Lessons in Disaster

Why is the Obama administration reading up on its Vietnam history?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

There’s an unofficial book club in the White House these days, George Stephanopoulos reported late last month, and the manuscript in question could not be more pertinent. As the Obama administration rethinks its strategy in Afghanistan, officials are turning to Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster — an account of analogous moments of decision in the Vietnam War. And though most historical comparisons are approximations at best, the resemblance between those crucial Vietnam inflection points and today are uncanny: Casualties are rising, public opposition is growing, the host government’s legitimacy and effectiveness is in doubt, and the U.S. commander in the field is calling for more troops to stave off defeat. Surely, if Obama has a Vietnam moment, it will come in Afghanistan. And that’s precisely what Goldstein’s White House readers might be trying to avoid. Below follows an excerpt of one lesson they might learn, which Goldstein calls "Never Deploy Military Means in Pursuit of Indeterminate Ends":

In the spring of 1995, McGeorge Bundy asked me to collaborate with him on a retrospective analysis of the American presidency and the Vietnam War during his tenure as national security advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. We envisioned the book to be both a memoir of Bundy’s experience with Kennedy and Johnson as well as a reconstruction of the pivotal presidential decisions about American strategy in Vietnam between 1961 and 1965. But the project was fatefully interrupted. Bundy died of a heart attack a year and half into our collaboration. A front-page obituary in the New York Times called Bundy "the very personification of what the journalist David Halberstam … labeled ‘The Best and the Brightest’: the well-born, confident intellectuals who led the nation into the quagmire of Vietnam."

Although the McGeorge Bundy who reigned as a legend of the establishment was reputed to be brisk, quick, calculating, and overconfident, the retrospective Bundy of 30 years later — the one with whom I spoke so many times — was in many ways the opposite: patient, reflective, curious, and humble. In fact, on the question of Vietnam Bundy appeared tentative and unsure — maybe on some level even mystified. Although he never said so explicitly, he seemed to be as perplexed by the disaster of Vietnam as any of the historians who studied the decisions in which he had been a central participant.

Three decades after his own role in the war ended — he left the White House in 1966 to head the Ford Foundation — he was still asking himself questions about its lessons. "What can we say is the most surprising?" Bundy wondered in a fragment he composed on February 3, 1996, as he and his wife Mary returned from a holiday in the Caribbean. His answer: "The endurance of the enemy." It was a dynamic of the war that fascinated him. Bundy marveled at the leadership of the insurgency, its political strength inside South Vietnam, the stamina of the armed forces of the Vietnamese communists, and the social cohesion that bound these variables together into an equation that allowed a small power, among the poorest countries in the world, to triumph over the United States.

When I began working with him on our book project, Bundy was still struggling to understand how the Johnson administration had committed itself to a strategy that would devolve into a contest of endurance Americans were destined to lose. Beginning in 1965 the United States deployed considerable and escalating numbers of ground combat forces in a protracted effort to grind down the enemy — depleting its numbers, breaking its will, and compelling its surrender or negotiated settlement on terms favorable to the United States. That strategy was, of course, a great failure. And Bundy later asked himself, "Do we discuss whether we are in fact well-equipped to conduct a war of attrition? I don’t think that question is ever presented to Lyndon Johnson in the whole of the year in which that strategy is adopted."


It was June 14, 1965, and Johnson reached out to former President Eisenhower for his counsel on the Vietnam War. A decision was looming over whether to expand the U.S. troop commitment to the conflict. Eisenhower advised not only supporting South Vietnamese forces in action but also urged direct offensive action by American troops. "We have got to win," he said.

Meanwhile, the debate among Johnson’s advisors was growing. "In raising our commitment from 50,000 to 100,000 or more men and deploying most of the increment in combat roles we are beginning a new war — the United States directly against the Viet Cong," Under Secretary of State George Ball warned President Johnson. "Perhaps the large-scale introduction of American forces with their concentrated fire power will force Hanoi and the Viet Cong to the decision we are seeking. On the other hand," he presciently cautioned, "we may not be able to fight the war successfully enough — even with 500,000 Americans in South Vietnam — to achieve this purpose." Ball confronted President Johnson with lessons from recent history. "The French fought a war in Viet-Nam, and were finally defeated — after seven years of bloody struggle and when they still had 250,000 combat-hardened veterans in the field, supported by an army of 205,000 Vietnamese."

