Monday, 29 November 2010 19:58

Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster

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Although [Bundy] thought [Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest] was an entertaining and informative read, he concluded that the central thesis was just wrong. It was not the advisers—the best and brightest—who did the staff work who got us into the Vietnam War. It was the difference in the men who occupied the Oval Office. It was the difference between Kennedy and Johnson, writes Jim DiEugenio.

Virtual JFK 3

Part One of this essay reviews the film accompanying this book, which has the same title.

Part Two of this essay reviews the book accompanying this film, which has the same title.

See the Virtual JFK web site

In my discussion of the book Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived I first mentioned the name of Gordon Goldstein. Goldstein was to be the co-author, with McGeorge Bundy, of a book Bundy was going to write about his experiences with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson over the Vietnam War. That book was never completed because Bundy died before it was finished. The two had worked on it together for a bit less than two years. From the description of the travail here, plus what Goldstein was able to salvage, it would have been a real contribution to the literature. After Bundy passed away, Goldstein wanted to complete the book on his own. But Bundy's widow would not allow it. So what he decided to do was to compose this memoir of his many months working with Bundy, and to also offer his own view on the Vietnam issue. Lessons in Disaster is not the book that might have been, but it's still an interesting effort that is worth reading. Among other things, it gives us an insight into what one of the people directly involved in an epic tragedy thought of that terrible episode many years later. Or as Bundy said to Goldstein before they started, "I was part of a great failure. My wish now is that we had done less." (p. 24)

It is interesting to note how this effort began. In 1995, Robert McNamara published his book In Retrospect. In that book, he admitted to three things: 1.) The Vietnam War was a huge mistake 2.) He had determined by April1966 that it could not be won in a military sense (McNamara p. 261), and 3.) President Kennedy would not have Americanized the war and escalated it as President Johnson did ( ibid p. 96).

(Let me interject something here as a personal sidelight. Although McNamara does not specifically mention John Newman in that book, Newman told me that he had several talks with McNamara before he started writing it. John was surprised at how many things McNamara had forgotten about, especially from the Kennedy years. I asked him how that could be so: How McNamara could have not recalled how different Kennedy's plans had been? Newman replied, "Jim, if you were part of a decision that eventually took the lives of over 58,000 Americans and over two million Vietnamese, you would want to forget about the option you discarded too.")

When In Retrospect created the controversy it did, Bundy was asked to appear on a TV show to discuss the book. He did so. During the program, one of the other guests spoke up in defense of McNamara. He said, "You have a guest on your program, McGeorge Bundy, who was certainly as complicit as McNamara. I don't know why McNamara should take all the heat." (Goldstein, p. 22) A few days later, McNamara called Goldstein, and the book project began. Goldstein had worked with the former National Security Adviser while completing his Ph. D. in International Relations at Columbia. Unfortunately, Bundy died in the fall of 1996 before the book was completed. Before the two started in earnest, Bundy told Goldstein something that was to pithily sum up everything that followed, "Kennedy didn't want to be dumb. Johnson didn't want to be a coward."

McGeorge Bundy was Boston Brahmin. He was born there in 1919. His mother was related to the Lowell family, which was an institution in the area. His father Harvey was educated at Yale, where he was a member of Skull and Bones, and then went to Harvard Law School. In 1931, Mac Bundy joined his brothers Bill and Harvey Jr., at the famous boarding school of Groton, whose motto was "To serve is to rule." (p. 7) Past attendees had been people like Dean Acheson and Franklin Roosevelt. After achieving a perfect SAT score, he went to Yale and joined Phi Beta Kappa. Like his father he joined Skull and Bones. After graduating, Bundy went to Harvard for post graduate work. During World War II, he joined the Navy and became an aide to Rear Admiral Alan Kirk. After the war, he co-authored a book with Secretary of State Henry Stimson. In 1948, he worked on the presidential campaign of Tom Dewey as a speech writer. After that he went to the Council on Foreign Relations to do a paper on the Marshall Plan with the help of Allen Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower. (p. 11) In 1949 he took a teaching position at Harvard in the Government Department. In 1953, at the young age of 34, he became Dean of Harvard faculty. It is here that Bundy met Senator John Kennedy, who was a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers. (p. 14) When Kennedy won the election for president in 1960, Bundy became his National Security Adviser. There is little doubt that, as Goldstein mentions, he revolutionized the position. He actually brought it out of the shadows and made it a position of primacy in the Cabinet.

