A Vietnam Book That Haunts the US in Afghanistan

Last year a, young author named Gordon Goldstein wrote a book entitled Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam outlining the numerous missteps taken by successive US governments that eventually led to America's getting stuck in the morass of Vietnam. It is a chilling study and now is one that Washington policymakers are paying close attention to for fears we are repeating a similar folly in Afghanistan. The book is centered on Mr. Bundy, who was one of the key strategic Ivy-educated operatives justifying the rush into Vietnam. The Vietnam war has long faded from the news but its memory is still a deeply troubling one. Over 55,000 Americans died in this futile cause. In retrospect, America's national interest was never at stake and US aims in the conflict were never clear. But, while for thousands of young men, it was ostensibly a fight to stem the tide of Communism, in fact, this was a war to suppress a nationalist uprising by Vietnamese seeking to reunite a divided country -- and all of this happening some 3,000 miles from our borders. This turned out to be a war the US could never win. Lessons in Disaster is an insightful book about how America slowly got involved in this debacle, and how the "best and the brightest" -- as symbolized mainly in the person of McGeorge Bundy -- led us into it. Bundy served as National Security Advisor to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson from 1961-1965. He was one of the most brilliant young men of his time. It was he (along with the Democratic administration's other "whiz kid", Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara) who largely provided the intellectual heft behind the crusade in Southeast Asia that Washington pursued to its bloody end. Gordon Goldstein, the book's author, was recruited by Bundy late in his life to help him organize his memoirs. Goldstein worked closely with Bundy, but, before the project could be finished in the mid-1990s, Bundy died. With the venture still-born, Goldstein decided to write his own account of his stint with Bundy, of how he watched Bundy gradually awaken to his mistakes in Vietnam and how Bundy attempted to come to terms with his failures, and the ultimate sense of loss he felt over what had happened. Using fragmentary personal notes that Bundy left behind, Goldstein's own interviews with the man and the official papers and memos that Bundy had gathered, Goldstein offers a tale of an unusual man's rise to power, his precipitous downfall and his eventual reckoning with his life. Bundy was always a man of supreme self-confidence. At a young age, he became Dean of the Harvard faculty, managing the egos and extraordinary minds of the university's academics with aplomb. Kennedy plucked him out of Harvard to be his chief foreign policy advisor. From the start, Bundy displayed a mastery of facts and an ability to impress his boss. But Bundy's judgment on global issues proved to be curiously suspect. For example, he supported the Bay of Pigs invasion - but not because he had closely analyzed it as National Security advisor - but because of his friendship with the CIA man who ran the operation, a fellow graduate of Groton and Yale. On the Cuban missile crisis, Bundy took three different positions during the deliberations over what Washington should do about the Soviet missiles, ultimately dismaying JFK. On Vietnam, Bundy favored the dispatch of US troops to the country because of his apprehensions over a Communist takeover and the subsequent "domino" effect that Vietnam's fall might have on the rest of SouthAsia. But Bundy never bothered to learn the history of Vietnam and never probed very deeply into the reasons for the Communist's popularity there. JFK, for his part, opposed a wider US involvement because, having once visited IndoChina, he had observed at first hand how Vietnamese nationalism was the motivating factor that ousted the French colonials. However once Kennedy was killed and Johnson took over, a new calculus took over in the White House. Bundy, no longer restrained by JFK's caution, pressed LBJ to enlarge the American presence in Vietnam but at the same time never provided Johnson realistic objectives for the US mission there or a plausible exit strategy. In his old age, Bundy realized he had been wrong. He confessed to Goldstein, "the doves were right." Bundy's error was his neglect of making any hard inquiries and evaluations about the Asian trouble spots with which Washington was dealing -- but especially with Vietnam. On the latter, as Goldstein writes, Bundy had been "the one senior official in the Johnson Administration with both the institutional mandate and intellectual gravitas to force a real examination of the military implications of an open-ended deployment of US combat forces to South Vietnam. That exercise did not occur. In fact, it was never attempted." Bundy, it turns out, apparently possessed everything but a sense of humility and a dollop of common-sense. Now the question is: do we have the necessary sobriety, humbleness and wisdom in our current times in Washington to weigh appropriately our next moves on Afghanistan?