Ball’s dissent was aggressively countered by the administration’s hawks. Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara strenuously argued that if South Vietnam fell, Thailand would be lost, too. Rusk envisioned a wave of falling dominoes — even India would collapse under the control of the Chinese communists.

The top U.S. commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, delivered a bleak report from the front. "The struggle has become a war of attrition," he declared on June 24. "Short of decision to introduce nuclear weapons against sources and channels of enemy power, I see no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war. … I am becoming more convinced every day that U.S. forces in appropriate numbers must be deployed to permit the Vietnamese with our help to carry the war to the enemy." The next day, guerrilla fighters launched one of their most spectacular terrorist acts yet, exploding a bomb in the My Canh floating restaurant and killing 44.

Against this backdrop of gathering anxiety, McNamara circulated a draft memorandum that would set the terms of debate over further escalation. He formally joined the Joint Chiefs in urging the president to approve General Westmoreland’s proposed expansion to a 44-battalion force in South Vietnam — 34 U.S. maneuver battalions and 10 third-country maneuver battalions totaling approximately 175,000 men. A major escalation of U.S. forces, he argued, would force the insurgents "to accept a situation in the war in the South which offers them no prospect of an early victory and no grounds for hope they can simply outlast the US."

Gen. Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked General Westmoreland directly if the escalation would be sufficient to break the insurgency. The "direct answer to your basic question is ‘no,’ " he replied, admitting that the 44 battalions would not "provide reasonable assurance of attaining the objective." Thus on the eve of the largest and most fateful expansion of the U.S. ground force commitment to Vietnam, the architect of that troop surge told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it simply would not be sufficient to achieve the stated American goal of persuading the insurgency that its victory was impossible.

The stage was set for what should have been the seminal debate of the Vietnam War. Ball seized on the inherent uncertainty surrounding the 44-battalion deployment and its implicit strategic assumptions. McNamara had thrown his support behind an enormous expansion of the American commitment. And General Westmoreland, the principal advocate of the 44-battalion strategy, clearly conceded that the new American combat commitment could not assure the achievement of its stated objective.

Where was Bundy positioned at this juncture? Frustrated by a deteriorating relationship with President Johnson, he was on the precipice of resigning as national security advisor. Ironically, the national security adviser’s differences with Johnson had little to do with the substance of Vietnam policy.

For Bundy, icon of the establishment and the administration’s fiercest debater, silence in response to criticism of the White House policy in Vietnam and Southeast Asia was untenable. The critics of the war, Bundy recalled, "were feeling deliberately cut off from and rejected by an administration with whom they were trying to communicate in good faith." So although he knew that Johnson would be infuriated, Bundy agreed to appear on a one-hour primetime television debate to be broadcast without commercial interruption by CBS News on the evening of June 21. "I informed him after the decision had been made and told him I just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do it," Bundy explained in a 1969 oral history.

What Bundy never said but should have retrospectively acknowledged was that his decision to go around Johnson’s back to appear on the CBS Vietnam debate was tantamount to submitting his letter of resignation. When he read in the press that Bundy had agreed to the CBS debate, Johnson was enraged. LBJ told his aide, Bill Moyers, that he should inform Bundy that the president would be "pleased — mighty pleased," to accept his resignation. Moyers did not act on the president’s instruction.

Johnson’s resistance to explaining and defending the administration’s policy exasperated Bundy. If the new offensive were not "more quickly decisive than we had any clear reason to expect," Bundy said, there would be disturbing consequences when the public "looked back and asked themselves if they had been led openly into this war or somehow bamboozled into it." Bundy acknowledged that every president, including giants like Lincoln and Roosevelt, sought to communicate in a way that achieved the greatest political impact. Yet Johnson aspired for more. The president had "this really quite funny internal belief " that he could reshape facts to serve his interests. Johnson believed that "if he could get it stated his way in the papers it would be that way."

