(b. 30 March 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 16 September 1996 in Boston, Massachusetts), Harvard University academic who served as special assistant for national security affairs to presidents John F. Kennedy (1961–1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1966), after which he headed the Ford Foundation until 1979.
One of five siblings, Bundy was the third and youngest son and third child of Harvey Hollister Bundy, a leading Boston corporate lawyer, and Katharine ("Kay") Lowell Putnam, a homemaker and the daughter of one of Boston's most prominent families. He grew up in a family ethic of public service, intensified first by his father's and (later) his own conscious adherence to the tradition of assertive but principled U.S. internationalism that dated back to President Theodore Roosevelt, and was best represented in their lives by Henry L. Stimson (secretary of state under Herbert Hoover and secretary of war under both William Howard Taft and Franklin D. Roosevelt), under whom Bundy's father served in both the state and war departments. Bundy, who attended Dexter Lower School in Boston, Groton, an elite Massachusetts private school, and Yale University, his father's alma mater, invariably excelled academically, leaving Groton at age sixteen with perfect marks and graduating first in his Yale class in 1940 with a B.A. degree in mathematics. Elected to the Harvard Society of Fellows in 1941, after one year Bundy joined the U.S. Army, deciphering intelligence intercepts for Admiral Alan Kirk, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Sicily and Normandy invasions of World War II. Bundy, who rose to the rank of captain and was discharged in 1945, assisted in the planning of the Sicily and Normandy invasions.
After the war, for two years Bundy helped the elderly Stimson research and write his memoirs, On Active Service in Peace and War (1948), which laid out for future generations that influential statesman's worldview. Soon after, Bundy edited a volume of the official speeches of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, his brother William's father-in-law. Although Bundy had only an undergraduate degree, he switched fields from mathematics in 1949 to teach government and international affairs at Harvard University. In 1950 Bundy married Mary Buckminster Lothrop, a fellow Bostonian, with whom he had four sons. In 1953 Harvard appointed Bundy, now age thirty-four, as Dean of Arts and Sciences. He remained in the position until 1961, attracting such nationally known scholars as sociologist David Riesman to Harvard. Bundy was known for his intellectual brilliance, energy, swift assimilation of information, and wit, though his critics subsequently suggested that in Bundy's roles as dean and public official these superficial qualities masked an absence of deeper reflection and a tendency to accept prevailing conventional cold war wisdom.
Though nominally a Republican, Bundy was close to center-left Harvard liberals such as the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and like them Bundy supported and advised John F. Kennedy, his local Democratic senator, in Kennedy's 1960 campaign. In 1961 Kennedy appointed Bundy to the White House as presidential assistant for national security affairs, where his ambition, intellectual brilliance, and empathy with the president allowed him to greatly overshadow the secretary of state, Dean Rusk. Bundy's critics argue that he lacked a firm moral compass and often accorded overly high priority to pragmatic considerations of political expediency, as when he supported increases in strategic nuclear missiles he knew were unnecessary and a civil defense program whose ineffectiveness he recognized. Bundy's acquiescence reflected the degree to which he thought it his function to be a competent manager rather than an innovative formulator of policy. As Kennedy's gatekeeper on foreign affairs, Bundy controlled the access of both information and individuals to the president, prepared the agenda for National Security Council meetings, and selected the personnel for the task forces Kennedy established to handle specific foreign policy problems. Both Bundy and Kennedy shared a lively appreciation of the central significance of U.S. power and the need to employ it in situations—Cuba, Berlin, and Vietnam, for example—where U.S. interests or prestige might be at stake. Bundy considered it his role to ensure that the president was briefed on both sides of any issue and to this end sometimes played devil's advocate. Even so, within a few weeks of taking office, he approved the disastrous March 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt to overthrow the pro-Communist Cuban government of Fidel Castro that ended in fiasco and brought international humiliation to the United States.