Bundy left the White House in 1966 to run the Ford Foundation. While there, the Pentagon Papers were published. Two Bundy assistants tried to coax him into making pubic the memos he had written under Johnson expressing the doubts he had about the war at the time. (p. 17) Bundy, out of the loyalty he felt to LBJ, decided not to. ( I should note here something the author leaves out of his outline of Bundy's career. In a famous article published in the seventies in Penthouse, it was revealed that Bundy was the secretary of the Bilderberger Group, working directly under David Rockefeller.)

In 1979, Bundy left the Ford Foundation and, amid great controversy—since, due to his involvement with Vietnam, most of the faculty did not want him there—became a professor of history at New York University. While there in 1984 he talked to journalist David Talbot about the subject. He told Talbot that he did have doubts about the war, "and it can be argued that I didn't press hard enough." (p. 19) He did not go any farther and told him he would sort it out later. He did with Goldstein.


One of the reasons I have detailed the remarkable pedigree of Bundy is that it proves the opposite of what one would expect. Namely that things like Ivy League credentials, secret societies, upper class origins, and Eastern Establishment connections really don't mean that much on their own. Why? Because Bundy was not a good National Security Adviser. Although Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger tried to talk Bundy out of it, Bundy OK'd the Bay of Pigs invasion to Kennedy. (p. 38) Even though Bundy possessed a memo that the operation would not succeed unless it was fully supported by the CIA and Pentagon, he did not forward it to the Oval Office. (p. 40) Bundy offered to resign in the wake of that fiasco but Kennedy would not accept his resignation. He probably should have. Because later in1961, Bundy was one of the advisers urging Kennedy to commit American troops to Vietnam. Then in 1962, Bundy first backed air strikes to solve the Cuban Missile Crisis. He then switched to McNamara's suggestion of a quarantine around Cuba during the Missile Crisis. He then switched back to the Pentagon plan for surgical air strikes, 800 of them. (pgs. 72-73) Although he later said that he switched at Kennedy's request, this reason never surfaced until many years after. As Goldstein notes, at the time, Ted Sorenson said that Kennedy was actually a bit disgusted with his National Security Adviser.

But as Bundy noted to Goldstein, one thing to note about Kennedy's management of the Bay of Pigs was this: Under very strong pressure from the CIA and the Pentagon, Kennedy did not commit the American military to save the day. (p.44) Bundy also noted another pattern to Goldstein. During the Laotian crisis of the same year, the Pentagon wanted JFK to commit combat troops because if not, as Admiral Arleigh Burke said, all of Southeast Asia would be lost. (p. 46) Again, Kennedy did not go along. After calling for a high alert on Okinawa, Kennedy instructed Averill Harriman to produce a diplomatic solution. (p. 45) And he was so appalled by the advice he was getting that he now requested both Sorenson and Bobby Kennedy sit in on National Security Council meetings. (p. 46) Bundy told Goldstein that, after the way Kennedy handled Laos, he saw that, unlike many others—for instance, LBJ—President Kennedy had not bought into the Domino Theory. The idea that if one country went communist, it would take several nearby nations with it.

Goldstein does a nice job at this point in sketching the background of the Vietnam crisis as Kennedy first inherited it. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Ngo Dinh Diem then rigged the plebiscite in order to succeed the proxy French emperor Bao Dai. But as the communist insurgency in the countryside grew larger, Diem's security forces, led by his brother Nhu, became more brutal and repressive. Captured rebels were beaten, had their legs broken, and females were raped. (p. 51) In 1959, Diem restored the guillotine. Traveling courts in the countryside were now authorized to behead convicted communists. (ibid) Goldstein sums up the scene upon Kennedy's ascendancy to the White House: "By 1961, as Kennedy assumed power in Washington, the situation in South Vietnam was characterized by an ascending nationalist and communist movement and an oppressive regime that was progressively losing control of the country and credibility with its people." (ibid)

What follows is one of the highlights of the book. Goldstein enumerates the number of times Kennedy turned down requests to commit combat troops to save the day before the White House debate over the Taylor/Rostow mission in November of 1961. He starts out with the request of Gen. Ed Lansdale in January of 1961. (p. 52) In April of 1961, McNamara suggested the same. (p. 53) That same month, Kennedy rejected a backdoor: he refused combat troops as trainers. (p. 54) He was asked twice in May and turned down both requests. (ibid) By July he had turned down a total of six requests. (p. 55)

On July 15th, Max Taylor and Walt Rostow again requested combat troops. Bundy kept notes on this colloquy which Goldstein prints here. He wrote, "Questions from the president showed that the detailed aspects of this military plan had not been developed ... the president made clear his own deep concern with the need for realism and accuracy in ... military planning. He had observed in earlier military plans with respect to Laos that optimistic estimates were invariably proven false in the event ... He emphasized the reluctance of the American people and of many distinguished leaders to see any direct involvement of US troops in that part of the world." Rostow and Taylor tried to argue back but Kennedy said, "Gen. DeGaulle, out of painful French experience, had spoken with feeling of the difficulty of fighting in this part of the world." Vice-President Johnson then called for a firmer military commitment to the region, including Laos. Kennedy resisted by saying, "Nothing would be worse than an unsuccessful intervention in the area, and that he did not have confidence in the military practicability of the proposal which had been put before him." (pgs 56-57) This now made seven rejections of American direct intervention in seven months.

