Past Lessons and Present Disaster

Does Charles Santayana’s dictum1 apply to the United States in Afghanistan today? In Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, Gordon M. Goldstein examines the role of United States national security advisor McGeorge Bundy in the US war on Viet Nam. (Not a “Viet Nam War.” Why do the media — and even academia — insist on naming acts of aggression against a country with the name of the country aggressed, thereby distracting from the name of the aggressor and the act of aggression?) Lessons in Disaster is laid out as six chapters/lessons from the debacle of US government policy in southeast Asia.

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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam
By Gordon M. Goldstein
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Holt Paperback (2009)
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9087-1
ISBN10: 0-8050-9087-8


The prism for Lessons in Disaster is US national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. Bundy had his path in life cleared by a childhood of privilege, “a scholarly blank cheque,” awaiting teaching positions, government jobs, and sinecures.

Intellectualism, arrogance, and hubris are ascribed to Bundy. Personality aside, Bundy was one of the architects of the policy that led the US to military defeat in Viet Nam with the cost of tens-of-thousands of US military and millions of Vietnamese lives.

Goldstein relates how it began with the US bankrolling the French colonization of Viet Nam. However, the French suffered ignominious defeat.

Refreshingly, the book talks openly about US meddling in the affairs of foreign countries as if such knowledge were axiomatic. Discussed, for example, are the CIA-engineered overthrow of government in Guatemala and the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs disaster (for the Kennedy administration).

The fight in Viet Nam was ideological; it was a fight against communism, predicated in the belief of a simplistic domino theory that if one state fell to communism, then the others would follow. Goldstein does not discuss whether ideology is a legitimate casus belli.

There is a contradiction in this warfare waged for ideology. Starkly stated, it was the resort to violent means to establish capitalism over communism. Capitalism, in pure form, is billed as laissez faire, free and open competition in the marketplace. However, if in the marketplace of economic theories it is that capitalism is superior, then the marketplace would be expected to opt for it over communism. Consequently, waging war to defeat another economic order appears to indicate an admission of doubt as to the supremacy of capitalism as an ideology.

Bundy admits to “a fundamental absence of realist analysis” pushing the US into the disaster of Viet Nam. The military applied the pressure, and US president Lyndon Johnson agreed to the eventual Americanization of the war. The president can be advised/pressured, but he is the decider.

The “ultimate threat” pushing the president, writes Goldstein, is not military defeat; it is electoral defeat. Bundy advised “firmness” in Viet Nam because “… we do not want the record to suggest even remotely that we campaigned on peace to start a war in November.”

Presaging the pretexts of today, Bundy is quoted as wondering, “I’d like to know what would happen if we dramatized this as ‘Americans Against Terrorism’ …”

Goldstein is critical of the intellectual Bundy. He poses many questions, “Why was Bundy so engaged in planning a Congressional resolution to be deployed before the election but so inactive in contingency planning for military options after the election?”

Why did Bundy not critically analyze the domino theory?

What about the false premise that by “inflicting pain in measured increments” the “communist insurgency” (Goldstein lapses into imperialist speak, identifying resistance fighters as “insurgents,” hinting at the legitimacy of foreign-imposed regimes) could be contained. If what the Americans posit is true, then this proposition should run both ways. It invites tit-for-tat. The Vietnamese fighters might equally well entertain the notion that if they inflicted enough pain on the Americans that they might leave. General William Westmoreland seems to have grasped this in viewing it as a “war of attrition.”

Another example of imperialist speak is when Goldstein writes of Johnson considering “retaliatory airstrikes” against the North Vietnamese. In order for the Americans to retaliate, the Vietnamese must have initiated the war, and this they certainly did not do against the US. Goldstein matter-of-factly reveals the Tonkin Gulf incident to have been manufactured by president Lyndon Johnson’s administration.

Bundy writes of a “latent anti-Americanism.” He does not write of a latent anti-Vietnamese-ism among Americans who implement a “strategy of coercive military force” — that is, the killing of Vietnamese — to impose a US-favored government and economic order on the Vietnamese.

Goldstein acknowledges that there was an American proxy regime in South Viet Nam.

Bundy’s mistakes were many and very costly for the US military. He did reflect on the “war” and would acknowledge “the inability to grasp ‘how the enemy would take it and come back for more.’”

Bundy had staunchly advocated continued aerial bombing during which time there would be no negotiations.

Goldstein cites Tran Quang Co, the first deputy foreign minister for Viet Nam, in revealing how critical aerial bombardment was to national morale in North Vietnam: “Never before did the people of Viet Nam, from top to bottom, unite as they did during the years that the U.S. was bombing us. Never before had Chairman Ho Chi Minh’s appeal — that there is nothing more precious that freedom and independence — go straight to the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.”

There is discussion whether president John Kennedy would ever have put American troops on the ground in Viet Nam. The evidence presented leads this reader to assume he would not have. Nonetheless, he is quoted, “But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get people to reelect me.”

Lessons in Disaster gives an insightful glimpse into the government mindsets that lead to war; however, the real value in Goldstein’s book is in drawing lessons from history and applying them to today.

