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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

January 13, 2009

Introduction

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Tonight's conversation is with Gordon Goldstein. Gordon will be discussing his book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

The Carnegie Council is the perfect venue for this discussion for two particular reasons. The first reason has to do with ethics. I like to think of ethics as a practical matter, not merely as a theoretical or philosophical matter. In his book, called The Practice of Ethics, Hugh LaFollette argues that we might think of ethics the same way we think of a field like medicine. Just as the ultimate aim of medicine is not just to understand the body and its workings but to improve people's health, so too it is the ultimate aim of ethics not just to enhance ethical understanding but to actually improve how people live.

Gordon's book is an essential element in our collective reflections upon our national experience. Working first with McGeorge Bundy, and then on his own, Gordon has written a book that is a careful and candid investigation into what went wrong in a most critical area of U.S. foreign policy, and of course what can be learned from it.

As our good friend the late Arthur Schlesinger used to say, "History is to the nation what memory is to the individual. History is a crucial point of reference. It's the experience by which we reckon our position and then make political judgments."

And I think Arthur would have also approved of Mark Twain's observation along these lines: "History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes."

So Gordon's book arrives at just the right time, just as the torch is being passed to yet another new generation, symbolized by the President-elect himself and enhanced by many supporters who see the possibilities for positive change.

The second reason that this is the perfect venue for a discussion is more personal. We have followed Gordon's work since his days with McGeorge Bundy at the Carnegie Corporation, and we admire his aspirations for scholarly contribution to public life.

We have also followed closely the work of his editor, Paul Golob at Times Books. Paul is here. Thank you for coming. Paul is, without doubt, the best and the brightest of the New York book establishment. I mean that sincerely, not ironically. He is a brilliant editor and also a good friend.

I guess the best books get the best editors, and I guess that works the other way around as well. This is a fact. Gordon and Paul are proof of this.

Finally, further proof is indicated by the early reception of this book. The book drew immediate attention from Henry Kissinger himself in the form of a three-page featured book review in Newsweek the day prior to the presidential election, the historic day of November 3, 2008. Kissinger's review is titled "What Vietnam Teaches Us." It is subtitled "A new look at the brilliant yet flawed McGeorge Bundy illuminates the mistakes we are making today."

So, one week before the inauguration of Barack Obama, let's listen to Gordon Goldstein teach us a little bit about the Vietnam War and what can be learned from it.

Gordon, thanks for coming.

Remarks

GORDON GOLDSTEIN: Thank you, Joel, and thanks to all at the Carnegie Council.

As Joel pointed out, this is a project that has its roots in the Carnegie family, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, where McGeorge Bundy in the last years of his life was the Senior Scholar in Residence and where I had the pleasure of working with him on this project.

I recall, in fact, my last meeting with McGeorge Bundy quite vividly. It was on September 11, 1996, when I saw the former national security advisor to President Kennedy and President Johnson for the last time.

"How are you?" Bundy intoned as I came into the room, as he always did, emphasizing the "how are you" when he greeted me.

He had a stack of books under his arm and he wanted to get to work. I had been working with Bundy for 18 months on a project of great importance to him personally. He was engaged in the effort to write a retrospective memoir and presidential history of the critical decisions leading to the American intervention in Vietnam between 1961 and 1965, the years he served as national security advisor.

He had decided to write this book based on the example of his good friend and colleague, Robert McNamara, who the previous year had written his own memoir, called In Retrospect.

In Retrospect was a long time in coming. McNamara had maintained his silence about Vietnam. When he published this book, he incited something of a national media firestorm. The book drew great attention, and also great opprobrium, for McNamara's admission that he in essence had lost faith about the war in Vietnam as early as 1967 but had stayed in office as a passionate advocate of the war, supporting it and defending it, despite the fact that he believed we would never have a plausible opportunity to win it.

When McNamara's book incited this great wave of attention and rancor, there were those who were called upon to defend McNamara. Very few stepped forward. McBundy was one of the only ones who would do so. He chose to speak on a panel on the McNeal-Lehrer television program in April of 1995. It was a remarkable program because in it there was a moment, after all of the pundits took their licks at McNamara, where they turned on Bundy.

It was Robert Scheer, the columnist for the LA Times, who said, "You know, I don't know why we are drawing all of our criticism to McNamara. We have here another architect of the war who was at least as complicit as Bundy."

I will always remember—and I've watched again and again the tape of that program—how the camera turned to capture Bundy's face. I saw something remarkable that I had never seen and that those who had watched Bundy over the years had never seen. As I describe in my book, it was not so much a sense of panic, but a thinly suppressed wave of alarm. It was as if all of the opprobrium that was directed at McNamara was now directed at Bundy, and Bundy knew that he too was also a target if he chose to speak out on Vietnam.

Nonetheless, the next day I got a phone call from McGeorge Bundy asking me to collaborate with him on a book about the Vietnam War that he had decided that he had to write, in part based on McNamara's example.

