Mark Danner

Members of the Club

Six decades ago, in a classroom at Groton, a young man rose slowly to his feet, gazed down at a sheaf of papers in his hand, and began to read.

Six decades ago, in a classroom at Groton, a young man rose slowly to his feet, gazed down at a sheaf of papers in his hand, and began to read. At the front of the room, his teacher sat back and enjoyed a brilliant essay on the Duke of Marlborough, brilliantly delivered – and marred only by a scattering of barely suppressed giggles. Baffled, the teacher later drew one of the young man’s classmates aside and asked about the laughter. “Didn’t you know?” the student said. “He was unprepared. He was reading from a blank piece of paper.”

A half-century later, working as a magazine editor, I heard that a dazzling lecture on nuclear strategy had been delivered the night before at a Maryland university. After trying in vain to track down a copy, I finally telephoned the university’s president, who graciously promised to send a tape. No, I said, the written text would do just fine. “Text?” He laughed. “I was sitting beside him on the dais and I can tell you those papers Mac kept leafing through were blank. He winged it. It was classic Bundy.”

“Classic Bundy”: to two generations of scholars, Government officials and foundation managers who knew McGeorge Bundy, the phrase stood for glittering intellectual prowess, self-confidence verging on arrogance, an aggressive approach to problems that brooked no hesitation. Kai Bird, the author of this double biography of McGeorge and his elder brother, William Putnam Bundy, first confronted “the Bundy legend,” as he calls it, in November 1972, when Bundy, the former Harvard dean and former special assistant for national security affairs to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, visited Bird’s small college in Minnesota to answer students’ questions about the Vietnam War.

“American soldiers were still coming home in body bags,” Bird writes. “And now here was McGeorge Bundy – a man we all knew as one of the prime architects of the war – waiting to take our questions. His mere presence seemed an affront, an unspeakable act of arrogance. Behind his clear-plastic-frame glasses, his bright blue eyes gleamed with an icy intelligence. Trim and pink-cheeked, Bundy was a handsome, almost boyish man . . . deftly responding to earnest questions with a display of clipped, cool logic, a bit of wryness and, if necessary, a cold bucket of condescension. . . . He was certainly not apologetic. He confessed to nothing. Yet, neither did he reject our passionate questions out of hand. He tried to engage us and tried to explain, without actually saying so, that the war – his war – had been somehow inevitable. This was hardly a satisfying explanation.”

Bundy’s refusal to “confess” seems to have been profoundly galling, and his appearance left Bird “perplexed and curious to know how such an intelligent man had become so intimately associated with such a national disaster.” Bird clearly intends “The Color of Truth” to provide an answer. For while he bills his book as a biography, and writes at length about McGeorge Bundy’s early and later career — and, in rather less vivid shades, about the career of his older brother, William Bundy, who held senior appointments in the C.I.A. and in the Defense and State Departments and later became editor of Foreign Affairs — “The Color of Truth” is at its heart a “Vietnam book” and one that follows a trail first broken by David Halberstam in “The Best and the Brightest.”

That Bird pursues this path is by no means unwelcome; though we live under the presiding cliche of a “post-cold-war world,” it is still Vietnam that cuts across America’s history. To pursue the rationale of American officials as they took action – or failed to – during this decade’s conflicts in the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda is inevitably to bump up against the controversies still surrounding Vietnam. Despite George Bush’s claim in 1991 to have “buried the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the years since have proved that America and its leaders still live, half paralyzed, in the shadow of America’s longest war.

It was a world McGeorge and William Bundy did much to shape. Bird finds a striking conflict between their overwhelming intelligence, which preceded them like a legend wherever they went, and the foolishness of their course; and here too he follows Halberstam, who had put the question squarely: “Why had they crossed the Rubicon? They were intelligent men, rational men, and seemingly intelligent, rational men would have known the obvious.”

And indeed, Bird tells us, these intelligent, rational men did know the obvious: that sending hundreds of thousands of American troops to Vietnam, making it an American war, was unlikely to lead to victory and might well lead to disaster. If they pushed forward anyway, they were spurred on not mainly by their ignorance (as young Bird and other antiwar protesters had assumed) but by the political risks of turning back. Bird sees the Bundys’ failure not as an intellectual failure but as a failure of character — a failure to break ranks.

The Bundys came from a “good family,” firmly linked to America’s small circle of other good families. Their father, Harvey, was a powerful Boston attorney who had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes. Their mother, the former Katherine Lawrence Putnam, a celebrated charmer and social eccentric, was closely related to the Cabots, Lowells, Lawrences and just about everyone else who mattered in Boston’s highly structured society.

