While determining his Afghanistan policy, Obama has been reading Lessons in Disaster, about how the U.S. got into Vietnam. The Daily Beast speed reads the book to find out six things the president might have learned.
A report in The New York Times identified Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Gordon M. Goldstein as one of the books Obama was reading while deliberating over his surge in Afghanistan. Goldstein’s book focuses on the role of McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy and then Johnson’s national security adviser, in helping determine and escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. It appears that Obama took Tom Brokaw’s advice: “Every public servant and every citizen should know the story of McGeorge Bundy and how he lost his way.”
(Or Obama might have been taking advice from Peter Osnos. A year ago, Osnos wrote in The Daily Beast that Obama “ must read” Lessons in Disaster.)
The Daily Beast read through Goldstein’s book and came up with six crucial lessons Obama might have learned from it.
1. Be Smart, Not Political
Perhaps the single greatest point in Lessons in Disaster is Bundy’s mantra: “Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb,” he said. “Johnson didn’t want to be a coward.”
Although this term became famous because of a more recent president, Kennedy knew with whom lay the ultimate decision on war. Even when all of his major advisers, from McNamara to Dean Rusk, were advocating deployment of U.S. combat troops, Kennedy held his ground to send just military advisers. Goldstein: “Kennedy knew one lesson that the crises of 1961—the Bay of Pigs, Laos and Vietnam—vividly illustrated: Counselors advise but presidents decide. This became a lesson that McGeorge Bundy also took to heart in his retrospective analysis three decades later. On questions of war and peace the paramount authority of decision ultimately rests with one individual. As Bundy noted, ‘A decision to keep troops out of war can be made and enforced by the single-handed use of the powers of the president as commander-in-chief. That power was consciously if quietly exercised by President Kennedy in 1961.’”
3. Don’t Trust the Bureaucrats
One of the most infamous moments in U.S. policy in Vietnam was the summer weekend telegram, when President Kennedy, on the advice of Michael Forrestal and a few others, instructed the U.S. ambassador in Vietnam to pursue plans for a coup d’etat against the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. As Goldstein concludes, “Not only was the national security bureaucracy split over the fundamental question of whether the United States should support the military in its coup effort, the bureaucracy itself was operating without clear control…Kennedy in 1963 also allowed the bureaucracy to elude his firm command… Diem’s violent demise demonstrated a sharp contrast to Kennedy’s vigorous management of the missile crisis but a similarity to the maladroit performance of his national security team in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In retrospect, the lesson of the Diem coup suggested by the experience of the national security adviser as well as the president was perhaps the same: never trust the bureaucracy to get it right.”
4. Wars Won’t Halt for Elections
Did Obama have 2012 in mind when planning the beginning of the pullout date in 2011? In the midst of an election campaign, Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin incident to gain legislative support for further military action in Vietnam, and then held off on any further plan throughout 1964 while campaigning. Goldstein: “As he looked back on his White House years, Bundy frequently observed that in 1964, all efforts to conceive a realistic American strategy in Vietnam were held in abeyance because Lyndon Johnson wanted it that way during an election year. As Bundy remembered, ‘Bob McNamara would probably say… there was a time that he felt that the most serious problem in those few years was that we lost the year 1964 because of the election.’”
5. Political Ends, Military Means
One of the starkest lessons of McGeorge Bundy’s experience under President Johnson is that the White House was relentlessly focused on military goals, not political ones. Johnson followed a policy with only a military outcome: attrition. Goldstein: “The attrition strategy thus contributed to one of the great ironies of the war. In the end, one of the protagonists in Vietnam was ultimately coerced to abandon the battle, beaten not militarily but persuaded the victory could not be achieved at an acceptable price. Bundy’s conviction that coercion would prevail was correct, but its impact was applied in reverse. It was Washington, not Hanoi, that was forced to abandon an unwinnable war.”
6. Stop the Leaks
Much as Obama’s decision was plagued by leaks about various advisers’ opinions, Kennedy’s 1961 deliberations about American policy in Vietnam were revealed in a series of leaks that indicated he was considering deployment of combat troops. As Goldstein writes, “Using Bundy as his enforcer, Kennedy ordered General Taylor to plug the leaks. ‘The President requests that your conclusions on Vietnam, especially those relating to U.S. forces, not be discussed outside your own immediate party in terms which would indicate your own final judgment,’ Bundy wrote to Taylor [Kennedy’s military adviser] on October 28. ‘He is most concerned that you and he should have firm common ground when decisions are taken, and rumors of your conclusions could obviously be damaging.’