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Bundy and Vietnam

January 17, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
John Kennedy and McGeorge Bundy

John Kennedy and McGeorge Bundy

At the end of November, I wrote a post about two books I had to read, based on their reviews in the preceding two Sunday NYT book review sections. One, of course, is the Patrick French biography of V. S. Naipaul that I finished a week ago and have written about many times. The other is Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Having finished it just two nights ago, I’ll say a few words about it.

Bundy, of course, left his position as Dean of the Faculty at Harvard to join the Kennedy administration as special assistant to the president for national security affairs (the position that later became the national security advisor). He continued to serve under Johnson, resigning in 1966 to become president of the Ford Foundation. The book’s author began to work with Bundy in 1995 on a project Bundy initiated to review the mistakes made in expanding the war in Vietnam and where Bundy himself erred. Bundy’s died midway through the project, but a decade later this book emerged from the author’s own study and from his conversations with Bundy. Let me repeat from my earlier post the following quote from Richard Holbrooke’s NYT review of the book: “[W]hat’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.”

Holbrooke passes quickly over the first point, noting that the story has been told hundreds of times, and indeed it has. Yet I was still shocked to read about the 1965 troop increases and the astonishingly low quality of the analysis on which the decisions were based. George Ball emerges yet again as the one person asking the right questions. What is most maddening is the recurring reliance on domestic political calculations to make the decisions, a point treated in detail in the book chapter titled Politics Is the Enemy of Strategy. The final chapter, Intervention Is a Presidential Choice, Not an Inevitability, has a superb discussion of the likelihood that Kennedy, had he not been assassinated, would have pulled US troops from Vietnam in 1965. In effect, Johnson’s strength, his political brilliance, was in this context his great weakness. But Kennedy had already made decisions counter to recommendations of the military and to political expediency, in his response to the Bay of Pigs crisis and to the situation in Laos. Once re-elected, he would have done so again.

Most puzzling is how swayed Bundy (and so many others) were by the domino theory and their belief that the US couldn’t back down — even if it couldn’t ultimately succeed in propping up the South Vietnamese government and achieving some sort of victory, it had to be seen to try. I could write more about this, but there really is nothing new to say. Yet, here we are again, engaged in a war and in propping up a phony government with many of the same arguments. Astonishing.

Turning from content to style, I had a bit of trouble adjusting to reading this book after luxuriating in almost 500 pages of the Naipaul biography’s elegant prose. I suppose this as well written a book as one is likely to encounter on politics and policy. But it’s not a work of fine literature. I know I’m being unfair in pointing to the first sentence on page 52, since it is not by any means typical, but still, how did it survive the writing and editing and proofreading? Here it is: “Among the first official reports the Kennedy administration received came from General Edward Lansdale, the deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for special operations.”

What bugged me more than anything was the repeated use of the phrase “inflection point.” My first problem is that inflection point has a specific meaning in mathematics and its applications, and nothing I could infer from Goldstein’s use of it suggested that it had anything to do with this meaning. That might be fine, if he had a clear alternative meaning in mind and if there were a way for the reader to share his understanding of what this meaning is. But all I could infer from context is that he was using it to mean “turning point,” which is not what an inflection point is. The problem may lie with Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, who apparently introduced inflection point to speak about “a moment of dramatic change” (according to answers.com). Or, quoting Robert Cringely, “It’s an expression made popular in Silicon Valley years ago by Andy Grove of Intel: ‘inflection point.’ It’s that abrupt elbow in a graph of growth or decline when the new technology or paradigm truly kicks in, and suddenly there is no going back.” Hmm. Whatever. People are free to use the phrase however they wish, even if it isn’t used correctly from a mathematical perspective. Just don’t use it over and over without explaining what you mean by it.

Categories: Books, History, Politics
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