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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam Paperback – September 1, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0805090871 ISBN-10: 0805090878 Edition: Reprint

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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam + In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam + Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805090878
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805090871
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy was the prototypical best and brightest Vietnam War policymaker in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Bundy was, according to foreign policy scholar Goldstein, an out-and-out war hawk who again and again demonstrated a willingness, if not an eagerness, to deploy military means in Vietnam. Goldstein worked with Bundy in the year before his death, in 1996, on an uncompleted memoir and retrospective analysis of America's path to war. While drawing on that work in this warts-and-all examination of Bundy's advisory role, this book is something different, containing Goldstein's own conclusions. He painstakingly recounts his subject's role as national security adviser and ponders the complexities of the elusive inner Bundy: for example, the buoyant good humor in the 1960s that seemed unbowed by the weight of difficult strategic decisions. Among the surprising revelations: late in life Bundy came to regret his hawkish ways, although he maintained to the end that the presidents, not their advisers, were primarily responsible for the outcome of the war. Vietnam, he said, was overall, a war we should not have fought. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

An important addition to the literature of the Vietnam War, this analysis examines the man who was the president’s national security advisor from 1961 to 1966. For three decades afterward, Goldstein relates, McGeorge Bundy declined to write a memoir about his role in the decisions that plunged America into that war, but he changed his mind when Robert McNamara published his mea culpa In Retrospect (1995). Unfortunately, Bundy died before the project made much progress; posthumously, Goldstein pulled together a manuscript, but, he reports, Bundy’s widow quashed its publication and decreed its deposition in the archives of the JFK library. Therefore, this work does not derive from Bundy’s memoir; it is Goldstein’s negatively critical consideration of Bundy’s role on Vietnam. Flavored with anecdotes of Goldstein’s interactions with Bundy as his research assistant, the narrative conveys Bundy’s hawkish recommendations to JFK and LBJ, expresses Goldstein’s belief that the former would not have escalated the war as Johnson did, and hints that Bundy before his death might have been preparing a recantation on Vietnam. A vital volume for Vietnam War collections. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Author Gordon Goldstein has cobbled together a book not by Bundy but about him, as he indicates, and it is revealing.
Jon Hunt
US foreign policy often gets excused for "mistakes" when the participants were actually well aware of the likely consequences.
William
This book is an important piece of work---one that anyone interested in America's involvement in Vietnam should read.
Craig M. Farnham

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

130 of 137 people found the following review helpful By Ted Marks on January 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading "Lessons in Disaster; McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam" is a very painful experience - especially if one happens to be a Vietnam veteran -- because the book demonstrates that most of American leadership in Washington during the Vietnam era consisted of a group of incompetents.

That is not a happy conclusion to take away from this book, but it is an inescapable one. There are few heroes in this book. John F. Kennedy may have been one (his assassination precluded any final judgments). George Ball was consistently steadfast in his opposition to the war in Vietnam. There were others, including Mike Mansfield. But otherwise the senior political leadership in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations was woefully short of the leadership standards one would expect from one of the world's leading powers. And in this narrative the biggest knucklehead of all was McGeorge Bundy, the Harvard intellectual whom JFK chose as his national security advisor, and who remained as the principal national security adviser to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 as LBJ "Americanized" the war in Vietnam that he inherited from JFK.

That's a harsh judgment and an even sadder comment. Especially since the author says Bundy made "regular" visits in his final years to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, no doubt contemplating the families who were mourning their lost ones. Those must have been poignant moments for the Harvard Brahmin, because one has to assume that Bundy knew he engineered one of America's greatest foreign policy fiascos - costing the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. So he apparently had genuine regret over his role in that war, and at the least we have to respect him for that.
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42 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Douglas B. Moran on July 6, 2011
Format: Paperback
I read this book because I heard that it had been widely read in the Obama White House as background for decisions on the Afghan war. Although the lessons of Vietnam are unquestionably relevant, I found nothing in this book that added non-trivially to what is already known. Nor was there a whiff of a fresh perspective. Nor was it a clearer, more concise distillation of those lessons--to the contrary, this book felt bloated with irrelevant trivia.

This book fails as both a history of the US escalation in the Vietnam war and as a history of Bundy's role in those events. It fails in the latter because it is an incredibly shallow account. It fails at the former because its focus on Bundy causes a lot to be left out. The author collaborated with Bundy on an unfinished account of this period and the reader would expect that to have produced innumerable insight. Wrong. The vast majority of this book is what one would expect of a mediocre historian with limited access to Bundy's papers and then having an interview with Bundy lasting an hour or two.

There are reviews such as Richard C. Holbrooke's in the NY Times "Book Review" that find the book interesting for Bundy's "tortured" search for self-understanding ("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."), but then characterize that search as unsuccessful. I would recommend the Holbrooke review as giving a better sense of Bundy than this book.

There are bizarre gaps and non-sequiturs. For example, the "Weekend Cable" that initiated the effort to remove Diem was send while Bundy and other senior advisers were out-of-town for the weekend.
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on January 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
McGeorge Bundy, even in hindsight, is hard to forgive for his advice to President Johnson during the Vietnam buildup. That said, he has passed on and what we are left with is a glimpse of what the White House years were like when Bundy was around and advising both JFK and LBJ. The term "the best and the brightest" was applied to him and others but Bundy failed miserably. At least he began to come to terms with this before he died.

Author Gordon Goldstein has cobbled together a book not by Bundy but about him, as he indicates, and it is revealing. "Lessons in Disaster" is a two-part narrative, the first commenting on the Kennedy years and the latter, Lyndon Johnson. The second part is far more intriguing. JFK had shied away from using ground troops or air strikes but within a year or so after his assassination, things had changed dramatically for the worse. Bundy, in arguing for more military involvement in Vietnam, helped to create the quagmire. Yet, in reading Goldstein's book I was struck by how minor a player McGeorge Bundy seemed to be in all of this. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was certainly more in the forceful forefront of policy decisions and one gets the impression that this Harvard dean....Bundy....was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His inadequacies were only exacerbated by his own intimidation by President Johnson. He should never have been in the White House and he left too late. A nice continuing career in academia would have suited him better.

Goldstein, without saying so, gives us a reminder that although Korea should have been a model for future military involvement, Iraq has been the third disaster in modern times.
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