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.

Many books had been written about the American involvement in Vietnam before Bundy decided to publish his memoirs—meaning that very little in the way of facts on the events of the period remains to be unearthed. Not surprisingly, then, this book contains no great revelations. It quotes the same documents that have already been quoted, discusses the same episodes that have already been discussed, mentions the same tragic heroes, the same age-old dilemmas. “What can we say is the most surprising?” Bundy wrote to himself in February 1996. Even he seems uncertain but replies nevertheless: “The endurance of the enemy.” In Vietnam of 1966—as in Iraq of 2004 and Afghanistan of 2009—the enemy stubbornly refuses to surrender in accordance with the timetable allotted by the U.S. invasion force.
Indeed, in the spring of 1965 it was plain to all that North Vietnam would not be broken quickly. General William Westmoreland, commander of the American forces in Vietnam, wrote, “I see no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war”—unless, that is, the United States resorted to nuclear weapons. Undersecretary of State George Ball wanted to withdraw American troops, based on his assessment that no U.S. force, regardless of its size, was capable of achieving victory. Bundy rejected that proposal, offering the president a choice of two escalation plans instead. According to the first, authored by Westmoreland, an additional 175,000 troops would be deployed in Vietnam; the second, authored by Bill Bundy, McGeorge Bundy’s brother and assistant secretary of state, proposed a less aggressive reinforcement of just over 80,000 troops.
By July, Johnson had to reach a decision, and against the advice of Undersecretary Ball, ordered the troop buildup. According to the book, Bundy believed, in retrospect, that the dramatic consultations of the summer of 1965 were just for show. Johnson, Bundy says, “wants to be seen having careful discussions,” although he had already decided what his stance would be. This was largely on account of the advice he had received from former president Dwight Eisenhower, who told him, “We are not going to run out of a free country we helped to establish.”
How painfully familiar this sounds forty-five years later. It should come as little surprise that so many people have been tempted to draw comparisons between the events of that time and the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In many respects, the Vietnam they see in their mind’s eye is much more than the blood-soaked struggle that actually took place in Southeast Asia four decades ago; it has, rather, become a code word for a failed war, a faulty set of decisions, a distorted view of reality, and an unfounded belief in the United States’ ability to defeat any and every enemy. Headlines to this effect regularly appear in the U.S. media: “Could Afghanistan become Obama’s Vietnam?” asked Newsweek, the New York Times, CNN, and dozens if not hundreds of other newspapers and outlets. There can be no mistaking that a question phrased in this way is meant to warn against unwanted entanglements and unending conflicts.
But the “Iraq/Afghanistan as Vietnam” narrative can be cast differently. President George W. Bush, for instance, also accepted the Iraq-Vietnam comparison, but ascribed to it a meaning that astonished, and infuriated, quite a few commentators and experts. In an August 2007 speech, he warned that “one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘reeducation camps’ and ‘killing fields.’”
And it wasn’t only the eventual failure in Vietnam that left divided opinions in its wake. In that same speech, Bush stated, “There is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and [how we] left”—a legitimate debate that some people have tried to present as illegitimate. Establishment historians, i.e., scholars associated with academic institutions (who are mostly identified with the political left), maintain that America’s defeat was an inevitable result of the sin of interference in the affairs of a faraway country in the first place. Yet according to a prevalent view in right-wing circles, the blame for the debacle of Vietnam lies rather in the lack of resolve shown by the American public and its leaders in the face of the communist challenge. Top-ranking Republican officials have adopted this line wholeheartedly, including former New York mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who wrote in August 2007 that
America must remember one of the lessons of the Vietnam War. Then, as now, we fought a war with the wrong strategy for several years. And then, as now, we corrected course and began to show real progress. Many historians today believe that by about 1972 we and our South Vietnamese partners had succeeded in defeating the Vietcong insurgency and in setting South Vietnam on a path to political self-sufficiency. But America then withdrew its support, allowing the communist North to conquer the South. The consequences were dire.
