on January 19, 2009
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.
The one thought that nags one throughout the book is why was McGeorge Bundy, a 34-year-old dean of students at Harvard College, elevated to one of the key national security positions in the American government? After all, Bundy had virtually no practical experience in foreign or military affairs. Most of his life was spent in the ivory towers of elite universities with little exposure to real life. He had accumulated no wisdom culled from the hard knocks of life. Indeed he had no hard knocks in his life.
Bundy came from an old blue-blood Boston family, and apparently it was that pedigree that attracted JFK. And that ill-fitted pedigree may have been the problem, because from the gitgo, Bundy was not a very effective national security adviser. He had neither the knowledge nor the hands-on experience to understand or manage the nuances of foreign affairs.
Gordon Goldstein, the author of this excellent book, tells the tale of how a group of assistants to Bundy (who was on vacation at his wife's beach's house north of Boston) sent an overnight cable from the White House to the U.S. embassy in Saigon, suggesting that South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem should be replaced. This single cable, sent when all the key officials were out of Washington over a lazy summer weekend, changed the entire direction of American policy in Southeast Asia.
Less than three months after the cable was sent Diem was dead. Three weeks after his death, JFK was also dead, and LBJ was president; worse, the American policy in Indochina was about to go off the cliff.
The insecure LBJ wanted all of JFK's White House staff to remain so that there would be continuity. And most complied, including Bundy. It becomes apparent from this narrative that Bundy liked being at the pinnacle of power in Washington and that taste of power clearly was one of his biggest motivations to flex the sinews of American military might.
But, in fact, keeping on the JFK staff was a crucial mistake for Johnson - and the country. JFK knew his foreign policy, including personal acquaintances with most of the overseas leaders, and he was essentially his own Secretary of State (e.g. the appointment of Dean Rusk). Especially after the Bay of Pigs episode, JFK had an instinctive distrust of any and all advice he received from his own senior staff, and anyone else for that matter, and Goldstein concludes that JFK would never have allowed the introduction of substantial American ground forces into Vietnam, despite the recommendations of people like Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and McGeorge Bundy.
But LBJ was an easy mark for the hawks. In the early months of his presidency Johnson was more concerned with the election he knew he would have to win to remain in office. LBJ told Bundy to put Vietnam essentially on "hold" for the first half of the year, so that bad news from Southeast Asia would not derail Johnson's election prospects - especially in view of the hawkish campaign of Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Then, on Aug. 2, 1964, an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin gave LBJ all the motivation he needed to seize the campaign initiative and cement his national security credentials.
Events surrounding the North Vietnamese attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin (off North Vietnam) have always been murky. But when a second (again murky) incident took place on Aug. 4, Johnson realized he had been handed his ace in the hole, and within three days, Congress had overwhelming passed the Gulf of Tokin resolution giving LBJ the power to escalate the war in Vietnam. Bundy almost immediately recommended that LBJ consider sending two brigades of U.S. troops to take the Viet Cong on directly in South Vietnam. Goldstein writes:
"While Bundy's proposal for an initial combat troop deployment to South Vietnam was itself momentous - the brigades would arrive two weeks before the election - his memorandum was silent on the broader strategic concept for how the United States would prevail in a counterinsurgency ground war."
Which brings up another weakness about Bundy's performance as a national security adviser. His focus was political, not strategic or tactical. Goldstein reports that most of Bundy's ruminations during (and after) his service in Washington were concerned with the political aspects of national security. His recommendations rarely dealt with the military mechanics of achieving political goals. He was quick to recommend escalations of troop levels or bombing campaigns, but he didn't bother with the details on how to implement those recommendations so to maximize success in the overall objectives of American foreign policy.
And, Goldstein reports, even in mid-1964, when the State Department or the Pentagon did conduct strategic studies (SIGMA I and SIGNMA II) on American bombing in Vietnam that indicated the bombing would only motivate Hanoi to continue the fight, Bundy ignored them.
Bundy, of course was not the only Johnson adviser to advocate escalation in Vietnam. Defense Secretary McNamara was the principal architect of the war, and Rusk and others were also pushing Johnson. Indeed McNamara recommended that troop strength be boosted to 175,000 by late 1965, and it was onward and upwards from there. McNamara, of course, recanted his war advocacy a self-serving book, "In Retrospect" that many considered a unique feat of hind-sighted hypocrisy.
