A month before, during his last visit to Hyannis Port, Kennedy told his next-door neighbor Larry Newman, “I’m going to get those guys out [of Vietnam] because we’re not going to find ourselves in a war it’s impossible to win.”
Kennedy understood that decisions on Vietnam were far too important to be left to myopic generals. They were still chafing at what they considered Kennedy’s failure in 1962 to seize the moment and obliterate Cuba — and perhaps also the U.S.S.R., while we were at it.
Add Kennedy’s clear desire to work closely (often secretly) with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a priority effort to prevent another Cuba-type crisis, and then letting generic “Communists” take over Vietnam – with “dominoes” expected to fall all over the place — and the military brass became convinced they needed to strongly oppose such “appeasement.”
‘Best and Brightest’
And it was not only the generals. Far from it. The “best and the brightest,” first and foremost McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security adviser, were also opposed to Kennedy’s decision to pull troops out of Vietnam.
Bundy strongly disagreed with the recommendations in the McNamara-Taylor report. He also resisted Kennedy’s frequently expressed doubts that foreign troops, even in large numbers, could prevail in guerrilla war, and Kennedy’s determination never to send combat troops to Vietnam.
Bundy thought he knew better, refusing to believe that the President would ever “let South Vietnam go.” Years later, Bundy’s memoirs defended his views and advice to Kennedy on Vietnam.
However, after McNamara published In Retrospect in 1995, in which he concluded that “we were wrong, terribly wrong” on Vietnam, Bundy went back to the drawing board to rethink his assessment.
Bundy hired a man half his age, Gordon Goldstein, as research assistant to help him on what turned out to be Bundy’s personal quest for the roots of his own mistakes which, for the most part, were the result of hubris, pure and simple.
Early this year, author William Pfaff reviewed what started out as the Bundy Memoir Part II (McGeorge Bundy died in 1996), but ended up as Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Goldstein.
In the review, Pfaff highlights Bundy’s pedigree: tops at Groton, professor of government at Harvard and youngest dean of faculty; his mother a Boston Brahmin, his father a diplomat. Pfaff is ruthlessly on point in describing Bundy’s attitude:
“American had to ‘win’ in Vietnam because America always wins. America knows better than everyone else because of that intellectual firepower deployed at Harvard and other elite universities. America does not have to know about other people because other people are not worth knowing.
“Goldstein’s decisive clue to why Bundy failed came by accident. He found a note written in 1996, when Bundy was asked what had been most surprising about the war. He answered, ‘the endurance of the enemy.’ Goldstein writes: ‘He didn’t understand the enemy ‘because, frankly, he didn’t think they warranted his attention.’”
The good news for today comes from press reporting that top officials of the Obama administration, including the President, have read Goldstein’s book. Applying Kennedy’s challenge on Vietnam to Obama’s on Afghanistan, a Wall Street Journal report of Oct. 7 noted, “For opponents of a major troop increase … ‘Lessons in Disaster’ encapsulates their concerns about accepting military advice unchallenged.”
Obama Must Decide
There are hints that Obama is more Chicago than Harvard — and that, like Kennedy, he carries casualty figures around in his conscience. His late-night, early-morning appearance at Dover Air Force Base to salute what the Washington Post calls “transfer cases” coming home from the war is, I believe, a telling sign.
Obama knows they are not just “transfer cases.”
This young President, too, is a “clever lad;” he is also a politician. Intellectually, he is surely equipped to understand the March of Folly that would be involved, were he to send substantial additional forces to Afghanistan.
Moreover, Obama is surely aware that the majority of Americans are no longer deceived by the pundits at Fox News. Recent polls show broader and broader popular opposition to sending more troops.
The choice, in my view, is between courage anchored in a determination to do the right thing and cowardice cloaked in the politics of the possible. Let me guess what you’re thinking — “But that’s asking too much of a young President; cowardice is too strong a word; Obama cannot possibly face down the entire military establishment.”
John Kennedy did. So the question is whether Barack Obama is “no Jack Kennedy,” or whether he will summon the courage to stand up to the misguided military brass of today.
We are talking, after all, about thousands more being killed — and for what?
I would suggest to the President that he give another close read to Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster and then ponder the lessons that leap out of Barbara Tuchman’s The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.
Obama may also wish to ponder the words of W.E.B. Dubois:
“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.” (Posted by (Bulatlat.com)