McGeorge and William Bundy were high among those Americans best qualified, by training and aptitude, for public leadership in the period following World War II. Born into the Eastern Establishment whose basic reference points were military preparedness and internationalism, they were also proteges of its conspicuous leaders, including Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson and Walter Lippmann. Predictably, both Bundys rose to high policy positions in the national security establishment during the dangerous Cold War years of the 1960s. Mac Bundy served at the apex, as national security advisor to President Kennedy and later to President Johnson; Bill Bundy was the Pentagon official in charge of international affairs and then assistant secretary of state for the Far East. Both were deeply involved in the crises of that period, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the narrowly resolved Cuban missile crisis and the confrontation with Khrushchev over Germany and the Berlin Wall. But it was their pivotal participation in the self-reinforcing misjudgments and dramatic failures of the Vietnam War that made them emblematic figures in the demise of the Eastern Establishment as the preeminent influence in U.S. foreign policy.
Kai Bird's keenly perceptive, thoroughly researched, fair and balanced book explores the major influences--their Boston Brahmin background; their education at Groton, Yale and Harvard; and eminent statesmen and intellectuals who served as their role models--which gave the Bundy brothers exceptional self-assurance, mental toughness, a powerful sense of duty to country, unswerving loyalty to established authority and the conviction that American interests must prevail in the Cold War against the phenomenon of international communism, which had emerged from World War II as the mortal new challenge to the survival of a democratic world order. Unfortunately, these admirable qualities, when applied without an intuitive sense of larger realities and values beyond the strictures of bureaucratic imperatives, led to hubris and disastrous failure in Vietnam. In this failure, of course, the Bundys were hardly alone. The author's detailed account of their major roles in the Vietnam imbroglio adds significantly to the historical record. It also makes for depressing reading.
They were quite different personalities. Mac, younger by one year, possessed a quicksilver mind of astonishing range and versatility that charmed a striking collection of distinguished older men while he was still in his 20s: Oxford historian Isaiah Berlin wrote to columnist Joseph Alsop after meeting Mac, "I have never admired anyone so much, so intensely." He was brisk to the point of brusque, enjoyed intellectual combat and irreverent wit but could be abrasive and cold. He had little time or talent for self-criticism. A half-admirer said: "[H]e is the iron priest of an iron faith in the definitiveness of his yes and no" and his "marvelous storehouse of language" makes everything he says "sound plausible. . . . He scares the hell out of me." The brilliant dean of Harvard College at 34 and for seven years there-after, Mac departed for Washington in 1961 evoking a prescient observation from his friend and colleague, sociologist David Riesman: "I grieved for Harvard and grieved for the nation; for Harvard because he was the perfect dean, for the nation because I thought that very same arrogance and hubris might be very dangerous."
Bill, the older brother, possessed a strong, self-assured intelligence but was more linear, more methodical than his fast-stepping sibling. Before his presidential appointments in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he was a respected senior analyst at the CIA, to which he had gravitated after deciding he was bored with the practice of law, and he embodied many characteristics of a top-grade career civil servant. He was likable, a workaholic possessed of what friends thought "just the right amount" of ego; rather prim about irreverence and ribald humor, he was both an exacting superior and a reliable servant of higher authority. As assistant secretary of state for the Far East, he was the Johnson administration's point man for day-to-day management of the Vietnam War, a progressively anguishing and thankless task. As frustration and fatigue mounted, he was increasingly gripped by tension and (unlike his brother) by doubt.