On October 11th, Deputy Defense Secretary Alexis Johnson joined the push for combat troops. Again, Kennedy did not agree. But he did authorize a mission to South Vietnam by Max Taylor and Walt Rostow. (p. 57) At this time, the hawks in the White House begin to leak stories that Kennedy would now probably commit troops to Vietnam. When Kennedy saw the stories, he himself leaked a story denying it. (ibid)

On October 20th, Frederick Nolting, the American ambassador in Vietnam, requested combat troops for flood relief purposes. Taylor was on the scene, and he agreed with the request—if he did not put Nolting up to it. Kennedy consulted with an agricultural expert and turned it down. Taylor then talked to the press about the issue. Kennedy telegrammed Taylor to stop doing so. (p. 58)

When Kennedy received the Taylor/Rostow report, it again requested the sending of combat troops to Vietnam. And it couched the request in dire terms. It said if such a commitment was not made, the fall of South Vietnam would likely follow. (p. 60) The formal White House debate over the recommendation was taken up on November 7th. In addition to Taylor and Rostow, Defense Secretary McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Bundy, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff told Kennedy to send combat troops. On November 15th, Kennedy closed the debate. At this point, Goldstein makes two cogent observations. There were only two people in the entire White House who sided with Kennedy on this issue. They were George Ball and John Kenneth Galbraith. When Ball personally approached Kennedy since he thought he might be weakening and could give in, Kennedy replied to him: "George, you're just crazier than hell. That just isn't going to happen." (p. 62) And after this debate, Kennedy told Galbraith he was going to send him to Saigon. He wanted him to render a report also. (p. 61) Knowing what it would say, he would only give it to McNamara. And McNamara would now become Kennedy's point man on his withdrawal plan. The third result of this debate was Kennedy's issuance of National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 111, which increased the number of advisers to above 15,000, with no provision for combat troops.

When Bundy reviewed all the above with Goldstein, he was impressed with both Kennedy's insight and his steadfastness. He also told Professor James Blight, one of the co-editors of the fine book Virtual JFK, that Kennedy simply did not think that combat troops would work in South Vietnam. Because he did not see the struggle as a conventional war but as a classic counter-insurgency conflict. Bundy and Goldstein came to the conclusion that much of this was instilled in Kennedy from his visit to Vietnam in the early fifties during the last throes of the French imperial war there. (p. 235) Another strong influence was his discussion of the issue with Douglas MacArthur. The general told Kennedy it would be foolish to fight a large land war in Southeast Asia. He told him that he could pour a million men into the struggle and still be outnumbered. (p. 235) Alexis Johnson was skeptical of MacArthur's stance but he admitted that it made a profound effect on President Kennedy. Max Taylor agreed with him. He said MacArthur's analysis made a "hell of an impression on the President." (ibid) Kennedy later told Bundy's assistant Michael Forrestal "that the odds against an American victory over the Viet Cong were 100 to 1." (p. 239) Since, as Bundy said, Kennedy did not buy into the Domino Theory, those odds were simply not worth it. Consequently, Bundy saw these ten rejections in eleven months as Kennedy's final decision on the issue. And Bundy described a following meeting in January of 1962 in Palm Beach, Florida where Kennedy emphasized the advice and support role to be played by the Americans. (p. 71) That was a line Kennedy was not going to cross. And he didn't.