By 1965, Bundy's relations with LBJ were deteriorating. Bundy spent a lot of time in Boston where the anti-war forces were located, and he was in constant contact with his old Harvard friends who were all becoming doves, as well as the media which was also turning against the war. Bundy felt the need to defend his performance in Washington (he was always a transparent individual), and he offered to go on television to debate the doves. LBJ forced him to cancel one appearance, but Bundy soon scheduled another with CBS, which did take place. When LBJ found out he was enraged and the relationship between the president and Bundy effectively ended at that point.
In 1966, Bundy became president of the Ford Foundation, where he remained for some years. But he never got over the fiasco in Vietnam, and he spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what went wrong. Sadly, from the "fragments" of notes that Bundy wrote to himself that Goldstein includes in this excellent book he never did figure it out.
Note: The writer served in Vietnam in 1967, conducting counterinsurgency operations in the Mekong Delta; he subsequently become a war correspondent and covered the wars in Cambodia and Laos He left Phnom Penh in 1975 on one of the last American evacuation helicopters.
on July 6, 2011
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. The author treats this as a fait accompli and hence not Bundy's responsibility. But Bundy's assistants played a leading role in its formulation and there was a large gap before the coup happened (three months), allowing plenty of time to reverse it. And there is no attempt at an explanation of why Kennedy decided not to wait to hear from his senior advisers before approving such a major policy change.
The participants in the decision-making process are portrayed as individual actors, resembling professors at a departmental faculty meeting. Large assessment efforts are reported as if they were individual efforts of the person in contact with Bundy (eg, George Ball at State). At no time did I get a sense of them as part of larger organizations. If this lack of awareness of organizational behavior was Bundy's, it should have been highlighted by the author. Whatever the explanation, ignoring the vast knowledge in this area renders this account incompetent.
I was surprised that this book didn't provide a description of Bundy's job, National Security Advisor--or why it came about, or what Presidents Kennedy and Johnson expected of that position. Although the expectations have varied between presidents, a common thread has been to coordinate, challenge and integrate the input from State, Defense, CIA..., thereby reducing the unavoidable institutional bias, blindspots... making the result be greater than the sum of the parts.
The book largely ignores organizational bias ("When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"): For example, the tendency of the military is to re-conceptualize a war into one it has trained to fight instead of doing what is needed to win. In Vietnam, the lack of a meaningful strategy allowed this to occur unchecked. In Iraq, Cheney-Rumsfeld deliberately marginalized the generals who had learned the lessons of Vietnam and supported generals who pursued strategies and doctrines that were un- or counter-productive, but "politically correct".
The writing style is mediocre to poor. The author dispenses lots of minor facts and quotes without trying to establish any coherence. Most of the details are the gossipy little things that establish insider credentials, but don't advance understanding of events. Items that feel very germane are mentioned, but never followed up on. For example, the book mentions that Bundy's assistant Mike Forrestal regarded Bundy's intellect as "two steps below..." but doesn't provide a basis or context. Another example, in an early meeting on Vietnam, President Johnson is reported as making two unsuccessful attempts to get his advisers to think more freely about events by using analogies (pp 123-4). The first attempt was a risque analogy (typical Johnson) that was laughed off. The second was not understood as such by the advisers, nor by the author. This misinterpretation by the author of something that seemed glaringly obvious to me undermined the credibility of his accounts of Johnson behavior.
The book has a moderate dose of JFK worship, about what one should expect for this category. While this produced the usual un-asked and un-answered questions, they are so peripheral to this book that they were of little consequence. The usual worshipful speculation that if JFK had lived, he would not have continued making bad decisions about Vietnam makes for a final chapter that can be skipped.
By page 104, I was ready to give up on the book but plodded on. What had been covered were two points. First, Bundy was considered among the very brightest, but the evidence is only the positions he occupied, not what he had done. Second, President Kennedy had a raft of advisers who persistently gave him bad advice which he challenged and rejected. Little mention of any advisers giving him good advice and no explanation of why he kept advisers that had ill-served him.
The remainder of the book focuses on 1964-65 and the decisions and non-decisions leading to escalation. It enumerates the various assessments that Bundy chose to ignore, but Bundy goes no further than to claim that he thought he knew better. I didn't spot anything that you wouldn't find in any competent political history of these events and this period.
