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Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam

3.87  ·  Rating Details ·  230 Ratings  ·  40 Reviews
"A compelling portrait of a man once serenely confident, searching decades later for self-understanding."—Richard Holbrooke, The New York Times Book Review

I had a part in a great failure. I made mistakes of perception, recommendation and execution. If I have learned anything I should share it."

These are not words that Americans ever expected to hear from McGeorge Bundy, th
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 1st 2009 by Holt Paperbacks (first published November 11th 2008)
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(showing 1-30 of 886)
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Jeffrey Keeten
Feb 07, 2016 Jeffrey Keeten rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jeffrey by: Joe Biden
Interview with Joe Biden in the Rolling Stone.

Considering how busy you are, do you have time to read books? If so, which ones would you recommend?

I make the time because it's important. Let's see. There is a good book titled The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard, about Teddy Roosevelt's exploration of the Amazon in Brazil. I knew nothing about this. My goodness, let's see. There's Mr. Putin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. Insightful. He's an interesting man. Anyone who's traveled with me to
Nov 19, 2009 Kathleen rated it really liked it
Who in their right mind names their child McGeorge? Turns out that the incredibly wealthy Boston elite do, you know, like the Lowells who talk only to Cabots, or the Cabots who talk only to God. The point is, he was bred to arrogance and to certitude. The lessons that Goldstein learns from Bundy's mistakes are simple and elegant, yet far too easily ignored. The way a high level public servant can help push a nation into an unmitigated disaster of a war?
1.) Always pass the buck higher up. Claim t
Jan 10, 2010 Bill rated it really liked it
McGeorge Bundy was Dean of Harvard University and National Security Advisor for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Henry Kissinger and Condeela Rice followed Bundy as national security advisors before becoming secretaries of state. Goldstein has a PhD in international relations and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Bundy and Goldstein had been collaborating for 18 months to write a book covering Bundy's national security advisor experiences and the Vietnam War prior to the Bundy's une
Hj Reichen
Jul 30, 2016 Hj Reichen rated it really liked it
Compelling to see how the administration had produced all the warning signs for failure in Vietnam and that key leaders, most of all Bundy, intellectually disregarded these signs. The refusal to define a precise end and link to proper means demonstrates the challenge of proper strategic reasoning in the democratic environment. Politics is the enemy of strategy.
Peter Rooijmans
Jan 26, 2016 Peter Rooijmans rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
McGeorge Bundy was one of the best and the brightest minds, who were part of the Kennedy administration and later went on to serve the Johnson administration.
This book describes his role during and in the decisionmaking process, which led to to America's ground engagement in Vietnam, based on reflections of McGeorge Bundy himself. The major lesson here is that the process was very much led by emotions about American credibility, whereas the more rational and analytic thinking was discarded and d
Jan 22, 2011 Peter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Conviction without rigor is a strategy (recipe) for disaster. Absence of rigorous analysis during key decisionmaking periods in 1965 (decision to increase bombing; insert Marines to protect air bases; transition Marines' duties to offensive COIN operations; insert additional American ground forces). McGB had the conviction that the U.S. needed to increase its stake in the war for political purposes (he felt the potential damage to American prestige of a near-term loss exceeded that of a loss aft ...more
Peter Jana
Jun 19, 2010 Peter Jana rated it really liked it
Similar to Robert McNamara - but in a more restrained way - McGeorge Bundy critically looked back at his decisions during the Vietnam years, took stock of his mistakes, and concluded that the war never should have happened. Lessons in Disaster is not Bundy's memoir. It was written by Gordon M. Goldstein, the co-author of a history of the war started by Bundy but left incomplete due to Bundy's death. Using his access to Bundy's personal notes, Goldstein makes a strong case that if John Kennedy we ...more
Jan 24, 2011 Javvie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book about Bundy and the decisions made on whether or not to send troops into Vietnam. A bit of an odd book considering the author's relationship with Bundy (they were collaborating, Bundy died, then the book had to be about Bundy instead), but still interesting. The book is meant to teach lessons, (hence the title) not just to be a historical record of what happened, and I think it succeeds in those terms. Aside from the titles of each chapter, there are no prescribed lessons, but w ...more
Jerry Landry
A good book, but not as good as I had read in reviews. While I understand the beginnings of the Vietnam War a bit better after this read, I just didn't get a feel from this book that McGeorge Bundy was really an influential member of either the Kennedy or Johnson administration. He was too much of a war hawk for Kennedy to take his advice, and he burnt bridges with Johnson by constantly harping on about air strikes when Johnson wanted boots on the ground. I didn't get a good sense of why he was ...more
Jul 28, 2011 Tony marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
According to WSJ, "Lessons in Disaster" traces the hawkish war stance and eventual disavowal of it by Vietnam-era national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy.

