Monday, December 15, 2008

Book Review: "Lessons in Disaster"

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Gordon M. Goldstein (Times Books, 2008) is the ultimate result of what was to be a collaborative retrospective analysis of the Vietnam era begun in 1995-96, prior to Bundy's death. That book was never published, but Goldstein drew on the project to create Lessons in Disaster, which he describes as "an original work that is informed by my experience with Bundy but which draws conclusions that are my own" (p. 23). His goal with this book, Goldstein writes, was to "distill what I believe are the pivotal lessons of Bundy's performance as national security adviser with respect to the vital question of American strategy in Vietnam" (p. 23-24).

The attempt succeeds admirably. This, like Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and McNamara's In Retrospect, is a remarkably disturbing and candid look at the decision-making processes that led the United States into the Vietnam conflict and kept us there. Goldstein takes us through Bundy's actions and decisions during the critical years of the early Sixties when he served as national security adviser to JFK and then LBJ, but he also manages to carry Bundy's thoughts forward until the years near the end of his life when he began to reexamine those decisions and the impact they had, with the benefit of hindsight. Goldstein concludes "With respect to the question of Vietnam, undoubtedly his most consequential encounter with history, Bundy in retrospect had embraced a quality he had lacked when in high office three decades earlier. He had finally learned humility" (p. 227).

Goldstein's examination of Bundy's relationships with Kennedy and Johnson, plus the other advisers in both administrations (particularly during the difficult transition following Kennedy's assassination), was detailed and captivating. And the lessons he has drawn from Bundy's experiences are important ones both for their historical interest and as cautionary tales for the present and future. As I read this, I couldn't help but wonder which officials from the current administration will be writing or inspiring books like this in the coming decades. Some things never change.