Review Forum 1 on Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam and on The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC and Vietnam

Andrew Preston and Gordon Goldstein provide two very different looks at National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s role in the decision to escalate America’s war in Vietnam.  Preston hones in on Bundy’s Cold War worldview, inherited largely from his mentor Henry Stimson, and his efforts to concentrate power in the National Security Council, which put him in a critical if not decisive position to shape U.S. policy towards Vietnam during the years in which Washington made the decisions for war. In doing so, Preston challenges what he sees as too great an emphasis on presidential decision-making in extant literature on the war’s escalation. Goldstein, on the other hand, working largely from interviews and conversations conducted with Bundy just before the latter’s death, writes a sympathetic account of Bundy’s involvement in the war’s escalation. While certainly not uncritical, Goldstein’s conclusions often align with Bundy’s, especially in highlighting the paramount responsibility of the commander-in-chief to accept or reject his cabinet’s advice and make decisions for war or peace unilaterally.  Goldstein’s contribution, it seems, is less in explaining why Bundy advocated the policies he did or even the weight those recommendations carried with the president, and more in illuminating how the former national security advisor made sense late-in-life of his involvement in the critical decisions to wage war in Vietnam.

H-Diplo | ISSF Review Forum, Number 1 (in two parts)


Part A (2011)             

Diane Labrosse and Thomas Maddux, H-Diplo/ISSF Editors
George Fujii, H-Diplo/ISSF Web and Production Editor

Forum Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Forum Web Production Editor, George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Gordon M. Goldstein. Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

Andrew Preston. The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC and Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Review by Jessica M. Chapman, Williams College

Published by H-Diplo | ISSF on 9 February 2011


Andrew Preston and Gordon Goldstein provide two very different looks at National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s role in the decision to escalate America’s war in Vietnam.  Preston hones in on Bundy’s Cold War worldview, inherited largely from his mentor Henry Stimson, and his efforts to concentrate power in the National Security Council, which put him in a critical if not decisive position to shape U.S. policy towards Vietnam during the years in which Washington made the decisions for war. In doing so, Preston challenges what he sees as too great an emphasis on presidential decision-making in extant literature on the war’s escalation. Goldstein, on the other hand, working largely from interviews and conversations conducted with Bundy just before the latter’s death, writes a sympathetic account of Bundy’s involvement in the war’s escalation. While certainly not uncritical, Goldstein’s conclusions often align with Bundy’s, especially in highlighting the paramount responsibility of the commander-in-chief to accept or reject his cabinet’s advice and make decisions for war or peace unilaterally.  Goldstein’s contribution, it seems, is less in explaining why Bundy advocated the policies he did or even the weight those recommendations carried with the president, and more in illuminating how the former national security advisor made sense late-in-life of his involvement in the critical decisions to wage war in Vietnam.

Andrew Preston’s The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam builds on recent works by Fredrik Logevall and others who have shattered the myth that America’s war in Vietnam was inevitable or “overdetermined” because of the prevailing Cold War political climate of the times. By focusing on McGeorge Bundy and the National Security Council, he seeks to analyze more deeply the process by which the decisions to escalate were made. “At key moments,” he writes, “between the spring and summer of 1965, Bundy and the NSC staff moved quickly and effectively to quash dissent and limit the presidents’ choice of action to a very narrow one of how and when, rather than whether, the United States should wage war in Vietnam” (7). The importance of Bundy and his NSC staff to this process, in Preston’s view, stemmed from institutional changes that the National Security Advisor initiated after Kennedy named him to the post in 1961. According to Preston, “Bundy completely transformed the duties and prerogatives of the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, elevating it to a status virtually, if unofficially, equivalent to that of a cabinet secretary” (7). Preston’s attention to the interplay within and among the institutions tasked with advising the president on foreign policy matters, combined with a thoughtful examination of Bundy’s worldview, goes a long way towards illuminating the process by which Kennedy and Johnson’s advisors made a successful case for escalating the air and ground war in Vietnam. Given what Preston describes as Bundy’s unexamined conviction that the defense of noncommunist South Vietnam was wise and necessary, the implications of his strategic outlook and his influential position within the NSC for Washington’s Vietnam policy were profound.

Preston writes, “Bundy was enormously intelligent, but his intelligence was facile rather than imaginative” (25). Throughout Bundy’s life people compared him to a computer who preferred to concentrate on process rather than ideas. According to Preston, Bundy’s personal worldview as it pertained to foreign relations consisted of three mutually dependent themes: “the indispensability of military power to diplomacy; the futility of appeasement; and a fervent, but sometimes pragmatic, anticommunist outlook” (25-26). The former national security advisor, who was shaped largely by his formative collaboration with Henry Stimson in the early Cold War, focused his opprobrium on anything that reeked of isolationism. He was “no warmongerer,” but he believed in “the primacy of military power to solve international problems in which America’s national security, very broadly defined, was at stake” (30). By the 1960s, he would come to see the preservation of a noncommunist South Vietnamese state as a vital interest.

