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Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (Lesson 7)

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Story of Natl Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, advisor to both JFK and LBJ



- 3; “Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb. Johnson didn’t want to be a coward.” – Bundy

- 13; Bundy was dean of Harvard faculty at age 34 – w/o typical academic credentials



Lesson One – Counselors advise but Presidents decide

- 28; state of play in WH determined largely by personality;

- 29; Bundy viewed Vietnam decisions as presidential; can’t understand the policies w/o understanding the presidents;

- 31; dominant effect of containment philosophy: “To understand the American war in Vietnam we must understand the prevalence of strong political sentiment that it was right to oppose the world-wide expansionist effort of the Soviet Communists and their allies.”- Bundy

- 40; effect of BoP invasion on JFK; he would never again be “overawed by professional military advice.”

--41; JFK: “What is prestige? Is it the shadow of power or the substance of power?”

- 46; power/dominance of the domino theory metaphor; but Kennedy resisted

- 54; dialogue between Kennedy and his advisors throughout ’61; almost all pushed for stronger military commitment; he resisted it

- 59; Gen Maxwell Taylor sought convenient pretext for troop deployment, such as HUMRO after flood

- 63; Bundy added his voice to the chorus pushing for stronger military involvement at end of ’61;

- 65; JFK told advisors he could “make a rather strong case against intervening in an area 10,000 miles away against 16,000 guerrillas with a native army of 200,000, where millions have been spent for years with no success.”

- 68; JFK’s firmness of stance convinced Bundy in hindsight that Vietnam disaster could have been avoided (w/ JFK in office).



Lesson Two – Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get it Right

- 78; weekend cable sent to Vietnam in Aug 24 ’63 to prepare way for coup against Diem

- 83-4; JFK had written plans to have all US troops out by ‘65

- 88; coup against Diem bothered Kennedy when Diem was murdered;

- 95; questionable historical premise that US support to follow-on regimes motivated by guilt

- 96; Bundy did not manage the foreign policy bureaucracy to good effect;



Lesson Three – Politics is the Enemy of Strategy

- 97; LBJ fundamentally a politician; first year in office dominated by election of ’64;

- 98; LBJ saw Vietnam in 1964 “not as a strategic challenge but as a political threat.”

- 99; LBJ attributes as political actor: cunning, opportunism, ambition, and perpetual search for tactical advantage;

- 108; Jan ’64, JCS started lobbying for military airstrikes – beginning of Americanization;

- 109; columnist Walter Lippman observed, “In Southeast Asia we have bolted the doors and do not have that indispensable part of any strategy, a fall-back position.” Decried the “fundamental absence of realist analysis…”

-- 111; critique of US policy joined by Charles De Gaulle; best course was to leave

- 128; LBJ pushed for Gulf of Tonkin resolution – a political option card – with weak cause; gave him enough to work on through election;

- 130; UnderSecState George Ball continued to express pessimism re Vietnam strategy; questioned assumptions, but continually marginalized;

- 132; “Politics became the enemy of strategy in 1964.”

- 138; Korea became the dominant analogy [as discussed in Analogies at War]; not questioned for its differences

- 139; Bundy: “For LBJ the domino theory was really a matter of domestic politics.”

- 140-1; wargames SIGMA I & II run and concluded that coercive airstrikes would be ineffective;

-- 143; Bundy disregarded results and recommended airstrikes to LBJ



Lesson Four – Conviction without Rigor is a Strategy for Disaster

- 149; to Bundy, the true architects of the war were JFK and LBJ. “Everyone else was merely a supporting player.”

- 152; early in ’65, Taylor was aware of the numbers required to defeat an insurgency; Westmoreland still petitioned for more troops – used attrition instead of COIN

- 156; Feb ’65, Bundy visited Vietnam, attack on US troops in Pleiku while there; pushed for response; Operation Flaming Dart was navy strike from carrier Ranger;

-- 156; influence of Schelling on Bundy; thought coercive airstrikes could be effective signals

- 163; chain of decisions; if airstrikes, then more troops needed to guard the bases, and more troops needed to secure them, etc.

- 164; March 8, 1965, 3500 Marines landed in Vietnam to guard Da Nang air base – Americanization had begun; sent troops, but didn’t question the logic of how they would be used and for what purpose;

- 167; “Even a failed intervention in Vietnam, Bundy asserted, would be better than no intervention at all.” Key driver: “principle of protecting [US] global credibility”

- 169; LBJ agreed to change Marines’ mission from guarding Da Nang to doing COIN; LBJ: “not a change of purpose; a change in what the purpose requires.”

- 175; by May of ’65, futility of “graduated and sustained reprisal” via airstrikes was demonstrated.

