RICHARD HOLBROOKE | NYT | November 28, 2008
In 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy brought to Washington a new generation of pragmatic young activists who came to be known as the New Frontiersmen. When the journalist Theodore White later wrote a memorable photo essay about them for Life magazine, he called them the “action-intellectuals.”
The most celebrated were Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, whose title — modest by today’s standards — was special assistant to the president for national security affairs, but whose importance was great (today the position has a more grandiose title — national security adviser). McNamara, of course, became one of the most controversial public servants in modern times, while Bundy got less attention, except for Kai Bird’s excellent 1998 dual biography of him and his brother William (who had served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia).
But in “Lessons in Disaster,” Gordon Goldstein’s highly unusual book, Bundy emerges as the most interesting figure in the Vietnam tragedy — less for his unfortunate part in prosecuting the war than for his agonized search 30 years later to understand himself.
Bundy was the quintessential Eastern Establishment Republican, a member of a family that traced its Boston roots back to 1639. His ties to Groton (where he graduated first in his class), Yale and then Harvard were deep. At the age of 27, he wrote, to national acclaim, the ‘memoirs” of former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. In 1953, Bundy became dean of the faculty at Harvard — an astonishing responsibility for someone still only 34. Even David Halberstam, who would play so important a role in the public demolition of Bundy’s reputation in his classic, “The Best and the Brightest,” admitted that “Bundy was a magnificent dean” who played with the faculty “like a cat with mice.”
As he chose his team, Kennedy was untroubled by Bundy’s Republican roots —the style, the cool and analytical mind, and the Harvard credentials were more important. “I don’t care if the man is a Democrat or an Igorot,” he told the head of his transition team, Clark Clifford. “I just want the best fellow I can get for the particular job.” And so McGeorge Bundy entered into history — the man with the glittering résumé for whom nothing seemed impossible.