Lessons in Disaster

McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

Gordon M. Goldstein

Times Books

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A revelatory look at the decisions that led to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, drawing on the insights and reassessments of one of the war’s architects

"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.

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Reviews

Praise for Lessons in Disaster

“The must-read book for Obama’s war team. . . . Many on the national security team at the White House are now reading Lessons in Disaster by Gordon Goldstein. . . . A great, great book.  Well worth the read as the Afghanistan debate heats up.”—George Stephanopoulos, ABCNews.com

“Full of fresh information on how the best and the brightest led America into the fiasco. . . . The book’s intimate account of White House decision-making is almost literally being replayed in Washington as the new president sets a course for the war in Afghanistan. The time for all Americans to catch up with this extraordinary cautionary tale is now.”—Frank Rich, The New York Times

"A compelling portrait of a man once serenely confident, searching decades later for self-understanding.... 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. The unfinished quality of Bundy’s self-inquest only enhances its power, authenticity and, yes, poignancy.... An extraordinary cautionary tale for all Americans."—Richard Holbrooke, The New York Times Book Review

“A Vietnam book that haunts the U.S. in Afghanistan.”—Stephen Schlesinger, Huffington Post

“Practically required reading in the West Wing.”—Jonathan Alter, Newsweek

“The Vietnam analogy remains haunting. On Mr. Obama’s nightstand is Gordon Goldstein’s acclaimed biography of McGeorge Bundy, Lessons in Disaster, which describes the flawed decision-making of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Vietnam quagmire.”—Al Hunt, International Herald Tribune

"[Goldstein] painstakingly recounts his subject’s role as national security adviser and ponders the complexity of the elusive ‘inner Bundy’... surprising revelations."—Publishers Weekly

"Illuminate[s] the five years (1961-1966) during which the defense of South Vietnam was Americanized…. A strange yet fascinating book."—Newsweek

"Astute distillation of the essential lessons now-deceased national security adviser Bundy learned from Vietnam….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.’… A significant then-and-now reassessment."—Kirkus Reviews

"No American who has lived through the Iraq experience will doubt how important it is for us to understand why and how American presidents take our country to war. Key to understanding how John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson took the nation into Vietnam is the story of McGeorge Bundy’s service to both men as national security adviser. Thanks to his many long and penetrating talks with Bundy, his assiduous study of the written record, and his mastery of the interplay among personality, politics, and national security strategy, Gordon Goldstein has brought us a dispassionate, powerful, and brilliant assessment of McGeorge Bundy’s performance during the years he was given his cardinal moment in history. Goldstein’s book helps us comprehend how Americans were led, step by step, into the abyss of Vietnam. It also provides crucial lessons for future presidents, members of Congress, and citizens as we grapple with the problems of where, when, and how to apply American power around the world."—Michael Beschloss

"A compelling and personally sympathetic appraisal of Bundy as a brilliant statesman but also as a fallible human being. Despite his remarkable intellect, Bundy ultimately failed to grasp the fundamental novelty of the historical challenge posed by a communism fanatically driven by nationalistic anticolonialist passions. In that context, presidential decision-making became increasingly focused on the imperatives of a local war and less on its damaging impact on America’s world role."—Zbigniew Brzezinski

"Thanks to Gordon Goldstein’s superb book, we have fresh evidence for judging between a facile mind and a wise one, and we can now assess more accurately the role of McGeorge Bundy in the Vietnam tragedy."—A. J. Langguth

"This meticulously researched book gives us remarkable insight into one of the most critical foreign policy decisions in U.S. history. Anyone aspiring to a leadership position in American politics or public policy should carefully examine this perceptive work and its many valuable lessons."—Warren B. Rudman, former U.S. senator (R–N.H.) and former chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board 

"Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster provides a close, careful look at Kennedy's mindset at the time of his assassination.... As the title suggests, this fast-paced, well-written book is organized around the abiding lessons of Vietnam. Barack Obama and his new foreign policy advisers should read it."—Mike Pride, Concord Monitor


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.
- The New York Times


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About the Author

Gordon M. Goldstein

Gordon M. Goldstein is a scholar of international affairs who has held executive positions in international security policy and finance. He received a Ph.D. in political science and international relations from Columbia University, and 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

Gordon M. Goldstein

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Available Formats and Book Details

Lessons in Disaster
McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
Gordon M. Goldstein

e-Book Agency

e-Book Agency
Henry Holt and Co.
Times Books
September 2013
e-Book Agency
ISBN: 9781466852112
ISBN10: 1466852119
320 pages
$7.99

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback
Henry Holt and Co.
Holt Paperbacks
September 2009
Trade Paperback
ISBN: 9780805090871
ISBN10: 0805090878
5 1/4 x 8 inches, 320 pages
$18.99
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