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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam Paperback – September 1, 2009
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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.
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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Top Customer Reviews
I read this book because of my interest in the counterfactual question of whether or not JFK would have taken the same course at LBJ as it relates to Vietnam. Had there been no shooting in Dallas, would there have been a Vietnam War as we know it? That question can never really be answered but a study of McGeorge Bundy and his relationship with LBJ goes a lot to answering this question. The author concludes that history would have been different under a JFK presidency, but historians can only speculate.
As in other works on this subject you see LBJ with a primary focus on winning the election of 1964. LBJ was basically not a foreign policy president. He ran the presidency much like he ran the Senate. And all the while relying on advisors like Bundy.
You also have to consider the importance of the "domino theory" first propounded by Eisenhower. There was an iron clad belief that if Vietnam fell to the Communist the whole of Asia would fall and eventually the world. There was the belief the America could not loose a war - even if we lost we went down fighting. No one wanted to look back and see what happened to the French and say that if they couldn't win, neither can we. No one wanted to realize that fighting a war against a counter insurgency was different than the previous wars.
The story of Bundy and his role in the White House is complex. You have to look at the relationship of the President and the Joint Chiefs and JFK's distrust of them after the Bay of Pigs and as I said the importance of the domino theory in American foreign policy. You have to look at Bundy and McNamara who thought that Vietnam was another academic challenge like others they had faced. As the author says, Bundy is a classic example of a generation that were the very personification of hubris and arrogance that created the tragedy of the Vietnam war.
This is an important read for students of the history of America's involvement in the Vietnam War.
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.
Two sentences says it all:
- "He did underestimate the resilience of the enemy"
- "There was no analysis or evidence to validate Bundy's expectation that Ho Chi Minh and his fervent followers would capitulate."
As one of the 'boots on the ground' in Vietnam, I quickly realized, it would be quite easy for any sane, rational person, capable of critical thinking to realize there was no military solution to Vietnam.
Many of us who served in Vietnam realized within months that military action was NOT the answer. When a 19 year old in the bush can give better information than learned, matured, supposedly seasoned professionals...then you know something was seriously wrong!!!