Afghanistan Policymakers Look To Vietnam's Lessons

Correction Oct. 6, 2009

In a conversation with host Steve Inskeep, Gordon Goldstein referred to McGeorge Bundy as the former "dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences." Bundy was the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University.

Steve Inskeep talks to author Gordon Goldstein about why the White House and the Pentagon are reading his book about Vietnam, Lessons in Disaster, to inform the policy toward Afghanistan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As they consider their next steps, national security officials try to learn the lessons of Vietnam. At the height of the Iraq war, many in the Pentagon read "Dereliction of Duty", a book about Vietnam-era generals who pushed a lousy strategy. And as they consider Afghanistan, some officials are reading another book: "Lessons In Disaster". Author Gordon Goldstein tells the story of the national security advisor to President Kennedy. In 1961, that advisor, McGeorge Bundy, was a powerful advocate for war.

Where did Bundy's power come from?

Mr. GORDON GOLDSTEIN (Author, "Lessons In Disaster"): Bundy's power came from the fact that he was the star of his generation. He was a young professor at Harvard, and he became dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the tender age of 34. And by the age of 41, Kennedy had turned to him to serve as his national security advisor. One of the observers of him in Harvard said that he played with the Harvard faculty like a cat played with mice, and Bundy was able to do the same thing in the White House. He was able to enlarge the influence of the post of national security advisor and really make that position one of the president's principal counselors on foreign and military affairs. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Bundy was the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.]

INSKEEP: There's something that David Halberstam and his great book "The Best and the Brightest" points out, and then that you give many specific examples of, and that's the power of being the guy who, when there's an internal administration debate, the guy who writes the memo summarizing it all.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, the way the role was conceived is that the national security advisor was supposed to be the honest broker, the guy who would mediate between conflicting recommendations from the secretary of defense or the secretary of state or the intelligence agencies. And if you were the guy who could control the flow of the memoranda, the traffic, and if you were the guy who could frame the arguments and have the last word with the president, you were the guy who could really determine the outcome of a decision, in many instances.

INSKEEP: Could you read for me an example where you unearth a memo where it does seem like he's trying to have the last word? And this is on page 62 of your book here.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Oh, yes, the swimming pool memo.

INSKEEP: Who's writing here to whom, and what is said?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: All right. So setting the stage, this is November of 1961, and the proposal before the president is to send the first increment of ground combat forces into South Vietnam. And he is being advised that this is the down payment on a commitment that could grow up to six divisions or more than 200,000 troops.

And Bundy is trying to influence the outcome of it, and he says to the president, quote, "So many people have offered their opinions on South Vietnam that more may not be helpful, but the other day at the swimming pool, you asked me what I thought, and here it is. We should now agree to send about one division, when needed, for military action inside Vietnam."

What is striking, I think, about this memorandum is how utterly casual it is. You asked me the other day at the swimming pool. This is America's fate in Vietnam being decided sort of almost in a locker room conversation. And Bundy here is trying to add his imprimatur to a consensus that has been building within the administration to send in these troops. Everyone has encircled the president, urging that he take this decision.

Kennedy, however, is deeply skeptical. He doesn't think it's going to work, and he shuts them all down and he says I will not send in these troops. He establishes a no-combat troop policy in November of 1961, and endures for the duration of his presidency, and into Lyndon Johnson's time, until it was reversed in March of 1965.

INSKEEP: We're reading your account of this Vietnam decision making at a point where troops were rejected. And as we read this, of course, we're trying to figure out what's going on in the White House now, as different advisors weigh in with the president. And I'd like to ask you about something that you've heard from McGeorge Bundy when you interviewed him late in life. He repeated told you about the importance of personality in these policy debates. What did he mean?

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: He means that politics and foreign policy is not determined by what he called the paper trail. He said if you're trying to understand how decisions are made, understand where the personalities align around a decision, understand who is going to exercise influence over the president. And if you can understand the power structure, then you'll understand the outcome, because that power structure surrounding the president often is more important than the broader strategic argument that's on the table.

But the key point here, and the lesson that we draw in the book, that I draw in the book based on Bundy's reexamination of the '61 decision is this: Counselors advise, but presidents decide. And I think that's a critically important lesson for this new president, who is now weighing his first pivotal recommendation for escalation in a conflict, which appears to me to be very much like Vietnam.

INSKEEP: Gordon M. Goldstein is author of "Lessons in Disaster." Thanks very much.

Mr. GOLDSTEIN: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

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Books Featured In This Story

Lessons in Disaster
Lessons in Disaster

McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

by Gordon M. Goldstein

Hardcover, 300 pages | purchase

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