Lessons in Disaster McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

Gordon M. Goldstein

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320 Pages



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"I had a part in a great failure. I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution. If I have learned anything I should share it."

These are not words that Americans ever expected to hear from McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. 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 1996, 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.

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.


Praise for Lessons in Disaster

"For today's readers, what's most important about Lessons in Disaster is not the details of how the United States stumbled into a war without knowing where it was going; that story has been told in hundreds of other books. Goldstein's achievement is quite different: it offers insight into how Bundy, a man of surpassing skill and reputation, could have advised two presidents so badly. On the long shelf of Vietnam books, I know of nothing quite like it."—Richard Holbrooke, The New York Times Book Review

"For America, the Vietnam War was the traumatic event of the second half of the last century. Entered into with a brash self-confidence after a decade and a half of creative and successful foreign policy, our engagement ended with America as divided as it had not been since the Civil War. As a result, Congress cut off aid to Vietnam two years after the troops had been withdrawn, and the last Americans left Saigon by helicopter from the roof of our embassy. No account of that period adequate to the emotion and drama of the time has yet appeared. The dwindling number of witnesses of the period remains traumatized by its passions or divided by their own pasts. For younger leaders, an understanding of the controversies of their fathers has proved elusive, obliging them to slide into the same dilemmas in their contemporary policies. Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam does not fill that vacuum. It does, however, illuminate the five years during which the defense of South Vietnam was Americanized. Tracing the efforts of one of the most prominent public servants of the time, it seeks to come to terms with America's entry into its tragedy . . . After leaving office, Bundy became the target of David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, which used him to illustrate the thesis that the cream of the establishment led America astray in Vietnam. The book set the tone for most of the subsequent assessment of the war. Bundy bore the opprobrium with dignity, never answering the criticisms directly and perhaps privately agreeing with some of them. Toward the end of his life, he began, with a research assistant, to assemble materials for reconstructing the events that had pushed America from hope to despair. He died before he could begin the manuscript. Bundy's researcher, Gordon M. Goldstein, has now turned their collaborative effort and some fragments of Bundy's writing into Lessons in Disaster. It's his own effort, representing the researcher's view, not authorized by the Bundy family. It's also a strange yet fascinating book. No one is said to be a hero to his valet; this book permits one to extend the truism to research assistants. Lessons in Disaster is relentlessly hostile to its subject, not so much to Bundy's person—whom it treats respectfully—as his policies. With the hindsight of some decades, it helps explain many facets of Bundy's performance . . . The book is an illuminating window into a seminal time. It is also further evidence of the inability of America to transcend the debates that tore it apart a generation ago."—Henry Kissinger, Newsweek

"A sharp picture of the extent to which advisers and the government bureaucracy shape Presidencies . . . Gordon Goldstein, a former international security adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General's Strategic Planning Unit, conducted a number of uniquely penetrating interviews with Bundy, who grew up in Boston, epitomized the WASP establishment, and became famous for his arrogance and intellectual acuity. Kissinger has said Bundy treated him with a special Brahmin condescension because of his Jewish heritage . . . A valuable reminder of the contingent nature of events while Presidents scramble from one crisis to the next. As A.J.P. Taylor once said, the only lesson of history is that there is no lesson of history."—Jacob Heilbrunn, The New Leader

"I read a book that so impressed me that next semester it will be required reading for my undergraduate students. Gordon M. Goldstein's book Lessons in Disaster is a gem reminiscent only of Graham Allison’s and Philip Zelikow’s book on the Cuban Missile Crisis . . . With the current quagmire in Afghanistan, Gordon Goldstein is must reading for Barack Obama's national security team. Lessons in Disaster serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of intellectual arrogance overpowering good judgment at the highest levels of political decision making. Of all the books I have read, this is the must leadership book to be read by all."—Samuel B. Bacharach, Cornell University

