McGeorge Bundy had a lead role in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, his ironically titled epic portrait of illustrious Kennedy and Johnson era advisers responsible for America’s disastrous foray into Vietnam. That book has joined the list of presidential histories—mainly about Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—being thrust at or read by Barack Obama as he prepares to take over the White House at what is, by any measure, a tumultuous moment for the nation, in which the past does seem exceptionally relevant to the present.
“Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb,” Bundy wrote, “Johnson didn’t want to be a coward.”
Bundy, who was the national security adviser from 1961 to 1966, never published a memoir. Because of the socially astute dignity of his manner and a long career of philanthropic largesse at the Ford Foundation, Bundy’s reputation was relatively unscathed by Vietnam, compared for example to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who revived deep feelings of anger when he wrote in his 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. McNamara admitted that he concluded the war was “terribly wrong” while still at the Pentagon, but had continued to publicly support it. After McNamara’s book was published (I was its editor), Bundy decided he should write his own account of the Vietnam period and recruited a young scholar named Gordon Goldstein to help him with the writing and editing.
Substantial progress had been made toward what would have been a matching volume to McNamara’s in its goal of explaining how Vietnam happened, when Bundy died in September 1996. Bundy’s wife, Mary, decided not to authorize publication of the unfinished work, so Goldstein set out to take what he calls “scores of unique, individual passages of manuscript that Bundy had been drafting by hand” and the insights drawn from hours of interviews with Bundy, plus collateral research to summarize what would have been Bundy’s judgments in the book he was writing. The completed work is called Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (Times Books/Henry Holt). It is fascinating for all kinds of reasons and a must read for the president-elect.
First and perhaps least related to present day application is Bundy’s conclusions about his mistakes and those of others that led to the escalation of the war, especially after Johnson was re-elected president over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Bundy’s views completely track McNamara’s: “I had a part in a great failure,” he wrote, “I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution. If I have learned anything I should share it.” Elsewhere he wrote: “You owe it to a lot of different people. Because it hurt them or their families; because it matters what lessons are learned . . . there are a lot of errors in the path of understanding.”
Second is Bundy’s belief, as diagrammed by Goldstein, that Kennedy almost certainly would not have made the mistakes Johnson did in significantly ramping up the American intervention in Vietnam, while privately believing that, over the long term, the war effort would not succeed. That thesis is captured in what is almost a Bundy haiku: “Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb; Johnson didn’t want to be a coward.” In other words, pragmatism from Kennedy based on the facts; politics from Johnson, who didn’t want to be seen as a loser.
Third, and this is the most important message of the book for the present, captured in the chapter headings: “Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide;” “Politics Is the Enemy of Strategy;” “Conviction Without Rigor Is a Strategy for Disaster;” “Intervention a Presidential Choice. . . .” What Goldstein’s narrative describes is the interplay of the “best and brightest” surrounding Kennedy (and then Johnson) engaged in all the bureaucratic tussles that end up as policy and action. The Obama economic and national security teams are a comparable array of brilliance, ego, style, and clout that will assure a very high level of discourse, but as the record of Lessons in Disaster shows, that does not necessarily produce the right outcome.
Personal temperament, tactical skill, and access to the president combine to shape attitudes in a chemistry that doesn’t always lead to decisions grounded in facts as advisers compete for influence. That, in Goldstein’s version, is why Kennedy, chastened by the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs assault in the early months of his tenure, resorted to his inner pragmatism and logic in making choices about what to do in Vietnam and when the Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. The latest (and last) batch of Oval Office telephone tapes, just released by the LBJ library and available on C-SPAN’s website deepens the sense that, in contrast to Kennedy, Johnson was overwhelmed by Vietnam and in despair and confusion when he left office.
The essential lesson of this book was reinforced for me by the closing line in a New York Times editorial the other day about the policy options suggested by Obama’s selection of an environmental team: “Nothing happens unless the President wants it to.” That was absolutely the case when the brilliant Bundy and his colleagues were advising John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And it will certainly be true for Obama as he works his way through the financial, economic, and national security crises, on top of a long list of other issues such as health care and climate change. Over the past eight years, Bush had the expertise of reputed sages such as Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Paulson. But they could do little of consequence without presidential sanction. At the pinnacle, the president stands alone, then and now.
Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation, where he writes the weekly Platform column. Osnos is the Founder and Editor-at-Large of PublicAffairs Books. He is Vice-Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House Inc. and was a correspondent and editor at The Washington Post. Visit TCF.org for a full archive of Platform columns.