The ramifications of this conviction for both Kennedy and Johnson’s Vietnam policies were magnified as Bundy and his NSC staff outmaneuvered the State Department to become the principal advisory body for foreign affairs. Preston ably demonstrates the process by which Bundy transformed the post of Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, inaugurated under Truman, from an administrative position that rarely participated directly in foreign policymaking into “a mirror image of the State Department, only much smaller.” He implemented National Security Action memorandum (NSAM) to replace the more cumbersome Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) to facilitate swift adoption of NSC recommendations. And he split NSC staff up into geographic specialties to create new, innovative policies. “Thus,” Preston argues, “the Special Assistant would not only have power due to presidential proximity; he would also be endowed with institutional authority and bureaucratic leverage” (41). The result was to concentrate power in the hands of just a few individuals—Bundy and his staff.  Moreover, whereas previous national security advisors had served as coordinators of other peoples’ policies, Bundy acted as a direct conduit to the president. He exerted immediate control over the workings of the NSC staff, which devised policy recommendations for the short and long term, and “acted as the final editorial clearinghouse for presidential speeches on foreign policy” (44). Bundy was much better able to mobilize the smaller, more flexible NSC staff than Dean Rusk could the unwieldy State Department, giving him the edge when it came to swaying the president towards particular policy recommendations. The Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, and the “disorganization and administrative informality that did exist in the Kennedy administration” helped expedite this trend, as Kennedy moved the Special Assistant and his subordinates physically closer to him, from across the street into the White House basement (47). From that point on, “all information essential to the conduct of foreign policy would pass through Bundy and the NSC staff via the Situation Room; conversely, most vital communications originating from Washington and American officials abroad would need to be cleared by Bundy or a member of his staff” (46).

Following Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson leaned on Bundy even more than Kennedy had. “Johnson,” Preston argues, “vested more trust and authority at the top of the decision-making structure and less responsibility in the lower levels,” a fact which “enhanced Bundy’s influence and simultaneously diminished that of the NSC staff” (49). Even with this enhanced influence, Preston notes that Bundy was respectful of his colleagues and largely agreed with McNamara and Rusk on key policy questions. He claims, though, that “As much as anything else, it was this concentration of power in the hands of Bundy and the NSC staff that would largely determine American policy in Southeast Asia” (53). It is here, in explicating the role Bundy played in restructuring the National Security Council and altering its relationship to the State Department as well as the president, that Preston contributes most significantly to our understanding of how the decisions for war in Vietnam were made. Moreover, he demonstrates how Bundy aggrandized the post of National Security Advisor in ways that future occupants of the position, most notably Henry Kissinger, would exploit.

Once this bureaucratic reconfiguration was complete, enhancing Bundy’s influence over the commander-in-chief, his worldview became increasingly relevant to the policymaking process. Preston claims that Bundy did not play a significant role in formulating U.S. policy towards Vietnam until mid-1963, but by the beginning of Johnson’s presidency it “came to represent perhaps the single most important part of his worldview” (54). He tied the Vietnam question to the larger issue of détente with the Soviet Union, viewing it as a forum where the U.S. could demonstrate that its patience was not inexhaustible without risking nuclear war. Bundy’s conception of détente was predicated on confrontation. “The key,” writes Preston, “was to ease tensions with Moscow while not appearing weak to communists around the world” (71). Bundy, Preston argues, thought it was essential to embrace negotiations with the Soviet Union to deter nuclear proliferation and war while avoiding equivocation elsewhere in order to preserve American credibility. Preston claims that “Bundy’s strategy of asymmetrical détente formed the basis of the Johnson administration’s grand strategy” (73). But the strategy was inherently flawed and would not work. While Bundy hoped that escalating hostilities against Hanoi would facilitate a relaxation of tensions with Moscow, the two goals proved incompatible, and the former precluded the latter. The Vietnam War, then, put pressure on the US-Soviet relationship just as both sides sought to relieve that pressure.

Nonetheless, it was Bundy’s conviction, generally shared by his NSC staff, that “the American commitment to a noncommunist South Vietnam was an essential, irrevocable one” (83). This belief led him reluctantly to support a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem when it seemed clear that the southern president was no longer able to hold the line against communism. And as South Vietnam spiraled into political chaos, it inspired him to favor escalated military intervention. Preston claims that Bundy’s views crystallized in the spring of 1964, at which point he decided that, despite the action-reaction phenomenon that led the communists to escalate their military actions in response to U.S. escalations, “the United States would simply have to pay higher and higher costs” in the form of military involvement. He predicated this recommendation on the belief that “South Vietnam possessed an intrinsic importance worth protecting at almost any cost” (148). Until that point, Preston argues that Bundy was content advising the president, “filtering important information to Lyndon Johnson and enacting presidential wishes.”  He had, in the first half of 1964, pressed Johnson to take certain actions towards Vietnam, but followed Johnson’s direction without exception. But after the Tonkin Gulf incidents and resolution, “he had undergone the transition from advisor to advocate” (155). Thenceforth, “Bundy devoted his energies to persuading Johnson to go even further in Vietnam” (153). He would not be dissuaded from his determination to win the war.

Preston notes that the Americanization of the war in spring and summer 1965 came as somewhat of a shock to Bundy, who “had conceived of sustained reprisal as a means to achieve, at a relatively small political and military cost, the sustainability of South Vietnam” (191). Still, he advocated escalatory measures. “Withdrawal” writes Preston, “tantamount to an admission of failure, was simply no longer an option” (192). Yet Bundy was not sure that American troops would be able to succeed where bombing had failed. Thus, he became deeply ambivalent about the war. To Preston, what is surprising “is that Bundy was only ambivalent and had not altered his fundamental view of the Vietnam conflict more drastically” (201).  On final analysis, his ambivalence during the critical escalatory period extended only to some of the administration’s tactics, not to its overall strategy or purpose.

Of Bundy’s resignation, Preston writes: “He remained as convinced of America’s mission in Southeast Asia in 1966 as he had been in 1961. If his resignation was submitted as a form of protest against the president’s Vietnam policy—a policy Bundy, as much as anyone else, had shaped over the preceding five years—it was known only to Bundy himself” (234). However, once he was free from his direct ties to Vietnam policy and from his obligations to the president, Preston claims that “Bundy would come to regret his role in escalating and waging the Vietnam War” (237). The Tet Offensive in 1968 “shocked Bundy’s faith in the war” and in the policy he had been instrumental in crafting (238). Bundy then began to scrutinize the dogma that informed his views on Vietnam and the Cold War, which resulted in the collapse of his ideologically based worldview. In turn, this contributed to a fairly late-in-life shift from the right to the left of the political spectrum on many issues. This collapse of his conviction revealed its superficiality; Preston writes, “He had inherited it, but it was not his own” (243). As opposed to Walt Rostow and Robert Komer, who forged their own convictions from whole cloth, Bundy and Michael Forrestal’s ideological commitments were inherited and weak, which “helps explain that although they helped to escalate the war in Vietnam, Bundy and Forrestal came to regret their actions while Rostow and Komer did not” (244). Goldstein essentially picks up where Preston left off on this point by exploring Bundy’s regret over his role in escalating the Vietnam War and detailing the search for meaning and lessons that it inspired.