After receiving Galbraith's report, McNamara went to work on putting together the withdrawal plan. While he did that, the increased advisory team sent in by NSAM 111 managed to keep the lid on a deteriorating situation. But in 1963, things started going downhill fast. In January of that year, the Viet Cong defeated a regular detachment of the South Vietnamese army at the battle of Ap Bac. (p. 72) As things began to spiral downward, the reactions of the Ngo brothers worsened. Diem demanded that all public gatherings, even funerals, would have to have official state sanction. He even asked for total control over all anti-guerilla operations from the US. Then the epochal Hue crisis broke out in June. In response to a discriminatory edict passed by Diem, a huge Buddhist rally took place in the city of Hue. After a day of speeches, a radio station was bombed with many protesters standing outside. In the resultant chaos, shots were fired into the crowd. Several people were killed and even more were wounded. (The best account of this incident is by Jim Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, pgs. 128-131) As a result of the crackdown ordered by Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, one of the monks leading the demonstration set himself on fire. (Goldstein, p. 75) This horrifying image was captured on both film and photograph and was relayed all over the world. Making it worse was the heinous reaction of Nhu's wife, Madame Nhu (aka The Dragon Lady). She ridiculed his martyrdom as a "barbecue" and said if any others did the same "we shall clap our hands". (ibid p. 76) Unfortunately for her, seven others did do the same. (ibid) This chain reaction mushroomed into a huge political crisis since it spawned marches, demonstrations, work stoppages and hunger strikes. (Douglass, p. 133) In reply, Nhu ended up arresting over 1,400 Buddhists.

It was against the backdrop of this image of a collapsing government and an intractable leader that a small cabal in Washington and Saigon decided to take the next step and remove Diem and his brother from power. Goldstein does a decent job describing the events that led to the eventual coup and deaths of the brothers. (pgs. 76-81) But the best, most detailed description of how it began is by John Newman in his masterful book, JFK and Vietnam. There had been a small group in State and on Bundy's staff that was waiting for an event like this to get rid of Diem. The group consisted of Averill Harriman and Roger Hilsman at State, and Michael Forrestal of the NSC. While Kennedy was away, Hilsman began sending cables to his ally William Trueheart in the Saigon embassy threatening to ostracize Diem. This was in defiance of Kennedy's wishes. (Newman, p. 336) But once Henry Cabot Lodge had arrived as the new ambassador in Saigon, this group took an even bolder step.

As with the sending of the threatening message, they waited until a strategic moment when all the principals of government were out of town. This came on the weekend of August 24-25th. JFK, McNamara, Bundy, Rusk, and CIA Director John McCone were all out of Washington. Three cables came in from Lodge and the CIA officer in contact with the South Vietnamese army, Lucien Conein. The message was that the Army was unhappy with the Ngo brothers and if the USA indicated to the generals that it "would be happy to see Diem and/or Nhu go, and the deed would be done." Lodge added that he did not think it would be that easy. It could be a "shot in the dark". (Newman, p. 346) This was all that Hilsman-Harriman-Forrestal needed. They sent a cable back on the 24th. It said that Diem must be given a chance to oust Nhu, "but if he remains obdurate, then we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown ... " (ibid)

Forrestal was given the job of getting this cable cleared. He read it to Kennedy over the phone. Kennedy did not understand why it had to be sent that day. But he said to see if others would OK it, especially McCone. Kennedy probably said this because he knew McCone would not approve it. (ibid p. 347) But, in fact, McCone was never shown the cable. (ibid, p. 351) The cabal also fudged getting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor to approve it. Hilsman and Forrestal concocted a story that said that no clearance from the Defense Department was required, meaning McNamara and Alexis Johnson. And further, that Taylor had approved it without question. Neither of these is true. (ibid p. 348) In fact, Taylor never approved the cable. When he saw it he perceptively thought, " ... my first reaction was that the anti-Diem group centered in State had taken advantage of the absence of the principal officials to get out instructions which would never have been approved as written under normal circumstances. " (ibid p. 349) He also thought it would have never even been passed around if Bundy had been in town. Yet, Taylor did not call Kennedy to tell him what he thought was actually happening. The cable was sent that Saturday night.

On Monday, Kennedy was upset at what had happened: "This shit has got to stop!" When Forrestal offered to resign Kennedy replied with, "You're not worth firing. You owe me something, so you stick around." (ibid, p. 351) But the problem now was that in Saigon, Lodge had immediately jumped on the cable. And, seemingly as if he was part of the plan, he bypassed putting pressure on Diem to fire his brother Nhu, and instead he went straight to the generals. This was on Sunday, the 25th, less than 24 hours after getting the Saturday night cable. (ibid, p. 350) Bypassing Diem was a crucial switch from the original cable, which said that Diem was to be given a chance to oust his brother Nhu. (ibid, p. 346) So now, by the end of Sunday the 25th, the effort to overthrow Diem was in motion with almost irreversible momentum. Even though Kennedy advised Lodge that he was against it and wanted to work with Diem, even though RFK was against it also, Lodge and Conein had cast their lot with the coup plotters. (Goldstein, pgs. 81, 86-88) This ended, of course, with the coup finally succeeding in early November. With the cooperation of Lodge and Conein, the Ngo brothers were not just ousted, they were killed. (Douglass deals with this episode exceedingly well on pgs. 206-210) The death of the brothers deeply troubled Kennedy both morally and religiously. He ordered a complete review of how the August 24th cable was sent, why it was so urgent to do on the weekend, and why it was skewed so much in favor of the generals. (Goldstein p. 90)

