The War that Keeps on Teaching

Reviewed by Shmuel Rosner

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
by Gordon M. Goldstein
Times Books and Henry Holt, 2008, 300 pages.

Gordon M. Goldstein, an expert on international relations and the author of Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, certainly deserves credit for a job well done. Not only did he write a fascinating story, not only is the story pertinent to decisions being made in Washington today, and not only has that story been passed from one administration member to the next, but Goldstein even manages to proffer what appear to be the lessons he himself has learned from the book, and which he believes President Obama ought to learn as well.
Yet Goldstein’s conclusions are not always so clear-cut. That, at least, is the impression one gets from reading an article he wrote in the Los Angeles Times on November 12, 2009, just weeks before Obama announced his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan and outlined his strategy for the overall campaign:
[General] McChrystal has predicted that without more troops and resources, the war in Afghanistan “will likely result in failure” within a year. Is his prediction of collapse justified?… Can Obama deploy existing resources more effectively without substantial escalation?… Should the United States pursue a military strategy with a historically low success rate—one that in Vietnam proved to be open-ended in its duration?
Questions of this sort, claims Goldstein, are “why presidents like Obama study history”: In learning the lessons of the past, they may find answers to “the core questions the commander in chief must resolve.” Yet Goldstein himself has yet to find these answers. Indeed, all he provided in his Los Angeles Times article were further questions, to which his book adds one more: Do the lessons McGeorge Bundy learned from America’s misadventure in Vietnam, the regrets he harbors regarding his role in it, and the errors he admits to making—do all these really have any relevance for the current U.S. administration as it weighs its upcoming moves in a different country, against a different enemy, and in a very different political milieu?
McGeorge Bundy’s biography will be well known to those who recall the Kennedy years or are in any way familiar with twentieth-century U.S. history. Singled out at a young age for his great academic promise, Bundy was appointed dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard at the tender age of thirty-four. Having entered the White House along with the Kennedy administration, he stood at the center of a group of academics and intellectuals who came to be known as “the best and the brightest,” or Kennedy’s “wise men.” For five years—first under Kennedy and then, after his assassination, under Lyndon Johnson—Bundy served as America’s national security adviser.
Those were undeniably turbulent years, riddled with fateful events. Most notable, of course, was the United States’ gradual descent into the morass of the Vietnam War. The decisions, debates, uncertainties, and crossroads along the path to America’s ill-fated campaign serve as the focal point of Goldstein’s book. The questions on which he tries to shed light plague the United States to this day: How did the U.S. force in Vietnam swell from 16,000 “military advisers” during the Kennedy administration to over half a million troops during Johnson’s? How did the war deteriorate from a limited armed conflict to the wholesale slaughter that claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 American soldiers by the time it was brought to its ignominious end?
The writing of Lessons in Disaster is a story in itself. Bundy, the book’s protagonist, was originally slated to be its author as well. When the memoirs of his colleague, former defense secretary Robert McNamara, were published in 1995, Bundy decided to offer his own reassessment of the decision-making processes in which he had been involved during the early years of the war. Seeking to analyze and reevaluate his motivations, he summoned Goldstein for a long series of interviews. Unfortunately, Bundy passed away before the manuscript was complete. Goldstein then went from ghostwriter to primary author, and while he relied on their conversations and material Bundy had made available to him, the final product bears his own decisive imprint. In the end, the book may be about Bundy, but it belongs to Goldstein.
It is easy to understand why Mc-Namara’s memoirs, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, convinced Bundy the time had come for him to write his own account of the war. The former defense secretary had caused quite a stir by divulging that already during his time in office, he realized the United States could not win in Vietnam. Nonetheless he remained in his post, continuing to dispatch forces and assign missions. In November 1965, when a demonstrator torched himself to death outside his window to protest the war, McNamara admitted that he “shared some of his thoughts.” Another three years would go by before he would step down, however, and “McNamara’s war,” as some reporters called it, dragged on after he left office.
But Bundy does not believe that Vietnam was really McNamara’s war. In his view—and herein lies one of the book’s most important insights—American wars are always waged by the president. He is the one who makes the final decisions, and he is the one who seals destinies. Indeed, according to Bundy, the military campaign in Vietnam developed as it did because “Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb” and Johnson “didn’t want to be a coward.”
If the strength of the book lies in Bundy’s analysis of what took place within the White House’s inner chambers, one of its main weaknesses is the impression that Bundy (and Goldstein) is determined to present Kennedy in a much more positive light than Johnson. This is a facile exercise in the use of hindsight, however, since Kennedy was assassinated before he had a chance to make any real decisions about the war, leaving the hapless Johnson to be dragged in.
The book portrays Bundy as having shared many of the defense secretary’s assessments. “We failed to analyze our assumptions critically,” writes McNamara, and Bundy, mulling over the months of critical decision making in 1965, describes the problem in similar terms: “We found ourselves arguing over a number and not over a use—how many troops should go in, not what they should do, not the military strategy that would govern the deployment.” The consensus between the two is made explicit in a memorandum Bundy submitted to Johnson on January 27 of that year, under the heading, “Re: Basic Policy in Vietnam,” paragraph six of which was to become particularly significant. “We see two alternatives,” writes Bundy, referring to McNamara and himself. “The first is to use our military power in the Far East and to force a change in communist policy. The second is to deploy all our resources along a track of negotiations aimed at salvaging what little can be preserved with no major addition to our present military risks.”
Such, in the end, is the fundamental dilemma every leader faces in time of war, when he must decide whether to push for a military victory at all costs or come to terms with his gains (or losses) and seek a diplomatic exit. Recently Obama faced that same fork in the road when he struggled for months—according to his detractors, too many months—over the question of whether to send reinforcements to Afghanistan.

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