Preston concludes with the following lamentation: “Bundy’s role in marginalizing internal dissent and shaping escalation was crucial to the escalation of the war. Without his efforts, the war would not have unfolded as it did; indeed, it may not have unfolded at all” (248). Thus he assigns to Bundy much more responsibility for the war than Bundy himself or Gordon Goldstein allow.

Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam casts the familiar history of Washington’s gradual march to war in Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnston administrations in a novel light by framing it as a series of lessons avowedly learned by McGeorge Bundy, the national security advisor who presided over the escalation. The book is essentially the byproduct of a collaborative memoir project that Goldstein undertook with Bundy, but never finished, as Bundy died suddenly of a heart attack mid-way through the process. Goldstein, however, made good use of the extensive discussions he conducted with Bundy in preparation for the former national security advisor’s retrospective study of the Vietnam War. What emerges is less a contribution to historical scholarship on the Vietnam War itself and more a study in how Bundy came to reckon with his pivotal role in bringing about a costly war that would end in defeat, and in his own fall from grace. Bundy was noted for his genius, and his hubris. His background and personality have long been central foci of historical inquiries into his role in the Vietnam conflict by David Halberstam, Kai Bird, and others. He long defended the decisions that led to war in Vietnam or declined to speak about them. Yet his eleventh hour decision to revisit the path to war in Vietnam, in which he played a crucial role, yielded interesting revelations about how he thought about Vietnam and the Cold War in the early 1960s and about how he came to understand the process by which the United States committed itself to a protracted ground and air war there. Goldstein captures and analyses Bundy’s reflections, a set of primary sources to which he has unique access, to great effect.

Goldstein notes that his is a book about Bundy, not by Bundy. “I have sought,” he writes, “to convey the essential insights of my collaboration with Bundy while also offering an independent analysis of his role in the highly complex narrative of America’s entanglement in Vietnam (24). Goldstein notes that Bundy seemed “as perplexed by the disaster of Vietnam” as any historian, and that he “often exuded a buoyancy that seemed incongruent with the challenges of producing a probing account of his role in the decisions to Americanize the Vietnam War” (28, 70). Moreover, he claims, “For a man wrestling with the demons of his most consequential encounter with history, Bundy often seemed to be very much at peace” (70).  This inner peace, Goldstein ventures, may have been a function of Bundy’s focus on Kennedy and Johnson’s management of the crisis in South Vietnam, which “diluted the intensity of introspection he might have trained on his own role in the war” (64). Even though Bundy’s stated intention for undertaking the joint project with Goldstein was to understand how he got Vietnam so wrong in order to draw lessons from the incident that might help future leaders avoid similar mistakes, his conclusions downplayed the significance of the bureaucracy in making the decisions that led to war while amplifying that of the executive. Though often critical of Bundy’s thought process, Goldstein in the end subscribes to his overarching conclusions about the primacy of presidents and the secondary roles of advisors in making foreign policy.

As Goldstein tells it, Bundy credited Kennedy for taking a strong stand against his advisors’ recommendations—including his own—to send combat troops to South Vietnam in 1961 (63-64). Bundy perceived that Kennedy based this no-combat-troop policy on a rejection of the domino theory, coupled with an “inherent pessimism about the American capacity to fight and prevail in a Vietnamese war of counterinsurgency” (67). Goldstein concludes, “In the final analysis, what is most remarkable about Kennedy’s November 1961 combat troop decision is that despite the overwhelming pressure imposed on him by his senior advisors, the president’s determination never wavered” (68). He further notes that Kennedy’s decision prompted the elderly Bundy to conclude that America’s role in the Vietnam War could have been averted. Here Goldstein’s analysis of what was remarkable about this decision and its implications blurs together with Bundy’s to the point that it is not entirely clear whether these are his own conclusions, those of the former national security advisor, or some combination of the two.

In the chapter entitled, “Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get it Right,” Goldstein discusses Bundy’s ruminations on the Kennedy administration’s decision to support tacitly the coup to overthrow its longtime ally, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. He notes that Bundy did not consider the violent overthrow of Diem and his brother Nhu to be of great significance, and that he did not “seem to hold himself particularly responsible for the coordination and performance of the national security bureaucracy that initiated the coup” (94). According to Goldstein, Bundy was glib in his conclusion that the lead-up to the coup need not be a subject of scrutiny, as it was the function of a simple misunderstanding between Kennedy and Bundy’s Vietnam staff specialist, Michael Forrestal. Here Goldstein ventures one of his sharper criticisms of the former national security advisor: “Bundy, the coordinating force in the White House, failed to manage the president’s advisors, a failure shared with Kennedy’s other most senior aids. Perhaps more important, Kennedy in 1963 also allowed the bureaucracy to elude his firm control” (96). Goldstein goes on to conclude, “The lesson of the Diem coup suggested by the experience of the national security advisor as well as the president was perhaps the same: Never trust the bureaucracy to get it right” (96). Here Goldstein once again appears to fall back on Bundy’s interpretation of events and the lessons they hold for the future. As subsequent chapters of this same book imply, though, a study of the lessons of Johnson’s Vietnam policy might just as easily read: “Never Trust the President to Get it Right.”