In the aftermath of the coup, Bundy felt that perhaps the USA was now more committed to South Vietnam. But Kennedy did not waver from his withdrawal plan as helmed by McNamara. Goldstein quotes McNamara as saying to his biographer, "I believed that we had done all the training we could. Whether the South Vietnamese were qualified or not to turn back the North Vietnamese, I was certain that if they weren't it was not for lack of training. More training wouldn't strengthen them; therefore we should get out. The president agreed." (ibid p. 84) Therefore in early October, NSAM 263 was issued. This stated that the US would withdraw a thousand advisers by the end of 1963. The White House announcement coupled with this issuance said that it was the first step in the eventual removal of the bulk of American personnel by the end of 1965. (Newman, p. 402) And after November coup, Kennedy said in a speech on November 14th that he did not want the US to put troops in Vietnam. His intent was to bring the Americans home. (Goldstein, pgs 95-96)

As Goldstein notes, this was all changed by what happened in Dallas a week later.


Like most current scholarship, Goldstein describes the sea change that took place on the Vietnam issue after Johnson took over. Bundy told Goldstein that LBJ was not going to jeopardize his election by losing any aspect of the Cold War. (pgs. 98-99) He also told Goldstein that he did not really want to serve under LBJ, but he felt he had to until at least November of 1964. Bundy, and others, felt the real successor to JFK was Bobby Kennedy. (ibid)

The National Security Advisor states that there is no doubt that, from the first day, Johnson was preoccupied with Vietnam. (p. 105) For instance, Rusk said, "The President has expressed his deep concern that our effort in Vietnam be stepped up to the highest pitch, and that each day we ask ourselves what more we can do to further the struggle." (p. 105) McCone said, "Johnson definitely feels that we place too much emphasis on social returns; he has very little tolerance with our spending so much time being "do-gooders". (ibid) Johnson told McNamara that the USA was not doing everything it should in Vietnam. (p. 106) He sent McNamara to Saigon in order to give him a ground level report. Right before Christmas of 1963, McNamara returned with a bad report. (ibid, p. 107) The South Vietnamese had been lying about their progress in the war. A month after that, the Joint Chiefs sent a proposal to the White House recommending bombing the North and the insertion of US combat troops.

This is quite interesting of course. Not just because of the speed of the reversal. That has been noted by several other authors. But because the fulcrum of Kennedy's strategy had been to partly base his withdrawal strategy on the false reports he knew he was getting from South Vietnam. In fact, this was one of the main themes of Newman's milestone book. Namely, that Kennedy knew these were wrong. But he was going to utilize them to base his withdrawal plan on. But the Pentagon and the CIA finally understood what Kennedy was up to and began to change these reports. And they backdated the changes to July, 1963. (Newman, pgs 425, 441) McNamara had to have known this, since Kennedy had appointed him to run the withdrawal plan. But like the others, he understood a new sheriff was in town. So McNamara presented to LBJ the revised figures, the ones done as a reaction to Kennedy's withdrawal strategy. In light of this, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) responded with plans for both an American air and land war in Vietnam. On March 2, 1964 the JCS passed a new war proposal to the White House. This one was even more ambitious. It included bombing, the mining of North Vietnamese harbors, a naval blockade, and possible use of tactical atomic weapons, in case China intervened. (Goldstein, p. 108)

Johnson said he was not ready for this proposal since he did not have congress yet as a partner and trustee. (ibid, p. 109) But he did order the preparation of NSAM 288. This was essentially a target list of bombing sites that eventually reached 94 possibilities. (Edwin Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, pgs 24-25) By May 25th, with both Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater clamoring for bombing of the north, LBJ had made the decision that the US would directly attack North Vietnam at an unspecified point in the future. (ibid, p. 26) In fact, the specific campaign, with the steps involved leading to a continuous air campaign, had already been mapped out in time intervals. This plan included the passage of a congressional resolution. (ibid, p. 27) The rough draft of the resolution was drawn up by a young lawyer in the State Department. (ibid) In June, Mac Bundy's brother, William Bundy, finalized it. That month, Johnson began to lobby certain people in congress in advance. ( ibid, p. 26) On June 10th, McNamara said, "that in the event of a dramatic event in Southeast Asia we would go promptly for a congressional resolution." (ibid) But Bill Bundy added, the actual decision to expand the war would not be made until after the election. (ibid, p. 44) This is precisely what happened.