It was a courageous decision, I think, and one in which Bundy encountered some resistance from those in his family and others who advised him not to do it. But he thought it had to be done.

So we met, Bundy and I, several afternoons a week, several mornings a week, at the Carnegie Corporation of New York on Madison Avenue. There was a popular book that came out some years ago, called Tuesdays with Morrie. Well, my editor, Paul Golob, joked that I used to have "Tuesdays with Mac." But it was also Wednesdays and Mondays and Fridays.

It was an all-encompassing effort. Bundy was determined to dig into this history of Vietnam, to study the inflection points, to grapple with his own role in the war.

We met in that conference room at the Carnegie Corporation for hours at a time. It was a sanctuary for reflection for Bundy, a place where no phones would ring, there would be no interruptions, and he could just talk. We would talk about the war. We would go back in time and he would revisit the key players in the war, he would revisit the key inflection points along the decision for escalation in Vietnam, and we would work through all the materials.

The crimson volumes of The Foreign Relations of the United States, which catalogue all of the pivotal government decisions—the intelligence estimates, the military programs, the State Department cables, the diplomatic memoranda—they're all there. We read through all of it, page by page.

Out of this effort, out of this exercise in muscular research—as I recall, Bundy would attack each text with a pen, to make note of important elements in the research—I observed a Bundy that was unique to the popular conception of the man, who was known as someone who had a great, if perhaps arrogant, quality of confidence, who was terse and brisk and decisive, and had great conviction in his views. The Bundy I observed was quite the opposite actually. He was struggling, he was introspective, he was uncertain, he was tentative. He was trying to get at the essence of things.

Through this effort a narrative emerged for Bundy. He looked at the critical decisions between 1961 and 1965, the process by which we went from 16,000 advisors in Vietnam under Kennedy to 535,000 ground troops under Johnson, how we went from 108 casualties at the time of Kennedy's death in November of 1963 to more than 58,000 casualties by the time the war ended.

We met that day for five hours. There was a quality of intensity to Bundy, a quality of urgency. He wanted to get it all down.

"Kennedy didn't want to be dumb," Bundy told me. "Johnson didn't want to be a coward."

We talked about the so-called Kennedy counterfactual, what Kennedy would have done if he had lived to have a second term.

Bundy told me, "I had a terrible argument with my brother over the weekend." His brother was Bill Bundy, who had been the assistant secretary of defense and had been also one of the architects of the war. Bundy said about this argument, "Now I know I'm right"—that sibling rivalry continuing between the two of them.

I noted as our meeting progressed that Bundy's cheeks were noticeably pink, I thought perhaps from sitting out in the sun at the family's vacation home in Manchester, Massachusetts, or perhaps because of the sustained exertion of this very demanding conversation.

Finally, it was time for the meeting to end. Bundy shook my hand, in that formal way he always did, with his arm cocked at a 90-degree angle, tilting forward ever so subtly. He said, "Good-bye." And then, five days later, I got a phone call informing me that he had died of a massive heart attack.

The book that we had been working on was left incomplete, fragmentary, its fate uncertain.

The obituaries that followed talked about Bundy's remarkable career. He was, as they described him, the quintessential figure of David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest. They talked about how his family had roots in New England going back to 1639, how he was first in his class at Groton, how he was first in his class at Yale, Class of 1940; president of the Yale Student Union, columnist for the Yale Daily News, member of the secret society Skull and Bones.

He was a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. He had collaborated with the former secretary of war, Henry Stimson, on his memoirs. He was made a professor at Harvard in his twenties and was tenured soon after, despite the fact that as an undergraduate and a graduate student he had not taken a single class in government or political science—a hell of a way to get tenure, probably not easy to replicate today.

And they talked about his fame as a Harvard professor, the lectures he gave on the history of U.S. foreign policy and international politics, how when he got to the Munich Appeasement there would be standing room only in the lecture hall, and how he received a standing ovation after he delivered that lecture.

Bundy had been named Dean of Harvard University at the astonishing young age of 34. There he had demonstrated a tremendous proficiency to manipulate academic politics. As David Halberstam observed, "He played with the Harvard faculty the way a cat plays with mice."

It was during those years that he made the acquaintance of a popular and dynamic and rising young senator from Massachusetts, named John Kennedy, and when Kennedy ran for president, Bundy was one of the few Republicans to break ranks to endorse him.

Then, when Kennedy won, he offered Bundy the opportunity of a lifetime. Initially, it was a mid-degree position in the State Department, but they worked through different permutations of what Bundy would do, and he finally got the call to be special assistant to the president for national security affairs, the position now known as national security advisor.

He held that position for six years, from 1961 to 1966, during the years of decision and escalation in Vietnam. He left as the war approached its pivotal point of becoming a quagmire and elite opinion would collapse.

He served for ten years as the president of the Ford Foundation, and then went on to New York University, and then after that to Carnegie.

But it was Vietnam that always was, and would remain, his legacy. That came out in those obituaries after he died.