Another important connection was to Henry Stimson, the legendary colonel (he preferred to be known by the Army rank he attained in the Great War) who was Hoover’s Secretary of State and, later, Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. Meeting Harvey and Katherine Bundy at a Washington luncheon in 1931, the childless Stimson “fell in love with” Harvey and his “peppery wife,” and at 43 Harvey Bundy, having never spent a day in the Government’s employ, became Assistant Secretary of State; he would remain close to Stimson for the rest of the colonel’s life.

Bundy’s sons grew accustomed to meeting the colonel at their home, to debating events of the day with the great man across their dinner table. When the time came in 1945 for a tired and ill Stimson to write his memoirs, advisers chose as his collaborator the brilliant Mac Bundy, then 27 and a junior fellow at Harvard. Bundy’s intellectual qualifications were, even then, second to none, but to Stimson they ranked distinctly behind his reliability. As Bird writes, for the influential friends and associates of the colonel, Bundy was “a logical and easy choice, a bright young man in whom they all could trust to work with great discretion.” We are in a particular world here — the world of the Establishment, where the greatest transgression was not failure but betrayal. Bird dwells at some length on a celebrated 1947 Harper’s Magazine article that Bundy ghostwrote for Stimson, defending Truman’s decision to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. The article was instigated by Harvard’s president, James B. Conant, who had sat on the Interim Committee that had advised Truman and who had grown worried by a nascent critical movement led by, as Conant put it with not a little contempt, “the sentimental and verbally minded” — by whom he meant, among others, Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Cousins and, especially, John Hersey, who had just recently published his powerful report, “Hiroshima,” in The New Yorker. As Bird demonstrates, in writing the article for Stimson Bundy relied in considerable part on a memo prepared by his father, which was studded with inaccuracies; he also delivered the manuscript for vetting to Conant, who excised, among other important themes, the entire discussion of whether the Japanese would have surrendered if the Americans had agreed earlier to permit them to retain the Emperor. For the essay’s single most influential and powerful argument — the number of lives that an invasion of Japan would have cost — Stimson and his young scribe agreed, without evidence or support, “to use the nice round figure of one million casualties.” It was an instance of history written — as Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it on another occasion — to be “clearer than the truth.”

Fifteen years later, John F. Kennedy recognized in Bundy, then a young and popular Harvard dean, this same unflagging loyalty. (Bundy had demonstrated it at Harvard, where he had agreed to “shield” the university from Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s attacks by protecting senior faculty but dismissing any junior — untenured — professor who refused to testify to the Congressional committees. Kennedy briefly considered naming Bundy his secretary of state, thought better of it (“Two baby faces like mine and his are just too much”) and appointed him instead his special assistant for national security affairs. Here Bundy excelled, choosing as his National Security Council staff intellectuals of the highest caliber, and designating himself Kennedy’s intellectual “traffic cop.” Kennedy delighted in the agility of Bundy’s operation. “You can’t beat brains,” he said.

Bird’s narrative of the Cuban missile crisis, however, makes you wonder. By Bird’s account, Bundy handled himself during the crisis with uncharacteristic indecision, advocating first a naval “quarantine” of Cuba and then an air strike on the missiles — though at times Bird seems unsure whether Bundy’s vacillations reflected his own changing views or Kennedy’s directive to “keep the discussion going.” Bird also uses the latest revelations about the crisis — that Kennedy had made a secret arrangement to remove medium-range missiles from Turkey and had even, if it seemed war was imminent, arranged to agree to such a trade publicly — to show that the missile crisis was less a model of hard-line crisis management (whose supposed lessons were said to be so influential in the management of the Vietnam War) than “a story of human fallibility, misinformation and simple misjudgment.” The ultimate revelation — that unknown to American “crisis managers,” the Soviet Union had stationed 41,000 Soviet troops in Cuba and armed them with battlefield nuclear weapons, which they had, for a time, authority to use — makes this story, in the end, also one of simple and terrifying luck.

