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5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent but Painful Analysis of the Buildup of the Vietnam War, January 19, 2009
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This review is from: Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 29, 2009 10:02:49 AM PDT
T. Steege says:
I would recomment that the reviewer reads DERELICTION OF DUTY by H. R. McMaster. The responsibility for the Vietnam fiasco was widely shared by the foreign policy elites and the upper ranks of the military. This should be formost in mind as we contemplate Iraq and watch our military and diplomatic adventures in Pakistan, Afghanistan and our latest disaster, Iran.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 30, 2009 7:35:35 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 30, 2009 7:38:52 AM PDT
Ted Marks says:
Mr. McMaster's book is excellent. My focus in the review of the Bundy book was the political leadership in Washington, and to a lesser extent in Saigon. To be sure the U.S. military leadership in both Washington and Vietnam was lacking (with the exception of Creighton Abrams), but the prime responsibility for the U.S. failure in Vietnam was with the political leadership in the Johnson and Kennedy Administrations, in my view. They exerted enormous control over the military leadership. Indeed one of the lessons learned in Vietnam was to take into full consideration the recommendations of the U.S. military leadership -- as we see currently in the Obama review of Afghanistan.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 24, 2009 4:20:43 PM PST
"...responsibility for the U.S. failure in Vietnam..."
Just what do you think was to be "won" as third party in a civil war? The mistake was going in to begin with. No one, No state takes kindly to foriegn invasions. something the 'best and brightest' seem never to understand, as we've been doing it continuously without pause since the mid '40s. Now "we" have 2 and a half going on 4 with stupid, irresponsible threats to Iran, who threatens no one.
~John L.

Posted on Nov 30, 2009 2:50:25 AM PST
Clement Finn says:
This is a very thoughtful and very informed review. I think Presidents need to have some enlisted personnel on their staffs to balance the views they might get from the academics like Bundy. As for our limited wars in general I think economics played a bigger part than real military motives. Our limited wars do very well for domestic contractors such as the ones LBJ enriched in Texas. Perhaps our coming "surge" in Afghanistan is another example.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 6, 2009 7:46:38 AM PST
Phil says:
Clement Finn made a reasonable comment. The NYT's 12-6-09 story on Obama's decision-making about the "surge" in Afghanistan convinced me that this is not the case. I was very skeptical of Obama's decision. Reading about the decision-making process led me to believe that Obama has thought through this more than Kennedy and Johnson did. I remain skeptical, however, of our ability to accomplish what President Obama expects to in Afghanistan. President Karzai's goal of taking control of Afhanistan's population centers within three years differs dramatically from the goal of the Iraq surge. I hope I'm wrong.

Posted on Apr 26, 2010 8:39:53 AM PDT
jellolion says:
the american policy in vietnam went off a cliff not after JFK was dead, but after Diem was dead. That was the decision to americanize the war, through american puppets.

In reply to an earlier post on May 22, 2010 8:37:56 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 22, 2010 8:57:19 PM PDT
Marina says:
I concur with these true and insightful posts. But where's the rage? A bunch of narcissistic, history-ignorant, empire-building, power-mad, money-grubbing politicians and presidents send 500,000 young men to Vietnam, of whom 60,000 die in the rice paddies -- for nothing but defense contractors' profits. According to our nincompoop leaders of the time, Vietnam's fall would lead to the fall of Asia to the communists (domino theory). Events proved them wrong; failure to prevent Ho Chi Min from taking South Vietnam did not undermine US security. Where's the rage? US aggression continues as we use our military to defend Big Oil's resource grabs in the Mideast. . . and we are busy silencing dissent at home by militarizing and subordinating local police across the nation to "Homeland Security." We are becoming a surveillance state, starting from a premise that US citizens are guilty until proven innocent -- with virtual strip searches at airports -- again primarily for the profits of defense contractors. Where's the rage?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2010 8:02:44 AM PDT
I too served in Viet Nam. In fact I served under both Westmorland and Abrams, 10/1/67-10/3/68. In my case I was an Infantry Lt. with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne. While I never had much respect for the strategy or tactics of General Westmorland, I had even less for the ideas of General Abrams, at least as they trickled down to my relatively low level. However, I keep reading that Gen. Abrams was somehow a tremendous upgrading over Gen. Westmorland and I just don't understand it.
Please recommend a book, or something that will explain what these people, including you, are talking about when they laud Gen. Abrams as a marked improvement over Gen. Westmorland. As far as I know, we went from calling what we did "search and destroy" to calling it "reconnaissance in force," but the reality on the ground was it was the same thing only less. I was actually in a separate battalion, the 3/506th, of a separate brigade, the 1st Brigade, so I recognize that my personal experience may not have been representative.
Your work is truly an excellent analysis of the book and its major issues. It is not just a review. Thank you very much for your thoughtful and penetrating work.
BTW my hero for a general in that war is Salve H Matheson who understood that from the perspective of the small unit leader, it was a light infantry war, that heavy infantry tactics were counter-productive and the whole idea was to find the enemy, hurt him badly without suffering any casualties and then do it again. Thanks again for you your thoughts on an issue that still resonates.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2010 8:06:58 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 28, 2010 8:08:10 AM PDT
While I do not agree with all of Marina's implications, I too wonder where is the rage? How do we not only condone it, but torture ourselves? Are we in fact any longer, the home of the free?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2010 9:16:11 AM PDT
From TR's Great White Fleet onwards, US military has-and continues to be at the subsurvience of corporate market profit.
The "Great War-WW1, and 2 must still be in question, as ALL, EVERY war is result of really stupid and ignorant political reasoning, and all preventable with just 2 cents of hindsight/foresight.
There is ALWAYS a better way and we'd damn well better find it before we're all just smoldering ashes left on a barren, poisoned desert wasteland.
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