There's an unofficial book club in the White
House these days, George Stephanopoulos reported late last month, and
the manuscript in question could not be more pertinent. As the Obama administration
rethinks its strategy in Afghanistan, officials are turning to Gordon M.
Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster -- an
account of analogous moments of decision in the Vietnam War. And though most
historical comparisons are approximations at best, the resemblance between
those crucial Vietnam inflection points and today are uncanny: Casualties are
rising, public opposition is growing, the host government's legitimacy and
effectiveness is in doubt, and the U.S. commander in the field is calling for
more troops to stave off defeat. Surely, if Obama has a Vietnam moment, it will
come in Afghanistan. And that's precisely what Goldstein's White House readers
might be trying to avoid. Below follows an excerpt of one lesson they might
learn, which Goldstein calls "Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of
the spring of 1995, McGeorge Bundy asked me to collaborate with him on a
retrospective analysis of the American presidency and the Vietnam War during
his tenure as national security advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and
Lyndon B. Johnson. We envisioned the book to be both a memoir of Bundy's
experience with Kennedy and Johnson as well as a reconstruction of the pivotal
presidential decisions about American strategy in Vietnam between 1961 and 1965. But
the project was fatefully interrupted. Bundy died of a heart attack a year and
half into our collaboration. A front-page obituary in the New York Times called
Bundy "the very personification of what the journalist David Halberstam ...
labeled 'The Best and the Brightest': the well-born, confident intellectuals
who led the nation into the quagmire of Vietnam."
Although the McGeorge Bundy who reigned as a legend of the establishment
was reputed to be brisk, quick, calculating, and overconfident, the
retrospective Bundy of 30 years later -- the one with whom I spoke so many
times -- was in many ways the opposite: patient, reflective, curious, and
humble. In fact, on the question of Vietnam Bundy appeared tentative and unsure
-- maybe on some level even mystified. Although he never said so explicitly, he
seemed to be as perplexed by the disaster of Vietnam as any of the historians
who studied the decisions in which he had been a central participant.
decades after his own role in the war ended -- he left the White House in 1966
to head the Ford Foundation -- he was still asking himself questions about its
lessons. "What can we say is the most surprising?" Bundy wondered in a fragment
he composed on February 3, 1996, as he and his wife Mary returned from a
holiday in the Caribbean. His answer: "The
endurance of the enemy." It was a dynamic of the war that fascinated him.
Bundy marveled at the leadership of the insurgency, its political strength
inside South Vietnam, the stamina of the armed forces of the Vietnamese
communists, and the social cohesion that bound these variables together into an
equation that allowed a small power, among the poorest countries in the world,
to triumph over the United States.
When I began working with him on our book project, Bundy was still
struggling to understand how the Johnson administration had committed itself to
a strategy that would devolve into a contest of endurance Americans were
destined to lose. Beginning in 1965 the United
States deployed considerable and escalating numbers of
ground combat forces in a protracted effort to grind down the enemy --
depleting its numbers, breaking its will, and compelling its surrender or
negotiated settlement on terms favorable to the United States. That strategy was,
of course, a great failure. And Bundy later asked himself, "Do we discuss
whether we are in fact well-equipped to conduct a war of attrition? I don't
think that question is ever presented to Lyndon Johnson in the whole of the
year in which that strategy is adopted."
It was June 14, 1965, and Johnson reached out to former President Eisenhower
for his counsel on the Vietnam War. A decision was looming over whether to
expand the U.S.
troop commitment to the conflict. Eisenhower advised not only supporting South
Vietnamese forces in action but also urged direct offensive action by American
troops. "We have got to win," he said.
Meanwhile, the debate among Johnson's advisors was growing. "In raising our
commitment from 50,000 to 100,000 or more men and deploying most of the
increment in combat roles we are beginning a new war -- the United
States directly against the Viet Cong," Under Secretary of State George
Ball warned President Johnson. "Perhaps the large-scale introduction of
American forces with their concentrated fire power will force Hanoi and the Viet Cong to the decision we
are seeking. On the other hand," he presciently cautioned, "we may not be
able to fight the war successfully enough -- even with 500,000 Americans in South Vietnam
-- to achieve this purpose." Ball confronted President Johnson with lessons
from recent history. "The French fought a war in Viet-Nam, and were finally
defeated -- after seven years of bloody struggle and when they still had
250,000 combat-hardened veterans in the field, supported by an army of 205,000
Ball's dissent was aggressively countered by the administration's hawks. Secretary
of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara strenuously argued
that if South Vietnam fell, Thailand would
be lost, too. Rusk envisioned a wave of falling dominoes -- even India would
collapse under the control of the Chinese communists.