The author's questioning of events come in belated spurts, with no attempt to provide answers. For example, the questions about what happened in the first part of the book don't come until page 136, and the questions for the remainder of the book don't occur until roughly page 214.
The book is laid out purely chronologically. However, the chapters that break up this chronology into segments have as their titles the purported "lessons" of this book, even though there is no corresponding thematic organization. Ignoring this, the lessons are poorly supported by what you will find in the book. Examples:
Lesson 1 is "Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide" and is transparently disingenuous to anyone with experience in organizational behavior. It has often been pointed out that the decision about what are the choices can be more important than the ultimate choice (the book acknowledges the most transparent of these tactics: Providing only non-viable alternatives to the choice you advocate). Decision-makers have to count on their staffs to identify and explore alternatives and options and to provide the pros and cons needed to make the choice. Bad advisers subverting the decision process has been an issue since time immemorial. Sometimes the leader has created an organization culture that leads to bad advice; sometimes he is a captive of the advisers he inherits. For example, in May 2011, Obama passed over his reported choice for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Cartwright, because of opposition from the military establishment and Republican senators. Cartwright's sin was to have responded to Obama's request for options on Afghanistan with true alternatives to the policy advocated by the military establishment.
Lesson 2 is "Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get It Right" but the evidence is that the (civilian) bureaucracy got it "close enough"--they identified problems, produced reasonable assessments and pushed them upward--but their assessments were suppressed and ignored by the politicians, their appointees and a few (upper-level) members of the bureaucracy who were politically ambitious or excessively accommodating. The same thing happened in the Iraq war as the Cheney-Bush administration not only suppressed intel and professional planning, but inserted their political operatives into the bureaucracy to produce the desired intel and recommendations.
A lesson of Vietnam _should_ have been that bad political leadership can severely warp a bureaucracy. For example, the CIA learned that truth-telling would damage one's career and consequently assessments were fudged, shaded and muted. The accounts of the lead up to the Iraq war indicate that the lessons of Vietnam _were_ understood by the CIA professionals--they pushed back hard against intense brow-beating by top aides to VP Cheney and were defeated only when Cheney-Rumsfeld created an intelligence office staffed by partisans. Similarly for the military, most prominently General Shinseki whose career was effectively ended for speaking truth to power. What was left were generals who were willing to feed the Bush administration's delusions, for example, after reaching Baghdad, Gen. Tommy Franks, rather than working to secure the country, was pursuing a plan for total withdrawal of US troops within 60 days, even though the plan's "peacekeeper" replacements were non-existent (other countries were resoundingly rejecting the US pleas for such troops).
Lesson 5 is "Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends". You would think that this would explore the change in psychology of what can and must be done. You would think it would explore the effects of ambitious military officers and their allies in the press and politics attempting to dictate policy, and give examples. You would think that it would follow up on an earlier quote about the civilian authorities having the most control over the military before deployment and then quickly losing it to events and the military experts. However, you would be very, very wrong: The accounts of the politics after escalation were no different from before.
Absent a meaningful strategy, the military services focused on showing that the type of war they _wanted_ to fight was what would win the war, rather than adapting their operations to what was actually _needed_ to win (Marine Corps was a partial exception). This encouraged inter-service rivalry, not cooperation. This led to misleading measures (body count) and counter-productive operations (search-and-destroy rather than protection of the population). Also, the military leadership warped the organizational culture, becoming focused on careerism ("ticket-punching": rotation through jobs at a pace that typically didn't allow one to become effective before moving on). Note: These assessments of the military mistakes are not mine, but the broad consensus of military officers and military historians.
The author's reliability suffered when he credulously plugged in a quote from his collaboration with Bundy: "No one asks ahead of time what kind of war it will be and what kind of losses must be expected. The military of 1965 was almost trained _not_ to ask such (cowardly?) questions" (pg 182). This is false. To the first part: History is littered with states very explicitly _asking_ these questions and shaping their military and war plans accordingly. To the second: The US military started using Operations Research during WW2 to assess military plans, both damage inflicted and casualties. Robert McNamara became famous for his role in this work (bombing of Japan). During the Korean war, they could often accurately predict how many casualties would result from taking a hill or moving down a mile of road. They used this not only to try to ensure they had adequate forces, but to have adequate capabilities to evacuate and treat the casualties (this became part of an episode of the TV series M*A*S*H). The interesting, and unasked, question is why Bundy believed this, even in retrospect.