As Goldstein points out, there were other views being voiced at the time. People like Sen. Richard Russell, journalist Walter Lippmann, and French Premier DeGaulle were all pushing for a neutralization plan. It's interesting to compare Johnson's reaction to DeGaulle with Kennedy's. Whereas Kennedy took DeGaulle's opinion very seriously, Johnson told Bundy to call DeGaulle and get him to take back his appeal for neutralization. (Goldstein, p. 111) Considering all of the above, the only thing Johnson needed now was a casus belli—the "dramatic event" McNamara spoke of. LBJ himself had planted the seed for one.

As John Newman notes, when Johnson became president, he altered the rough draft of NSAM 273 in more than one way. The most significant alteration was probably to paragraph seven. (Newman, p. 446) In the rough draft prepared by Bundy, it allowed for maritime operations against the north—but only by the government of South Vietnam. (ibid, p. 440) This was changed by LBJ. He struck the sentence specifying that maritime operations be done by the South Vietnamese government. (ibid, p. 446) Probably because this would have taken time, since South Vietnam had no sophisticated navy to speak of. As Newman writes, "This revision opened the door to direct US attacks against North Vietnam, and CINCPAC OPLAN 34-63, which became OPLAN 34A, was promptly submitted to the White House..." (ibid)By December 21, 1963—less than one month after Kennedy was killed—McNamara presented Johnson with a paper entitled "Plans for Covert Action into North Vietnam". (ibid) One of the actions was to couple OPLAN 34A with DESOTO patrols in the Tonkin Gulf, all along the coast of North Vietnam. OPLAN 34 A consisted of hit and run strikes by small, quick patrol boats manned by South Vietnamese sailors. But outside of that, almost everything else about those missions was American in origin. The DESOTO patrols were completely American. These were destroyers manned with intelligence collecting machines to collect data on where things like North Vietnamese radar installations and torpedo boat harbors were. In other words, they worked in tandem.

The first naval operations went into effect in February of 1964. (Moise, , p. 6) The destroyer used at that time was called the Craig. The destroyer used for the second set of missions, beginning in July, was the Maddox. An important part of the mission was to "show the flag". (Moise, p. 55) And part of that was violating the claim the North Vietnamese made about the limits of their territorial waters. They said the limit was twelve miles. Yet on the July/August missions both the attacking patrol boats and the Maddox were in violation of that limit. Not just in relation to the mainland, but also relative to the islands off the coast, which were also attacked. (Moise, p. 68) As many authors have concluded, the design and action of the mission was a provocation. (ibid, p. 68) In fact, people inside the White House, like Forrestal and McCone, later agreed it was. (Goldstein, p. 125)

There were two incidents that took place in the first week of August, which gave Johnson the pretext to pass his resolution. On August 2nd the Maddox was attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Although torpedoes were launched, none hit. The total damage to the destroyer was one bullet through the hull. (Moise, p. 80) When the Defense Department briefed the senators on this first incident, they misrepresented it. They said the North Vietnamese fired first, that the USA had no role in the patrol boat raids, that the ships were in international waters, and there was no hot pursuit. These were all wrong. (Ibid, p. 87)

At this point, Captain Herrick of the Maddox suggested the missions be stopped. They were not. And the mission was given direct orders to violate the twelve mile territorial waters claim. Which they did. (ibid, p. 95) LBJ himself authorized the new OPLAN 34A attack on August 3rd. (ibid, p. 105) On this particular DESOTO patrol, the Turner Joy joined the Maddox. On August 4th, the Turner Joy reported that torpedo boats were approaching her. This message was relayed to Washington. McNamara used these messages in his discussion with Johnson. The Turner Joy then opened fire, eventually expending 300 shells. It was later discovered that they were firing at nothing. No attack took place that night. And in fact, the records of the Turner Joy were later altered " to make the evidence of an attack seem stronger than it actually was ..." (ibid, p.147)

The morning he first heard of the second incident, Johnson marched down to his National Security Advisor's office. Bundy told Goldstein that this, in itself, was quite unusual. (Goldstein, p. 126) LBJ then told Bundy, "Get the resolution your brother drafted." Bundy replied, "Mr. President, we ought to think about this." Johnson said, "I didn't ask you what you thought, I told you what to do." (ibid) That exchange should throw the final pile of dirt on the myth of Johnson as the "reluctant warrior"