The object in Goldstein’s book is, obviously, to avoid disaster; however, the present commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, is considered a “disaster” himself.2

Channeling Bundy, Lessons in Disaster starkly states that the president is the decider. It makes clear that US military involvement in Asia is a losing proposition. What are the US ends in Afghanistan? It is obviously not to establish democracy, as the Afghan elections under foreign occupation demonstrate. The decision to increase the number of US military personnel in Afghanistan is Obama’s decision. Following the American military defeat in Viet Nam, the US was afflicted with Viet Nam Syndrome. President George Bush Sr was exuberant at kicking “Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” However, to kick the syndrome required uniting a world military force against a developing country “occupying” a tiny emirate in the Persian Gulf.

The second stage of the Persian Gulf Slaughter has been a different story. Many have written of a quagmire, as Viet Nam was described for Americans. It is now over six years since Iraq was aggressed and occupied. The situation remains unstable as the recent spate of bombings in Iraq evinces.3

In October 2007, presidential candidate Obama said:

I will promise you this, that if we have not gotten our troops out by the time I am president, it is the first thing I will do. I will get our troops home. We will bring an end to this war. You can take that to the bank.

Needless to say, the troops are still in Iraq. Now Nobel Peace [sic] laureate Obama is ramping up the military effort in Afghanistan. He proffered his reasons for the invasion-occupation of Afghanistan being a just war.

Obama would do well to read Lessons in Disaster and reconsider — if not the implications for his own future electoral chances and legacy — then, at least, the implications for the lives of millions of humans impacted by warfare. He might also ponder Albert Einstein’s solution: “Warfare cannot be humanized. It can only be abolished.”4

  1. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Life of Reason Vol 1. []
  2. See “Robert Fisk — Obama is a Disaster,” Youtube. []
  3. I have already argued that Iraq is a lost “war.” Kim Petersen, “Desperately Seeking Victory in a War Already Lost,” Dissident Voice, 25 December 2005. []
  4. “Albert Einstein — A Man for All Seasons,” Pomegranate Calendars in cooperation with The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1987. []
Kim Petersen is an independent writer and former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 19th, 2009 at 10:00am #

    Indeed, very few people, in my knowledge, speak or write ab events in vietnam- after defeat of french by the lovers of socialism and haters of feudal societies- as US aggression against or an invasion of vietnam.
    Events in poland ’39 were correctly called German invasion of poland.
    What is significant about US failure to beat vietnamese is the fact that love for one’s habitat and way of life can even repel the mightiest of all evil and fascist empires.

    Kids in schools only know there was a mexican, cuban, iraqi, somali, ww1, ww2, korean, pak’n, afgh’n war. In each of which US had benevolent involvements; their people being so bad, mean, backward, warlike, and even haters of the greatness of america; our freedoms, success, etc.

    No wonder US can wage so many easy wars and spend easy money on them.
    Aggressions against korea and vietnam were waged mostly for killing lovers of socialism and impart a lesson to any other peasants the lesson what’s gonna happen to them if they wld fight for justice-fairness and against feudal societies.
    Canada, US and other nato countries appear to have succeeded. Obviously, laotians, cambodians, thais, et al have learned the lesson well.

    Recently socialism is reemerging. China may not be a beacon of light, but it is a beacon of hope for all people who wld like to have all feudal societies once and for all destroyed!
    All u fascists eat ur hearts out; u may never destroy china or socialism! tnx

  2. kalidas said on December 19th, 2009 at 11:05am #

    Very poignant message on one episode of the “Simpsons.”
    The local VFW, in an attempt to attract needed dues paying members, grudgingly asked the Viet Nam vets if they would like to join.
    The Vietnam vet representative said, “you know something, the Vietnamese invited us back before you guys did.”

    It was just a quick jab but nonetheless I believe this says something about the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.
    Those poor people can be so damn giving and forgiving.

  3. B. J. Sabri said on December 19th, 2009 at 9:32pm #

    This is a splendid review…
    You stated, “Lessons in Disaster gives an insightful glimpse into the government mindsets that lead to war; however, the real value in Goldstein’s book is in drawing lessons from history and applying them to today”

    My feeling is that Goldstein is not concerned with giving lessons on how to avoid disasters. In fact, the forces of imperialism (and Zionism) that has been guiding the United States since WWII, but specially since Ronald Reagan, and in particular since the advent to power of Christian Zionist like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and now ending with the total Zionist-by-calculation Barack Obama, are neither intimidated by disaster nor afraid of loosing any war.

    The reason being, capitalistic profit and ideological gain (fake patriotic triumphalism for example) for all classes that benefit from wars, override any other consideration.

  4. DavidG. said on December 20th, 2009 at 8:30pm #

    After the Vietnam war finished and the U.S. beat a humiliating retreat, obviously the teaching of history in America ceased.

    What happened to the world’s mightiest army (they had their butts kicked) was expunged from the collective conscience and they returned to their claim of winning WW2 unilaterally and they showed lots of John Wayne movies.

    Since, they have engaged in numerous wars but only against those whose military forces are restricted to using small arms. Even against those, America struggles to make any headway.

    For America there are no past lessons. They are destined to make the same mistakes over and over until nuclear war ends our world.