There was an effort to work with the family to reconstitute the fragmentary elements of our collaboration and turn it into a book. It took the form of an edited volume of Bundy's papers. That was accepted for publication by Yale University Press in 2002.

After much discussion with the Bundy family, however, they decided that they did not want to proceed with the posthumously published edited volume. And then, I had the opportunity, through my partnership with my editor, Paul Golob, to write my own book, an account of Bundy's struggle to understand and learn the lessons of Vietnam, an account of our collaboration together, and an analysis of the pivotal lessons, both the lessons that he and I were developing jointly and the lessons illustrated by his time in power, particularly by his failures as national security advisor. That's the book that I have published, Lessons in Disaster.

What I wanted to capture with this effort was not only Bundy's insights, but Bundy's role in this drama. One of the things that's remarkable to me as I look at my time collaborating with Bundy is that although he was a central protagonist in this drama, as he looked back, he himself was still perplexed—how did it happen, how did we get it so wrong, what were the assumptions that drove us, and what was the essential lesson that we could draw that would preclude this tragedy from happening in the future?

There Bundy came to something of his own answer, which I hope to illustrate by a brief reference to one or two of the lessons, and that is this. For Bundy, the ultimate actor in Vietnam was not the military, was not the secretary of state or the secretary of defense or the national security advisor; it was the president as commander-in-chief. For Bundy, the conclusion was that the indispensable centrality of the commander-in-chief would really determine the difference between war and peace, because it was the president who ultimately held this authority, not his advisors, and only the president could accept recommendations to go to war or to withhold American military power.

This lesson was most vividly illustrated for Bundy and for me by Kennedy's experience in Vietnam in 1961. When Kennedy came to power in January of 1961, the first meeting he had was with President Eisenhower. They met. The subject was not the Soviet Union, it was not Cuba, it was not Berlin. It was, oddly enough, Laos.

All of the participants in that meeting were perplexed. Why is this tiny, landlocked country in South East Asia the focal point of Eisenhower's exit interview? It was because Laos, according to Eisenhower, would be the key, South East Asia would be the key, to the conduct of the Cold War. Kennedy and his advisors filed this away.

The first crisis they would face, however, and one pivotal to how Vietnam was managed, was not in Laos or Vietnam. It was in Cuba. It was the Bay of Pigs.

As Bundy comes to office, he inherits a plot cooked up by the CIA and the Deputy Director there, Richard Bissell, Bundy's colleague and friend from Yale—he called him "Dickie Bissell"—who was the head of covert operations. The plan was to insert 1,300 exiled Cuban fighters onto the island of Cuba and they would in turn somehow stimulate a spontaneous revolution that would sweep Castro from power and return Cuba into the orbit of American hegemony in its own backyard.

There was a problem, however. The existence of this exiled brigade was revealed in a front-page article in The New York Times. They were being trained in Guatemala, and everyone knew it.

Within a day of the troops landing on Cuba, they were surrounded by 20,000 of Castro's troops. Their exit to the mountains was impeded by 80 miles of swamp. They could not prevail in that contest, except with the support of American air power.

This was the CIA's secret expectation, that when Kennedy saw that the operation in Cuba would fail without American air cover, that the president would be compelled to authorize it.

But Kennedy held his ground. He would not be drawn into it. He shut down Bissell and he shut down the other advisors. That operation was a great humiliation and a great failure.

It was the most important lesson of Kennedy's presidency, because he learned that he could not fully depend on his advisors or their military recommendations, that he himself, as commander-in-chief, would have to be persuaded that any proposal to send in American troops was in fact a viable proposal and that the plan would work, and that there was a beginning and a middle and an end to any kind of military intervention, and that there was a plausible exit strategy.

As a result of this, Kennedy said, "I will never make this mistake again. In fact, if I had been in the British system, there would be a vote of no confidence and I would be out. But at least I have three more years"—that's what he told his advisors—"and I am going to use it."

It was the experience of Cuba, I believe and Bundy believed, that was central to how Kennedy managed the decision in 1961 to not intervene in Vietnam.

The pressure put on Kennedy to send in the first ground combat forces to South Vietnam is, I believe, one of the great and underappreciated narratives of the Kennedy presidency.

It starts in January, when his advisors inform him that this is one of the great battlegrounds in the Cold War and that without urgent action we would lose South Vietnam.

In the course of the next nine months, there are a series of recommendations for Kennedy to send in the first ground combat forces to South Vietnam. They keep on leaking that this is their intention. You see the news articles about how Kennedy is about to make this decision, and then you see Kennedy using his relationships with the press to insert counter-leaks saying that the president has no intention of doing so. But the proposals keep on coming.

Max Taylor and Walt Rostow go to South Vietnam in 1961, and they come back with their proposal to send in the first combat forces. Kennedy is advised that he needs to be prepared to send in the first increment of troops in a commitment that could ultimately exceed 200,000 men, or six divisions.