Bundy was involved in every aspect of foreign policy formulation and implementation, including the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when the United States discovered that the Soviet Union had installed nuclear-armed missiles on Cuba and demanded their withdrawal. It fell to Bundy to inform Kennedy that American intelligence overflights had detected the presence of these weapons. Surprisingly indecisive, Bundy initially supported airstrikes to destroy the missiles, subsequently endorsed the naval quarantine option Kennedy eventually selected, yet then switched once more to airstrikes. When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent two somewhat contradictory responses to the United States' ultimatum on Cuba, it was Bundy who suggested replying only to the first, less confrontational message. Reflecting later on this crisis, in his book Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988), Bundy suggested that Kennedy employed "a certain excess of rhetoric," when more moderate language would have been less alarming to Americans. It also seems that, to resolve the 1958–1963 crisis over Berlin, Bundy would have welcomed a U.S. agreement with the Soviet Union whereby both recognized the separate existence of West and East Germany and their post–World War II boundaries and the two Germanies signed a non-aggression pact, suggestions prefiguring détente and Ostpolitik, but Bundy accepted without demur Kennedy's decision that such moves were politically infeasible. Bundy and Kennedy both emphasized that the United States would react forcibly should the Soviet Union or East Germany try to annex West Berlin—it was Bundy who drafted Kennedy's 1961 speech proclaiming Ich bin ein Berliner—but acquiesced in the Soviet decision that year to staunch the hemorrhage of East German refugees to the West by erecting the Berlin Wall.
By far the most controversial aspect of Bundy's government service was his responsibility for the escalation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Dissenters pilloried both Bundy and his brother William, assistant secretary of state for East Asia under President Lyndon B. Johnson, for their part in the growing U.S. entanglement. As early as 1961 Bundy suggested a limited deployment of U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, though Kennedy sent further military advisers instead, and in the following two years Bundy endorsed various paramilitary operations. When army officers opposed to South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem planned a coup in autumn 1963, Bundy acquiesced and kept himself closely informed of their developing plans. After Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, Bundy continued to serve President Johnson. Convinced by early 1964 that South Vietnam's government was ineffective and corrupt and that victory in the war would demand major domestic political reforms within South Vietnam, Bundy volunteered to go there himself as U.S. ambassador, an offer Johnson declined. Despite some personal misgivings over its likely success, Bundy acquiesced in Johnson's decision to react to the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident with a gradually escalating bombing campaign, accepting that the president best comprehended the political implications. In early 1965 Bundy visited Vietnam for the first time, a trip that coincided with Viet Cong attacks on U.S. Air Force personnel based at Pleiku. Bundy immediately demanded heavy U.S. retaliation through an escalated bombing campaign of "sustained reprisals" against North Vietnam. Despite some doubts about the efficacy of large troop deployments, in mid-1965 Bundy accepted Johnson's decision to commit U.S. ground forces. Bundy himself later suggested that, had Kennedy lived, he would have avoided full-scale American intervention, but that in mid-1965 political and psychological considerations made Johnson so determined to commit troops, he would have ignored whatever arguments his advisers made to the contrary. Critics, however, assailed Bundy's own contemporaneous failure to undertake any serious efforts to dissuade Johnson.
Personal incompatibility with Johnson led Bundy to leave his administration in January 1966 to head the Ford Foundation. He remained until 1979, moving that institution to support aggressive and often controversial policies on race relations, the environment, the creation of public television, and ethical investing. Yet Vietnam perennially dogged Bundy, effectively destroying his chances of becoming secretary of state or president of a major university. Following the gentleman's code in which he was reared, Bundy refused either to defend his record or to publicly criticize Johnson administration policies, and for the rest of his life rarely even discussed them. Until early 1968 he supported the war, albeit in March 1967 warning against any further escalation and in November 1967 advising Johnson to persevere but gradually to de-escalate the U.S. commitment while enhancing South Vietnamese self-reliance. After the massive early 1968 Tet Offensive, Bundy finally advocated a bombing halt. Shortly afterward, with most of the other "Wise Men" the administration consulted, Bundy told a shocked Johnson that victory was unattainable and recommended that the United States open peace negotiations with North Vietnam. While defending the war's conduct to date, in October Bundy publicly called for steady U.S. troop withdrawals until 100,000 were left in place, if necessary indefinitely, and a bombing halt. In 1971, moreover, Bundy testified before Congress in favor of limiting presidential power to fight wars without congressional consent, an indirect commentary on Johnson's behavior in 1965. For ten years, from 1979, he taught at New York University, writing on nuclear policy. In 1982, together with George F. Kennan, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith, he called for no U.S. first-use of nuclear weapons. Bundy died suddenly of heart failure in Boston and was buried at Saint John's Church, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.
