Home > Books, History, Politics > Biography: V.S. Naipaul and McGeorge Bundy

Biography: V.S. Naipaul and McGeorge Bundy

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

I have stacks of books to read all around the house, but now I have to add two more to the stacks. Maybe saying a few words about each will force me to read them.

First is The World is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, written by Patrick French. It was reviewed on the cover of the NYT Book Review last Sunday by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who has an accompanying piece on Naipaul at his blog. At the blog, Packer writes, “It’s a wonderful book, engrossing to read, and it raises the question of the relation between the work and the man in its starkest form: how can a writer who is monstrously inhumane to the people closest to him endow his characters with such humanity?”

At some point around 30 years ago, Naipaul became my favorite author. I must have about 15 of his books. Maybe I started with A Bend in the River and then worked backwards through Penguin paperback editions of most of the books he wrote before that. A House for Mr Biswas was easily my favorite, but I was also quite struck by his non-fiction work India: A Wounded Civilization. And then I stopped reading him. Perhaps the biography will re-start me, but it’s clear from Packer’s articles, as well as Ian Buruma’s review in the New York Review of Books, that I’ll be in for some painful reading.

The second book is Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, by Gordon M. Goldstein, and it is reviewed by veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke in today’s NYT Book Review. I’ve long been curious to know more about Bundy. He was, of course, one of the architects of the Vietnam War as National Security Adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a principal figure in David Halberstam’s account The Best and the Brightest. Indeed, he was probably the brightest of the best and the brightest, coming to DC in 1961 from his position as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, a position he assumed in 1953 at the age of 34. A memorial minute from a December 2000 meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences gives a sense of his impact on the school. Here’s one paragraph:

He had a genius for friendship across generations, and a deep loyalty to the institutions and persons he served. As a teacher, he was eloquent, elegant, and combined the sharpness of the mathematics major he had been with the subtlety of a student of foreign affairs who had considerable practical experience. As Dean, he showed ambition for Harvard, clarity of purposes, openness to innovation, candor in judgments, fair mindedness, and attentiveness to the views of people even younger than himself. His quickness in recognizing, attracting and promoting talent was impervious to bias. His service as Dean left a legacy of excellence on which his successors have continued to build.

The book about Bundy evolved from his own effort, starting in 1995, to analyze the mistakes of the Vietnam War and his role in those mistakes. Bundy chose the book’s author as his collaborator, but the project came to an abrupt end with Bundy’s death. Holbrooke explains that for “today’s readers, what’s most important about Lessons in Disaster is not the details of how the United States stumbled into a war without knowing where it was going; that story has been told in hundreds of other books. Goldstein’s achievement is quite different: 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.” And Holbrooke closes by noting that “With the nation now about to inaugurate a new president committed to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and succeed in Afghanistan, the lessons of Vietnam are still relevant. McGeorge Bundy’s story, of early brilliance and a late-in-life search for the truth about himself and the war, is an extraordinary cautionary tale for all Americans.”

It looks like I’m in store for still more painful reading.

(I should add that I actually know one of McGeorge Bundy’s sons. He was a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t meet him until our 25th reunion a decade ago.)

Categories: Books, History, Politics
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