In discussing Johnson’s early decisions—or non-decisions—on Vietnam, Goldstein concludes, “Politics became the enemy of strategy in 1964. Because winning the presidential election was Johnson’s overarching goal, he could not permit the situation in Vietnam to deteriorate to a deeper level of crisis. The impending election further constrained Johnson from either escalating the American commitment or embarking on a strategic withdrawal” (132). He notes that Bundy cast harsh judgment on LBJ for allowing political ambition to cloud his vision and for putting pressure on his advisors to deliver results in Vietnam without enlarging American involvement in the war (133). However, Goldstein also remarks that Bundy, in his advice to Johnson to maintain at all costs the commitment to a non-communist South Vietnam, conflated “the domino theory as it applied to Southeast Asia and the soft underbelly of Johnson’s bid for victory in November—in a way that would be especially threatening to a president with Johnson’s insecurities” (110). Goldstein offers a fairly harsh critique of Bundy in this chapter, distinguishing his reading of the historical record from Bundy’s with the following claim: “The historical record suggests that as national security advisor he largely acquiesced to…political constraints and was disengaged from the vital task of evaluating limited military and diplomatic choices.” Further, he writes, “Bundy capitulated to what was arguably the triumph of politics over strategy, an outcome he retrospectively blamed on Johnson but perhaps should have also assumed some responsibility for himself” (136).

Goldstein argues persuasively that it was during the process of examining his role in bringing about the shift in strategy that occurred under Johnson in 1965 that Bundy struggled most with the self criticism required to make sense of his own failures of analysis and advice (178). “Bundy,” he writes, “indirectly acknowledged the essential irony of his tenure as national security advisor. In response to the crisis in Vietnam, the administration’s preeminent intellectual demonstrated a fundamental lack of rigor in his analysis of the ends and means of American strategy” (178). According to Goldstein, the historical and retrospective record suggests two reasons for Bundy’s failure to compel the Pentagon to demonstrate the rigor of its recommendations to the president. First, he was fixated on the need for the United States not to be perceived as a global power that failed to make credible commitments—a “paper tiger.” Second, “He was disinclined to challenge the prevailing consensus, particularly if it enjoyed the president’s support.” This tendency, Goldstein argues, was compounded by Bundy’s conviction “that it was better to fight and lose in Vietnam than not to fight at all” (183). He concludes that these convictions led to Bundy’s complicity in Johnson’s open-ended deployment of combat forces to Vietnam, and in his failure to engage seriously with the viability of the attrition strategy, both of which even the former national security advisor finally admitted were major errors.

Goldstein closes his volume with this claim: “Perhaps the most important lesson that we can derive from a great disaster…[is] the indispensible centrality of the commander in chief. As Bundy’s final recollections on Vietnam illuminate, intervention is a presidential choice, not an inevitability” (248). While it is certainly true that interventions result from leaders’ decisions, Bundy’s late-in-life musings about the role he played in Johnson choice to escalate the ground war in Vietnam exaggerate the role of the executive and deemphasize the role of presidential advisors across the board.  Approaching the problem this way seems to have enabled Bundy to admit that the advice he gave to both Kennedy and Johnson on Vietnam was deeply flawed, while still assigning the lion’s share of the blame for the war and its costs to Johnson. By arguing that Kennedy would have had the good sense to break with his advisors in order to avoid a major escalation while Johnson fully intended to escalate regardless of the advice he received, Bundy partially exculpates himself for helping to bring about a tragic war about which he only belatedly admitted he was wrong. While Goldstein claims that Bundy actively sought to avoid the appearance that this was his motivation (149), it seems overwhelmingly likely that it contributed to his focus on Kennedy and Johnson as the true architects of the war, whether consciously or unconsciously. A more critical interrogation of Bundy’s conclusions about how responsibility for Vietnam policy should be doled out among Johnson and his advisors, perhaps taking into account some of the institutional developments that Preston discusses, would have strengthened Goldstein’s already intriguing book.


Jessica Chapman is an assistant professor of history at Williams College. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2006. She has recently published articles in Diplomatic History and the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. Chapman is currently completing a book manuscript entitled “From Disorder to Dictatorship: The Domestic and International History of Ngo Dinh Diem’s Construction of South Vietnam, 1953-1956.”

H-Diplo | ISSF Review Forum, Number 1, Part B (2011)

Gordon M. Goldstein. Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. New York: Henry Holt, 2008

Andrew Preston. The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC and Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Review by John Prados, National Security Archive
Published by H-Diplo | ISSF on 9 February 2011

Dangerous Counsel

The recent resignation of General James L. Jones as national security adviser to President Barack Obama brings that White House official’s role back into the spotlight. To judge from Bob Woodward’s latest tome,[1] Jones both proved unable to generate much traction with the president and managed to initiate the call for the Afghanistan force posture review that led to the sandbagging of Obama into approval of an escalation to America’s latest conflict. Its prospects remain clouded at this writing. The jury is out on the performance of Jones’s predecessors, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, who served President George W. Bush, but the handling of national security, in particular war policy, in that administration was so bollixed up that the verdict is not likely to be favorable.

The contributions of national security advisers and their helpers, the National Security Council (NSC) staff,[2] are central to policymaking in the United States government and merit close attention. The best window through which to view the role of national security advisers in a conflict remains the Vietnam war. Here we benefit from a pair of studies of McGeorge Bundy, who worked for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson during the high years of U.S. escalation.[3] These works are Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (New York: Henry Holt, 2008), and Andrew Preston’s The War Council: McGeorge Bundy, the NSC, and Vietnam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

Goldstein’s work aims directly at McGeorge—or “Mac”—Bundy, who served as national security adviser from January 1961 through January 1966. Indeed Lessons in Disaster is of special interest because it began as a scholar’s collaboration with Bundy on what started out as Bundy’s own Vietnam book. McGeorge Bundy passed away in 1996, before the collaborative effort had gone much beyond research. Gordon Goldstein took notes from his interviews with Bundy, fragments Bundy had written for their project, and some other material to complete the book, which is more nearly an interpretation of Bundy’s role than a memoir. Quite different in approach, Andrew Preston’s The War Council is a synthesis of extensive inquiry into the records of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations along with many supporting materials. Preston’s study has the virtues of a much wider net cast for evidence as well as a deeper analysis of the role of the NSC staff working alongside Bundy. Together the two books enable us to examine a national security adviser’s role in these events as well as revisit classic decision points on the road to war in Vietnam.