Kennedy, remarkably, finds that he is encircled. He is encircled by his senior advisors—by his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, by his Secretary of State Dean Rusk, by the joint chiefs of staff, by his advisors on the ground in South Vietnam, by Max Taylor, his personal military advisor; and, indeed, by Mac Bundy himself.

The chances are against—probably sharply against—preventing the fall of South Vietnam by any measure short of the introduction of U.S. forces on a substantial scale, the president was advised.

Bundy sends him a memo and makes this argument. He says: We need to be prepared to send in a division right now, roughly 20,000 troops, into South Vietnam to prop up the regime in Saigon. To quote Bundy, "Laos was never really ours after 1954. Vietnam is and wants to be."

Kennedy, however, had no intention of approving this recommendation. He had no expectation that the United States could prevail militarily in South Vietnam. In Congress, long before he became president, he spoke out against the disastrous French experience in Vietnam, citing it as a cautionary rationale for the United States to never fight a ground war there.

In the summer of 1961, Kennedy consults with General MacArthur, who advises him that even a million American infantry soldiers would not be sufficient to prevail in a land war in South Vietnam. In fact, Kennedy told his aide Mike Forrestal that the odds against the United States winning were 100:1. So Kennedy had made up his mind. But his advisors had also made up their minds, and he was encircled.

So how was Kennedy going to get out of this? How was he going to break this coalition that was now urging him to make an intervention, a deployment, that he knew he should not make?

It's quite interesting. At the very last minute, Robert McNamara, who had supported this, reverses his position and says, "We do not need to send in the first ground combat forces." McNamara in his memoir says that he thought better of it and changed his mind at the last minute. Bundy believed, however, that the president had directed McNamara to reverse course, and thus breaking the head of this nascent coalition to go into South Vietnam.

We will never know exactly how this happened, but it did happen. And Kennedy's determination to not go into South Vietnam in 1961 is unmistakable.

The lesson, I believe, is this: counselors advise, but presidents decide. The disaster of the Bay of Pigs taught Kennedy that he must never defer to his advisors unless he was fully persuaded that the military recommendations he received were viable and had a high probability of success.

This was a great contrast to how Lyndon Johnson would go on to conceive of Vietnam. This was a great contrast to how Johnson exercised his own authority as commander-in-chief.

Bundy liked to remark on the very dramatic difference between Kennedy and Johnson as commander-in-chief. To Bundy, Kennedy was dispassionate, removed, analytical, aloof. Johnson was an entirely different commander-in-chief because he was an entirely different political actor. He was a creature of the Senate, as Bundy liked to point out. He had a proclivity—in fact, a brilliance—to enmesh his own political interest with the political moment.

While Kennedy sought to shatter the consensus for ground forces, Johnson sought to built it and to make it durable. We see the apotheosis of this in 1965. The moment has come. We were either going to find some way to extricate from Vietnam or we were going to go in, and if we go in we're going to go in big.

It was during that time, during those decisions, in the spring and early summer of 1965, where Bundy reflected on how disastrously the policymaking process worked and on how the process of deliberation collapsed.

In 1964 no decisions were made. An election was coming up. For Johnson the imperative was, as Bundy said, "Win, win, win"—not in South Vietnam, but in the election against Barry Goldwater. He said, "I'm just a trustee until I win this election. I need this mandate." So no decisions are made on Vietnam in 1964—not to escalate, not to extricate, not to negotiate, not to possibly get out of there.

But in 1965 the moment has come to make this decision. As Bundy observed, "We found ourselves arguing over a number and not over a use—how many troops should go in, not what they should do, not the military strategy that would govern the deployment."

Johnson sends Robert McNamara to South Vietnam in June of 1965. He has a secret directive: "Talk to Westmoreland and find out what is the lowest number of troops I need to approve to maintain a consensus among my senior military advisors."

The number he comes back with is quite a large one, as Bundy observed; it's 44 battalions. That became the debate in the summer of 1965—not whether you could win in an open-ended war of attrition against the insurgency in South Vietnam, but the size of this deployment, 44 battalions.

Bundy believed that this was all a terribly tragic missed opportunity. 1964, a year of nondecisions. 1964, a year when they could have applied what he referred to as some imagination and some creative thought to the problem of Vietnam. All of it is in stasis.

And then, when they get to 1965, there is no real debate about whether we can prevail in South Vietnam; there is only a debate about the size of the troop deployment that will go in.

As I think we look back on this period, what is most notable is the quality of conviction, the overwhelming conviction that we had to go into South Vietnam whether we had a plausible prospect of success or not. We had to go in and initiate bombing, despite the fact that every single intelligence estimate that Bundy had informed him that it would fail. The Sigma 1 military exercises that the military conducted, the Sigma 2 military exercises in which Bundy participated—all of the intelligence analyses said it would fail, it would just harden the resolve of the insurgency.

But they went for this decision to initiate bombing. It immediately results in the first ground combat forces going in. Between the period of March 1965 to July we go from 3,500 ground forces to a deployment of approved forces of more than 175,000. That's in the period between March and July.