The author refers to a second rationale for escalation, but doesn't follow up or even expand upon it enough for most readers to recognize the full argument. The phase repeated several times is "visibly _do_enough_ in the South" with the explanation that this meant blood and treasure (eg pg 221). This argument was the inverse of avoiding being seen as a "paper tiger": It saw Vietnam as an _opportunity_ to demonstrate to the Soviet Union and China that the US had the strength and national will to absorb significant combat casualties, and taking those casualties in an irrelevant war that we knew we could not win made it an even stronger demonstration.
My background: I was a teenager during the 1960s in a conservative rural village. When the older brothers of friends came back from their first tour, I was surprised at what they said. They saw the SVN government as corrupt and incompetent, and said that most of the peasants hated it and supported the VC despite their brutality. Even though they saw the war as unwinnable, some were volunteering to go back immediately for a second tour (I didn't understand this until years later). For my 9th grade geography class, I chose Vietnam as the country to report on. The history I found in the public library contradicted much of what the government was saying and I presumed that we were being lied to. When the Pentagon Papers came out, I discovered the situation was much worse: That our leaders couldn't be bothered to do basic "homework" before asking Americans to die for their country. I was hoping that this book would answer why the official most responsible for putting together this information (Bundy) didn't know what an 9th grader and various Marine riflemen knew.
-- Douglas Moran
on January 4, 2009
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. The questions that weren't asked of LBJ and his advisors during Vietnam were subsequently not asked during George Bush's presidency with regard to Iraq. He begs the question about why our leaders continue to fall into traps that lead to disaster and for that reason alone, I highly recommend "Lessons in Disaster". Its merits are well-received.
on December 2, 2008
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.
on April 2, 2009
An intimate look at the beginnings of what became the Vietnam War, told by the author, but also through the eyes of McGeorge Bundy, who had a seat at the table when both Kennedy and Johnson made some of the most consequential decisions about the escalation of the conflict.
Debate has raged for decades over whether Kennedy would have pulled the troops out of Vietnam once he had won a second term. The answer, clearly, is no one will ever know for sure. Kennedy's approach was certainly more reserved than Johnson's, and he does at times, come off as one of the books few heroic figures. The reader can draw the conclusion that had Kennedy lived, he would not have approved the build-up that Johnson approved, but there isn't enough historical evidence to fully understand Kennedy's thinking.
Using the material he has to work with, the author does make a case that, as mentioned by a previous reviewer, George Ball was one of the few individuals whose resistance to a build-up in Vietnam seems almost prophetic in hindsight. Further, rather than seriously consult him for further information, the Best and the Brightest often referred to him as a court jester whose contrarian point of view was a mere formality. In the end, McNamara, Bundy and most everyone else was wrong. It's hard not to see a parallel to the decision to go to war in Iraq, though in this instance those who opposed a military action weren't tarred, feathered and accused of being unpatriotic.
At the same time, it is surprising to see how ambivalent Johnson was when he first received word of the "Gulf of Tonkin incidents" (another historical debate that will continue), until he realized how much political capital a stand against the communists Vietnamese would earn him in the face of a challenge from Barry Goldwater in 1964. When awoken in the middle of the night and initially greeted with the shady reports of an attack, Johnson makes a passing mental note and then immediately moves on to domestic issues.
The book follows several intertwining themes, most interestingly the personal agony Bundy experienced later in life as he reflected on his decision and contribution to history by making regular visits to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. And while sympathy may not be the first emotion that overtakes you, author Gordon Goldstein does an incredible job of painting a picture of an old broken down bureaucrat left to ponder the destruction his policies helped enable. Highly recommended read for fans of history, as well as for foreign policy wonks.
This fascinating book tracks the US escalation in Vietnam under Kennedy and Johnson primarily through the career of McGeorge Bundy, who served as national security adviser to each of those presidents from 1961 to 1966. The story encompasses at least three serous failures in the decision making process, one of which can be attributed to each of the presidents and the other to those who advised the presidents.