For some diplomatic historians events are of greater interest than institutional factors, so this paper will begin with history and later discuss the impact, pernicious or otherwise, of the NSC staff and adviser. Viewed broadly there were probably a dozen key U.S. moves between early 1961 and the end of 1965, starting with expanding the advisory effort to support a larger South Vietnamese military, on to the fateful choice of sending American ground forces to fight the war. There were also extraneous events (the Tonkin Gulf incident, August 1964), at least one important non-choice (failure to take seriously French proposals to neutralize Southeast Asia, 1964-1965), and one critical counterfactual (whether JFK would have withdrawn from Vietnam, 1963 and after). Central decisions include those to support a coup to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem (August-November 1963), to initiate covert operations against North Vietnam (January 1964), to begin an air campaign against the North (February-March 1965) and to send troops who would actually fight a war (taken in several stages between December 1964 and July 1965). All the major choices are illuminated by Goldstein and Preston in focusing on Bundy. Though there are other aspects that could be discussed, for this commentary we shall have to cover just a few key ones.

Both authors sketch McGeorge Bundy’s life in some detail, though Lessons of Disaster has the advantage of the author’s exposure to Mac himself. Indeed Goldstein is at his most fascinating where he deploys “fragments” Bundy wrote to guide the actual drafting. For all that, Preston actually does better at distilling Bundy’s views, showing that these coalesced around beliefs in the indispensability of military power in diplomacy, rejection of the utility of appeasement, and a pragmatic but fervid anticommunism. The man who arrived at the White House in January 1961—along with his chief—was soon warned by the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and then haunted by the specter of nuclear annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Preston’s Bundy evolves into what he calls a “soft hawk,” supporting the commitment to Vietnam while espousing nation building and counterinsurgency in preference to raw force. Goldstein’s Bundy, who had spent little time on Vietnam during Kennedy’s early months, comes out in favor of sending a combat division to South Vietnam when General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow recommended dispatch of a more limited force in November 1961. This Bundy is portrayed as taking aggressive stances but regretting them in retrospect.

Bundy’s retrospectives can mislead as well as enlighten. In conjunction with the Taylor-Rostow proposals, Bundy credits President Kennedy (67) for adopting an unstated policy against sending combat forces to Vietnam. Goldstein takes this as the first brick in a posture that he believes led JFK to step back from war. But Kennedy’s decision had a different character: with Taylor-Rostow the president actually approved U.S. regular forces (including combat support formations such as helicopter assault units, covert aerial bombardment units, Special Forces, plus military advisory teams extended down to battalion level in the South Vietnamese army). These actions put GIs into combat and in harm’s way.[4]

Gordon Goldstein and Andrew Preston take opposite sides on the thesis that Kennedy would have withdrawn. Goldstein terms this “official administration policy . . . announced publicly” (83). That’s not quite right but it can be debated elsewhere. It was McNamara, not JFK, who had a withdrawal project he had pressed within the Pentagon for more than a year, McNamara who put the idea on the table at the White House in the fall of 1963, and McNamara again who emphasized withdrawal in his own mid-1990s memoir. It can only have seemed a good idea to him to draw the mantle of Kennedy support over the withdrawal thesis. Preston observes that responsibility for committing U.S. troops to battle was of enormous historical consequence and points out that with such stakes “it is not difficult to understand why this battle for history . . . has been waged on this singular issue” (130). He cites evidence that Bundy and other senior officials were not sure this was the case, and even Goldstein quotes Bundy to that same effect.

The major evidence on withdrawal is not conclusive: a pair of White House meetings and a national security action memorandum (NSAM) that simply approved language in a McNamara-Taylor recommendation. The tape recordings of the meetings show JFK asking questions, not affirmatively declaring approval; the relevant NSAM does not even contain the word “withdrawal.” The signature on the document is that of McGeorge Bundy, not the president. Only days before these events, meanwhile, Kennedy had approved—and signed—a different NSAM on Laos which ordered actions escalating that front of the war. On withdrawal JFK accepted the McNamara proposal but he seems to have been tentative, while more directly involving himself in a simultaneous escalation. And the number of U.S. troops in South Vietnam after the 1,000-man “withdrawal” would in fact be greater than before the measure was ever proposed. The evidence better sustains a view that Kennedy supported an early version of what would be called “Vietnamization.”

In his concluding chapter (238-239) Goldstein makes a great deal of a conversation with Kennedy related by NSC staffer Michael Forrestal. I myself interviewed Forrestal in March 1988 and discussed this matter among others. When he offered his account of that Kennedy conversation, I asked about the Laos NSAM. Forrestal, Bundy’s responsible staff officer, had no explanation that could reconcile the conflicting evidence.

A related dispute centers on U.S. policy in the coup that overthrew Saigon leader Ngo Dinh Diem and led to his murder. This includes the celebrated incident of the “Hilsman cable,” a dispatch sent by Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman to Saigon stating a policy that the U.S. could no longer support Diem if he did not implement reforms. The cable was drafted and approved for dispatch while most top officials—Kennedy himself, Bundy, McNamara, Dean Rusk (Hilsman’s boss), and John McCone (CIA director)—were all out of town. Here Andrew Preston construes the action essentially as a plot by NSC staffer Forrestal, and even Goldstein  terms the instruction a “Forrestal cable” (79).  In Lessons in Disaster the author quotes Bundy as viewing this episode sympathetically, and Goldstein includes it in a chapter he titles “Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get It Right.” That sense is important to Andrew Preston, whose central proposition in The War Council is that Bundy’s NSC staff supplanted other agencies of the U.S. government, in this case the State Department.