While the outcome of the war remains somewhat controversial, the dispute surrounding the reasons for America’s failure is far more heated. Goldstein’s book has invariably been dragged into this debate and enlisted to serve the more accepted (i.e., establishment) narrative. Last November, for instance, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “I was asking myself what book I’d want Obama to read.” The answer? The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam—the book that set the tone for American discourse on the war ever since its release in 1972, three years before the U.S. pullout from Saigon. Unfortunately, during the period that elapsed between the two books’ publications, we have not learned much. Further facts have been uncovered, documents exposed, and archives opened. But the basic narrative remains the same—at least, for those who do not subscribe to Bush’s and Giuliani’s interpretation.
If for the United States, Afghanistan is today’s Vietnam, how does Obama figure in the comparison? He is the president, of course, but which one? Two Democrats occupied the White House during the Vietnam era, one young, charismatic, handsome, and (as the first Catholic to be elected president) precedent-setting, much like Obama himself; the other was torn between his desire to implement far-reaching domestic reforms and his obligation to handle pressing foreign affairs, including a war he did not start—also just like the current president. So which of them is Obama, Kennedy or Johnson?
Goldstein’s book could understandably lead Obama to conclude that he would be better off being Kennedy, if only because responsibility for the catastrophe in Vietnam has fallen not on his shoulders, but on those of his successor. Indeed, the book exonerates Kennedy, ex post facto, from the mistakes the United States made while pursuing the policy he had delineated. True, he sent advisers to Vietnam and in 1961 even explained, “We have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place [to rectify that],” but he was not, according to the book, responsible for the war’s major escalation. The real bloodshed began only during the Johnson administration, and it is something many, including Bundy, believe Kennedy would not have let happen.
Some evidence can be marshaled to back this claim, but its worth is uncertain. For example, at the last press conference he held before his assassination, Kennedy said, “I don’t want the United States to have to put troops there.” This would appear to support the case for the defense, but it, like everything else, must be placed in the proper context. As with Kennedy, Johnson, too, did not rush to send call-ups to Vietnam. He waited instead until after the 1964 elections, aware that such an announcement would cost him numerous votes. So, too, may Kennedy have had political reasons for not stepping on the gas, and like Johnson, he might have sounded and acted differently after reelection.
Clearly, political interests played a role in the White House decisions vis-à-vis Vietnam. Bundy, looking back, condemns this phenomenon—and who wouldn’t? But electoral considerations can never totally be eliminated, even from those situations in which officials have to reach fateful decisions—even, for example, in a state of war. In a memo Bundy wrote in 1964, he himself noted that “the political damage to [President Harry] Truman and [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson from the fall of China [to the communists] arose because most Americans came to believe that we could and should have done more than we did to prevent it. This is exactly what would happen now if we should seem to be the first to quit in Saigon.” In yet another memo, Bundy explicitly warned about the possibility of “losing an election.”
Perhaps it would be wrong to reject such considerations outright. After all, there is certainly some logic to the claim that a democratic country like the United States cannot win an ongoing war without broad public support—and that achieving this support compels those in power to make certain political maneuvers. Bundy was clearly aware of this reality: In February 1965, upon his return from a visit to Saigon, he recommended that the president bomb North Vietnam in response to a Vietcong attack that killed eight American soldiers at the air force base near Pleiku. McNamara’s book mentions two of the arguments Bundy presented at the time: “In the long run, he hoped it would affect the North’s will—moving them to reduce their support of the Vietcong and/or to negotiation; in the short run, he believed it would produce a ‘sharp, immediate increase in optimism in… South [Vietnam].’” If McNamara’s interpretation is correct, Bundy was highly sensitive to the need to influence public opinion in North and South Vietnam, just as he understood that the administration had to be attuned to the general mood of the American public. “His final paragraph stressed a major point,” explains McNamara. “At its very best the struggle in Vietnam will be long. It seems to us important that this fundamental fact be made clear and our understanding of it be made clear to our own people.”
Yet despite Bundy’s acknowledgment of the role played by political interests in the way the war was handled, Goldstein’s book fails to give them enough weight as far as Kennedy’s legacy is concerned. The reason may lie in Kennedy’s firm refusal, despite the pressure of his staff, to send substantial reinforcements to Vietnam. Perhaps those quoted remarks in which he recoils at the thought of military entanglement in Southeast Asia also strengthened this impression. But at times, suspicions steal into the heart of the skeptical reader. Goldstein clearly wants to depict Kennedy as a blameless leader, someone who would never have let Vietnam “happen” on his watch. He prefers to leave this American icon as white as snow.

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