The top U.S. commander in
Gen. William Westmoreland, delivered a bleak report from the front. "The
struggle has become a war of attrition," he declared on June 24. "Short
of decision to introduce nuclear weapons against sources and channels of enemy
power, I see no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war. ... I
am becoming more convinced every day that U.S. forces in appropriate numbers
must be deployed to permit the Vietnamese with our help to carry the war to the
enemy." The next day, guerrilla fighters launched one of their most
spectacular terrorist acts yet, exploding a bomb in the My Canh floating
restaurant and killing 44.
Against this backdrop of gathering anxiety, McNamara circulated a draft
memorandum that would set the terms of debate over further escalation. He
formally joined the Joint Chiefs in urging the president to approve General
Westmoreland's proposed expansion to a 44-battalion force in South Vietnam -- 34 U.S. maneuver battalions and 10
third-country maneuver battalions totaling approximately 175,000 men. A major
escalation of U.S. forces,
he argued, would force the insurgents "to accept a situation in the war in the
South which offers them no prospect of an early victory and no grounds for hope
they can simply outlast the US."
Gen. Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked General
Westmoreland directly if the escalation would be sufficient to break the
insurgency. The "direct answer to your basic question is 'no,' " he replied,
admitting that the 44 battalions would not "provide reasonable assurance of
attaining the objective." Thus on the eve of the largest and most
fateful expansion of the U.S.
ground force commitment to Vietnam,
the architect of that troop surge told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff that it simply would not be sufficient to achieve the stated American
goal of persuading the insurgency that its victory was impossible.
The stage was set for what should have been the seminal debate of the
Vietnam War. Ball seized on the inherent uncertainty surrounding the
44-battalion deployment and its implicit strategic assumptions. McNamara had
thrown his support behind an enormous expansion of the American commitment. And
General Westmoreland, the principal advocate of the 44-battalion strategy,
clearly conceded that the new American combat commitment could not assure the
achievement of its stated objective.
Where was Bundy positioned at this juncture? Frustrated by a deteriorating
relationship with President Johnson, he was on the precipice of resigning as
national security advisor. Ironically, the national security adviser's differences
with Johnson had little to do with the substance of Vietnam policy.
For Bundy, icon of the establishment and the administration's fiercest
debater, silence in response to criticism of the White House policy in Vietnam and Southeast Asia
was untenable. The critics of the war, Bundy recalled, "were feeling
deliberately cut off from and rejected by an administration with whom they were
trying to communicate in good faith." So although he knew that Johnson would be
infuriated, Bundy agreed to appear on a one-hour primetime television debate to
be broadcast without commercial interruption by CBS News on the evening of June
21. "I informed him after the decision had been made and told him I just
couldn't live with myself if I didn't do it," Bundy explained in a 1969 oral
What Bundy never said but should have retrospectively acknowledged was that
his decision to go around Johnson's back to appear on the CBS Vietnam debate
was tantamount to submitting his letter of resignation. When he read in the
press that Bundy had agreed to the CBS debate, Johnson was enraged. LBJ told
his aide, Bill Moyers, that he should inform Bundy that the president would be
"pleased -- mighty pleased," to accept his resignation. Moyers did not act on the
Johnson's resistance to explaining and defending the administration's policy
exasperated Bundy. If the new offensive were not "more quickly decisive than we
had any clear reason to expect," Bundy said, there would be disturbing
consequences when the public "looked back and asked themselves if they had been
led openly into this war or somehow bamboozled into it." Bundy
acknowledged that every president, including giants like Lincoln and Roosevelt,
sought to communicate in a way that achieved the greatest political impact. Yet
Johnson aspired for more. The president had "this really quite funny internal
belief " that he could reshape facts to serve his interests. Johnson believed
that "if he could get it stated his way
in the papers it would be that way."