In 2009, in the context of the Vietghanistan quagmire, the book: "entered West Wing circulation after Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, one of the top foreign-policy voices in the White House, gave it to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel after reading it himself. Mr. Emanuel read the book in a weekend, then showed it to the p
Jan 04, 2012 Max rated it really liked it
This is an excellent treatment of the Kennedy Administration's involvement in Vietnam. Drawing on numerous interviews with McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and numerous documents from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Goldstein's thorough research provides strong support to his arguments. Goldstein tells the reader that Kennedy did not favor intervention in Southeast Asia, evidenced by the fact that he chose not to intervene after Laos fell to ...more
Jul 06, 2011 Kerry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For history junkies like myself, how is this one possible to resist?! Bundy's immediate admitting to having part in a great failure in American history with it's involvement in the Vietnam war while also making statements like: Kennedy didn't want to be dumb" and Johnson didn't want to be a coward" within the first few pages?! Tantalizing. Pow! Bam! Boom! (cue Adam west)

Then of course the story of Bundy presenting a paper to the class where his classmates snickered through it. When asked why? Bc
Dec 05, 2009 judy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Ignore the stars. I read it for a specific reason and that would not be McGeorge Bundy. The rumor has been out that everyone in the White House has been reading this book. I'm sure Obama has--and he was probably the first. It is now just days after Obama took over the war in Afghanistan. I wanted to see whether he had observed the Lessons in Disaster. I feel comfortable that he has. His brain and style would never allow decisions to be made as they were in the Johnson White House. That does not ...more
Jan 23, 2013 Jesse rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lessons in Disaster: written from long interviews with McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to Kennedy and Johnson, about the lead-up to the Vietnam war. History is told primarily from the perspective of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, with Bundy's personal lens often affecting what gets told and how it gets told. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's worth keeping in mind while reading.

I don't know the history of that time period (1960 to 1967, roughly) well enough to comme
Aug 25, 2012 Robert rated it did not like it
Shelves: biography, vietnam
I really got sucker punched on this one. I hoped that it would be a follow-up to the excellent research and analysis by H.R. McMaster on the specifics of decision making that lead to the mismanagement of the American effort in Vietnam. I assumed from the subtitle it would focus largely on the role of McGeorge Bundy and perhaps that of his brother. I couldn't have been more wrong.

This book actually had only one theme and it was very poorly supported, but deceitfully disclosed. As one gets further
Nov 14, 2013 Christopher rated it really liked it
This is something of an unusual book in that it is primarily concerned not with narrative history, but with the lessons of Bundy's involvement in the Vietnam escalation—or more aptly, the lessons Bundy tried to draw about Bundy's involvement. It's a better book than it would be if it simply re-told the Bundy story, and it's hard to imagine another biography surpassing in thoroughness and detail Kai Bird's of a decade earlier.

