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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam [Bargain Price] [Paperback]

by Gordon M. Goldstein
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 1, 2009 0805090878 Reprint

“A compelling portrait of a man once serenely confident, searching decades later for self-understanding.”—Richard Holbrooke, The New York Times Book Review

I had a part in a great failure. I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution. If I have learned anything I should share it.”

These are not words that Americans ever expected to hear from McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. But in the last years of his life, Bundy—the only principal architect of Vietnam strategy to have maintained his public silence—decided to revisit the decisions that had led to war and to look anew at the role he played.

In this original and provocative work of presidential history, Gordon M. Goldstein distills the essential lessons of America’s involvement in Vietnam, drawing on his prodigious research as well as interviews and analysis he conducted with Bundy before his death in 1996. Lessons in Disaster is a historical tour de force on the uses and misuses of American power, and offers instructive guidance that we must heed if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past.


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

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805090878
  • ASIN: B004KAB4SI
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #836,965 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
127 of 134 people found the following review helpful
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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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
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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35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly readable and accessible December 2, 2008
By Mark
Format:Hardcover
The reviews of this book by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek and by Richard Holbrooke in The New York Times give one a good sense for the seriousness of its ideas and its relevancy to current events. The real surprise about this book is how readable and accessible it is. The accolades "intellectually challenging" and "hard to put down" are rarely used to describe the same book, but the author manages both brilliantly. This is a highly satisfying read.
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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The doves were right 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Ho Hum
Although there were a few lessons to learn from this book, it seemed to be more a rationalization of Bundy's inability to come to grips with the reality of the Vietnam war. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Mike Callahan
5.0 out of 5 stars Pre war info by whom & why!!!!
Lessons in disaster, show fully the blind guesswork used to blunder into Vietnam JFK tried to introduce stop program but Johnson went full ahead war program. Read more
Published 4 months ago by edwardfilmer
4.0 out of 5 stars Mr. President reread this book!
I wanted to read this book because I heard that President Obama made this required reading for his cabinet and I can see why. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Lionel S. Taylor
5.0 out of 5 stars How Presidents make bad decisions
When Robert McNamara published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McGeorge Bundy was motivated to issue his own mea culpa on Vietnam. Read more
Published 12 months ago by R. Schwenk
4.0 out of 5 stars A slow read.
An excellent & extremely well researched book,but difficult to get through due to the wealth of detail & a rather dry writing style. Read more
Published 13 months ago by DAVID GROESBECK
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful account of a warmonger's remorse
McGeorge Bundy was the national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. This is a fascinating account of how Bundy tried to understand how he had been so wrong about... Read more
Published 23 months ago by William Podmore
4.0 out of 5 stars Lessons in Disaster
While this book is not a comprehensive history of the events leading up to the Vietnam War, it is a very good look at how intel and advice (much of it wrong) shaped the policy... Read more
Published on January 10, 2012 by Cbad
1.0 out of 5 stars Is this Policy History or Is It a Whitewash?
This book sure has impact. There are glowing reviews by senior diplomats; and in his book, "Obama's Wars," Bob Woodward tells us that it impressed both him and the president. Read more
Published on January 31, 2011 by supr
4.0 out of 5 stars A Valuable Book for the "Vietnam Shelf"
The final chapter presents an interesting analysis of what might have happened if JFK had not been assassinated. Read more
Published on January 25, 2011 by jefferson morgan
5.0 out of 5 stars McGeorge Bundy and Vietnam: the search for "truth"
Lessons in Disaster - Gordon M. Goldstein

The author of "Lessons in Disaster", Gordon M. Goldstein, states in his introduction that in the Spring of 1995 McGeorge Bundy... Read more
Published on January 3, 2011 by Paul Brooks
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