Most discussions of the Hilsman cable episode have focused on the play-by-play of the alleged end-run rather than what the policy actually was. Last year, after both Preston and Goldstein had published, new evidence emerged in the release of audiotapes covering the succession of NSC meetings that deliberated on a coup—these reinforce Bundy’s observations (quoted by Goldstein) that JFK approved the policy. (Incidentally, the tapes contain a passage in which President Kennedy discusses political losses he would suffer in Congress from a Vietnam withdrawal, adding fire to the debate on that issue also.) The tapes include lengthy discussions among Kennedy and the officials allegedly aligned against the Hilsman cable. They consider how U.S. forces and resources could help the Vietnamese generals overthrow Diem.[5] Every top administration official (with the exception of the outgoing U.S. ambassador) initially backed an eventual coup. The issue was proper alignment of South Vietnamese forces. At the first of these meetings, on August 26, 1963, the tone belies the conventional picture of officials infuriated at Hilsman—and they did not even discuss countermanding the supposedly insubordinate cable, whether the alleged end run had been made by Hilsman, Forrestal, or anyone else.

The coup came in early November. Historians widely agree that backing the coup locked the United States into the Vietnam conflict. Goldstein pointedly rejects this as a “questionable historical premise,” one “predicated on the expectation that U.S. policy would thereafter be driven by a sense of guilt” (95). This is interesting, but it is speculation, and it is unnecessary to infer guilt as motivator to arrive at the consensus analysis. It was Colin Powell who said—of Iraq, not Vietnam—that if we broke it, we would own it, and we have now been in Iraq for eight years and Afghanistan for nine. Equally to the point, in other places where the American bull charged through the china shop—Europe and Korea two decades after the Cold War, even Bosnia—U.S. troops remain. The instances where this is not the case are countries from which the United States was ejected—Somalia, Lebanon—or were sharp crisis interventions. Bundy himself came to that realization, as Goldstein quotes one of Bundy’s fragments: “You can begin with the presumptive negative, that we ought not to ever be in a position where we are deciding, or undertaking to decide, or even trying to influence, the internal power structure” of another nation (95).

The Diem coup is relevant to our previous discussion of the Kennedy withdrawal thesis. The meeting memos, tapes, decision documents, and public statements—the mass of records—show an American drive to pursue the conflict more efficiently. That was the way in which supporting a coup made any sense. An argument, though an awkward one, can be made that this goal might serve the cause of U.S. withdrawal, but there is a much more direct one that runs the other way. In his summation of JFK’s dedication to withdrawal, Goldstein quotes the president telling his advisers he would engineer it quite simply: “Put a government in there that will ask us to leave” (238). Diem, as it happens, had threatened to demand U.S. withdrawal on earlier occasions, and had developed sharp differences with Washington. Indeed, during the months before the coup his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu had organized crowds to protest at the American embassy, and U.S. intelligence knew Diem was pursuing contacts with North Vietnam. Kennedy could have attained his demand scenario simply by continuing the Diem dispute. Why back a coup at all?

An alternate path out of quagmire would have been accepting French proposals to neutralize Southeast Asia, so ably documented by Fredrik Logevall.[6] President Kennedy had little love for French President Charles de Gaulle and showed antipathy for French warnings, though his assassination left it to President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) to stonewall the French mediation. Either American president, had he been serious about withdrawal, could have stoked the path to negotiations. Neither did. Instead they planned an escalation by initiating covert operations against Hanoi. This was not just an artifact of LBJ’s presidency. At the moment Kennedy was shot, Mac Bundy was just returning from a staff planning conference at Honolulu which designed these “graduated pressures.” There was another NSAM involved here, one refined at Honolulu—already in draft before JFK’s death—that would be issued by LBJ a few days after the tragedy. The main differences between the draft and final versions were to place more emphasis upon U.S. unilateral measures—again moving toward war rather than withdrawal. Andrew Preston deals with the resultant program (Goldstein barely touches on it)—the notorious OPLAN 34-A—but both could have elaborated on Bundy’s specific role in its approval. Preston does more—mentioning both Bundy and Mike Forrestal—but regrettably the discussion is not fuller.

Lessons in Disaster takes 1964 as the year that “Politics is the Enemy of Strategy” (chapter 3). Goldstein’s teaching is plain enough: Lyndon Johnson’s fixation on winning election as president in his own right trumped any effort at a considered strategy for Vietnam. Tonkin Gulf was played a certain way, guerilla “spectaculars” were handled a certain way, to maximize LBJ’s political clout. But that insight is limited and does not differ from what Daniel Ellsberg wrote in 1972. Rule Number One of Ellsberg’s “Stalemate Machine” was “Do not lose the rest of Vietnam to Communist control before the next election.”[7] The thing about that was it required a strategy. It was in 1964 that the Joint Chiefs of Staff created their target list for bombing North Vietnam. It was also then that an interagency committee laid plans for escalation and drafted the text for a congressional resolution that would hopefully provide a legal framework—and indeed at one point Goldstein has LBJ walk into Bundy’s office and ask for the text (125-126). Johnson was not interested in Bundy’s advice to think over his course, he simply demanded action.  President Johnson had many misgivings about the war, as his own tapes make clear—and I have written elsewhere that Johnson should be viewed as ambivalent about this conflict[8]–but there can be no doubt that despite political preoccupations LBJ was perfectly aware that things were being done on Vietnam strategy. Perhaps a better formulation of Goldstein’s aphorism would be that politics is the enemy of good strategy.

