By James G. Blight, professor of international relations at Brown University and co-author of the forthcoming "Argument Without End: Searching for Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy."
Given the continuing volatility of issues relating to America's involvement in Vietnam, we have much to be grateful for in Kai Bird's unusual dual biography of McGeorge Bundy, the special assistant for national security affairs to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and his brother William Bundy, who served in the CIA, the Defense Department and the State Department during much of the period of U.S. involvement. Bird has written a balanced, highly original extended essay in which he shows considerable empathy with the Bundy brothers, whom he admits he passionately despised as a college student during the war.
One senses that this book, eight years in preparation, began as an indictment. But having gotten deeply inside the brothers' milieu -- wealthy, Anglophile, Boston Brahmin, Groton, Yale, public service -- in the end, Bird depicts them with nuance and sympathy. The result is therefore not a broadside against a war that ended a quarter-century ago, but neither is it, thankfully, a literary equivalent of a Ralph Lauren clothing advertisement full of beautiful WASPs on their ancient seaside estates.
Bird had begun to explore the American Establishment in his fine 1992 biography The Chairman, John J. McCloy: The Making of the American Establishment. McCloy, the son of a hairdresser, had clawed his way into the Establishment. The Bundy brothers were there by birthright, temperament, supreme self-confidence and intellectual brilliance. They are fortunate to have acquired a biographer with Kai Bird's capacity for immersion in their world, a world that now seems as remote and alien to most of us, in some ways, as Vietnam itself must once have seemed to Mac and Bill Bundy.
And what a world theirs was, one in which (in the election of 1936), 75 percent of their classmates at Yale ("the Great Blue Mother," as Mac called it) preferred the now-forgotten Alf Landon to President Roosevelt; in which World War II service consisted, for both Mac and Bill, of using their brilliance to help decipher German codes; in which Mac became drafter of the memoirs of Henry L. Stimson, Roosevelt's secretary of war (with whom the Bundy brothers' father, Harvey Sr., had been closely associated during much of the war); in which "summer" was a verb associated with a compound in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.; in which Bill married a "Mary" who was the daughter of Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and Mac also married a "Mary," a Beacon Hill blue blood who was, when they met, director of admissions at Radcliffe College; and a world in which Mac flourished from 1953-1961 as dean of Harvard College, while Bill, less outgoing and flamboyant than his younger brother, became a leading analyst of the communist threat at the CIA's Office of National Estimates. Kai Bird is deft and sure in evoking this peculiar world of privilege and achievement, in which Mac and Bill Bundy honed the abilities they would bring to the Kennedy administration in January 1961.
But Kai Bird is less deft and sure when he turns to address the original raison d'etre of the book: explaining why Mac and Bill Bundy didn't try to prevent the war, or terminate it before it reached such tragic proportions.
His answer, versions of which are threaded throughout the last half of the book, is this: "The Bundys lacked the courage to insist on their doubts and instead consistently chose the easier path of steering the president toward what they thought was a middle course. That is their personal tragedy and the nation's." He rejects Mac Bundy's claim, made in a 1967 speech, that "gray is the color of truth." Not in this case, Bird seems to say -- Mac and Bill Bundy knew the truth, knew we could not win, knew it in black and white, and lacked the nerve to press their case on the two presidents they served. In this way, he returns to the indictment -- the Bundys' colossal failure of nerve -- that seems to have provided the motive for writing the book.
This indictment is not convincing. As Bird himself documents, the Bundys were not cowards. It is far more likely that they, like other U.S. officials with responsibility for Vietnam, simply could not bring themselves to imagine, until quite late in the day, even the possibility of a U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Why? Chiefly, it seems, because they had no understanding of their adversary. Recent evidence from the Vietnamese has proven the point conclusively: Hanoi was everything the Bundys and their colleagues imagined they were not. Hanoi was very much its own master, and did not take orders from Moscow or Beijing; Vietnamese communists believed U.S. bombing to be a sign of U.S. weakness in the South, and a sign that they were winning, and were therefore encouraged by it; and communists in North and South combined communism, nationalism and other "isms" into a powerful movement that was wholly unintelligible to men like Mac and Bill Bundy. Kai Bird notes early on, in describing their education at Groton, that "this marriage of intellectual self-assurance and condescension toward other cultures was ill-fated." But condescension is not cowardice. Neither man, and few of their colleagues, had any real curiosity about Vietnam, as such. One searches the available documents in vain for evidence to the contrary. That was "their personal tragedy, and the nation's."
During the last 10 years of his life, McGeorge Bundy was a key adviser to scholarly projects on the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. On three occasions he was asked to participate in conferences outside the U.S. He accepted an invitation in 1989 to the Moscow conference on the missile crisis. But he refused to go to Havana in 1992, saying that "Fidel was only a bit player." Yet in Havana it was learned that almost all the pressure in 1961 and 1962 to escalate the confrontation with the United States came not from the Russians but from the Cubans. And he refused an invitation made in August 1996 to participate in a Hanoi conference the following June because, he said, there was nothing to talk to the Vietnamese about, since they would have settled for nothing less than what they got: U.S. withdrawal and unification of Vietnam under communist domination of Hanoi. Yet in Hanoi, U.S. participants learned that a neutral coalition government in Saigon -- something Mac and Bill Bundy never took seriously -- was part of the original communist plan for reunification, going all the way back to 1954.
In short, Cuba was not a bit player in the missile crisis. And there was much to discuss with the Vietnamese. The prerequisite was lacking, however: curiosity deriving from respect for a deeply alien culture.
The chapter on the missile crisis in McGeorge Bundy's magisterial 1988 book, Danger and Survival, concludes this way: "We must make it our business not to pass this way again." This is unquestionably the most important lesson of that brush with nuclear oblivion. The same might be said of the Vietnam War. Learning this lesson will require future American leaders to muster the same degree of curiosity and empathy for the alien beliefs of U.S. adversaries -- whether a superpower like the former Soviet Union or resourceful little countries like Vietnam and Cuba -- that Kai Bird has admirably demonstrated for the nearly vanished world into which McGeorge and William Bundy were born, and which, alas, they never left.