Kennedy procrastinated on serious decisions about Vietnam, a procrastination that eventually led to the displacement and murder of Diem and a series of utterly ineffective Vietnamese governments. Johnson subordinated all decisions to US domestic political considerations and his desire to appear to stand up to communism. In the summer of 1964 Johnson allowed Congress to be misled regarding the naval incidents in the Tonkin Gulf and pocketed the resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution for use at his discretion. After the 1964 election Johnson privately decided to escalate US commitments in Vietnam, including using combat troops there, and manipulated the decision making process to obtain the desired result.
The advisers also failed. Johnson intimidated them, including Bundy. They did not present all options objectively. What was presented was often vague and devoid of supporting evidence. There was no defined overall objective, no fall back plan if the proffered plan was not successful and no exit plan. Above all there was no analysis of underlying assumptions, such as the domino theory or the idea that the "loss" of Vietnam would be a critical blow to US positions all over the world. Bundy seemed to accept the idea that the commitment of 100,000 or more men was worth it although he was aware of facts and studies that showed that such a commitment would be ineffective.
Bundy personally cuts a poor figure. He lost credibility with Kennedy because of inadequate performance, and he apparently never had much credibility with Johnson. He failed to force his office and others to undertake the hard look at Vietnam that the situation required and that was his duty to see undertaken. He failed to fulfill the basic obligations of the national security adviser. For all his supposedly great organizational ability and allegedly formidable analytical intelligence, he was unqualified for his post and failed dismally at his job. On the evidence of this book, even Bundy's effort in the last eighteen months of his life to analyze the events of 1961-65 seems to have yielded few useful final conclusions or insights, but Goldstein was able to work well with what he had (fortunately for Bundy).
In the last chapter Goldstein presents a good argument that, had Kennedy survived, he would have refused to commit combat troops to Vietnam. In the end, however, the question of what Kennedy would have done is both irresoluble and irrelevant because Kennedy did not survive. A sad story and one that we recently repeated.
on October 7, 2009
Although I didn't serve in Vietnam, I spent a lot of time, energy and career redirection ensuring that I would not be drafted. The war, to which I and most of my friends were opposed, was a central part of our experience as college and graduate students.
Lessons In Disaster reminds vividly reminds us about what happens when shibboleths (e.g. The Domino Theory) become operating tenets, where ideology passes for analysis, and where being intellectually powerful without meaningful experience can embroil us in catastrophe. Goldstein shows us how McGeorge Bundy, appointed National Security Adviser by JFK, and retained by LBJ, held powerful sway over Johnson if not over the much more skeptical Kennedy. The other significant figures, Rusk, McNamara, John McNaughton (a Harvard Law professor who believed in game theory), Maxwell Taylor, General William Westmoreland, all contributed to the tragically sloppy thinking and decision-making that sucked the U.S. into a war that was, even to those men, clearly "unwinnable" in conventional terms.
This is a powerful book, must reading for anyone with interest in how our government could have been so wrong when so many of its citizens knew better.
I have a small library of books on the Vietnam War. "Lessons in Disaster" is one of the better ones. Based on the author's 1990s interviews with former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, the book does an autopsy on the decision-making process that led to the commitment of American combat troops in 1965. The lessons are appalling. Deliberations were warped by bad information (including self-serving reports from the U.S. military in Saigon), unexamined assumptions (such as the belief that Hanoi was a proxy for Beijing), mendacity (the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a fraud), crass politics (LBJ let 1964 slip by without major decisions in order to ensure his re-election), and high levels of governmental dysfunction (as when the State Department instructed the U.S. embassy in Saigon to foment a coup without clearing the instructions with the Pentagon). Only a few senior officials (such as George Ball) asked hard questions about the developing commitment or distinguished between core and peripheral interests of the U.S. It is far from clear whether anyone in charge knew much about North Vietnam or the Viet Cong, or about Vietnamese nationalism.