Bird’s account also makes one reflect, and not for the first time, that the obvious intelligence of Kennedy and his closest aides, including McGeorge Bundy, tended to be undermined not only by their inexperience but by the young President’s political weakness. Kennedy’s public position during the missile crisis — that he would accept nothing less than the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, with no American quid pro quo — followed largely from his own earlier warnings to the Soviets and the Cubans, which had themselves followed from the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs. For the rest of his life Bundy never parted from the contention that the Cuban missiles, which brought the world as close as it has ever been to nuclear conflict, presented Kennedy with a political threat, rather than the country with a military one. Bird’s treatment of the Bundys and Vietnam, though bolstered with much admirable spadework, does not depend on any breathtaking revelation from the archives. The Bundys well understood, he tells us, that Vietnam was a colonial war, that South Vietnam had little or no independent existence, that involving American forces in a land war was bound to hold great risks for the United States, that from the very beginning the chances of victory were not high. All the arguments the antiwar protesters, and later many in Congress, made with such vehemence the Bundys and their fellows had taken account of long before, and the memorandums and studies and policy papers are there to prove it. The Bundys and the others (“the Harvards,” as Lyndon Johnson called them) became involved in Vietnam gradually, cautiously; and when finally, under Johnson, they sent hundreds of thousands of American troops to Asia in 1965, they did so with “foreboding” and a “heavy heart.” On the policy debate itself Bird is very good. He describes the flurry of memos and arguments surrounding the decision to commit heavily to South Vietnam.

Among the most important are James Forrestal’s paper of May 1964, in which Forrestal, the China specialist and National Security Council official, depicted a South Vietnam in the throes of a social revolution the Americans would be unable to prevent (“We are essentially on the wrong side,” Forrestal wrote bluntly); Averell Harriman’s extraordinary memorandum, discovered after his death, in which he disclosed that even before mid-1966 Robert McNamara had conceded the war was unwinnable and the United States should negotiate a coalition government in the South; and finally, William Bundy’s notorious 40-page paper of October 1964, in which he, then the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, suggested that in order to extricate itself from the tightening involvement in Vietnam, the United States might essentially provoke “another Gulf of Tonkin incident,” bomb the North in retaliation and then quietly signal to a third party, perhaps the Secretary General of the United Nations, that Washington would be pleased to see negotiations on Vietnam’s future reconvene in Geneva. (Bundy called this last his “Swing wildly at the first one, then bunt” strategy.) As late as July 1965, McGeorge Bundy would write to McNamara that the decision to deploy combat troops was “rash to the point of folly.” These sources are well marshaled and they make for good, sometimes fascinating reading. The central argument, however, is not new. (Among others, Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts made similar arguments in their 1979 study, “The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked.”) And they raise an obvious question: why, if the outlook for United States involvement looked so grim from the outset, and the talented officials responsible for making United States policy recognized it as such, did American leaders go ahead and commit the country to a war they doubted could be won?

Bird’s answer, at least on its face, is simple: domestic politics. As Kennedy told an aide not long before his death, “If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands, but I can do it after the election.” Kennedy’s stated intention is of course familiar, and we will never know whether he would have carried it out. We do see, however, how the same political worries obsessed Lyndon Johnson. The thought of sending young Americans to Vietnam “just sends chills up my spine,” he told Senator Richard Russell of Georgia in 1964, in a recently disclosed audiotape of a telephone conversation, but he feared political retribution even more: “They’d impeach a President, though, that would run out, wouldn’t they?” In the near term, certainly, a retreat on Vietnam would have damaged, if not doomed, Johnson’s chances to pass the ambitious legislation he envisaged at home. Russell, it’s worth noting, was a leader of the so-called Southern Bourbon senators, powerful, conservative men who tended to control the all-important defense committee and subcommittees and whom Johnson was forced to cajole to pass his civil rights legislation.

Of course, as Kennedy suggested when he pointed to “another Joe McCarthy scare,” it was not only the Democrats who worried Johnson. Leading members of the so-called Establishment, in their concern to head off a return to interwar isolationism and to insure public support for the role of the United States as a world power, had pushed forward an ideology that obliged the country to defend freedom around the globe — or, as President Truman put it in his doctrine, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” As a mission, it was unreasonably ambitious; as a domestic political strategy, its weaknesses were soon apparent. For while the Truman Doctrine offered a rationale for America’s permanent global role, it also tended to make American leaders responsible for failures that they could do little to prevent. The prime exampple — the “loss of China” and the damage it did to the Democratic Party — was vividly present during the Vietnam years in the mind of every Democratic politician.

Johnson’s determination to have it both ways — to fight the war abroad and maintain a liberal agenda at home — helps account for some of the more politically damaging decisions he made: for example, choosing to announce the critical step of sending an additional 50,000 troops to Vietnam at the end of a routine press conference on July 28, 1966, and avoiding calling up the National Guard or even asking Congress to appropriate additional funds. Taking the latter steps, of course, would have required Johnson to speak forthrightly about the extent of the American commitment and to devote his efforts to convincing Americans of its importance. But it was precisely this that he was unwilling to do. According to Bird, both Bundys were surprised by the President’s reluctance to acknowledge a step that had been so painfully taken. Writing of a decision three months before to send in 20,000 marines, Bird says McGeorge Bundy knew the “introduction of ground combat troops constituted a new policy. Politically, he thought this should be publicly acknowledged and explained. But if his President had decided to send in the troops without any fanfare, he felt he had no choice but to go along. When asked, Bundy would now tell the press that the additional marines meant no change in ‘existing policy.’ ” His brother, asked some years later whether he thought Johnson had been honest about the troop commitment, responded that the decision “was certainly in my judgment at least as honest as many things that Franklin Roosevelt did in 1941.”