- 180; throughout ’65, Bundy “marched ahead with the expectation that an undefined degree of coercive military pressure would extract an undefined form of political capitulation over an undefined period of conflict.”

- 181; bombing was actually having opposite effect on N Vietnamese

- 183; Bundy convinced it was better to fight and lose than not fight at all.



Lesson Five – Never Deploy Military means in pursuit of indeterminate ends

- 186; most surprising thing to Bundy: “the endurance of the enemy.”

- 192; Ball asserted (wisely but unconvincingly) that burden of proof should be on those who advocated to escalate, not the other way around!

- 195-6; Morgenthau v Bundy debate; realist vs. interventionist; Bundy participated against LBJ counsel – broke their relationship

- 199; to LBJ, good press was good reality;

- 208; Jul ’65, LBJ made up mind to support Westmoreland troop request; still engaged in “political stagecraft” to give appearance of deliberation;

- 216; after decision, Bundy posed “red team” questions (all valid); McNamara said they had answers for those…

- 220; “One of the consistent themes of Bundy’s Vietnam counsel as NSA was his support for military action uncorrelated to concrete military outcomes.”

- 221; for Bundy, “the perception of credibility trumped every other aspect of military strategy in Vietnam.”



Lesson Six – Intervention is a Presidential Choice, not an Inevitability

- asks the question – what if JFK had been president? Would Vietnam policy have been different?

- 245; both Bundy and McN believed that Kennedy would have halted US involvement; different dynamics at play: after re-election in ’64, he would have been a second-termer, not facing re-election, w/ strong foreign policy cred after CMC;

- 248; Bundy on JFK: “I think he would not have expanded the war. he would have found a way to negotiate it. He would not have a U.S. ground war.” “So he does not have to prove himself in Vietnam. He can cut the country’s losses then. He can do it by refusing to make it an American war.”

Snake's review doc:

Goldstein

Lessons in Disaster (2008)''

Lesson one: counselors advise but presidents decide

- Bundy a perfect Harvard dean, but pretty off-putting in government

- McNamara and Taylor advised escalation; Kennedy fought their advice in the press with leaks

- “most remarkable about Kennedy’s November 1961 combat troop decision is that despite the overwhelming pressure imposed on him by his senior counselors, the president’s determination never wavered.”

Lesson two: never trust the bureaucracy to get it right

- bureaucracy at the POTUS level is harder to manage than at Harvard

- but the bureaucracy got it right during the Cuban missile crisis

- good to begin with the “presumptive negative” – try to avoid being in a position to decide another country’s government

Lesson three: politics is the enemy of strategy

- elections outweigh all other concerns for a campaigner

- competent statesmen, like competent military strategists, must not lock into a commitment with no fallback position

- Johnson’s election campaigning constrained him from decisive action that might blow up in his face

Lesson four: conviction without rigor is a strategy for disaster

- two viewpoints – once the military is called, they will dominate – or – this is not an inevitable outcome

- bombing as a message, not to bring a decision

- no answer to the overarching strategic question – how will ground troops influence the war?

- goal was to negotiate from strength

- better to lose now or lose after committing 100,000 men? The latter.

- the administration stacked up “straw men” of extrication against the prospects of a ground war against the insurgency

- “the administration’s preeminent intellectual demonstrated a fundamental lack of rigor in his analysis of the ends and means of American strategy”

Lesson five: never deploy military means in pursuit of indeterminate ends

- US won’t win any contest of endurance

- use of military force to take and hold the initiative – not for a military purpose, but to improved the odds of a diplomatic solution

- protracted pressure to coerce risks an indeterminate end

- five key questions about Nam – and no record the administration every even tried to answer them

- “It was not the intrusion of civilian war planners but rather the absence of rigorous oversight that created the conditions for the strategic quagmire” of Nam

Lesson six: intervention is a presidential choice, not an inevitability

- presidents understand employment of force is for them and them alone to decide

- compelling reasons to Americanize Nam: ideological worldview, dominoes metaphor, the US-sponsored coup, commitment to a specific COIN technique, credibility of containment, threat of right-wing political attacks, and opposition of senior advisors committed to involvement

- Bundy sez don’t get lost in the maze of staffers’ memos – focus on the president. The “all” academic advisor group was probably not the best approach. This created a tension between theory-application, and utopian and reality. The President had to act…



- The best of the best, and the smartest of them all did these decisions or where the advisors to the decision makers….Therefore this will be the same today too. We will do just as many bad and good decisions over again!!


Their fear of domino theory, loss of prestige and status was objective but not a strategy….Did they break Clausewitz dictum "No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so-without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."

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