"[An] astute distillation of the essential lessons now-deceased national security adviser Bundy learned from Vietnam. Prompted to revisit the war after the 1995 publication of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's memoir, in which he admitted, 'We were wrong, terribly wrong' about Vietnam, Bundy, then 76, began collaborating with international-affairs scholar Goldstein on a book about his experiences working under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. His reconstruction and retrospective analysis of the pivotal decisions about Vietnam strategy from 1961 to 1965, when Bundy resigned as Johnson's national security adviser, remained incomplete upon his death in 1996. Goldstein's present work, informed by interviews with Bundy and access to his manuscripts, provides an invaluable record of Bundy's thoughts and actions during the war, as well as unusually candid commentary on his admitted failures in 'perception, recommendation and execution.' Goldstein is especially driven to find out why Bundy, Harvard dean and member of the intellectual elite embodying the 'best and brightest' of his generation, failed to question the validity of the domino theory or test the logic of potential American military escalation in Vietnam. The book begins with a systematic examination of Kennedy's encounter with Vietnam during his first year in office, in particular his remarkable ability to resist the pressure of brilliant advisers such as Bundy to send in ground combat troops. Had Kennedy lived, Bundy suggested years later, America's disastrous role in the war could have been averted. Johnson, by contrast, accepted the dire warnings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his civilian advisers, which led to the Americanization of the war. Goldstein goes step by step through this 'strategy for disaster,' marveling at Bundy's arrogant adherence to 'the perception of credibility' as the most important consideration in American policy, trumping every other aspect of military strategy. A significant then-and-now reassessment."—Kirkus Reviews

"An impressive investigation of the importance of presidential leadership in determining war-making policies. Bundy remained a strong hawk throughout his tenure, even though he did not believe escalation would ensure victory. Like most cabinet members, he accepted the Cold War consensus, which stressed a loss of credibility if the United States were to leave Vietnam. JFK never bought into this, Goldstein says; judging from Kennedy's diplomatic solutions to Laos, the Bay of Pigs, and, most important, the Cuban Missile Crisis, he would have removed the American presence during his second term. But LBJ, unlike Kennedy, Americanized and politicized the war to ensure his election in 1964. In his later years, Bundy came to understand how his views helped lead to the Vietnam tragedy and, according to the author, learned the heavy price the United States pays when a President fails to learn that intervention cannot be defended as inevitable. Strongly recommended for . . . all academic libraries."—Karl Helicher, Library Journal

"Goldstein worked with Bundy in the year before his death, in 1996, on an uncompleted memoir and 'retrospective analysis of America's path to war.' While drawing on that work in this warts-and-all examination of Bundy's advisory role, this book is something different, containing Goldstein's own conclusions. He painstakingly recounts his subject's role as national security adviser and ponders the complexities of the elusive 'inner Bundy': for example, the buoyant good humor in the 1960s that seemed unbowed by the weight of difficult strategic decisions. Among the surprising revelations: late in life Bundy came to regret his hawkish ways, although he maintained to the end that the presidents, not their advisers, were primarily responsible for the outcome of the war. Vietnam, he said, was 'overall, a war we should not have fought.'"—Publishers Weekly

In the Press

Book Review - 'Lessons in Disaster - McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam,' by Gordon M. Goldstein - Review - NYTimes.com
How McGeorge Bundy, a key architect of the Vietnam War, began an agonized search to understand himself.

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt



In my meetings with McGeorge Bundy, time seemed to stop and reverse course, back to the years of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, as Bundy would recall the storied cast of characters with whom he had served three decades earlier—men like Robert McNamara, the Ford Motor Company president whom Kennedy tapped to run the Pentagon; Dean Rusk, the former Rhodes Scholar and famously reserved foundation president who served as secretary of state; and Richard Bis-sell, Bundy’s old friend from the Yale economics department,

Read the full excerpt


  • Gordon M. Goldstein

  • Gordon M. Goldstein is a scholar of international affairs who has served as an international security adviser to the United Nations secretary-general and as a Wayland Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Washington Post. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Gordon M. Goldstein