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Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy And The Path To War In Vietnam

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  336 ratings  ·  49 reviews
A revelatory look at the decisions that led to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, drawing on the insights and reassessments of one of the war’s architects

"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, the
Hardcover, First Edition (U.S.), 320 pages
Published November 11th 2008 by Times Books/Henry Holt & Company, LLC (first published November 2008)
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Jeffrey Keeten
May 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Michael Burnam-Fink
Lessons in Disaster is a post-mortem look at the pivotal moments of the Vietnam War as viewed through the eyes of National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. "Mac" was one of the hawks, who publicly argued for escalating the Vietnam War, but he held private doubts about the possibility of success. This book originated in a collaboration between the author and Bundy on his memoirs, which was cut short by Bundy's death in 1996. Based on the historical record, scribbled 'fragments' for that book, and ...more
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
Michael Perkins
Mar 24, 2017 rated it liked it
Didn't find this book very convincing. The much better book is "The Best & The Brightest"....

“Among those dazzled by the Administration team was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. After attending his first Cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next, and that the smartest of them all was that fellow with the Stacomb on his hair from the Ford Motor Company, McNamara. “Well, Lyndon,” Mister Sam answe
May 29, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I mean I only read this for epq so ...
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This book focuses on the role that McGeorge Bundy played in the escalation of the War in Vietnam, in the period roughly between 1961, when he joined JFK's cabinet, until 1965, when he resigned from LBJ's White House. The author had started to work with Bundy in 1995, when he (Bundy) was finally ready to grapple with the questions of his competence, diligence and regrets about his involvement in the Vietnam War. Bundy had started to review government documents and memos, and had even begun drafti ...more
Apr 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 28, 2011 marked it as to-read
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 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 10, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Peter Jana
May 11, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Garrett Burnett
Oct 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
May 05, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Hj Reichen
Jul 30, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Tamara! aka AmyG.Dala
Nov 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
My dad was a Vietnam vet. He endured so much, including being a POW for a time, and was part of the team that set up the Hamburger Hill nightmare. His health was never the same thanks to Agent Orange, and the shrapnel he had to live with in one kidney, among other 'leftovers'. I read this and it just pisses me all the more off actually. Mundane azzhatz making decisions they had no clue about. Trying to explain so that you can justify your decisions while making more money thanks to book sales in ...more
Dec 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, solid
This book isn't amazing.

It attempts to be a postmortem of the decision-making of the Vietnam War. It succeeds at being a sort of general portrait of three men circling the edges of the war. Despite the title, it spends just as much time on Johnson and Kennedy as it does on Bundy himself.

This book ostensibly distills its thesis into "lessons" learned from Bundy's experience, but the lessons range from painfully obvious to so abstract and general that they're practically useless. They mostly get l
Dec 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really interesting discussions. Some of the highlights for me were the Bay of Pigs review. The end discussion of how that incident shaped Kennedy’s attitude to the military and intelligence communities was really enlightening. And if the first episode of the PBS Vietnam series didn’t make you realize the tragedy of our escalation in Vietnam, this book will.

The differences between Kennedy and Johnson are highlighted continually. Eisenhower is a recurring background and I would have liked to unde
Aug 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Found this to be somewhat more ending than dereliction of duty, but feel prey to the same problem of I'm my opinion overly detailed recounting of fairly trivial internal communications making the same points throughout the book. Emphasizes failures in presidential leadership over failures of advice, and largely focuses on civilian processes. All in all quite information, but repetitive at times. ...more
Dec 21, 2020 rated it liked it
As one might expect, a book about the decisions leading us into Viet Nam is depressing. And the excruciating level of detail makes the book boring.
Jan 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Aug 25, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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
Dec 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 10, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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
Nov 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
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 20, 2010 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
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