As Bundy said, "We never really asked would it work. We were debating over a number and not a use." As he looked back on this period, I think it was that missed opportunity to have that debate that Bundy most regretted.

The lessons that I draw from that, based in part on Bundy's experience, is that conviction without rigor is a strategy for disaster. The conviction that we must not lose in Vietnam not evaluated against the light of what would be plausible, what could be successful, was ultimately tragic for the United States.

Before he died, Bundy, I believe, wanted to have a full accounting of these lessons, but time was running out. To conclude, I'll return to that last meeting that we had and that sense of urgency that he felt to identify what the key inflection points were, to identify what the key attributes of presidential leadership were.

In this respect, Bundy believed that the greatest tragedy of Vietnam occurred on a single day, November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated, because Bundy believed that Kennedy had imposed a policy of no ground forces in South Vietnam; Bundy believed that Kennedy would never have reversed that; and Bundy believed that in a second term Kennedy would have had the latitude to engineer an extrication from Vietnam. He would have none of the political baggage that Lyndon Johnson had, no Great Society program of legislation to advance, no second-term election to face in 1968. Kennedy would never face the electorate again. He would be free to call it as he saw it, with almost no political cost.

So, for Bundy, as he reflected back on Vietnam, this was the tragedy. It all devolved again to the indispensable centrality of the leadership of the commander-in-chief. For him that made all the difference, and that accounts for the fate that we had in Vietnam, a fate Bundy believes could have been different if Kennedy had lived for a second term.

Thank you. Maybe I'll take your questions now.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: What lessons would you say that Vietnam per McGeorge Bundy had on Iraq as it happened up until now and as it will happen in the future?

GORDON GOLDSTEIN: That's a great question. In developing the lessons of the book, in collaboration with my editor, Paul Golob, we were of course mindful of, in fact we were heavily influenced by, the very striking parallels between Vietnam and Iraq.

I think that one of the most compelling parallels occurred in the way in which decisions were made in Washington in the summer of 1965 and the way they were made in Washington in the run-up to the war in 2003.

In 1964 and 1965, there were, as I pointed out, innumerable intelligence estimates that identified the likely outcome of bombing and going in big with ground forces and the enormous obstacles that existed to actually launching an effective campaign against the insurgency. As we all know, the same intelligence existed about Iraq and the enormous obstacles that we would face there.

Yet, we see in both instances that there was a cadre of advisors to the president who were just consumed by this enormous conviction. In Vietnam it was that we could not lose. In Iraq it was that we had to find some way to overthrow this regime.

That's why I have entitled that lesson "Conviction without Rigor Is a Strategy for Disaster," because when conviction overwhelms the capacity for dispassionate, analytical, rigorous evaluation of the limitations of military power, the results really can be profoundly costly.

QUESTION: Somewhere around 1990 Mac Bundy spoke to a group of intelligence people in Washington and essentially delivered a mea culpa. He was saying that, looking back on it from almost 30 years, he and his colleagues were essentially young and foolish and arrogant and would have been better off to follow what he called the wiser heads of the Eisenhower administration, because the Bay of Pigs operation would never have been carried off.

But, on the other hand, having said that, I'm just wondering if he ever spoke with you about the persistent policies of the Kennedy people, Robert and so on, in attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro and getting the CIA involved in many of those plots.

The second part of that is: did he ever speak with you about the State Department and Henry Cabot Lodge telegram that essentially gave the go-ahead to the Vietnam military to overthrow Diem and the catastrophic results of that decision?

GORDON GOLDSTEIN: Fascinating questions, both of them.

With respect to his role in the intelligence plots to overthrow Castro, I regret that Bundy revealed very little to me. I would have been fascinated. He was chairman of what was known as the 303 Committee, which was a secret committee that had oversight of global intelligence operations, covert operations, usually those involving the effort to overthrow foreign governments. He was very cautious in how he addressed that chapter of his time in government in the course of our collaboration.

But he was very forthcoming on the other question you've identified, which is the famous telegram from August 24, 1963, which initiates the overthrow of President Diem in Saigon. The chapter of my book relating to that lesson is entitled "Never Trust a Bureaucracy to Get it Right."

Bundy looked back at this period with some fascination, I think, with some degree of horror frankly. What was happening in that summer was there was an increasingly negative assessment of the viability of the government in Saigon, and a number of the president's advisors were agitating to give a green light to the military in Saigon to overthrow President Diem. The three most industrious and assertive advisors to the president were Averill Harriman and Roger Hilsman and the president's aide on the National Security Council, Mike Forrestal.

On a weekend in late August, amidst the torpor of late summer, when everyone was scattered to the winds—Bundy in Manchester, the president in Hyannis, Bob McNamara climbing a mountain somewhere—they drafted this cable that provided this authorization to the CIA in Saigon to communicate with dissident military officers and to give them the green light for the coup.