In the end, though, I felt like the book was let down by Goldstein's ra
May 05, 2010 Olivia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book has made me quite skeptical about the leaders in our government. Of course, I hope all the current leaders have all read this and learned from it.
Through 6 lessons, Goldstein writes about the many mistakes of the American administration during Kennedy's and LBJ's presidencies. We all know that the Vietnam War ended badly, but I did not realize it was jumped into so blindly. Even when they were presented with research that the chances of winning were slim to nothing, they still proceede
Garrett Burnett
Nov 10, 2009 Garrett Burnett rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war, history, politics
Lessons in Disaster provides a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at the political machinations and gamesmanship roiling in the White House. McGeorge Bundy was the national security advisor for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The author, Gordon Goldstein, had worked extensively with Bundy in his later years for a biography that eventually fell through. Goldstein wrote this book instead. He examines the choices that led to the expansion of the Vietnam War. Kennedy comes out looking much better than ...more
Feb 25, 2013 Dan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author interviewed, over several years, McGeorge Bundy, who was the National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Bundy struggled for years to figure out how the United States became involved in the Viet Nam war. Bundy was a staunch supporter of the war himself and helped outline the military campaign that would result in a long "Endurance Contest" (his own words) with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. An excellent book on not only history but on leadership. Full of Slippery ...more
Aug 28, 2015 Sully rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, vietnam-war, war
Bundy's observations about the different ways that JFK and LBJ approached making decisions was more interesting than most of the information about Bundy. I don't think the book does much to resolve the questions about Bundy's tenure in the White House. At times he seems at a loss to explain some of it himself.

Apparently Bundy was in the process of trying to come to terms with his decision making, attempting to analyze it as he would any other problem. But he died before the project was complete
Frank Kelly
This book was sited in numerous publications as a primer inside the Obama White House as the President mulled over what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan. Goldstein has written a fine book - and important book - on presidential decision making. But he's also written a book on how the brightest are not necessarily the best in advising the President or speaking truth to power. Clearly this was the case with McGeorge Bundy who is the focus of the book. But he was not alone. And ultimately it is an ...more
Jan 17, 2010 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, read-in-2010
This is a first step in my quest to understand Vietnam from a variety of standpoints. Goldstein does a good job in writing this; he makes it feel like he's simply quoting McGeorge Bundy the whole time. Bundy's analysis of his and others' roles in the framing and inner-workings of the war lead me to my next steps. I need a good biography of LBJ and a book that covers the work within the government(s) of South (and North, if it exists) Vietnam. One small peeve. Between this and Fog of War, I'm a l ...more
Aug 29, 2010 Bob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
First heard about the book last fall in a Frank Rich op-ed in the NYT, as "the book everyone in Washington is reading." An excellent look at the mistakes make in Washington from 1961-1965 as regards Vietnam, primarily through the eyes of McGeorge Bundy,the national security advisor to Kennedy and then Johnson. Well-written and thoughtful analysis of how smart people make terrible decisions, driven by political and military expediency and deliberately ignoring the facts on the ground. Sound like ...more
Kai Palchikoff
Dec 22, 2008 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An amazing book that takes you into the mind of Kennedy National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, based on conversation author Gordon Goldstein had with Bundy while collaborating on the former advisors never published memoir. Bundy along with McNamara was one of the administrations Best and Brightest whose guidance led to the Americanization of the Vietnam War first while working under Kennedy and then as part of Johnson’s staff.
Ward Bell
Sep 27, 2009 Ward Bell marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
What inspired me to buy was this in the context of a discussion about our policy in Afghanistan:

"The Times Book Review cheered it as “an extraordinary cautionary tale for all Americans.” The reviewer was, of all people, the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whose career began in Vietnam and who would later be charged with the Afghanistan-Pakistan crisis by the new Obama administration."
Dec 07, 2009 Tom rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I read this in January 2009, and see it's what all in the White House have been reading since this summer and before the big December decision for troop requests for Afghanistan.

Very good book and very good history of the writing of the book itself (qv, Goldstein working with Bundy before his death).
Michael Terpstra
Dec 30, 2012 Michael Terpstra rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
On the cover there is a quote from Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage; "Dispassionate, powerful, and brilliant ... provides crucial lessons for future Presidents, members of Congress, and citizens." Only is we humans learned from history and put the lessons into practice.
Ken Moten
Jan 04, 2011 Ken Moten rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Political, Vietnam, War enthusiast
Recommended to Ken by: Jack Lechelt
I think this book does a very decent job at telling the early story of Vietnam both the good AND BAD. I think Bundy's opinion is was still that of non-regret but at least he was able to cite honestly the errors of the JFK/LBJ Administrations.
May 20, 2011 Jesse rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent read. This is a must for anyone interested in the Vietnam War and its effects on the American society. This piece gives are remarkably balanced examination of Bundy and the decisions that led to the disaster that was Vietnam.
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