Mac Bundy’s last full year in the White House was 1965, the time of the monumental decisions to bomb North Vietnam and to commit American troops to combat operations. Bundy’s retrospective discomfiture at this whole evolution is apparent from Lessons in Disaster. But as both Goldstein and Preston make clear, the national security adviser functioned at the time as an effective ally of those who sought escalation. Bundy barred the Oval Office door to George Ball’s dissent—Ball resorted to smuggling his papers to LBJ by the hand of Bill Moyers—and advised the president to listen hard to Ball and then reject what he had to say. Goldstein records Bundy expressing certain doubts to McNamara and others, but to the president he wrote a paper explicitly knocking down Ball’s most effective argument, an analogy to the French war in Indochina. Goldstein sees the year as emblematic of “conviction without rigor” and continues that this approach is a recipe for disaster, as indeed it is.

Ranging back over this history, several tragedies of Vietnam are well illuminated by using Bundy as prism. But there is another set of questions about agency which Andrew Preston engages more directly. He is concerned about the evolution of policymaking structure and focuses on the role of the security adviser and NSC staff. Preston is quite right to single out Bundy’s tenure as a watershed for the governmental structure that generates U.S. policy (244). The national security adviser acquired a role as presidential counselor and operational facilitator at least as important as that of traffic cop outside the Oval Office, which is how Bundy liked to describe himself. Every one of Mac’s successors has acted in the same fashion.

Under President Kennedy the NSC staff was transformed from a procedurally focused unit to a substance-oriented one where each professional staffer held responsibility for activity within a policy area. The phrase “Little State Department” has been used in connection with the Bundy staff, but where I think The War Council goes too far is in imputing to the Bundy staff an ability to supplant the bureaucracy and conduct a White House-based foreign policy. Briefly, Preston argues that the Bundy staff quickly became a policymaking center, concentrated power in the White House, and marginalized the State Department, with Lyndon Johnson later vesting even more power in McGeorge Bundy. Bundy and Michael Forrestal are pictured as “soft hawks,” and fellows like Walt Rostow, Robert Komer, and Robert H. Johnson have supporting roles, first attempting to implement a counterinsurgency and nation building approach in Vietnam and then progressively shifting to force as the situation worsened. They did this by putting in their own hands the responsibility for major speeches, approval of cable traffic, the decision documents (in this case, NSAMs), and so on. Preston agrees that presidents themselves were the primary actors, but he credits the Bundy staff with institutional authority.

In my view this construction misconstrues the place of the national security adviser. Preston argues that institutional standing elevated McGeorge Bundy above the level of the president’s personal aide and was thus a source of power. Yet, because the post of national security adviser does not exist in law, the adviser’s only power flows from his relationship with the president. He serves at the pleasure of the president. This has been, at times, an advantage or a curse—LBJ is quoted in both books as voicing concern in 1965 that his national security adviser not be summoned to testify before Congress. Johnson spent political capital to ensure that Bundy never was called, but the ambiguity of the security adviser’s status gave LBJ a case to argue. It was the opening of a chasm between Bundy and President Johnson that made Bundy’s continued service increasingly difficult and led to his departure.

The same factor invalidates some of Gordon Goldstein’s criticisms. He faults Bundy for not managing the president’s advisers better (96) and for passing up “significant opportunity” to order a top-to-bottom review, an NSC “EXCOM” held over months, not days (137). But beyond Mike Forrestal, Bundy had no authority over the advisers—and when Forrestal was sent to State in 1964, it was LBJ, not Bundy, who did it. Fire Dean Rusk? McNamara? Not going to happen. And their subordinates were not in Mac’s chain of command. Just what “institutional authority” did the security adviser have? As for a Vietnam EXCOM, the president’s approval was required. If Lyndon Johnson wanted to avoid dealing with Vietnam in 1964, that was not going to be forthcoming. The national security adviser was, in fact, a creature of the president.

The War Council also minimizes the extent to which Eisenhower’s NSC machinery had performed functions similar to those of the JFK era and it accelerates the point in time at which the NSC staff attained policy authority, as opposed to advisory and coordinating functions. With the Nixon-Ford, Carter, and Reagan presidencies and their successors, with staffs of 50 or 150 professionals and multiple office chiefs each holding the title “deputy assistant to the president for national security for (fill in the blank),” the NSC staff did acquire institutional strength. Indeed a foreign operation (the Iran-Contra affair) could be carried out from behind its doors. But in Bundy’s day, when the names of the entire professional staff could be fitted on a single (and not large) rubber stamp for routing memoranda, it is too soon to speak of institutional authority. In addition there was a competing center of power within John Kennedy’s own White House, the staff of General Maxwell Taylor as Special Military Representative of the President. Andrew Preston is actually quite sparse on the Taylor staff, as if he’d not quite decided how to fit it into his analysis.

My first contact with McGeorge Bundy illuminates how the White House role in setting policy by means of speechmaking did not originate in Kennedy’s presidency. Bundy telephoned me one day to ask about something I had written in a study of American decisionmaking for the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu—that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had personally edited the text of a key John Foster Dulles speech (the “united action” speech) to make it more, not less, interventionist, in contrast to the view that Ike resisted action to enter the French war.[9] Preston notes, among other things, that the Bundy staff wrote all letters addressed to heads of state. But the Eisenhower White House reviewed the drafts of such letters for precisely the same reason. During the Dien Bien Phu crisis, Ike and his staff played the principal role in crafting a letter to Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill soliciting British support for intervention in the strongest possible terms (making an explicit Munich analogy). Eisenhower’s NSC files are stuffed with copies of State Department, Pentagon, and other cables, and Ike’s NSC staff intervened on at least some of them. One of the outgoing staffers actually warned the Kennedy transition team to arrange early for receipt of cables.