The detached tone of these statements reflects a central difficulty with Bird’s argument: the Bundys, for all their intelligence and glamour, made no real decisions about the war. They could write papers, debate how many tons of bombs would be enough to deliver “the message” to Hanoi and do so in chillingly impersonal and technocratic terms. (Bird’s account of how the Bundys and other Johnson officials responded to the vast bloodletting in Indonesia in 1965 leaves one especially nauseated by the body-count morality of the cold war.) In the end, however, it was the President who made the critical decisions.

When Bird argues, as he did in a recent television interview, that “Vietnam was born of a failure of liberal courage” — and that “liberals thought they simply could not stand up and say to the American people: Look, ‘Vietnam is just not worth it,’ since they could not afford to look weak on Communism” — he is right but somewhat irrelevant, at least when it comes to the men he writes about. They served “their” President. For them public dissent was not an option; institutional loyalty – duty – remained all-important. Even the most persistent in-house dissenter, Deputy Secretary of State George Ball, never spoke out publicly against the war. As for Bundy, he would later write in an unfinished manuscript on Vietnam: “Since on balance I am in favor of trying harder, not heading for the exit, I am ready to help the President do it his way; he’s the boss. I am for more explanation, and more Congressional participation. . . . The President knows all that and prefers his course. I help him. That’s an indispensable part of what the White House staff is for.” The explanation is typically blithe and self-confident, and the tone, in its determined reasonableness about a seemingly endless and intractable war, perfectly maddening to someone like, say, the younger Bird, sitting impatiently, mesmerized yet appalled, in that amphitheater in Minnesota. But to read how the elegant and intensely controlled Bill Bundy, buried under the frustrations and complexities of Vietnam, begins to scream at his aides — “He threw papers at an associate of mine, someone I knew. He threw papers the full length of the room; . . . he just screamed” — is to understand how high a cost this self-imposition of duty can exact.

His brother left for the Ford Foundation in early 1966. As its president, McGeorge Bundy virtually created public television, funded Wolfson College at Oxford and headed an ambitious, presumptuous and ultimately unsuccessful fight to remake the New York City school system. After leaving Ford, Bundy wrote an extraordinary book, “Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years” (1988), about a subject that had fascinated him for four decades. He also helped create the so-called Gang of Four, a group of distinguished former officials, which also included Robert McNamara, George F. Kennan and Herbert Scoville, who spoke out on American nuclear policies. Their first and most important effort was an article in Foreign Affairs in 1983 calling for an end to the United States’ policy of first use of nuclear weapons to stop a Soviet invasion of Europe. Coming from Bundy and his colleagues, the argument carried real weight, and though it did not instantly change policy, it did much to set off a true debate, one that led to a loosening of discussion about nuclear weapons and probably helped produce, a decade later, the important Salt 2 treaty.

McGeorge Bundy died on Sept. 16, 1996, concluding one act, at least, of what Bird calls “a peculiarly American tragedy.” It is unclear, though, where that tragedy lay. In the fact that the Bundy brothers “did not even consider the possibility of speaking out publicly”? What is striking when one considers the shaping of American foreign policy during the late 1940’s and during the mid-60’s is not how differently but how similarly the men of the so-called Establishment behaved. In both cases, America’s leaders sought to make their arguments “clearer than truth.” During the 40’s, the rhetorical strategy — embodied in President Truman’s pledge “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” — had been effective in convincing Americans of the necessity of taking on a worldwide burden. Twenty years later, deployed before a different country and in a more ambiguous and murky cause, the language broke down and the persuasion failed. That McGeorge Bundy, a man who never lacked for things to say, could do nothing about this does not rise to the level of tragedy. He did indeed, for his part, “screw up Vietnam,” as he admitted to an importunate journalist, but he wasn’t “going to spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about it.” It was an arrogant thing to say; but it was classic Bundy.


Books Referenced:

McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms
By Kai Bird
Illustrated. 496 Pages (hardcover)
New York: Simon & Schuster, $27.50.