Although the national security advisor had reached the breaking point in his
relationship with President Johnson, neither man could afford a public dustup,
particularly as a major escalation decision loomed. Just six days after
appearing on CBS, Bundy was back advising the president. "The commitment" to Saigon, Bundy explained on June 27, "is primarily
political and any decision to enlarge or reduce it will be political. My own
further view is that if and when we wish to shift our course and cut our losses
we should do so because of a finding that the Vietnamese themselves are not
meeting their obligations to themselves or to us."
Bundy's support for the war was balanced with nuanced skepticism. On the one
hand, he dismissed critics who believed the United
States was now emulating the disastrous course France followed in Vietnam. Still, on June 30, Bundy
confided his concerns about the Westmoreland plan to Secretary of Defense
McNamara. Bundy challenged the assumption that conventional combat forces would
be effective in containing the insurgency. "I see no reason to suppose that the
Viet Cong will accommodate us by fighting the kind of war we desire." Moving to
"a 200 thousand-man level" of support, Bundy warned, was "a slippery slope
toward total US
responsibility and corresponding fecklessness on the Vietnamese side."
The impact of Bundy's critique, however, was largely vitiated by the fact
that it was directed toward McNamara rather than the president or the broader
team of advisors responsible for strategy in Vietnam.
So as the two stark choices confronting Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam
crystallized -- the 44-battalion plan advocated by Westmoreland and McNamara or
the withdrawal option espoused by Ball -- a third course was proposed. It was
the so-called middle way envisioned by Bill Bundy, the assistant secretary of state for East
Asian and Pacific affairs and McGeorge's brother, who proposed a force level of
18 battalions and 85,000 men. "In essence," he explained, "this is a program to
hold on for the next two months, and to test the military effectiveness of US
combat forces and the reaction of the Vietnamese Army and people to the
Anticipating Johnson's response to the three options, McGeorge Bundy wrote
to the president, advising him to choose between the two levels of escalation,
rejecting Ball's suggested pullout. Bundy had a reputation for skillfully
aborting dissent when he deemed it necessary, and he was a practiced expert at
maneuvering for advantage among competing bureaucracies. Bundy had, for example,
previously undermined the secretary of state. "He is not a manager," Bundy
advised the president about Rusk in early 1965. "He has never been a good judge
of men. His instincts are cautious and negative. ... the Secretary has little
sense of effective operation."
Johnson, meanwhile, continued to reach out to key constituencies, probing
where the balance of opinion could be found. Just minutes before meeting with
his senior Vietnam
advisors on July 2, the president consulted Eisenhower. "Do you really think we
can beat the Vietcong?" Johnson asked. Eisenhower advised Johnson to proceed
with a troop buildup as soon as possible. "We are not going to be run out of a
free country we helped to establish," Eisenhower declared.
By July 14, with a decision yet to be made, McNamara departed for South Vietnam.
His mission, Bundy retrospectively concluded, was to negotiate a deal with the U.S. military commander in Saigon
on the minimum size of the forthcoming escalation. Johnson's overarching
priority was to achieve agreement, absent a fractious debate, on a course of
action that would sustain South
Vietnam from collapse but not disrupt his
legislative agenda in Congress.
Political stagecraft -- creating the appearance of deliberation when a
decision had already been made -- was the presumptive purpose of a White House
meeting Johnson convened on the morning of July 21. Addressing the
administration's war council, McNamara concluded that the United States had only three strategic options,
two of which would leave the United
States in a deplorable geopolitical
position. President Johnson could choose to "cut our losses and withdraw under
the best conditions that can be arranged -- almost certainly conditions
humiliating the United
States and very damaging to our future effectiveness
on the world scene." Alternatively, Johnson could hold steady at roughly the
current level of 75,000 troops, but that would leave the United States
terminally weakened and "almost certainly would confront us later with a choice
between withdrawal and an emergency expansion of forces, perhaps too late to do
any good." The only viable choice, McNamara argued, was a substantial expansion
of offensive U.S. military
pressure against the Vietcong and Hanoi
-- supplemented by vigorous diplomacy. Such an approach, he predicted, "would
stave off defeat in the short run and offer a good chance of producing a
favorable settlement in the longer run," although it would also render "any
later decision to withdraw even more difficult and even more costly than would
be the case today."
