September 22, 1996

New York Times

A Memory of Mcgeorge Bundy


[I] f they were so very smart, how could they have got it so wrong?

This question was posed by David Halberstam in "The Best and the Brightest," his scathing indictment of the Washington policy makers who crafted and escalated the Vietnam War.

Probably the brightest of the lot, McGeorge Bundy, died suddenly of a heart attack last week at the age of 77. Most of the obituaries stressed his role as a Vietnam War hawk when he was national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and (especially) Johnson.

In my view, the obit writers got it wrong. The man, and the circumstances, were a lot more complex.

I was a callow 33-year-old when he summoned me from the State Department to join his National Security Council staff in July 1964. But I watched him up close in those critical two years of decisions about Vietnam, before we both left Washington in 1966.

Mac Bundy was one of the few Kennedy loyalists to stay on under Lyndon Johnson and adjust to the formidable and volatile new boss. Mac's job was to evaluate, compress and clarify the avalanche of foreign affairs information in the White House.

He was a skilled adjudicator, not an advocate -- especially on Vietnam. He tolerated and even encouraged dissent from conventional wisdom, as long as it was expressed with brevity and evidence. He seemed to have no firm convictions on the inherited Vietnam mess. His loyalty was to the president and to our nation's security.

When I reported that the 1964 turmoil in Saigon might result in a Buddhist-neutralist coup and a polite invitation to the United States to withdraw, Mac would nod and smile almost hopefully. When I would express doubts about the whole Vietnam intervention, he would ask me to put them very privately on paper.

In December, after the LBJ landslide, he called me into his office to read the chosen interagency option for dealing with Vietnam now that the election was over. Out of three grossly oversimplified options -- the first being, roughly, turn tail and run, the second, blow up the world -- the third, a gradual and sustained bombing of North Vietnam until Hanoi cried uncle, seemed moderate.

I told Mac that although I was an ignoramus on weaponry, I had learned quite a bit about the history of Vietnam's struggles against foreign powers. I thought we might bomb them back to the Stone Age, but that Ho Chi Minh's deeply rooted Vietnamese revolutionaries knew that if they retreated we would eventually go home. Mac nodded and sighed. "Well," he said, "you may very well be right."

What happened two months later was the critical turning point. Lyndon Johnson wanted to make sure that South Vietnam would (italics)not(end italics) be lost to communism. But he was uneasy about escalating the war. So he delayed, and finally sent to Vietnam his one detached and trusted adviser, Mac, to make a recommendation.

Mac arrived in Saigon just before the Vietcong blew up the American barracks at Pleiku. Much has been written about how the visual horror of dead and wounded young Americans affected his judgment.

And, indeed, it was only then that Mac wrote his famous message urging Johnson to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam. Mac, the dispassionate man, became, for a while, ardent.

But Mac, the skeptic, was still alive, if hobbled by the suspicious, tyrannical LBJ. After the February escalation in 1965, Mac told one of my senior NSC colleagues to explore the possibility of negotiating with Hanoi, but demanded that the suggestions be written out longhand, for Mac alone, lest LBJ or the Senate hawks find out.

On June 30, 1965, Mac sent a one-page memo to the arch-escalator, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, suggesting, with amazing prescience, that the Pentagon's plan was "rash to the point of folly."

There is no indication that Mac shared that memo with LBJ. In any case, the U.S. ground forces were augmented.

Perhaps Mac should have quit on principle. But in December 1965, he announced that he would leave the following March to become the president of the Ford Foundation.

In February, he and I overlapped briefly in Saigon, and we had one quiet talk. On my return to Washington, I learned that Mac had told the NSC staff he was optimistic about the war, but, much to my astonishment, that they they should wait to hear my very different views.

In 1968, after I wrote a critique of Vietnam policy in The Atlantic, Mac chastised me for betraying LBJ's trust. We didn't make up for eight years. By then I was running Harvard's Nieman Fellowships for journalists, and Mac came to talk to the fellows.

He was crisply articulate, but there was one persistent young man, who resembled Trotsky, needling Mac with questions about the war. Mac finally cut him off saying, "Your problem, young man, is not your intellect but your ideology."

Later, as we were clinking highballs, the Trotsky look-alike cornered Mac: " What about Vietnam?"

Bundy: "I don't understand your question."

Trotsky: "Mac, what about (italics)you(end italics) and Vietnam?"

Bundy: "I still don't understand."

Trotsky: "But Mac, you screwed it up, didn't you?"

Glacial silence. Then Bundy suddenly smiled and replied: "Yes, I did. But I'm not going to waste the rest of my life feeling guilty about it."

When he died, McGeorge Bundy was working on a book about the war whose main message was that Vietnam was a terrible mistake.

It's a loss that he did not live to write in full what he had learned from the Vietnam calamity.


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