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If I have learned anything I should share it. Kennedy and Lyndon B. But in the last years of his life, Bundy—the only principal architect of Vietnam strategy to have maintained his public silence—decided to revisit the decisions that had led to war and to look anew at the role he played. He enlisted the collaboration of the political scientist Gordon M. Goldstein, and together they explored what happened and what might have been.

With Bundy's death in , that manuscript could not be completed, but Goldstein has built on their collaboration in an original and provocative work of presidential history that distills the essential lessons of America's involvement in Vietnam.

ISBN 13: 9780805079715

Drawing on Goldstein's prodigious research as well as the interviews and analysis he conducted with Bundy, Lessons in Disaster is a historical tour de force on the uses and misuses of American power. And in our own era, in the wake of presidential decisions that propelled the United States into another war under dubious pretexts, these lessons offer instructive guidance that we must heed if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Although the McGeorge Bundy who reigned as a legend of the establishment was reputed to be brisk, quick, calculating, and overconfident, the retrospective Bundy of 30 years later — the one with whom I spoke so many times — was in many ways the opposite: patient, reflective, curious, and humble. In fact, on the question of Vietnam Bundy appeared tentative and unsure — maybe on some level even mystified.

Although he never said so explicitly, he seemed to be as perplexed by the disaster of Vietnam as any of the historians who studied the decisions in which he had been a central participant. Three decades after his own role in the war ended — he left the White House in to head the Ford Foundation — he was still asking himself questions about its lessons.

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His answer: " The endurance of the enemy. Bundy marveled at the leadership of the insurgency, its political strength inside South Vietnam, the stamina of the armed forces of the Vietnamese communists, and the social cohesion that bound these variables together into an equation that allowed a small power, among the poorest countries in the world, to triumph over the United States.

When I began working with him on our book project, Bundy was still struggling to understand how the Johnson administration had committed itself to a strategy that would devolve into a contest of endurance Americans were destined to lose. Beginning in the United States deployed considerable and escalating numbers of ground combat forces in a protracted effort to grind down the enemy — depleting its numbers, breaking its will, and compelling its surrender or negotiated settlement on terms favorable to the United States.

That strategy was, of course, a great failure. And Bundy later asked himself, "Do we discuss whether we are in fact well-equipped to conduct a war of attrition? A decision was looming over whether to expand the U. Eisenhower advised not only supporting South Vietnamese forces in action but also urged direct offensive action by American troops. On the other hand," he presciently cautioned, "we may not be able to fight the war successfully enough — even with , Americans in South Vietnam — to achieve this purpose. Rusk envisioned a wave of falling dominoes — even India would collapse under the control of the Chinese communists.

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William Westmoreland, delivered a bleak report from the front. Against this backdrop of gathering anxiety, McNamara circulated a draft memorandum that would set the terms of debate over further escalation. A major escalation of U. Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked General Westmoreland directly if the escalation would be sufficient to break the insurgency. The stage was set for what should have been the seminal debate of the Vietnam War. Ball seized on the inherent uncertainty surrounding the battalion deployment and its implicit strategic assumptions.

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McNamara had thrown his support behind an enormous expansion of the American commitment. And General Westmoreland, the principal advocate of the battalion strategy, clearly conceded that the new American combat commitment could not assure the achievement of its stated objective. Where was Bundy positioned at this juncture? Frustrated by a deteriorating relationship with President Johnson, he was on the precipice of resigning as national security advisor.

The critics of the war, Bundy recalled, "were feeling deliberately cut off from and rejected by an administration with whom they were trying to communicate in good faith. LBJ told his aide, Bill Moyers, that he should inform Bundy that the president would be "pleased — mighty pleased," to accept his resignation.

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If the new offensive were not "more quickly decisive than we had any clear reason to expect," Bundy said, there would be disturbing consequences when the public "looked back and asked themselves if they had been led openly into this war or somehow bamboozled into it. Yet Johnson aspired for more.

The president had "this really quite funny internal belief " that he could reshape facts to serve his interests. Johnson believed that "if he could get it stated his way in the papers it would be that way. Although the national security advisor had reached the breaking point in his relationship with President Johnson, neither man could afford a public dustup, particularly as a major escalation decision loomed.

Just six days after appearing on CBS, Bundy was back advising the president. My own further view is that if and when we wish to shift our course and cut our losses in Vietnam we should do so because of a finding that the Vietnamese themselves are not meeting their obligations to themselves or to us. On the one hand, he dismissed critics who believed the United States was now emulating the disastrous course France followed in Vietnam.

Bundy challenged the assumption that conventional combat forces would be effective in containing the insurgency. So as the two stark choices confronting Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam crystallized — the battalion plan advocated by Westmoreland and McNamara or the withdrawal option espoused by Ball — a third course was proposed. Bundy had a reputation for skillfully aborting dissent when he deemed it necessary, and he was a practiced expert at maneuvering for advantage among competing bureaucracies. Bundy had, for example, previously undermined the secretary of state.

His instincts are cautious and negative.


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  • Johnson, meanwhile, continued to reach out to key constituencies, probing where the balance of opinion could be found. Just minutes before meeting with his senior Vietnam advisors on July 2, the president consulted Eisenhower. Eisenhower advised Johnson to proceed with a troop buildup as soon as possible.

    Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy And The Path To War In Vietnam

    His mission, Bundy retrospectively concluded, was to negotiate a deal with the U. Political stagecraft — creating the appearance of deliberation when a decision had already been made — was the presumptive purpose of a White House meeting Johnson convened on the morning of July President Johnson could choose to "cut our losses and withdraw under the best conditions that can be arranged — almost certainly conditions humiliating the United States and very damaging to our future effectiveness on the world scene. Such an approach, he predicted, "would stave off defeat in the short run and offer a good chance of producing a favorable settlement in the longer run," although it would also render "any later decision to withdraw even more difficult and even more costly than would be the case today.

    McNamara was vague, however, in delineating the causal logic of his proposed strategy, positing the escalation not as the military means to a military objective but simply as an end in itself. President Johnson, eager to project a ruminative state of mind, arrived after 40 minutes of discussion and unleashed a wave of questions ranging from the existential to the logistical.

    Then he asked, "Is anyone of the opinion we should not do what the memo says? Rusk regretted the failure to act earlier. Henry Cabot Lodge, who would return as the U.

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