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JeffreyKeeten

JeffreyKeeten

Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam - Gordon M. Goldstein Interview with Joe Biden in the Rolling Stone.

Considering how busy you are, do you have time to read books? If so, which ones would you recommend?

I make the time because it's important. Let's see. There is a good book titled The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard, about Teddy Roosevelt's exploration of the Amazon in Brazil. I knew nothing about this. My goodness, let's see. There's Mr. Putin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. Insightful. He's an interesting man. Anyone who's traveled with me to Afghanistan knows why I love this book: War, by Sebastian Junger. And that reminds me of another book, Lessons in Disaster, by Gordon Goldstein. There's a great line in there where LBJ turns to [National Security Adviser] McGeorge Bundy and says, "How can we win this war in Vietnam?" And Bundy says something like, "Sir, we don't know how to win the war, but we know how not to lose it."

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Vice President Joe Biden

I have to say first and foremost isn’t it nice to have people back in the White House that READ? I can’t tell you how tired I became of the previous administration almost bragging about the fact that they didn’t read. It is hard enough to get kids to give reading a chance without the President of the United States implying that reading is not necessary to be successful. Not all of us are born with a silver spoon. My life without reading...well...I shudder to think where I would be today.

Anyway I just finished The River of Doubt My The River of Doubt Review last week and now Lessons in Disaster this week. It is kind of interesting for me to see what books are influencing our Vice President. I might even dip a toe into the Mr. Putin book.

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President John F. Kennedy and McGeorge Bundy

McGeorge Bundy was a member of the Kennedy team that David Halberstam so famously called The Best and the Brightest in the book of the same title. It also defined Bundy for a generation as the very personification of the hubris and arrogance of America’s tragic encounter in Vietnam.” I don’t disagree with the arrogance and the hubris, Bundy was an overachiever, a successful academician and an advisor to two presidents who were as different as two people can possibly be. Their view of Vietnam were shaped by different characteristics. ”Kennedy didn’t want to be dumb. Johnson didn’t want to be a coward.”

I’ll take the guy who doesn’t want to be dumb every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Gordon Goldstein was working with Bundy to put together his grand opus of Vietnam, unfortunately the book was never completed because Bundy died from a massive heart attack before the work advanced very far. This book is the result of the research the author did in preparation for the Bundy book mixed with some views of events that Bundy shared with him during several meetings. The fingerprints of an academic who fears being challenged on his conclusions is evident throughout the text. It is heavy on carefully worded facts, but there is gold in them thar mounds of information.

One of the most heavily debated points for me with my more astute political friends is whether Kennedy would have escalated and “Americanized” (I really loathe that word.) Vietnam. Bundy says: ”Had Kennedy lived, there would have been no Vietnam War as we know it; and with Johnson in the White House, it was(in combination with Hanoi’s total intransigence) destined to unfold like the tragedy it became.” Bundy supports this further with a conversation that he had with Kennedy where he pushed the resolve of the president. ”Within five years we’ll have three hundred thousand men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again. That was the French experience...To my surprise, the President seemed quite unwilling to discuss the matter, responding with an overtone of asperity: ‘George you’re crazier than hell. That just isn’t going to happen.’”

We can’t know for sure as the events unfolded in Vietnam what Kennedy would have done about the situation. He did not subscribe to the Domino Theory that was circulating among his more Hawkish advisors. They tried to scare him with the theory that Vietnam was the first domino and when it fell so would all the other Asian countries one by one to communism. Kennedy listened to advice, but we have a few incidents that happened in his short presidency that may give us an idea that at least whatever he decided it would be his decision.

The Bay of Pigs concept was inherited from his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower. The CIA was determined to pull off this coup attempt to oust Fidel Castro. They weren’t getting the answers they wanted from Kennedy. They decided that with the prospect of taking a battering in the press that the President would come into line with the plan and provide the air support they knew they needed to even have a chance of success. Kennedy explicitly said that he would not provide U.S. air support. When the frantic calls came that air support was needed Kennedy held firm. Bay of Pigs was a debacle, but it was a CIA debacle. They assured the President that the population would join up with the invading force and take back their country. We know how it turned out.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis, without a doubt, was Kennedy’s finest hour. Bundy’s advice was that we bomb the Nuclear Missile site which would have, of course, launched World War Three. The Russians installed the missiles as a deterrent to future invasions of Cuba. Kennedy decided to bluff, an audacious decision, by installing a blockade referred to as a quarantine. Thus began 13 days of HELL. My father remembers that time vividly and said in the whole time he has been alive this was the moment when he thought the world was going to end. Nikita Khrushchev, thinking this young untested leader would fold, was surprised that beneath that handsome face was an unexpected resolve.

Khrushchev blinked.

To allow Khrushchev to save face, Kennedy did make a secret deal to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey if Khrushchev removed the missiles from Cuba.

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Put ‘er there you old so and so. Notice Khrushchev can’t even bear to look at all that hair.

The world became a slightly safer place.

Given the way Kennedy handled those two critical incidences one thing we can be sure of he wouldn’t be pushed into anything he didn’t want to do.

Lyndon Johnson on the other hand was more worried about being seen as weak than he was about even being able to win a war. Bundy issued what is referred to as the “Fork in the Road” memo in 1964 which was designed to lay out American strategic options. Johnson’s response: “I don’t know what to do. If I take them out, there’s going to be more killin’. Anything I do, there’s going to more killin’. And he never put a ‘g’ on the ‘killin’’, it was Texas ‘killin’’. Then he got up and walked out of the room, leaving us in a somewhat shattered state.” Johnson elected to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam leaving a generation disillusioned with political leaders and veterans unsure why they sacrificed so much for so little.

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McGeorge Bundy with President Lyndon Johnson

I came away from reading this book with more respect for Kennedy and more sympathy for Johnson. Johnson believed in his “Great Society” and was willing to make deals even war deals to achieve those ideals. The Vietnam war was a conflict that you would think would keep us out of future struggles that we know going in that we can’t win, keep us from enacting regime changes that never seem to work, and insure that when we do go in to help settle a conflict that we have an exit strategy. Maybe the Iraq war could have been avoided if only a President had read a little history.

”We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient,” Kennedy declared, “that we are only six percent of the world’s population, that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent, that we cannot fight every wrong or reverse each adversity, and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”

If you would like to read more of the Joe Biden interview in Rolling Stone. Here is a link: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/joe-biden-the-rolling-stone-interview-20130509