Bundy embodied the strengths, virtues, limitations, and weaknesses of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, whose heir he considered himself, and the credibility of whose outlook the Vietnam War helped to destroy. Although preeminent among those whom journalist David Halberstam termed "the best and the brightest," despite his outstanding ability and intelligence Bundy was unwilling to question conventional wisdom beyond certain limits. His lengthy and distinguished subsequent career notwithstanding, his reputation never entirely recovered from the damage wreaked by his perceived responsibility for Vietnam, and until his death this record made him a controversial figure.
Collections of Bundy's papers are at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library at the University of Texas at Austin. Additional manuscript material on his time in government service is in records of the Department of State in the National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. The Ford Foundation Archives, New York City, contain his records as president of the foundation. The relevant volumes of the series Foreign Relations of the United States contain numerous materials produced by Bundy, and his evolving position during the Cuban Missile Crisis may be followed in Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (1997). Bundy reflects on various aspects of his government service in Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988), and also in David A. Welch and James G. Blight, eds., On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (1989). The only biography is Kai Bird, The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms: A Biography (1998). Shorter assessments include Joseph Kraft, Profiles in Power: A Washington Insight (1966); and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., "A Man Called Mac," George (Dec. 1996). David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972), focuses heavily on Bundy's responsibility for Vietnam. Bundy features extensively in numerous other works on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, including David M. Barrett, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisers (1993); Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (1995); and Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy's Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (2000). Bundy's activities at the Ford Foundation may be followed in that institution's Annual Reports from 1966 through the 1970s; they are also discussed in Waldemar A. Nielsen, The Golden Donors: A New Anatomy of the Great Foundations (1985). Among tributes to Bundy are Peter Solbert in the Century Association Yearbook (1997): 272–275, and Francis M. Bator, "Glimpses of Mac," Groton School Quarterly (May 1997). Bundy recorded oral histories for the Kennedy and Johnson Libraries. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 17 Sept. 1996), and the Daily Telegraph and the (London) Times (both 18 Sept. 1996).
(b. 30 March 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 16 September 1996 in Boston, Massachusetts), dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and president of the Ford Foundation.
The Bundy saga is an emblematic story of the “American century.” Smart and gifted, this Boston Brahmin family endowed their sons with all the privileges and opportunities of the American establishment. Bundy was one of five children born to Harvey Hollister Bundy, a Yale-and Harvard-trained lawyer, and Katharine Lawrence Putnam, a homemaker and niece of Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell. Like his elder brothers, Harvey and William, McGeorge Bundy was sent to the elite Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts, from the age of twelve until he graduated in 1936. He then followed his father and brothers to Yale University, where he was tapped as a member of Skull and Bones, a secret society. Graduating from Yale in 1940, Bundy traveled in South America for a year and then was selected as a junior fellow at Harvard.
During World War II, Bundy’s father served as the executive assistant to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Bundy and his brother William were both trained as signal intelligence officers. Assigned to Bletchley Park outside of London, William Bundy became one of America’s leading cryptographers, privy to the war’s most closely guarded secret, the German military cipher, code-named ULTRA. McGeorge Bundy served as Admiral Alan Kirk’s “one-time-pad” man, decoding similar intelligence intercepts during the 1944 Normandy invasion. The experience left the Bundy brothers with an appreciation for what an important weapon intercept intelligence could be to those who had to make decisions about war and peace in a dangerous age.
In February 1947 Bundy ghost-wrote Stimson’s classic defense of the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Published in Harper’s magazine in February 1947, the Stimson-Bundy essay helped to convince a generation of Americans that the atomic bombing was a justifiable act of war. Four decades later, in a scholarly book titled Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988), Bundy quietly retracted many of the arguments he had advanced in Stimson’s name to defend the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A year later he was a coauthor of Stimson’s memoirs, On Active Service in Peace and War. Published in 1948, just as the cold war was unfolding, the book became a bible of the establishment’s worldview, an argument for an activist foreign policy. As a young man in his early thirties, Bundy’s mentors included Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the poet Archibald MacLeish, Henry Lewis Stimson, Walter Lippmann, Dean Acheson, Judge Learned Hand, John J. McCloy, Joseph Alsop, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Allen Dulles.
In 1949, having established himself as an up-and-coming young policy intellectual, Bundy began teaching government and world affairs at Harvard. Though he lacked a doctorate in any field, he quickly received tenure, and by 1953, at the precocious age of thirty-four, he was appointed dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. By then, Bundy had married Mary Buckminster Lothrop (on 10 June 1950), an associate director of admissions at Radcliffe. The couple had four sons.
