In This Review

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
By Gordon M. Goldstein
Times Books, 2008, 320 pp

After former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara addressed the grave mistakes that were made in the run-up to and during the Vietnam War, McGeorge Bundy, who served as national security adviser to both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, wished to do so as well. He hired Goldstein to help him. He died before the project was completed, but Goldstein has used Bundy's notes and a number of detailed interviews to provide a compelling and sympathetic, although hardly uncritical, account of the slide into the morass. Bundy's role is fascinating simply because he was so smart, the man for whom the term "the best and the brightest" was coined. The whole period, and Bundy's role, has already been scrutinized by historians, and so inevitably much of the material is familiar. Bundy was driven by his determination not to have the United States be seen as having lost in Vietnam, which is a poor basis for a military commitment, as much as by any conviction that the United States would win. But the most important conclusion from Goldstein's book is that when it comes to these big decisions, the key is the attitude of the president. Both Kennedy and Johnson are faulted for having failed to explain to the American people what they were up to in Vietnam. The big difference between the two, in Bundy's vivid phrase, was that "Kennedy didn't want to be dumb, but Johnson didn't want to be a coward." That is why Bundy concluded, and Goldstein concurs, that Kennedy would not have ended up with ground troops in Vietnam.