Book Review: Lessons in disaster – Gordon M. Goldstein

A very unusual and interesting book about the Vietnam tragedy by Gordon Goldstein wherein he examines the role of McGorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser to President Kennedy and President Johnson. The unusually brilliant Bundy was a quintessential Eastern establishment Republican, from a family of influential Bostonians who traced their roots to the city back to 1639. He became Dean of faculty at Harvard at an unusually young age of 34 and was roped in by President Kennedy as his special assistant for national security affairs (A post which was later was renamed as NSA) despite being a Republican.

Bundy along with McNamara emerged as the prime supporters of the war and its Americanization. On leaving the White House Bundy seldom spoke of the war, but it’s failure haunted him. He started revisiting the war; reading copiously, writing and scribbling notes on everything he could lay his hands on, which was in any way connected with the war, with a view to understand what and how he went wrong. He collaborated with Goldstein to bring out his perspective and lessons of the war, but he died before the work could be completed. Later Mrs. Mary Bundy however withdrew her consent regarding the publication of the work. Goldstein however went ahead and wrote this book with no involvement from the Bundy family. As he says about his book, “In no way is this book by McGeorge Bundy but it is a book about him”.

While the story of American involvement in Vietnam is well known, what makes this book a fascinating read is how Bundy who was such a brilliant man, could advice two presidents so badly. It is a classic tale of intellectual arrogance triumphing over reason and unable to see and accept the obvious. One major takeaway for me from the book is that men in seats of authority and power should be wary of advisers who have a reputation of brilliance but are seeped in intellectual arrogance. It reminded me of the essay written by Richard Holbrooke which was published in the Harper Magazine (if I remember correctly) titled, “The Smartest Man in the Room Is Not always Right”.

One very interesting thing about the book is the way the Chapters are organised and their headings. Each carries a lesson learnt from the war. These lessons are universal and I believe to all time and situations. Some examples;

1. Never trust the Bureaucracy to get it right. (It narrates the snafu done by the establishment by organizing the Bay of Pigs invasion)
2. Politics is the enemy of strategy.
3. Conviction without rigour is a strategy for disaster.
4. Never Deploy Military means in pursuit of Indeterminate ends.
5. Intervention is a Presidential Choice, not an inevitability.

In the days when I hear talk of some contemplation about Indian troops being deployed in Afghanistan, I sincerely hope and pray that the intellectuals and the policymakers of the Indian establishment read this book.

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