Although the national security advisor had reached the breaking point in his relationship with President Johnson, neither man could afford a public dustup, particularly as a major escalation decision loomed. Just six days after appearing on CBS, Bundy was back advising the president. "The commitment" to Saigon, Bundy explained on June 27, "is primarily political and any decision to enlarge or reduce it will be political. My own further view is that if and when we wish to shift our course and cut our losses in Vietnam we should do so because of a finding that the Vietnamese themselves are not meeting their obligations to themselves or to us."

Bundy’s support for the war was balanced with nuanced skepticism. On the one hand, he dismissed critics who believed the United States was now emulating the disastrous course France followed in Vietnam. Still, on June 30, Bundy confided his concerns about the Westmoreland plan to Secretary of Defense McNamara. Bundy challenged the assumption that conventional combat forces would be effective in containing the insurgency. "I see no reason to suppose that the Viet Cong will accommodate us by fighting the kind of war we desire." Moving to "a 200 thousand-man level" of support, Bundy warned, was "a slippery slope toward total US responsibility and corresponding fecklessness on the Vietnamese side."

The impact of Bundy’s critique, however, was largely vitiated by the fact that it was directed toward McNamara rather than the president or the broader team of advisors responsible for strategy in Vietnam.

So as the two stark choices confronting Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam crystallized — the 44-battalion plan advocated by Westmoreland and McNamara or the withdrawal option espoused by Ball — a third course was proposed. It was the so-called middle way envisioned by Bill Bundy, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and McGeorge’s brother, who proposed a force level of 18 battalions and 85,000 men. "In essence," he explained, "this is a program to hold on for the next two months, and to test the military effectiveness of US combat forces and the reaction of the Vietnamese Army and people to the increasing US role."

Anticipating Johnson’s response to the three options, McGeorge Bundy wrote to the president, advising him to choose between the two levels of escalation, rejecting Ball’s suggested pullout. Bundy had a reputation for skillfully aborting dissent when he deemed it necessary, and he was a practiced expert at maneuvering for advantage among competing bureaucracies. Bundy had, for example, previously undermined the secretary of state. "He is not a manager," Bundy advised the president about Rusk in early 1965. "He has never been a good judge of men. His instincts are cautious and negative. … the Secretary has little sense of effective operation."

Johnson, meanwhile, continued to reach out to key constituencies, probing where the balance of opinion could be found. Just minutes before meeting with his senior Vietnam advisors on July 2, the president consulted Eisenhower. "Do you really think we can beat the Vietcong?" Johnson asked. Eisenhower advised Johnson to proceed with a troop buildup as soon as possible. "We are not going to be run out of a free country we helped to establish," Eisenhower declared.

By July 14, with a decision yet to be made, McNamara departed for South Vietnam. His mission, Bundy retrospectively concluded, was to negotiate a deal with the U.S. military commander in Saigon on the minimum size of the forthcoming escalation. Johnson’s overarching priority was to achieve agreement, absent a fractious debate, on a course of action that would sustain South Vietnam from collapse but not disrupt his legislative agenda in Congress.

Political stagecraft — creating the appearance of deliberation when a decision had already been made — was the presumptive purpose of a White House meeting Johnson convened on the morning of July 21. Addressing the administration’s war council, McNamara concluded that the United States had only three strategic options, two of which would leave the United States in a deplorable geopolitical position. President Johnson could choose to "cut our losses and withdraw under the best conditions that can be arranged — almost certainly conditions humiliating the United States and very damaging to our future effectiveness on the world scene." Alternatively, Johnson could hold steady at roughly the current level of 75,000 troops, but that would leave the United States terminally weakened and "almost certainly would confront us later with a choice between withdrawal and an emergency expansion of forces, perhaps too late to do any good." The only viable choice, McNamara argued, was a substantial expansion of offensive U.S. military pressure against the Vietcong and Hanoi — supplemented by vigorous diplomacy. Such an approach, he predicted, "would stave off defeat in the short run and offer a good chance of producing a favorable settlement in the longer run," although it would also render "any later decision to withdraw even more difficult and even more costly than would be the case today."