At Harvard throughout the 1950s, Dean Bundy had to defend the university from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political witch-hunts. He protected those few tenured Harvard professors who had once been members of the Communist Party and who refused to “name names.” But as a cold war anticommunist liberal, Bundy also felt compelled to sacrifice some of the untenured scholars who refused to cooperate with the FBI.
When John F. Kennedy occupied the White House in 1961, McGeorge Bundy was named the president’s special assistant for national security affairs and William Bundy became a deputy assistant secretary of defense. In the early 1960s, Bundy managed one crisis after another: the Bay of Pigs, Laos, Berlin, and the most dangerous nuclear confrontation of the entire cold war—the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also supervised numerous covert intelligence operations, including Operation Mongoose, which aimed to destabilize Fidel Castro’s Cuba. But it was Bundy’s role as an early architect of the war in Vietnam that engulfed his career in controversy. At every stage of the war—from the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 to the Gulf of Tonkin affair in 1964, from the bombing campaign of Operation Rolling Thunder to President Johnson’s July 1965 decision to send hundreds of thousands of American combat troops to Vietnam—Bundy helped to fashion a policy of gradual escalation.
When Bundy initially recommended a sustained bombing campaign to Johnson in February 1965, he warned the president, “We cannot assert that a policy of sustained reprisal will succeed in changing the course of the contest in Vietnam. It may fail, and we cannot estimate the odds of success with any accuracy—they may be somewhere between 25 percent and 75 percent. What we can say is that even if it fails, the policy will be worth it. At a minimum it will dampen down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own.”
During the critical decisions of 1964–1965, Bundy urged President Johnson not to make an open-ended commitment of American ground troops. In June 1965, Bundy warned Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara that his proposal to introduce large numbers of troops was “rash to the point of folly.” The president’s national security adviser clearly understood the risks associated with any attempt to wage a ground war in Southeast Asia.
When the conflict nevertheless escalated into a major land war, Bundy persevered in a policy that he had known from the beginning was dubious. But like Robert McNamara, he now defended the war in public even while in private he increasingly acknowledged that it was not going well. In November 1965, Bundy informed President Johnson that he had decided to accept the presidency of the Ford Foundation.
Two weeks before he finally left the White House in early 1966, Bundy wrote a memorandum for his files in which he took issue with what he called the “Lippmann Thesis.” Contrary to syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann’s assumption that the United States didn’t belong in Southeast Asia, Bundy noted that “we have been the dominant power” for twenty years. “The truth is that in Southeast Asia we are stronger than China.” The war’s casualties were terrible, but the “danger to one man’s life, as such, is not a worthy guide. … If the basic questions of interest, right, and power are answered, the casualties and costs are to be accepted.” As to Lippmann’s frequent argument that where the French had failed, the Americans were no more likely to succeed, Bundy retorted, “There has been no serious proof of French political effectiveness since 1919.”
How could Bundy warn against the “folly” of intervention and then barely nine months later tell himself that the “casualties and costs are to be accepted”? One explanation seems to rest in the fact that as a liberal he feared the conservative alternative. Bundy knew he could hold his own in any debating forum with the antiwar students and his critics in the academy. Indeed, some of the war’s critics included his Cambridge friends and former colleagues, intellectuals like David Riesman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Stanley Hoffmann, and Hans Morgenthau.
If opposition to the war came from the left, Bundy understood that the real threat lay to their right. Once President Johnson had decided to take a stand in South Vietnam, the job of men like Bundy was to contain the war. If not managed by liberals, he felt this war could easily have become a Chinese-American war, a rerun of the Korean War. If the Chinese communists intervened with large numbers of ground troops, Bundy knew that the pressures from the Joint Chiefs to use tactical nuclear weapons would become irresistible. There were, as Bundy said, “wild men waiting in the wings.”
Caricatured as a war criminal by the New Left in the 1960s,” Bundy in the decades afterward remained a liberal in every sense of the word. As president of the Ford Foundation, he lent intellectual and financial support to a whole range of liberal causes, including affirmative action, the environment, arms control, public television, and public interest law. He became an eloquent critic of institutionalized white racism. It was, he wrote in 1968, the “white man’s fears and hates that must have first place” in explaining the condition of the American Negro.
In 1982 Bundy—together with George Kennan, Gerard Smith, and Robert McNamara—wrote a major essay in Foreign Affairs arguing that the United States should abandon its policy of “first use” of nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The essay made headlines around the globe.