But it's actually worse than that. Because today there is a debate on whether this exchange took place after the phony news of an actual attack, or whether Johnson talked to Bundy just upon hearing that the torpedo boats were approaching. According to Goldstein's chronology, LBJ told Bundy to get the resolution out before any of the phony news of an attack got to him. (ibid pgs 126-127) Which would mean of course that the attack, which did not occur, was superfluous to Johnson. He was going to use the non-event to get his pre-planned resolution through congress. And in fact, during a meeting on August 5th, Bundy actually said that the evidence for the first attack had stood up, but the evidence for the second attack was questionable. (White House Memorandum. 5 August, 1964.) In 2003, the National Security Archive, released a memo saying that on August 4th, Herrick had actually relayed a message to McNamara saying that the evidence for the second attack was doubtful. McNamara later believed that LBJ did what he did because he did not want to be attacked by the hawks as being weak or indecisive. In other words, he was protecting his right flank. (Moise, p. 211) But at the same time, by campaigning with slogans like "I will not send American boys to fight a war Asian boys should be fighting", he disguised his real designs from his Democratic base. (Goldstein, p. 129)

Sticking with his plan, Johnson took out the target list prepared by NSAM 288. He ordered air strikes that very day. But before the planes actually hit their targets, Johnson went on national television to announce the retaliation late on the night of August 4th. This alerted the North Vietnamese anti-aircraft batteries. So in the wee hours of August 5th, two pilots were shot down. (ibid, p. 219) But in another sense, the air strikes did the trick. Johnson's approval ratings on his handling of the war went up drastically. (ibid p. 226) Afterwards, Johnson continued to deceive congress. He told Sen. William Fulbright that OPLAN 34A was a South Vietnamese operation. ( ibid p. 227) The Tonkin Gulf resolution was passed by both houses, almost unanimously. The whole idea in ramming it through was to change the outline of the event from a provocation by the US into America being a victim of North Vietnamese aggression.

On August 7th, LBJ sent a message to Maxwell Taylor. He wanted a whole gamut of possible operations presented to him for direct American attacks against the North. This was received in the White House two days later. The target date for a systematic bombing campaign against the North was set for January of 1965. (Moise, p. 244) As we will see, Johnson missed this target by one month.

After Johnson ordered the reprisal bombing for the non-existent second attack, the government of North Vietnam met. They decided that direct American military intervention in the South was on its way. They also concluded that a continuous bombing campaign was also probable. They decided the public had to be made aware of the coming onslaught. In September, they also began to send the first North Vietnamese regulars down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Moise, p. 251)

All the above was made possible by the alterations in NSAM 273, which Johnson made four days after Kennedy was killed. In other words, LBJ was going to war over one bullet in a destroyer's hull.


The last part of Lessons in Disaster describes Bundy's slightly less than two years in the White House as Johnson implemented his plan to Americanize the war. If ever there was a case for dramatizing John Newman's axiom about 1964, it is in these pages. Newman said that Kennedy was using the 1964 election to disguise his withdrawal plan; Johnson used the election to disguise his intervention plan. In fact LBJ had once said, Vietnam could not be lost before the election, but it also could not blossom into an all-out war before it either. (Goldstein, p. 133) In fact, CIA analyst Ray Cline had told Bundy that if America waited to intervene until after the election, it would still allow time to save the day. (ibid pgs. 136-37)

For this book, Bundy threw himself into a review of Vietnam policy, especially under Johnson. The State Department had issued a report saying that a sustained aerial war would not be effective there. And it would not stop Hanoi from aiding the Viet Cong. Bundy ignored these warnings. He favored an air campaign. So did Max Taylor. LBJ disagreed. He told Taylor, "I have never felt this war will be won from the air, and it seems to me that what is much more needed and would be more effective is larger and stronger use of Rangers, and Special Forces, and Marines, or other appropriate military strength on the ground and on the scene." (ibid, p. 151) Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander in South Vietnam, also agreed in a ground war. In February of 1965, Bundy was touring the country. The Viet Cong attacked an officers HQ in Pleiku, where several Americans were killed and even more injured. Bundy recommended air strikes in retaliation. When Bundy got back to Washington, he asked Johnson about his recommendation. LBJ replied, "Well, isn't that all decided?" (ibid p. 158) And it had been. Operation Flaming Dart quickly escalated into Rolling Thunder, the greatest aerial bombardment campaign the world had ever seen. Johnson wanted Eisenhower's approval for it first. He got it in spades. Eisenhower even recommended tactical nukes if necessary. (p. 161) The Domino Theory was quite powerful.

