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 Indeterminate Ends":
In 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.
Three 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 Vietnamese."
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.