Even in his twilight years, Bundy helped to frame the debate on arms control negotiations with the Soviets, the future of NATO, and the nature of the national security state at the end of the cold war. And yet, on the issue of the war that will forever be associated with his name, he remains an enigma.
Bundy died in Boston of heart failure at the age of seventy-seven. His funeral service was held in St. John’s Church in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. His old Harvard friend Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wistfully noted that Bundy represented “the last hurrah of the Northeast Establishment. He was the final executor of the grand tradition of Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John J. McCloy—patricians who, combining commitment to international responsibility with instinct for command and relish in power, served the republic pretty well in the global crises of the twentieth century.” On a personal level, Schlesinger remembered his friend as a man of “sparkling personality, witty and elegant.” Bundy, he said, had displayed the courage to “transcend the politics and the complacencies of his class.” Born a privileged Republican, he had become a liberal Democrat. “A single tragic error,” Schlesinger concluded, “prevented him from achieving his full promise as a statesman.”
Some of Bundy’s papers are in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library together with numerous oral history interviews. Kai Bird wrote the only biography of McGeorge Bundy: The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (1998). Many books on the Vietnam War feature Bundy, including Milton Viorst, Hustlers and Heroes: An American Political Panorama (1971); David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972); Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam (1982); John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA from Wild Bill Donovan to William Casey (1986); Raymond L. Garthoft, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (1987); Sigmund Diamond, Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of Universities with the Intelligence Community, 1945–1955 (1992); H. W. Brands, The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War (1993); Lloyd C. Gardner, Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam (1995); Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, an anthology on the atomic bomb edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz (1998); and Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of the War in Vietnam (1999). Bundy himself is the author of Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988), and the editor of The Pattern of Responsibility: From the Record of Dean Acheson (1952). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 Sept. 1996).
Born March 30, 1919
Died September 16, 1996
U.S. national security advisor, 1961–1966
McGeorge Bundy played a major role in shaping U.S. military policies toward Vietnam during the early and mid-1960s. During his years as national security advisor, Bundy urged both President John F. Kennedy (see entry) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (see entry) to expand America's military role in the war. By 1965, however, Bundy's confidence in an eventual U.S. victory was badly shaken. His doubts about continued American involvement in the Vietnam War became so great that he resigned from the Johnson administration in early 1966.
Early reputation for brilliance
McGeorge Bundy was born March 30, 1919, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was one of three sons of Harvey H. Bundy, an attorney and government official, and Katharine (Putnam) Bundy. Bundy's parents enrolled their sons in Massachusetts' finest schools, where all three boys excelled in their studies. After graduating from Groton School in 1936, McGeorge applied for admission into Yale University, one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. Yale gladly accepted Bundy after he posted the school's first-ever perfect score on its entrance exam.
During his years of study at Yale, Bundy distinguished himself as a brilliant and energetic student. He won numerous academic honors at the school, where he majored in mathematics. But he became even better known around the school for his active involvement in journalism and his interest in both local and national politics. After graduating from Yale in 1940, Bundy was invited to teach U.S. foreign policy at Harvard University. The young scholar soon became one of the most popular instructors at Harvard.
In 1942 Bundy managed to gain acceptance into the U.S. Army despite suffering from extremely poor eyesight. He entered the military as a private but received extensive training as an intelligence officer. He served in the army for the next four years as World War II raged across Europe and the Pacific Rim. During this time he helped devise strategy for a variety of military operations, including major invasions of France and Italy. He left the army in 1946 as a captain.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bundy's image as a brilliant and ambitious young man continued to flourish. He remained a member of the Harvard faculty while simultaneously working his way into powerful political circles. In 1948 and 1949, for example, he served as a political analyst for the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations, and in 1952 he edited a collection of Secretary of State Dean Acheson's public papers. In 1950 he married Mary Buckminster Lothrop, with whom he eventually had four sons.
In 1953 Bundy was named dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. This was an amazing honor for someone of Bundy's age—he was only 34 years old at the time—and reflected his growing national reputation as a brilliant administrator and decisive leader. He spent the next several years attending to his duties at Harvard and building strong relationships with a number of prominent American politicians, including John F. Kennedy.