The only person actually arguing with Johnson, in both public and private, was Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. When he addressed a long memo to Johnson arguing against escalation on quite practical grounds e.g. the instability of the South Vietnamese government, LBJ went ballistic. He barred him from any future meetings on Vietnam, and actually wanted surveillance put on him to see who he was talking to. (p. 162)

Once the air war escalated, Westmoreland argued for troops to protect the air base at Da Nang. Interestingly, Taylor argued against it since it would break the line in the sand that Kennedy had drawn. (p. 163) LBJ sided with Westmoreland. And the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam in March of 1965. Within two months of his inauguration, Johnson had begun both the air and land war he had been planning for over a year.

Johnson's next step was to ask the Secretary of the Army how many troops it would take to win the war. The response was 500,000 men and at least five years, probably more. (p. 165) On April 1st, just three weeks after the Da Nang landing, Johnson began to pour in the combat troops he felt he needed to win. The first contingent was of 20,000 men, and LBJ specifically changed their mission from base protection to offensive operations. By April 20th, Westmoreland was asking for an increase to 82,000 troops. He got them. (p. 171) At this point, Taylor understood what Johnson's aim was: He was going to give the military all the men it needed as fast as possible to win the war. He was right. Westmoreland asked for more combat troops on June 7th. He got 42,000 more. He then asked for 52,000 after that. He got them also. By the end of 1965, Johnson's first 11 months in office, there were over 175,000 combat troops in Vietnam. Under Kennedy there had been none.

Bundy understood by the end of 1965 that Westmoreland was committed to a war of attrition. He felt he did not do enough analysis of what the war was devolving into. He didn't press the story of what the real prospects for success were. He didn't measure the strengths and weaknesses of each side. He didn't ask: What kind of war will this be?, or How many losses will we sustain? (pgs. 178, 182) He had become a staff officer aiding his commander instead of a detached analyst measuring options in advance and giving the president the ups and downs of each option he takes. He felt that one of his greatest failures was that he never commissioned a detailed study as to what it would cost the USA in every aspect to completely secure South Vietnam. He failed to do this because he was initially in favor of intervention. He later told Goldstein that it was a serious error and he failed to ever address it. (p. 185) Bundy felt that another failure of his was that he did not understand that in this kind of war, numerical success did not equal military victory. Therefore Westmoreland's famous "body count" tally was not a good barometer of how the war was actually progressing. (p. 188) The incredible thing was that the worse it got, the more people like Eisenhower and Rusk urged Johnson on. And the more troops LBJ committed. But yet, Westmoreland wanted still more. By the second half of 1965, he wanted a doubling of the troop commitment, and a tripling of the air war. (pgs. 201-202) This is where Bundy and Johnson began to part company. Another issue where they parted was on how much to tell the American public. Bundy thought Johnson had to sell the war more to keep America committed. Johnson wanted to keep it low profile. (p. 198)

But there was something else that bothered Bundy about Johnson's constant escalation. That's because he found out the reason the military always got what they wanted. It was because the White House debates were nothing but a piece of choreographed stagecraft. The director being Lyndon Johnson, on instructions from Westmoreland. Bundy discovered that Westmoreland had a secret telegram channel to Johnson. Through this he would make a request, and Johnson would then OK it. It was at this point that LBJ would call the meeting on the requested escalation—after it had been approved. (pgs. 214-15) It was all meant to give people like him the feeling that they had a say in the decision, when they really did not. The decision was a fait accompli.

Bundy felt that both he and Johnson got caught up in the whole war of attrition fallacy: That even if they achieved only a stalemate, that was better than losing because it would show the world the USA was not a paper tiger. (pgs. 221-222) This was the level of sophistication that was guiding the decisions of this great epic tragedy by the end of 1965.

After it was all over, and the recriminations and many books had been written about it, Bundy decided to look back on his role in the debacle. One of the first books he read was David Halberstams's The Best and the Brightest. A book in which he figured prominently. Although he thought it was an entertaining and informative read, he concluded that the central thesis was just wrong. (pgs. 148-49) It was not the advisers—the best and brightest—who did the staff work who got us into the Vietnam War. It was the difference in the men who occupied the Oval Office. It was the difference between Kennedy and Johnson.

And with that, Lessons in Disaster joins a growing list of books that now almost fill up a shelf. In fact, we have now had two in the last year: Goldstein's and Virtual JFK. It's a shame it took so long for the truth to arrive. But finally, as Michael Morrissey wrote years ago, the second biggest lie about Kennedy's assassination can be laid to rest.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 22:18
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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