Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster (Holt, 2008) is a remarkable and very relevant book. The author spent more than a year working with an icon from the second half of the twentieth century, McGeorge Bundy, as he struggled to compose his memoirs. Bundy was one of the most influential figures in a postwar generation of smart, energetic, confident, well-born men who transformed universities, politics, and foreign policy in Cold War America. As Goldstein explains, Bundy was the central character in David Halberstam’s rueful parable of The Best and the Brightest. He was one of the Masters of the Universe who brought the United States into a terribly self-defeating and enormously destructive war in Vietnam. Readers today might naturally wonder about the parallels with the architects of the twenty-first century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the investment strategies and corporate management philosophies that brought the world economy to its knees.
“Why do smart people make stupid decisions?” My undergraduates frequently ask this question in reference to both Vietnam and Iraq. Goldstein’s book is very helpful in beginning to formulate an answer. His focus on Bundy and the decisions surrounding the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1964-1965 escalation of the Vietnam War highlight the traps that Bundy and his colleagues repeatedly fell into. In the case of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Bundy and others (including President Kennedy), did not question the political and strategic feasibility of military plans rigorously. They over-estimated American power and accepted promises of quick success. As Bundy told Kennedy after the fiasco: “The President’s advisers must speak up in council…Forced choices are seldom as necessary as they seem” (41-42.)
Goldstein is convinced that Kennedy learned this lesson well. He began to question basic assumptions about American military power, the domino theory, and even the necessity of global communist containment. Goldstein recounts how the young president opted for neutralization, rather than intervention in Laos. He also restrained the hawks who wanted to use greater American force in the crises surrounding Berlin and Cuba. Most of all, Goldstein emphasizes that Kennedy refused to authorize U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, even as he increased American aid and indirect military support to the regime in Saigon. “If you had poked President Kennedy very hard,” Bundy later recalled, he would have answered that it was “essential to have made a determined effort…because we mustn’t be the ones who lost the war, someone else has to lose the war” (230.)
Observers will forever debate what the slain president might have done in Vietnam if he had only lived longer. Goldstein’s book does not offer anything new on this score. The author does, however, show how Bundy, Robert McNamara, and President Lyndon Johnson could not bring themselves to let someone else lose the war in Vietnam. All three had serious doubts about the prospects for success, but none of the three could bring themselves to advocate a shift away from escalation. In seeking to avoid a massive commitment or a complete withdrawal, Bundy, McNamara, and Johnson consistently chose the easy middle ground – limited expansion of American military efforts. In the crucial months between the late summer of 1964 and the spring of 1965 this meant American bombing of North Vietnamese positions, followed by more bombing, and then the deployment of 3,500 Marines to combat positions in South Vietnam. The first Marine deployments were followed quickly by many more as the security situation continued to deteriorate. Goldstein does an excellent job of showing how Bundy encouraged this outcome with his famous “fork in the road” memorandum of late January 1965, and his visit to Pleiku, under attack from National Liberation Force units, a week later.
Why did Bundy encourage this escalation? For all his articulate statements, Bundy could never explain himself to his own satisfaction. Goldstein recounts Bundy’s struggles. He also tells us that after Bundy’s death in 1996 his family decided to prohibit the publication of his last thoughts. Goldstein’s book represents his effort to capture Bundy’s “lessons” for contemporary readers. Above all, Goldstein blames President Lyndon Johnson for failing to ask the serious questions and push for better answers – as Kennedy did in Laos, Cuba, and perhaps Vietnam after the Bay of Pigs. Goldstein titles his final chapter with the powerful statement: “intervention is a presidential choice, not an inevitability.”
This makes sense, but it is much too incomplete. Presidents are politicians and they rarely make decisions that run against the best wisdom assembled around them. The most successful presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower – almost always pursued policies that they could justify with the support of their most respected advisors. That is why Lincoln waited so long to remove McClellan, why Roosevelt spoke of balancing the budget during the early days of the New Deal, and why Eisenhower never firmly rejected the false allegations of a “missile gap” in favor of the Soviet Union. Corporate leaders and university presidents act the same way – they seek consensus from boards of wise heads to justify their decisions and displace blame when things go wrong.
Goldstein follows a number of other excellent historians – Fredrik Logevall, Andrew Preston, and David Kaiser, among others – in recounting how George Ball, Maxwell Taylor, Walter Lippmann, and other figures close to the White House encouraged President Johnson to reject escalation in 1965. The problem is that Johnson knew very well that Bundy and McNamara were the real Best and the Brightest. When he expressed his serious doubts about Vietnam, as President Johnson did repeatedly, he needed Bundy and McNamara to reinforce these doubts. They did nothing of the sort until a few years later, when they sought to separate themselves from their mistakes. Instead, the Masters of the Universe refused to accept the limits on American power. They refused to accept that they did not have all the answers. In the mid-1960s they refused to take risks for diplomacy and compromise, rather than force and full achievement on their own terms. Goldstein captures this when he writes that Bundy believed “it was better to fight and lose in Vietnam than not fight at all” (183.)
David Halberstam was right. The problem was that the Best and the Brightest were too smart for their own good. They refused to accept their own limitations. The same was true for American society as a whole. Goldstein’s book reminds us that successful policy requires much more than brains and brawn. Every president, CEO, and college chancellor needs advisors who will actively probe assumptions about power, purpose, and possibility. More than courage, leaders need people around them with imagination. For all his intelligence, Bundy lacked the imagination to envision an alternative future for Vietnam, and the Cold War in general. Do today’s advisors around the White House, Wall Street, and College Avenue display better imagination?