems possible.
For today’s readers, what’s most important about “Lessons in Disaster” is not the details of how the United States stumbled into a war without knowing where it was going; that story has been told in hundreds of other books. Goldstein’s achievement is quite different: it offers insight into how Bundy, a man of surpassing skill and reputation, could have advised two presidents so badly. On the long shelf of Vietnam books, I know of nothing quite like it. The unfinished quality of Bundy’s self-inquest only enhances its power, authenticity and, yes, poignancy.
Goldstein has organized the book chronologically, giving each chapter the title of a “lesson” Bundy derived from his career. This is a sly tribute to one of Bundy’s most notable qualities — his wry, ironic sense of humor, which often distanced him from the real-life human consequences of policy. From the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, for example, Bundy concludes, “Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get It Right” — a trivial lesson compared with the human and political costs, but characteristic of Bundy’s obsession with process rather than underlying causes. Similarly, the all-important decisions by Johnson that turned Vietnam irrevocably into an American war in 1965 are summarized under the title “Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends.”
Even as he searches for truth, Bundy remains Bundy. It is striking how little interest he shows in Vietnam itself, and how little concern he shows for the huge death toll of the war. At one point, he coolly tells Johnson that we should send ground troops even though the chances for success “are between 25 percent to 75 percent” because it would be better for America to lose after sending troops than not to send troops at all! War, to Bundy, seems more an abstraction than a horrible reality.
The one exception — the only time Bundy seemed moved by something real and tangible on the ground — came in February 1965, when Johnson sent Bundy to Vietnam for his only firsthand look. While he was in Saigon, the Vietcong attacked the American air base outside the central highlands town of Pleiku, killing nine American soldiers and wounding 137. Although it was later learned that the Communists did not even realize Bundy was in Saigon, and hardly knew who he was, Johnson and Bundy both assumed Pleiku was a direct answer to Bundy’s visit. Bundy was annoyed that the reaction to his hurried visit to Pleiku the next morning was later characterized by others as emotional. But the evidence is strong that his visit to the wreckage at Pleiku, apparently the closest he ever came to the awful waste of war — moved him greatly, and prompted him even more strongly to advocate bombing North Vietnam.
As it happens, I was part of a small group that dined with Bundy the night before Pleiku at the home of Deputy Ambassador William J. Porter, for whom I then worked. Bundy quizzed us in his quick, detached style for several hours, not once betraying emotion. I do not remember the details of that evening — how I wish I had kept a diary! — but by then I no longer regarded Bundy as a role model for public service. There was no question he was brilliant, but his detachment from the realities of Vietnam disturbed me. In Ambassador Porter’s dining room that night were people far less intelligent than Bundy, but they lived in Vietnam, and they knew things he did not. Yet if they could not present their views in quick and clever ways, Bundy either cut them off or ignored them. A decade later, after I had left the government, I wrote a short essay for Harper’s Magazine titled “The Smartest Man in the Room Is Not Always Right.” I had Bundy — and that evening — in mind.
One of the most important conclusions Bundy reached before he died is in Goldstein’s final chapter, “Intervention is a Presidential Choice, Not an Inevitability.” For 40 years there has been a debate over whether Kennedy, had he lived, would have followed the same course as Johnson in Vietnam. In “Counsel to the President,” the book I wrote with Clark Clifford, Kennedy’s lawyer and McNamara’s successor as secretary of defense, Clifford concluded that Kennedy “would have initiated a search for either a negotiated settlement or a phased withdrawal.” Bundy comes to the same conclusion, and carries the thought further. Having watched the two presidents up close as they grappled with Vietnam, Bundy concluded that we must “better understand the indispensable centrality of the commander in chief’s leadership.” A re-elected Kennedy, he says, would “not have to prove himself in Vietnam.”
Bundy never believed in negotiations with the Vietcong or the North Vietnamese. This, coupled with his enduring faith in the value of military force in almost any terrain or circumstance, were his greatest errors. They contributed to a tragic failure. With the nation now about to inaugurate a new president committed to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan, the lessons of Vietnam are still relevant. McGeorge Bundy’s story, of early brilliance and a late-in-life search for the truth about himself and the war, is an extraordinary cautionary tale for all Americans.
Richard Holbrooke, a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, worked in Vietnam and participated in the Johnson White House’s special Vietnam Task Force.