What in heaven's name was Washington up to? Vietnam was a poor and far away country, of no importance to the U.S. The French had already lost a colonial war there. The Saigon regime was corrupt, unpopular, and, by 1964, clearly unable to beat the Viet Cong. Under the circumstances, Washington should have cut its losses and pulled out, blaming the failure on its ludicrous clients. Instead, LBJ and his team jumped in. They wanted to stand by Saigon in order to maintain the "credibility" of U.S. commitments in the Cold War. They also wanted to pre-empt right-wing domestic critics who would be quick to scream that Democrats were "soft" on Communism. So, with South Vietnam crumbling and the 1964 election safely out of the way, Washington backed into a simple (if brutal) strategy: it would bomb the North and send troops to kill so many Viet Cong and North Vietnamese that Hanoi would have to negotiate a "reasonable" peace. The Commies would break first.
Since America was huge and Vietnam small, this approach seemed viable (if bloody). However, LBJ et al had overlooked the asymmetry of commitment between the U.S. and North Vietnam: whereas Hanoi was defending Vietnam's independence against a foreign invader, American draftees were dying for nebulous reasons 10,000 miles from home. Inevitably, Hanoi matched U.S. escalations with counter-escalations of its own, sending more divisions south and turning the war into a bloody stalemate. Americans soon doubted whether the stakes were worth the slaughter. (Answer: They weren't.) In retrospect, it isn't surprising that America's will broke first.
"Lessons in Disaster" is clearly written. It has a nuanced understanding of how policy gets made (or not made) at the top levels of the U.S. government, and should be read by anyone who thinks that national security decision making is always deliberate and well-informed. I'm giving it four stars only because parts are sketchy (it should have been 200 pages longer) and because some of the analysis borders on JFK-worship.
Editorial Comment: Bundy left government in 1966 after having a falling out with LBJ over matters unrelated to the merits of the Vietnam War. He took a job at the Ford Foundation and later taught at NYU. He came to see the Vietnam War has a huge mistake but he refused to spend his life "feeling guilty" about it. He should have. It goes without saying that the U.S. deserved to lose the war -- everything about Washington's project in Vietnam was rotten to the core -- but 55,000 American GIs and 2-3 million Vietnamese had to die before Americans awoke from the illusions spun by officials such as Bundy.
on November 20, 2008
Goldstein does an excellent job of making it clear that Bundy, despite his brilliance and pedigree, strongly facilitated the escalation of US commitment in Viet Nam. The author marshals his facts precisely and writes with forcefulness. He had unique access to Bundy. The book ranks in historical importance alongside McNamara's confession, but contains important lessons on how overseas commitments can escalate despite glaring indications the strategy is wrong headed.
When Robert McNamara published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, McGeorge Bundy was motivated to issue his own mea culpa on Vietnam. Although he died before he could make any significant progress, it is clear that he thought the Vietnam War was a serious mistake for which he shared a great deal of responsibility.
Goldstein began with the advantage of having assisted Bundy as he began his research. Having subsequently done his own research on the era, he has produced a valuable book exploring how such an intelligent man could be so wrong.
The book's chapters deal with various lessons to be learned from Bundy's experience as Kennedy's and Johnson's National Security Advisor. Although this organization would seem to be thematic rather than temporal, the story is told in time order.
The highlights of the story include:
o The Bay of Pigs Invasion, when Kennedy learned not to trust the military or the CIA
o Kennedy's decision to increase the number of advisors in Vietnam to 16,000
o The Buddhist crisis of 1963 when the Diem regime turned ugly in the extreme
o The coup ousting Diem in November 1963
o Johnson's eagerness for an incident that would get Congress to approve the use of force
o The decision to send ground troops in 1965
The key mistake among many was this last decision. Everyone seemed to believe that this would end the war quickly, that the communists would be over-matched and just melt away. No one did any contingency analysis or thought through what the consequences of that decision would be. Throughout it all, Bundy seems merely to be facilitating a decision that the president has already made, rather than ensuring that the president makes the right decision.
Bundy thought of himself as a great debater, and he sought out opportunities to support the war in public forums. Johnson wanted no public debate on the war, preferring escalation by stealth. This conflict ultimately led to Bundy's departure from the administration.
On one major historical question, Bundy agreed that Kennedy would not have sent ground troops to Vietnam. (See JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power)
I couldn't help but sympathize with the older Bundy as he read through documents of the era and would note in the margins that he had been wrong. I can't imagine Kissinger admitting, for example, that overthrowing Allende might not have been a good idea.
Goldstein has given us a valuable case history of how disastrous mistakes can be made.