Another assertion in The War Council is that the Bundy staff took over cable approvals throughout the government. In fact this control of cables emerges in the book as a major tool of NSC staff dominance. This is a considerable oversimplification. Having failed to clarify the matter of cable distribution early on, the Bundy staff discovered military cables which they had not seen. President Kennedy ordered all cables be copied to the NSC staff. The Pentagon installed half a dozen teleprinters in the Situation Room that flooded the White House with paper and filled Bundy’s working space with infernal noise. There was zero possibility that a dozen professional staff could even read all that paper much less control the traffic. Bundy had all the teleprinters save one taken away.[10] What the Bundy staff received was a cross-section of key cables, while staffers kept feelers out to learn of other important ones. The NSC staff advocated certain cables be prepared in their given portfolio areas and those telegrams would be viewed in draft, critiqued, and sent back for reworking or dispatch. “Approval” pertained to only some of the traffic. Moreover, much of the approval was done directly by NSC principals, not staff.

The Diem coup and the “Hilsman cable” perfectly illustrate the realities of cable “approval.” The Hilsman cable was critical because it contained a change of policy and that was why it needed review. The required concurrences were those of NSC principals and thus the paper chase. The NSC meeting tapes mentioned earlier also reflect top level discussions of cable language. Equally interesting, Kennedy’s very last NSC session before the Diem coup took place (October 29, 1963) centered on principals’ deliberations on language for a cable to Henry Cabot Lodge. The tape and a full transcription show exhaustive parsing of the text.[11]

These things are important to a nuanced view of the structure for policymaking during the Kennedy and Johnson years. Andrew Preston educates us on the inner workings of the NSC staff, and both Preston and Gordon Goldstein on the character and views of McGeorge Bundy. But presidents remained supreme. Both Kennedy and Johnson, in their own ways, worked like ship captains tacking among the shoals of political, policy, and programmatic interests. A good analogy for the system might be the president surrounded by a constellation of senior colleagues whose roles varied. The NSC principals were the presidents’ executive collaborators but also occasional obstacles. The NSC staff functioned as the president’s operatives, giving expert advice, warning of impediments and consequences; identifying centers and individuals to whom presidents could reach out for allies, and setting up gambits that enabled JFK or LBJ to outmaneuver those who opposed their courses. The War Council shows all these kinds of activity. Lessons in Disaster demonstrates the impact of this on one main participant.

Were John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson well-served by their national security advisers and NSC staffs? McGeorge Bundy the adviser pushed a certain view of United States interests. Andrew Preston maintains that Bundy’s advocacy emerged only over time. Walt Rostow was an advocate from day one. Subsequent presidents employed security advisers who have been, for the most part, advocates as well. There is a sense that this turned with the millennium, but the NSC role in the wars of the 21st Century still awaits analysis.

John Prados is a senior fellow with the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He directs its Vietnam Documentation Project, is co-director of the Iraq Project, and helps on Afghanistan. Prados holds a PhD in Political Science (International Relations) from Columbia University and is the author of eighteen books, including Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (University of Kansas), and How the Cold War Ended: Debating and Doing History (Potomac Books). He is currently at work on a study of a World War II military campaign.


© Copyright 2011-2015 The Authors.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.



[1] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

[2] The National Security Council (NSC), created by the National Security Act of 1947, actually represents a corporate board of advisers to the president. The 1947 Act provided for a staff to be headed by an Executive Secretary. Nowhere in that law or in any subsequent amendment was provision made for a “National Security Adviser,” so that position in fact has no legal standing. Consequently, this paper will refer to the “national security adviser” in lower case but use “NSC staff” for the unit that assists the president in national security matters.

[3] Studies of Bundy’s successor, Walt W. Rostow and Henry A. Kissinger are also relevant to the Vietnam case but will be excluded here because this reflection is aimed at the period of initial escalation rather than at the war as a whole or the conflict at full intensity. However, for Rostow see David Milne’s fine study America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War ( New York: Hill & Wang, 2008). There are many works on Kissinger. A broadbased account is Jussi Hanhimaaki’s The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4] U.S. combat deaths in South Vietnam tripled from 1961 to 1962, and doubled or nearly redoubled in each of 1963 and 1964. This is not to say that these were very large numbers (16, 52, 108, 206), only that the statement that Americans were not “in” battle is mistaken. Kennedy himself appreciated this, according to Kenny O’Donnell’s recitation of JFK’s parting comment to McNamara: “Tell them that means all the helicopter pilots too” (Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” (Boston: Little Brown, 1970),  p. 17). McNamara was about to inform the press of a decision to withdraw some U.S. troops before the end of 1963, and NSC conversations marked that out as the first tranche of a McNamara-Taylor withdrawal plan.

[5] National Security Archive, “Kennedy Considered Supporting Coup in South Vietnam, August 1963,” Electronic Briefing Book no. 302, December 11, 2009.

[6] Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

[7] Daniel Ellsberg, Papers on the War (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), p. 105.

[8] John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), pp. 98-100, 105-110.

[9] This was in the middle 1980s, when Bundy labored on the book he would publish as Danger or Survival (New York, Random House, 1988, p. 264). I told Bundy the speech was edited in Eisenhower’s handwriting with text that was in the speech Dulles actually presented. Bundy, typically, checked with NSC secretaries and a former Eisenhower secretary who confirmed what I had said. The original statement appeared in The Sky Would Fall (New York: William Morrow, 1983), most recently republished as Operation Vulture (New York: iBooks, 2002, p. 112-113).

[10] John Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush (New York: William Morrow, 1991), p. 105.

[11] John Prados, ed., The White House Tapes: Eavesdropping on the President (New York: The New Press, 2003), pp. 92-150 and CD disc 3. This set also contains copies of the draft language that was discussed as well as the final cable that was sent.