McNamara was vague, however, in delineating the causal logic of his proposed
strategy, positing the escalation not as the military means to a military
objective but simply as an end in itself. Preliminary discussion among the
president's advisors seemed to anticipate that McNamara's recommendation would
President Johnson, eager to project a ruminative state of mind, arrived
after 40 minutes of discussion and unleashed a wave of questions ranging from
the existential to the logistical. Then he asked, "Is anyone of the opinion we
should not do what the memo says?"
This was Ball's cue to register his dissent. "I can foresee a perilous
voyage," he said, "very dangerous -- great apprehensions that we can win under
these circumstances. But let me be clear, if the decision is to go ahead, I'm
Rusk regretted the failure to act earlier. "We should have probably
committed ourselves heavier in 1961," he said.
Henry Cabot Lodge, who would return as the U.S.
ambassador to South Vietnam
at the end of the summer, bemoaned the dysfunctional nature of the regime.
"There is no tradition of a national government in Saigon,"
he said. "I don't think we ought to take this government seriously."
When discussion resumed that afternoon, Ball was given the floor to present
his challenge to the Pentagon escalation plan. "We can't win," he contended.
"The most we can hope for is a messy conclusion." Continuing to prop up the Saigon regime, he also warned, was tantamount to "giving
cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case." Ball proposed that the United
States devise a political strategy to stimulate a withdrawal of its military
forces from South Vietnam. "The
worst blow," Ball replied, "would be that the mightiest power in the world is
unable to defeat guerrillas."
Bundy refused to engage Ball's counterargument, once more invoking the
credibility imperative. "The world, the country, and the Vietnamese would have
alarming reactions if we got out," he said. Achieving victory was
apparently less important than the perception of pursuing it. "There will be
time to decide our policy won't work after we have given it a good try," Bundy
"We won't get out," Ball retorted. "We'll double our bet and get lost in the
rice paddies." Reviewing Ball's prediction three decades later,
Bundy conceded: "He's right."
What struck Bundy most in looking back on the discussion of July 21, 1965,
he told me, was a quality of unreality to the deliberations, because Johnson
had already communicated his approval of Westmoreland's 44-battalion strategy
to McNamara on July 17. The essential decision had already been sealed. Johnson
"wants to be seen having careful
discussions," said Bundy.
One of the consistent themes of Bundy's Vietnam counsel as national
security advisor was his support for deploying military means in pursuit of
indeterminate and primarily political ends. Bundy wanted a military commitment
that evinced U.S.
credibility even if it did not hold real promise of winning the war.
The adoption of attrition as the de facto U.S. military strategy was
determined, in part, by the absence of other viable options. And by that
forces did in fact succeed in imposing severe losses on the insurgency. The United States
presumed that a crossover point would be reached, when the accumulated pain of
war would compel the insurgents to relent. But in practice this coercion
strategy simply created an endurance contest. In that competition it was not
the will of the Vietnamese communists that was broken. For each year of combat
from 1965 to 1973, Bundy observed, the United States inflicted far greater
casualties on the enemy than it absorbed. Yet despite this dramatic disparity,
it was the United States
that withdrew its forces "home without victory." As Bundy starkly confessed,
"We had followed a losing strategy -- one that led us not to success but to the
acceptance of failure. Attrition is a brutal measuring stick," he affirmed.
"Its use is not advertised and its authorship not eagerly claimed."
How far would Bundy have gone in holding himself accountable for the lack of
rigor that characterized the evaluation of military strategy? Bundy was often
bluntly critical of himself, and he was equally critical of Johnson for
authorizing a muddled military mission. He proclaimed his "deep conviction"
that in the pursuit of a flawed strategy in Vietnam, "the decisive errors were
those made or approved by the president as commander-in-chief."
When in 1995 he finally decided to address the unresolved questions of the
Vietnam War, Bundy registered a starkly different point of view from his years
in power. He called Vietnam
"a war we should not have fought" and conceded that "on the overall issue -- are
you for the war or against it, in 1965 and after, the doves were right." Bundy
would therefore try to explain "the ways in which the executive branch
continuously got that great choice wrong -- not because it wanted the long,
hard war it got, but because it would repeatedly reject the hard alternative of 'losing to the Reds.'" Bundy in retrospect had embraced a quality he had lacked
when in high office three decades earlier. He had finally learned humility.