Q&A With Gordon Goldstein on Lessons in Disaster
Question: What are the essential lessons of Vietnam that McGeorge Bundy’s experience illuminates, and how are they relevant to the challenges confronting America’s next commander-in-chief?
Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide: Bundy concluded that in 1961 President Kennedy—despite the fierce opposition of a majority of his top national security and military advisers—made a firm, final, and forceful decision against sending combat forces to Vietnam. That decision was rigidly enforced throughout Kennedy’s presidency. A generation later, when confronted with another war of choice in Iraq, President Bush accepted the core assumptions and assurances of his advisers without adequate cross-examination. The lesson for the next commander-in-chief is that a new president must appoint strong counselors but be prepared to overrule them.
Politics Is the Enemy of Strategy: In the election year of 1964, Bundy recalled, Lyndon Johnson “didn’t want to be a coward” on the question of Vietnam, but he also did not want to expand the war. LBJ therefore exploited the political moment to achieve both objectives. He orchestrated the Tonkin Gulf resolutions (which Bundy called a political “vaudeville show”) to convey a sense of resolve and authorize the use of force to defend South Vietnam. Yet on the stump Johnson declared, “We don’t want to get involved in a nation with 700 million people and get tied down in a land war in Asia” – which was exactly what Johnson initiated after he was elected. On the eve of mid-term elections in October 2002, many Democratic members of Congress also did not want to appear weak on national security, and thus voted overwhelmingly to authorize President Bush to take military action in Iraq. The lesson for the next commander-in-chief is that when leaders put political interests first, flawed strategic decisions follow.
Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends: Reflecting on the failure of U.S. military strategy in Vietnam, Bundy said he was most surprised by “the endurance of the enemy.” Beginning in 1965, the United States deployed an escalating number of ground combat troops in a doomed effort to grind down the Vietnamese communists and break their will. That strategy, Bundy concluded, was “a major error and we failed even to address it.” In Iraq, the surge has targeted specific localities and thus has achieved some success in suppressing violence. But U.S. combat troops have been less effective at broad-based pacification and nation-building. The lesson for the next president is to commit combat forces only to specific and militarily achievable objectives.
Question: Why is Gordon Goldstein the most uniquely qualified person to tell this story?
Bundy Breaks Public Silence on Vietnam: In the last two years of his life McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to President Kennedy and President Johnson, decided to break his public silence on the decisions that led America to its entanglement in Vietnam.
Unique Access: Gordon M. Goldstein was the political scientist and foreign-policy scholar who was selected by Bundy to assist him with the research and writing of a retrospective memoir and analysis of the Vietnam War’s pivotal turning points. Bundy died before that jointly authored work could be completed. Goldstein has built on his unique access to Bundy to produce a book drawn from his numerous extensive interviews with the former national security adviser, his unparalleled knowledge of Bundy’s retrospective conclusions about the decisions that produced the American disaster in Vietnam and his own extensive research.
Question: What is some of the new information that appears in this book that has not been reported or published before?
CIA Attempted to Entrap Kennedy into Bay of Pigs Military Rescue: Looking back at the Bay of Pigs, Bundy concluded that the CIA sought to entrap and manipulate Kennedy into providing American military support at the eleventh hour as the price of avoiding a humiliating fiasco. Bundy praised Kennedy for maintaining his resolve and then reconstructing the intelligence community to ensure that the CIA would never abuse its power so egregiously again. Bundy concluded that the debacle in Cuba gave Kennedy the confidence to reject his advisers’ recommendation to send U.S. military forces into Laos.
Kennedy Doubted 1963 Vietnam Coup: The book provides details that have never been published on Kennedy’s doubts about how his most senior advisers managed the overthrow of the Vietnamese government in late 1963.
Kennedy Would Have Rejected Vietnam Escalation in a Second Term: The book breaks decades of Bundy’s silence to elaborate on his strongly held belief that if President Kennedy had lived to serve a second term, he would have refused to Americanize the war in Vietnam as his successor did and would have implemented a plan to wind down the U.S. advisory mission to Saigon.
1964 Election Paralyzed Vietnam Policy: Looking back on the year 1964, Bundy concluded that Lyndon Johnson’s preoccupation with winning the November election paralyzed U.S. decision-making on Vietnam, ensuring the continued deterioration of American strategy until after Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in the race for the White House.
National Security Adviser Distracted By Domestic Politics: The book shows Bundy’s invasive engagement in domestic election-year politics—including his disastrous support for and subsequent abandonment of Robert Kennedy as Johnson’s running mate—and his distraction from managing a serious evaluation of the assumptions and options that placed the United States on the precipice of war in Vietnam.
Johnson Was a Disastrous Commander-in-Chief: The book describes Bundy’s toxic relationship with Lyndon Johnson, whom he claimed had secretly decided to approve a massive escalation of U.S. combat forces in the summer of 1965 while pretending that American policy was still open to debate by skeptics in his administration. Bundy concluded that Johnson managed military strategy disastrously—not as a commander in chief defining clear and achievable objectives but as the former Senate majority leader he was, seeking consensus and political compromise even if the military results would prove ruinous.
Vietnam War Doomed to Failure: The book describes Bundy’s misguided fixation with a doomed military strategy that he retrospectively concluded could never produce victory over a far more resilient and fiercely determined adversary. Bundy acknowledges how his own failure to manage the government’s analysis of terrible military options in Vietnam indirectly set the United States on the course of fighting a war of attrition against the Vietnamese insurgency in which the United States would never prevail.
Question: How does this book complement or compare to Robert McNamara’s best-selling Vietnam memoir, In Retrospect?
Bundy Inspired by McNamara Memoir: As McNamara published his best-selling memoir in 1995, Bundy—inspired by his close friend’s candor and effort to understand the origins of the war—embarked on his own Vietnam project. After McNamara, Bundy was the last of the architects of the Vietnam War to break his public silence.
Last Piece of the Vietnam Puzzle: Lessons in Disaster, although not the book Bundy would have written, is as close as history will ever come to understanding the retrospective conclusions and contemporary insights of one of the Vietnam War’s most influential strategists. It provides the last piece of the puzzle that is needed to help us understand America’s tragic collision with its most fateful war of choice.
Question: What else is unique about this book and why do you expect it will draw critical and commercial interest?
Vietnam Mistakes Repeated in Iraq: In addition to exploring the final retrospective insights of the last of the Vietnam War’s architects to break his public silence, Lessons in Disaster also offers, in the words of esteemed historian Michael Beschloss, a “dispassionate, powerful and brilliant” treatment of the war’s inflection points as well as “crucial lessons for future presidents, members of congress and citizens.” This book is therefore not only a history of the fateful decisions in a distant part of the world but also a contemporary analysis of the uses and misuses of American power, dramatically illustrating how the same mistakes in Vietnam were repeated a generation later in Iraq.
Bundy’s Self-Criticism a Coda to Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest: For a generation of readers familiar with the hugely influential work by David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster will serve as an illuminating, unexpected, and startling coda, as the preeminent intellect of his era and one of Halberstam’s most essential protagonists grapples decades later with his failures of advice and judgment.