What they did was they went one by one to each of the principals in the government and got them to sign off, suggesting to each of them that others had signed off or were in the process or were about to sign off.

Kennedy only accepted the proposal because he thought there was a consensus among his senior advisors. He discovered the following Monday when he got back to Washington that that consensus didn't exist. This in turn set off a period of remarkable instability not just in Saigon but in Washington, as the Kennedy administration was more or less ripped apart, McNamara being very skeptical about the coup, and others like Harriman and Forrestal being very determined to see that the coup in fact took place. It was an instance when the machinery of government broke down. Bundy looked back at it with great regret.

QUESTION: Over the decades there have actually been two narratives about what Kennedy might have done had he not been assassinated. One is the one you have presented, that he probably would have moved to an extrication policy.

However, there has been a different narrative for many, many years, which was really a political narrative, not so much the military narrative that you've focused on. It had to do with the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union and the Cold War and the so-called domino theory. In other words, there was a view that Kennedy not only was humiliated by the Bay of Pigs but by his meeting with Khrushchev in Geneva at which he was kind of pushed back, and his feeling that were he to leave Vietnam the domino theory would kick in, that the United States' position on a global basis would deteriorate.

Therefore, for many decades the question of what Kennedy might have done, it seems to me, has been left open in various memoirs. I wonder what your own thought is, the degree to which a political discussion about the ramifications of a possible extrication was germane to these considerations.

GORDON GOLDSTEIN: It's a very interesting question.

You made reference, I think, to the Vienna summit with Khrushchev in 1961. It's true Kennedy left that feeling quite rattled, because Khrushchev in essence threatened to shut down Berlin unless Kennedy was prepared to relent.

What is interesting, however, is that the Vienna summit, of course, occurs before the pivotal decisions in Vietnam in 1961. I think if Kennedy had in fact been persuaded that he had to show his resolve and his toughness to Nikita Khrushchev, he would have not made the decision he made in November of 1961 to withhold ground combat forces and he would have escalated in Vietnam at that time.

You made reference to the Bay of Pigs. Indeed, it was a great humiliation for Kennedy, and for many observers it was an almost emasculating experience. I mean he was in office for three months and he had this remarkable debacle on his hands that was the signature failure of his presidency.

However, he had a remarkable opportunity to redeem himself in October of 1962 in his management of the missile crisis. It was during that period where Bundy advised the president to take three different positions in 24 hours: he said, in essence, that he should go forward with surgical air strikes; and then he said in another meeting that perhaps the United States should do nothing in response to the missiles and that he supported the quarantine and the diplomatic track that we in fact pursued; and then, at the last minute, he reversed himself and joined with a coalition that was trying to reverse the president's predilection for the quarantine and go back to the air strikes.

Kennedy was frustrated with Bundy's performance here, held his ground obviously, as we know how the Cuban missile crisis ended, with the successful resolution of that and a negotiating track.

What we also know in retrospect is that if Kennedy had not been so resolute in eschewing the military option, because he didn't think any kind of surgical strike was possible—he said, "Unless you can tell me I'll get every single one of those missiles, I don't know if this is going to work."

What we now know in hindsight, because of some of the groundbreaking research that has been done on this period, is that at that time there were 164 operational nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba and that those Russian and Cuban officers there—the Russians supervising the Cubans—had authority to use them, and that if there had been an air strike there would have almost necessarily been a response with tactical nuclear weapons. One could imagine in the blink of an eye how this could have escalated to apocalyptic proportions.

To get to the final part of your question about the salience of the domino theory, it's fascinating. Bundy gave a sealed oral history to the political scientist Richard Neustadt in 1964. 1964 is a year where nothing much is happening in Vietnam, as I explained. We had 108 casualties through Kennedy's years and almost the same number in 1964. So it is very much below the radar screen.

Bundy is asked in 1964 how did Kennedy conceive of the domino theory. Bundy said that Kennedy was not an anti-domino theorist but he was a skeptic, because he didn't think that this was the essential structure of world politics and that states didn't collapse like oblong blocks.

He said that Kennedy's view was that Vietnam was a test of American politics, not a test of geopolitics. I think this is notable, because this is a time before Vietnam becomes a disaster and it is not, as some critics have charged, by those who have made this argument on behalf of Kennedy, an effort after the fact to burnish Kennedy's image after it's clear that Vietnam is a disaster. This is 1964, before the fate of Vietnam is determined.

So I think we have some strong evidence that Kennedy was not swayed by the Cold War politics of this, but that he had much more clarity in his own mind about what he regarded as the peripheral significance of Vietnam to American national interest.

QUESTION: I was a member of Congress for 22 years. The last four years I was the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives. Every other Tuesday the Democratic leaders of Congress, led by Speaker O'NeillJim Wright was the House Majority Leader; I was the Whip—and the Democratic leaders of the Senate would have breakfast at the White House with President Carter and Vice President Mondale. We were all Democrats. We talked politics and policy.

