I read this book because I heard that it had been widely read in the Obama White House as background for decisions on the Afghan war. Although the lessons of Vietnam are unquestionably relevant, I found nothing in this book that added non-trivially to what is already known. Nor was there a whiff of a fresh perspective. Nor was it a clearer, more concise distillation of those lessons--to the contrary, this book felt bloated with irrelevant trivia.
This book fails as both a history of the US escalation in the Vietnam war and as a history of Bundy's role in those events. It fails in the latter because it is an incredibly shallow account. It fails at the former because its focus on Bundy causes a lot to be left out. The author collaborated with Bundy on an unfinished account of this period and the reader would expect that to have produced innumerable insight. Wrong. The vast majority of this book is what one would expect of a mediocre historian with limited access to Bundy's papers and then having an interview with Bundy lasting an hour or two.
There are reviews such as Richard C. Holbrooke's in the NY Times "Book Review" that find the book interesting for Bundy's "tortured" search for self-understanding ("Bundy emerges as the most interesting figure in the Vietnam tragedy -- less for his unfortunate part in prosecuting the war than for his agonized search 30 years later to understand himself."), but then characterize that search as unsuccessful. I would recommend the Holbrooke review as giving a better sense of Bundy than this book.
There are bizarre gaps and non-sequiturs. For example, the "Weekend Cable" that initiated the effort to remove Diem was send while Bundy and other senior advisers were out-of-town for the weekend. The author treats this as a fait accompli and hence not Bundy's responsibility. But Bundy's assistants played a leading role in its formulation and there was a large gap before the coup happened (three months), allowing plenty of time to reverse it. And there is no attempt at an explanation of why Kennedy decided not to wait to hear from his senior advisers before approving such a major policy change.
The participants in the decision-making process are portrayed as individual actors, resembling professors at a departmental faculty meeting. Large assessment efforts are reported as if they were individual efforts of the person in contact with Bundy (eg, George Ball at State). At no time did I get a sense of them as part of larger organizations. If this lack of awareness of organizational behavior was Bundy's, it should have been highlighted by the author. Whatever the explanation, ignoring the vast knowledge in this area renders this account incompetent.
I was surprised that this book didn't provide a description of Bundy's job, National Security Advisor--or why it came about, or what Presidents Kennedy and Johnson expected of that position. Although the expectations have varied between presidents, a common thread has been to coordinate, challenge and integrate the input from State, Defense, CIA..., thereby reducing the unavoidable institutional bias, blindspots... making the result be greater than the sum of the parts.
The book largely ignores organizational bias ("When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"): For example, the tendency of the military is to re-conceptualize a war into one it has trained to fight instead of doing what is needed to win. In Vietnam, the lack of a meaningful strategy allowed this to occur unchecked. In Iraq, Cheney-Rumsfeld deliberately marginalized the generals who had learned the lessons of Vietnam and supported generals who pursued strategies and doctrines that were un- or counter-productive, but "politically correct".
The writing style is mediocre to poor. The author dispenses lots of minor facts and quotes without trying to establish any coherence. Most of the details are the gossipy little things that establish insider credentials, but don't advance understanding of events. Items that feel very germane are mentioned, but never followed up on. For example, the book mentions that Bundy's assistant Mike Forrestal regarded Bundy's intellect as "two steps below..." but doesn't provide a basis or context. Another example, in an early meeting on Vietnam, President Johnson is reported as making two unsuccessful attempts to get his advisers to think more freely about events by using analogies (pp 123-4). The first attempt was a risque analogy (typical Johnson) that was laughed off. The second was not understood as such by the advisers, nor by the author. This misinterpretation by the author of something that seemed glaringly obvious to me undermined the credibility of his accounts of Johnson behavior.
The book has a moderate dose of JFK worship, about what one should expect for this category. While this produced the usual un-asked and un-answered questions, they are so peripheral to this book that they were of little consequence. The usual worshipful speculation that if JFK had lived, he would not have continued making bad decisions about Vietnam makes for a final chapter that can be skipped.
By page 104, I was ready to give up on the book but plodded on. What had been covered were two points. First, Bundy was considered among the very brightest, but the evidence is only the positions he occupied, not what he had done. Second, President Kennedy had a raft of advisers who persistently gave him bad advice which he challenged and rejected. Little mention of any advisers giving him good advice and no explanation of why he kept advisers that had ill-served him.
The remainder of the book focuses on 1964-65 and the decisions and non-decisions leading to escalation. It enumerates the various assessments that Bundy chose to ignore, but Bundy goes no further than to claim that he thought he knew better. I didn't spot anything that you wouldn't find in any competent political history of these events and this period.
The author's questioning of events come in belated spurts, with no attempt to provide answers. For example, the questions about what happened in the first part of the book don't come until page 136, and the questions for the remainder of the book don't occur until roughly page 214.
