Mac Bundy Said He Was ‘All Wrong’

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Bettmann/Corbis
From left, Lieutenant Colonel John C. Hughes briefing McGeorge Bundy and General William C. Westmoreland on the recent Vietcong attack on Pleiku, South Vietnam, February 10, 1965

The debate over foreign policy that culminated in President Barack Obama’s address to the nation on December 1, 2009, concerns a war that began with the attack of a mainly Saudi Arabian group of politically radicalized Muslim men on New York and Washington, targets symbolic of American capitalism and alleged imperialism. These attacks, according to the group’s leader, were to punish the United States for its decision, following the first Gulf War, to establish permanent American military bases in the region, blasphemously located (in the view of Osama bin Laden and his followers) in the holy territories of Saudi Arabia.

How these attacks, and the American reaction, led to American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, so that nearly a decade later the war in Iraq remains incompletely resolved, while the United States, with NATO allies, is engaged in the war in Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban movement and against those in Pakistan who harbor or support the Taliban, makes a tangled story, not to be recounted here. But it raises persistent parallels with the Vietnam catastrophe, the subject of Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Goldstein’s is perhaps the most important book yet published on the United States’ Vietnam experience, which changed the nation’s history and continues to exercise a powerful influence on American foreign and security policy.

In 1995 the seventy-six-year-old Bundy, who had served in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations as national security adviser, felt himself challenged by the controversial memoir just published by his fellow member of both those administrations, ex-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. McNamara had concluded that on Vietnam “we were wrong, terribly wrong,” and expressed his sense of guilt for what had been done.

Bundy had since his government service refused on principle to criticize his former superiors, and invariably defended what had been American policy, its failure notwithstanding. He had remained silent on the moral issues raised by the war. The McNamara confession inspired him to reexamine his own experience.

This is where Gordon Goldstein enters. Bundy hired him as his research assistant. But as James G. Blight of Brown University says, in a review of Goldstein’s book in the online magazine Truthdig, the two of them—Goldstein was less than half the age of Bundy—became true collaborators as Bundy struggled with his own memories and written records in the light of the documentation and testimony provided by the younger man about the events of those years. However, Bundy died in September 1996, long before the book was drafted.

With the agreement of the Bundy family, Goldstein now has published his own book about the unfinished Bundy memoir. Blight describes it as an account of Bundy’s “personal, historical and even moral” quest for the …

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Letters

Would JFK Have Left Vietnam?: An Exchange September 30, 2010