I think that was a very useful exercise. As a matter of fact, I took detailed notes. The president didn't like it very much, but he couldn't tell me, "Don't do that." I dictated them. I still have a stack of transcripts in my office, which I hope to keep there for some time.

But, given that we have a new president in town and a new Congress, I'd like to suggest that I think it would be a very good idea if that practice were continued. I do not know, although I was in Congress when Kennedy was president, if there were such meetings between the Democratic leaders of Congress when Kennedy was president or not.

I don't want to suggest that that would have solved the Vietnam issue, but at least you would have an ongoing institution to make possible a candid exchange of views between politicians of one party who had a common interest.

I yield back the balance of my time.

GORDON GOLDSTEIN: As to the quality of consultation between Kennedy and Democratic leaders of Congress, the most interesting episode we have is one in which he engaged directly with Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader, on his plans and his intentions in Vietnam in a second term.

Mansfield, as you will recall, was a unique figure in politics. He was an expert on Asia and had been a history professor before serving in Congress. He harbored great anxiety about the American commitment to Vietnam.

There was a pro forma meeting that they had with other congressmen and senators. Kennedy said to Mansfield after the meeting, "I'd like you to hang around. I'd like to have a private discussion with you."

He brings in Mansfield and he says, in the presence of several of his advisors, "Look, I want you to know that I don't have any intention of escalating in Vietnam. In fact, in 1965, on the assumption that I have a second term, I'd like to initiate an extrication, and I want to think about drawing down the American commitment there."

This has been written about by those who were present for the meeting—Kenny O'Donnell, in his book—and it has been corroborated by Mansfield. We know that not only did this discussion occur, but a number of others occurred in which Mansfield was on a semi-regularly basis consulted on American policy in Vietnam.

One of the tragedies, though, is that, while Kennedy had this great clarity about the need not to send in ground combat forces, he was never prepared to say so publicly because he was wary of the charge that he would face in an election year that he somehow was soft on communism, that he was somehow weak on the issue of Vietnam. So the politics of the moment discouraged Kennedy from that degree of candor, even though he had numerous political allies who shared that view, like Senator Mansfield.

QUESTION: Vietnam is an absolutely fascinating subject. I spent two years in Saigon in the American Embassy in 1969 and 1970 as a CIA officer and have been engaged in conversations and debates about this issue ever since.

My question to you is: when could feasibly, politically, given the fact that the Cold War was in such full-blown activity in the 1960s—when would it have been feasible politically for the United States to withdraw—because basically we had there a free country, South Vietnam, being threatened by the North; we had had Korea; we had all kinds of other examples around the world where the United States and the free world were being pressed. The question always comes down to, and my question is: when could feasibly President Kennedy, or anybody else, actually have withdrawn from a free country?

Now, we had obligations going back to the Bao Dai regime, we had treaty obligations to the South Vietnamese government, we evacuated I think about a million North Vietnamese Catholics after Dien Bien Phu in 1954. There were a whole lot of reasons for the United States to be there. And yes, it's awful that we got caught up, but when could politically President Kennedy have said, "We're out of here because we can't sustain it anymore," when all the other threats were going on around the world?

GORDON GOLDSTEIN: Right. Well, obviously it's a fair question to ask not only when would this have occurred but how it would have occurred. Obviously, we're engaged here in a thought experiment. It's what historians call the counterfactual—if Kennedy had lived, what would he have done?

To play out that thought experiment, I believe the answer to your question—when would this have happened? It would have happened in 1965. Why? Because this was the point where Johnson himself was confronted with the decision to escalate in Vietnam or to explore some other strategy, such as neutralization.

It was in January of 1965 that Mac Bundy and Robert McNamara wrote a famous memo to President Johnson, now known as the "fork in the road" memo, where they basically said, "We're going to lose unless you decide otherwise; so what are we going to do?"

So, to go back to your premise, let's assume that Kennedy is inaugurated in a second term in January of 1965 and that Bundy and McNamara write the same memo, but it goes to Kennedy rather than to Johnson. Well, what would he have done?

Among those who have explored this question, the best scenario, or the most plausible scenario I've heard, has been developed along these lines. What would be the easiest way to get out of Vietnam in 1965? Kennedy asked himself the same question, "How do we get out?"—or, rather, one of his advisors asked him. He said, in essence, "That's easy. We'll get a government in there to ask us to leave."

So the scenario would be: you've now had a successor regime to President Diem and his brother Nhu; you have some kind of a succession of weak military governments that follow; and you fabricate or engineer a request for the United States to draw down its presence of military advisors in combination with some kind of international conference, like there had been in Laos, to neutralize South Vietnam.

Now, it was well known among those who studied the issue closely that neutralization in South Vietnam would have been evanescent, it would have been a temporary solution. The South would have eventually been absorbed by the North. But it would have provided a political cover to extricate, and it would have provided a plausible framework to contain and eventually diminish the American presence in South Vietnam. In 1964 this was in fact the only viable option on the table for those who were looking for an alternative to escalation.

