If they were so very smart, how could they have got it so wrong?
McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), American foreign policy strategist
- David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest
One of the brightest and most articulate men to ever serve in the United States government, McGeorge Bundy was perhaps the foremost expert on American foreign policy for nearly 50 years. His legacy will forever be tainted, however, by his participation in the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
Bundy was born into a Boston political family on March 30, 1919. His father, among other high offices, served under Henry L. Stimson as as assistant secretary of state, and his mother was the daughter of the famous lawyer A. Lawrence Lowell. A boyhood classmate of John F. Kennedy, Bundy graduated from Yale University in 1940 and began graduate studies at Harvard before his education was interrupted by World War II.
During the war, Bundy served as an intelligence officer, helping to plan the Invasion of Sicily and D-Day. Bundy was quickly recognized as one of the War Department's rising stars, and thus then-War Secretary Stimson personally picked Bundy to ghostwrite his memoirs (On Active Service in Peace and War, 1948), which Bundy agreed to do. It was actually Bundy who, while working on Stimson's memoirs, was the true author of Stimson's famous 1947 Harper's Magazine article on why America dropped the atomic bombs on Japan - "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb" - still to this day the definitive elucidation of the mainline American point of view. In a brilliantly nuanced and smoothly articulate, yet seemingly circumspect, argument, Bundy artfully dodged all the most prickly issues surrounding America's use of the bomb, while making the decision seem thoughtful, measured, and deeply felt.
After completing Stimson's memoir, Bundy returned to the world of academia, joining the department of government (ie political science) at Harvard in 1949, and becoming the youngest ever dean of arts and sciences there in 1953. In 1961, President Kennedy tabbed Bundy to become his special assistant for national security affairs, a post he would retain under the Johnson administration as well. In this capacity, Bundy was involved in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and was one of the key participants in Kennedy's emergency ExComm meetings that deliberated on the fate of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When Johnson assumed the presidency following Kennedy's assassination, Bundy stayed on as security advisor and became one of Johnson's most trusted foreign policy men. In February 1965, following a visit to South Vietnam, Bundy wrote a memorandum calling for a policy of "sustained reprisal" against North Vietnam if it did not end its guerrilla war against the South Vietnamese government, but later backed away from this position, eventually resigning under pressure in 1966 to head the Ford Foundation, a post he held until 1979. Bundy then returned to the academy as a professor of history at New York University. He died suddenly of a heart attack on September 16, 1996.
While Bundy's public image was forever tarnished by his involvement in the Vietnam War, government leaders of all stripes (even presidents) quietly continued to consult him on important foreign policy matters. For his part, Bundy quietly recanted his orignally hawkish views on Vietnam, but never apologetically. Once asked if he felt he had "screwed up" on the issue of Vietnam, Bundy replied, "Yes, I did. But I'm not going to waste the rest of my life feeling guilty about it."1
Bundy is the author of several excellent books on foreign policy and foreign policy history, including The Strength of Government (1968) and Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988). At the time of his death he was working on a book examining the Vietnam War as a profoundly mistaken policy.
1. James C. Thomson. "A Memory of McGeorge Bundy." The New York Times. September 22, 1996.