McNamara was vague, however, in delineating the causal logic of his proposed strategy, positing the escalation not as the military means to a military objective but simply as an end in itself. Preliminary discussion among the president’s advisors seemed to anticipate that McNamara’s recommendation would be accepted.

President Johnson, eager to project a ruminative state of mind, arrived after 40 minutes of discussion and unleashed a wave of questions ranging from the existential to the logistical. Then he asked, "Is anyone of the opinion we should not do what the memo says?"

This was Ball’s cue to register his dissent. "I can foresee a perilous voyage," he said, "very dangerous — great apprehensions that we can win under these circumstances. But let me be clear, if the decision is to go ahead, I’m committed."

Rusk regretted the failure to act earlier. "We should have probably committed ourselves heavier in 1961," he said.

Henry Cabot Lodge, who would return as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam at the end of the summer, bemoaned the dysfunctional nature of the regime. "There is no tradition of a national government in Saigon," he said. "I don’t think we ought to take this government seriously."

When discussion resumed that afternoon, Ball was given the floor to present his challenge to the Pentagon escalation plan. "We can’t win," he contended. "The most we can hope for is a messy conclusion." Continuing to prop up the Saigon regime, he also warned, was tantamount to "giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case." Ball proposed that the United States devise a political strategy to stimulate a withdrawal of its military forces from South Vietnam. "The worst blow," Ball replied, "would be that the mightiest power in the world is unable to defeat guerrillas."

Bundy refused to engage Ball’s counterargument, once more invoking the credibility imperative. "The world, the country, and the Vietnamese would have alarming reactions if we got out," he said. Achieving victory was apparently less important than the perception of pursuing it. "There will be time to decide our policy won’t work after we have given it a good try," Bundy insisted.

"We won’t get out," Ball retorted. "We’ll double our bet and get lost in the rice paddies." Reviewing Ball’s prediction three decades later, Bundy conceded: "He’s right."

What struck Bundy most in looking back on the discussion of July 21, 1965, he told me, was a quality of unreality to the deliberations, because Johnson had already communicated his approval of Westmoreland’s 44-battalion strategy to McNamara on July 17. The essential decision had already been sealed. Johnson "wants to be seen having careful discussions," said Bundy.

One of the consistent themes of Bundy’s Vietnam counsel as national security advisor was his support for deploying military means in pursuit of indeterminate and primarily political ends. Bundy wanted a military commitment that evinced U.S. credibility even if it did not hold real promise of winning the war.

The adoption of attrition as the de facto U.S. military strategy was determined, in part, by the absence of other viable options. And by that metric, U.S. forces did in fact succeed in imposing severe losses on the insurgency. The United States presumed that a crossover point would be reached, when the accumulated pain of war would compel the insurgents to relent. But in practice this coercion strategy simply created an endurance contest. In that competition it was not the will of the Vietnamese communists that was broken. For each year of combat from 1965 to 1973, Bundy observed, the United States inflicted far greater casualties on the enemy than it absorbed. Yet despite this dramatic disparity, it was the United States that withdrew its forces "home without victory." As Bundy starkly confessed, "We had followed a losing strategy — one that led us not to success but to the acceptance of failure. Attrition is a brutal measuring stick," he affirmed. "Its use is not advertised and its authorship not eagerly claimed."

How far would Bundy have gone in holding himself accountable for the lack of rigor that characterized the evaluation of military strategy? Bundy was often bluntly critical of himself, and he was equally critical of Johnson for authorizing a muddled military mission. He proclaimed his "deep conviction" that in the pursuit of a flawed strategy in Vietnam, "the decisive errors were those made or approved by the president as commander-in-chief."

When in 1995 he finally decided to address the unresolved questions of the Vietnam War, Bundy registered a starkly different point of view from his years in power. He called Vietnam "a war we should not have fought" and conceded that "on the overall issue — are you for the war or against it, in 1965 and after, the doves were right." Bundy would therefore try to explain "the ways in which the executive branch continuously got that great choice wrong — not because it wanted the long, hard war it got, but because it would repeatedly reject the hard alternative of ‘losing to the Reds.’" Bundy in retrospect had embraced a quality he had lacked when in high office three decades earlier. He had finally learned humility.

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