The great commentator Walter Lippmann was a passionate proponent of the neutralization option. Bundy was a very passionate opponent of it. There is a critical meeting that happens in the spring of 1964 where Lyndon Johnson says, "I'm sick of reading Walter Lippmann talking about neutralization. Bring him in here to the White House. I want to talk to him."

So they bring him in for a meeting. They argue it out. Johnson, in essence, says, "No, we're not going to do it. In fact we're winning in South Vietnam."

Lippmann writes a column the next day saying, "The United States is apparently going to be doomed in Vietnam because there is absolutely no fertility and imagination about any other course except one that's going to ensnare us in this quagmire."

QUESTION: As you very effectively emphasized here, and in your book, clear geopolitical thinking is a prerequisite to the cautious and selective use of military action pursuant to that thinking. In that period, the rather outdated John Foster Dulles domino theory I think affected the thinking, the preamble to the Vietnam experience.

Is there a parallel today in the critical choice which Turkey must take between veering toward the West and the European Union, in the face of very harsh conditions for membership, which have been proposed by the European Union, and fierce opposition by many countries and the Pope, et cetera, or to veer toward Islam? President Erdogan is the first Islamic-leaning president countering the historic secular leaning enforced by the army over the decades.

GORDON GOLDSTEIN: It's an excellent question. I don't feel competent to comment on the geopolitics of Turkey leaning either toward the European Union or being oriented toward a more Muslim identification politically. But I can look at the history of the period in which Kennedy and Johnson served and note that there is a parallel that can be drawn in the instances when not every scenario and not every option and not every potential outcome is exhaustively examined within the government and within the intelligence-making and policymaking apparatus.

In particular, I look at the year 1964, when there was a tremendous opportunity to reflect on these questions that require not just one meeting where a decision is going to be made, but to hammer out a position in the government where all the contrasting opportunities of a particular course of action are debated.

One of the great missed opportunities in the year 1964 for Bundy was that he had the chance to conduct an EXCOMM, like they did in the Cuban missile crisis, when Kennedy had 13 days to put his best advisors in a room and say, "Don't come out of here until you've examined every single angle of this problem. Don't come out of here until you've given me every single option and its weaknesses. Don't come out of here until you've turned the whole thing upside down."

He of course recused himself from those discussions, because he didn't want his influence to somehow inhibit the course of debate. He had his brother, Robert Kennedy, managing the process.

They did that in 13 days. It's one of the best examples we have of how decision making at the highest level in our history worked in response to the greatest challenge in the nuclear age.

What could have happened in 1964 with Bundy was he could have had an EXCOMM, but he could have had it in slow motion.

Bundy liked to say he was a political zero and an academic manager from Harvard Yard. He was appointed to his position. He didn't have to be confirmed. He was never going to be hauled before Congress. He didn't have that scrutiny. He had all the powers of the government at his disposal—the intelligence estimates, the military estimates, the expertise in the Pentagon, across the State Department, everywhere. He could have in 1964 initiated this EXCOMM, a secret, insulated debate about what we could and could not accomplish in Vietnam.

The president wasn't going to make any decisions. He made it very clear that the status quo would rule in Vietnam for the year of 1964, that nothing would be decided until after the election. So we have this precious window of opportunity. But it doesn't happen.

The closest we get to it is a memo written by George Ball, the prescient Cassandra, who said, in essence, "Don't do it, you guys. It's not going to work."

That fall, alarmed by what he sees as an imminent decision to escalate, George Ball goes home every night and on the weekends and he dictates his thoughts into a tape recorder. He cranks out a 67-page, single-spaced memo that asks, "Are our assumptions in Vietnam valid?"

He presents this memo to Bundy, to McNamara, and to Rusk, the three guys who are the most persuasive to President Johnson. They meet a few days after the election, on November 7, 1964.

In this memo Ball asks: "Will bombing work? Will ground forces work? Will any military strategy work? Or are we left with the unpalatable and risky option of some kind of diplomatic negotiation to get us out of there?"

Well, they met to have that debate. Rather than Bundy, Rusk, and McNamara defending the viability of bombing or ground troops, they attack Ball for saying, "There's no way a diplomatic solution is going to ensure the independence of South Vietnam." That entire discussion is focused on the weakness of the one quasi-plausible option, but not the inherent weakness of the other options that were on the table. And so the debate simply does not happen.

As Bundy looked back on 1964, he looked back, I think, with great regret, because he realized that this window of opportunity was lost. That's why when I looked at that year and I tried to extract the lesson, the lesson I extracted was that politics is the enemy of strategy, because in 1964 the political requirements of Johnson's mandate to win the election and to not talk about South Vietnam, to not explore the different alternative strategies there, it is a tremendous deterrent. It chills the imaginative debate internally over what could be accomplished in Vietnam.

Bundy retrospectively knew this and he regretted that missed opportunity of 1964 and the chance to imagine a different course of action, which never materialized.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Gordon, thank you very much.

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