The book is laid out purely chronologically. However, the chapters that break up this chronology into segments have as their titles the purported "lessons" of this book, even though there is no corresponding thematic organization. Ignoring this, the lessons are poorly supported by what you will find in the book. Examples:
Lesson 1 is "Counselors Advise but Presidents Decide" and is transparently disingenuous to anyone with experience in organizational behavior. It has often been pointed out that the decision about what are the choices can be more important than the ultimate choice (the book acknowledges the most transparent of these tactics: Providing only non-viable alternatives to the choice you advocate). Decision-makers have to count on their staffs to identify and explore alternatives and options and to provide the pros and cons needed to make the choice. Bad advisers subverting the decision process has been an issue since time immemorial. Sometimes the leader has created an organization culture that leads to bad advice; sometimes he is a captive of the advisers he inherits. For example, in May 2011, Obama passed over his reported choice for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Cartwright, because of opposition from the military establishment and Republican senators. Cartwright's sin was to have responded to Obama's request for options on Afghanistan with true alternatives to the policy advocated by the military establishment.
Lesson 2 is "Never Trust the Bureaucracy to Get It Right" but the evidence is that the (civilian) bureaucracy got it "close enough"--they identified problems, produced reasonable assessments and pushed them upward--but their assessments were suppressed and ignored by the politicians, their appointees and a few (upper-level) members of the bureaucracy who were politically ambitious or excessively accommodating. The same thing happened in the Iraq war as the Cheney-Bush administration not only suppressed intel and professional planning, but inserted their political operatives into the bureaucracy to produce the desired intel and recommendations.
A lesson of Vietnam _should_ have been that bad political leadership can severely warp a bureaucracy. For example, the CIA learned that truth-telling would damage one's career and consequently assessments were fudged, shaded and muted. The accounts of the lead up to the Iraq war indicate that the lessons of Vietnam _were_ understood by the CIA professionals--they pushed back hard against intense brow-beating by top aides to VP Cheney and were defeated only when Cheney-Rumsfeld created an intelligence office staffed by partisans. Similarly for the military, most prominently General Shinseki whose career was effectively ended for speaking truth to power. What was left were generals who were willing to feed the Bush administration's delusions, for example, after reaching Baghdad, Gen. Tommy Franks, rather than working to secure the country, was pursuing a plan for total withdrawal of US troops within 60 days, even though the plan's "peacekeeper" replacements were non-existent (other countries were resoundingly rejecting the US pleas for such troops).
Lesson 5 is "Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends". You would think that this would explore the change in psychology of what can and must be done. You would think it would explore the effects of ambitious military officers and their allies in the press and politics attempting to dictate policy, and give examples. You would think that it would follow up on an earlier quote about the civilian authorities having the most control over the military before deployment and then quickly losing it to events and the military experts. However, you would be very, very wrong: The accounts of the politics after escalation were no different from before.
Absent a meaningful strategy, the military services focused on showing that the type of war they _wanted_ to fight was what would win the war, rather than adapting their operations to what was actually _needed_ to win (Marine Corps was a partial exception). This encouraged inter-service rivalry, not cooperation. This led to misleading measures (body count) and counter-productive operations (search-and-destroy rather than protection of the population). Also, the military leadership warped the organizational culture, becoming focused on careerism ("ticket-punching": rotation through jobs at a pace that typically didn't allow one to become effective before moving on). Note: These assessments of the military mistakes are not mine, but the broad consensus of military officers and military historians.
The author's reliability suffered when he credulously plugged in a quote from his collaboration with Bundy: "No one asks ahead of time what kind of war it will be and what kind of losses must be expected. The military of 1965 was almost trained _not_ to ask such (cowardly?) questions" (pg 182). This is false. To the first part: History is littered with states very explicitly _asking_ these questions and shaping their military and war plans accordingly. To the second: The US military started using Operations Research during WW2 to assess military plans, both damage inflicted and casualties. Robert McNamara became famous for his role in this work (bombing of Japan). During the Korean war, they could often accurately predict how many casualties would result from taking a hill or moving down a mile of road. They used this not only to try to ensure they had adequate forces, but to have adequate capabilities to evacuate and treat the casualties (this became part of an episode of the TV series M*A*S*H). The interesting, and unasked, question is why Bundy believed this, even in retrospect.
The author refers to a second rationale for escalation, but doesn't follow up or even expand upon it enough for most readers to recognize the full argument. The phase repeated several times is "visibly _do_enough_ in the South" with the explanation that this meant blood and treasure (eg pg 221). This argument was the inverse of avoiding being seen as a "paper tiger": It saw Vietnam as an _opportunity_ to demonstrate to the Soviet Union and China that the US had the strength and national will to absorb significant combat casualties, and taking those casualties in an irrelevant war that we knew we could not win made it an even stronger demonstration.
My background: I was a teenager during the 1960s in a conservative rural village. When the older brothers of friends came back from their first tour, I was surprised at what they said. They saw the SVN government as corrupt and incompetent, and said that most of the peasants hated it and supported the VC despite their brutality. Even though they saw the war as unwinnable, some were volunteering to go back immediately for a second tour (I didn't understand this until years later). For my 9th grade geography class, I chose Vietnam as the country to report on. The history I found in the public library contradicted much of what the government was saying and I presumed that we were being lied to. When the Pentagon Papers came out, I discovered the situation was much worse: That our leaders couldn't be bothered to do basic "homework" before asking Americans to die for their country. I was hoping that this book would answer why the official most responsible for putting together this information (Bundy) didn't know what an 9th grader and various Marine riflemen knew.
-- Douglas Moran