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Book Review: Lessons In Disaster – McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Gordon M. Goldstein

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Lessons In Disaster is a work interrupted in the sense that the original intention of it being an analysis of why the Vietnam War came about (as seen by Kennedy and Johnson adviser McGeorge Bundy) came to an abrupt end when Bundy died unexpectedly. His partner, Gordon M. Goldstein, had no other choice than to turn this work into more of a history of the process, as Bundy had not left voluminous notes regarding his insights and understanding of the decision process.

As a history, Lessons In Disaster is a valuable addition to the archive, and Goldstein deserves much credit for producing this work. His research to fill in the blanks left by Bundy took many years and much deep digging to locate the pertinent information contained within. But it is only as a history that this book rates any interest. As an analysis and explanatory tome, it generates more questions than it provides answers.

In 1996, former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, published his memoirs of the creation and conduct of the Vietnam War, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Among the other things McNamara revealed was his behind-the-scenes opposition to continuing the war, beginning in 1966, while he remained publicly loyal to President Lyndon Johnson and the conduct of his war.

Bundy read McNamara’s book and recognized that his major rival and policy opponent in the White House debates over the conduct of the war was actually in the same emotional and intellectual boat as was Bundy himself. This revelation was a factor in Bundy deciding that he needed to review his own performance and participation in this disaster, but he didn’t manage to complete this task before the Grim Reaper arrived for him.

Luckily, Bundy had made an important decision, else what historical input he did produce would have been lost. In order to develop and organize his memories, Bundy had hired the future author of Lessons in Disaster, Goldstein, to assist with organizing and developing Bundy’s poorly-organized collection of random remembrances and scatter shot review notes of official documents into an explanatory memoir written along lines similar to McNamara’s own mea culpa. Said organization was no easy task.

Bundy’s notes from both the time examined and from his later review reveal that he had to have been of two minds almost constantly while serving under Lyndon Johnson. In policy meetings, Bundy — like McNamara — would meticulously toe the official policy line, yet in his private musings he would question the efficacy of the effort.

Bundy and Goldstein collaborated for just over a year and a half on organizing and expanding this work when Bundy suddenly died. While Goldstein may have known Bundy as well as anyone could have, he never explains why Bundy didn’t take up a stronger stance against escalating the Vietnam War once it became clear that escalation made that war our own and not Vietnamese. One is left to wonder if Goldstein even thought to ask Bundy about this.

Instead of staying with Johnson to work for a reversal of war policy toward that of John Kennedy (gradual withdrawal), Bundy left the administration and remained silent on the sidelines while the war tragically grew – and again Goldstein didn’t ask about this. These are only two of the many maddening dead ends contained in Lessons In Disaster.

Reading this book in order to produce this review became a personal struggle, seemingly almost as lengthy and pointless as the war that Bundy participated in creating. I had friends who were sent to Vietnam because of the poorly thought-out war planning process which Lessons in Disaster exposes, and the anger I felt as I read about the arrogant and ill-informed hubris which drove the decision to go to war in Vietnam made me put the book down numerous times.

It would have helped me a lot if Goldstein was able to explain why facts were ignored and wishful thinking dominated when war planning was conducted. It would also have helped if Goldstein had asked about Johnson’s pusillanimous pretense of fostering a “balanced discussion” of the war options facing the administration when the decisions had already been made. Was Johnson really so fearful of being declared cowardly if he backed off of escalating our participation of the Vietnam War? One is left to wonder – along with the families of thousands of dead American soldiers and those of millions of Vietnamese.

What made reading this book very difficult for me is McGeorge Bundy himself. Under Johnson, there was no question that escalation was the only option. Having served under John Kennedy in the same role as under Johnson, Bundy apparently felt that once JFK had been reelected in 1964, he would have had both the political and moral strength to resist the war hawks against escalation. These hawks loudly and frequently proclaimed they could fight a land war in Asia and win against Communism without any supporting evidence to back their premise, which stood against the expert advice offered by the likes of veteran jungle fighter Douglas MacArthur.

After Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson looked to Eisenhower for advise on the proposed escalation, ignoring the fact that Eisenhower’s experience occurred in more temperate climes and in a more familiar culture. Bundy remained supportive of the active president regardless of his own past positions or hesitations regarding war strategy. Whatever the prevailing political wind, Bundy would proudly wave in it.

Bundy never once raised a fact-based objection to the escalation, even when Kennedy did. It was as if Bundy — who watched the Normandy Invasion from the deck of a Navy ship and never got any closer to real combat — never applied his intellect to anything other than the theoretical aspects of war strategy. It was as if Bundy saw his task as justifying going to war and not questioning if war was the correct action to follow. This is made evident in the book when Bundy repeatedly dismisses factual input in favor of wishful thinking and political make-believe while deliberating war strategy.

Few things make me angrier than someone in a position of authority and influence ignoring fact when playing with the lives of others. In this, Bundy ranks high on my list of those culpable for Vietnam as it came about. The blood of over 59,000 American casualties and millions of Vietnamese dead is on his hands as much as anyone’s.

Bundy clearly wanted to expand the record of the war as a personal defense of his role, but his motivations for doing so remain unclear. Was his conscience bothering him? Was his intellect upset that he had not done a better job protecting his leader from infamy? Did he not want his legacy to reflect his shortcomings and mistakes unchallenged? We’ll never know.

The deeds of men live on after they depart this mortal coil, and Gordon Goldstein has seen to it that at least a fragment of the discussion of these deeds will have come from Bundy himself. Even if only valuable as a history, I strongly recommend reading Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

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