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McGeorge Bundy: "The Best and the Brightest"

McGeorge Bundy, 1919-1996

By Walter Isaacson

(TIME, September 30) -- His laserlike intellect radiated from behind his clear-rimmed glasses with an intensity as hot as his smile was cold. Had he been half as smart, he might have been a great man. Instead, McGeorge Bundy, who died last week in Boston of a heart attack at 77, came to personify the hubris of an intellectual elite that marched America with a cool and confident brilliance into the quagmire of Vietnam.

The early '60s will be remembered as a moment when meritocracy and patrician elitism enjoyed a celebrated cohabitation, the rise and then fall of which Bundy came to symbolize. The scion of a foreign policy establishment whose members unabashedly viewed America's leadership role (and their own) as a sacred destiny, Bundy became the epitome of the well-intentioned arrogance that David Halberstam grandly captured in The Best and the Brightest.

Born in Boston, a descendant of the Lowells, he was educated at Groton, where he displayed his admixture of smoothness and sharpness. On his college-board exam he refused to answer the essay questions on summer vacations or favorite pets, instead writing on how inane the topics were; although an initial grader flunked him, the supervising grader gave him a perfect score, the same he had got on his other entrance exams. At Yale (Phi Beta Kappa, Skull and Bones) he wrote a noted essay, "Is Lenin a Marxist?"; an editorial in the Yale Daily News calling for abolition of the football team; and a scholarly paper arguing for America's entry into World War II: "I believe in the dignity of the individual, in government by law, in respect for the truth, and in a good God; these beliefs are worth my life and more; they are not shared by Adolph Hitler."

He went on to Harvard as one of the exalted group of scholars called the Society of Fellows, joined the Navy by memorizing the eye charts after being rejected for poor vision, then returned to Harvard, where he taught the course on U.S. foreign policy. His lecture on Munich each year, in which he mimicked the players, drew standing-room crowds; he fervently conveyed his realist's belief in the dangers of appeasement and the role of military force in diplomacy.

On a flight down to Palm Beach, Florida, after his 1960 election, John Kennedy mused that he wished he could make Bundy his Secretary of State, but he was "too young." Instead he became National Security Adviser, transforming the job into the powerful fiefdom it has been ever since. It was a heady time as Bundy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and others exuberantly conceived limited-war options and counterinsurgency theories. Their intellectual firepower dazzled much of Washington, though Sam Rayburn did grumble to an awed Lyndon Johnson, "I'd feel a whole lot better about them if one of them had just run for sheriff once."

Throughout the Kennedy years, Bundy took a detached centrist position on Vietnam. But early in 1965, President Johnson, who proudly called Bundy "my intellectual" but liked to humiliate him by making him give briefings while Johnson sat on the toilet, sent Bundy on a fateful fact-finding trip to Vietnam. He arrived just as the Viet Cong launched a direct attack on an American base in Pleiku. Bundy got on the phone with the White House to urge retaliation, then traveled to Pleiku. For once in his coldly rational life, his response was emotional.

The report he wrote became a seminal document in America's escalation of the war: "The situation in Vietnam is deteriorating, and without new U.S. action defeat appears inevitable ... There is still time to turn it around, but not much ... The international prestige of the U.S. and a substantial part of our influence are directly at risk." And so a new policy, dubbed by Bundy "sustained reprisal," was born. "Well," Johnson said, "they made a believer out of you, didn't they?"

For a while after he resigned in 1966, Bundy continued to support the war. "Getting out of Vietnam is as impossible as it is undesirable," he told Johnson at a meeting of elder statesmen in late 1967. But when the elders assembled again the following March, Bundy told Johnson there had been "a significant shift" in their thinking. The meeting marked the disintegration of the cocksure knights of the cold war, and along with them America's sense of moral hegemony.

In the ensuing years, Bundy epitomized a fascinating subspecies of fallen statecraft wizards--including his brother Bill and McNamara--who seemed sentenced to wander in a purgatory where they sought to expiate their Vietnam sins and exorcise memories of being in cars surrounded by chanting protesters. "Mac is going to spend the rest of his life trying to justify his mistakes on Vietnam," commented his closest friend, Kingman Brewster, who was named president of Yale in 1963 after Kennedy talked Bundy out of accepting the job. He became president of the Ford Foundation (which in a different world would have come later, after being Secretary of State), wrote a thoughtful tome on the relationship between the atom bomb and diplomacy (with scant mention of Vietnam), and headed a Carnegie Corporation project studying nuclear proliferation.

In 1986 when Evan Thomas and I were writing The Wise Men, a history of American cold war diplomacy, Bundy told us that there was no such thing as the Establishment. If so, it was Bundy as much as anyone who brought about the end of an era in which foreign policy was entrusted to a noble club of gentlemen secure in their common outlook and bonds of trust. As his successor Walt Rostow recalled thinking at the end of the 1968 meeting of elders that Bundy helped convene, "The American establishment is dead."


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