The best and the brightest
In November 1960 Kennedy was elected president of the United States. As Kennedy prepared to take office in January 1961, he asked dozens of bright young men from the nation's most highly regarded universities, companies, and foundations to accept important government posts in his administration. He reserved a special spot in his administration for Bundy, making him his national security advisor. Bundy and the other men selected by Kennedy eventually came to be known as "the Best and the Brightest," a new generation of capable leaders who would guide America into the future.
In earlier presidential administrations, the position of national security advisor had not always been that important. But Kennedy gave Bundy a great deal of authority and relied on him for advice on military policies and other national security issues. For example, Bundy was responsible for overseeing the National Security Council (NSC) and developing the Kennedy administration's overall military and foreign policy strategies. Before long, Bundy was widely known as one of Kennedy's closest and most trusted advisors on a wide range of issues.
In the early 1960s Bundy helped Kennedy reach decisions on many different areas of public policy. But he is best remembered for encouraging the president to increase America's military commitment to the troubled nation of South Vietnam.
South Vietnam had been created only a few years earlier, when Vietnamese forces ended decades of French colonial rule. The 1954 Geneva peace agreement that ended the French-Vietnamese conflict created two countries within Vietnam. North Vietnam was headed by a Communist government under revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (see entry). South Vietnam, meanwhile, was led by a U.S.-supported government under President Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry).
The Geneva agreement provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 so that the two parts of Vietnam could be united under one government. But U.S. and South Vietnamese officials refused to hold the elections because they feared that the results would give the Communists control over the entire country. When the South refused to hold elections, North Vietnam and its allies in the South—known as the Viet Cong—launched a guerrilla war against Diem's government. The United States responded by sending money, weapons, and advisors to aid in South Vietnam's defense. By the early 1960s, however, Bundy and some other American analysts became concerned that South Vietnam might collapse and trigger a wave of Communist aggression around the globe.
A "hawk" on Vietnam
Bundy firmly believed that South Vietnam could be saved if the United States took a more active role in the conflict. After all, America possessed technology and military power that were far superior to those of North Vietnam. In addition, Bundy interpreted the civil war in Vietnam as a test of American resolve. He felt that the United States needed to show the world that Communist aggression would not be allowed to go unpunished. These feelings, which were shared by many other Kennedy administration "hawks" (supporters of American military involvement in Vietnam), shaped U.S. military policy toward Vietnam for the next several years.
In November 1963 Kennedy was assassinated, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president. But Johnson retained Bundy and most other Kennedy officials for his own administration. During his first year as Johnson's national security advisor, Bundy continued to advocate an expansion of the U.S. military role in Vietnam. He and other administration hawks remained certain that as America unleashed more and more of its military power on the Viet Cong and their allies in the North, the Communists would give up the fight.
In 1965, however, Bundy's confidence in an eventual American victory began to crumble. In February of that year he made a personal tour of Vietnam that deeply troubled him. Despite massive amounts of American military and economic aid, the nation seemed to him to be tottering on the brink of a Communist takeover. The "energy and persistence [of the Viet Cong] are astonishing," he warned Johnson in a secret cable message. Bundy also stated that during his travels, he detected a "widespread belief that we [the United States] do not have the will and force and patience and determination to take the necessary action and stay the course." He concluded his message by urging the president to approve "continuous" bombing attacks on North Vietnam and other new military measures.
Over the next several months, the United States dramatically escalated its involvement in the Vietnam War. Johnson approved a major bombing campaign against North Vietnam called Operation Rolling Thunder. He also sent U.S. combat troops to fight in the conflict. But when these actions failed to stop the Communist threat, Bundy became convinced that an American victory in Vietnam was years away.
In early 1966 Bundy's doubts about the war led him to submit his resignation and leave the government. But he never publicly expressed his fears that American involvement in Vietnam was a terrible mistake. Instead, he continued to advise Johnson on an informal basis after assuming the presidency of the Ford Foundation, an organization that supports a wide range of educational, antipoverty, and nation-building programs around the world.
After Bundy's departure, the war continued to drag on with no end in sight. Public opposition exploded across the country, and Johnson's presidency came under intense criticism for its actions in Vietnam. This criticism became even stronger in early 1968, after North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive—a massive attack against American and South Vietnamese positions throughout South Vietnam.
In March 1968 Johnson asked Bundy and other close advisors—known collectively as the "Wise Men"—to meet with him about the war. Johnson hoped that the men could help him devise a strategy to win the war. But to Johnson's great dismay, Bundy and the others urged him to withdraw American troops from Vietnam and begin peace negotiations with the Communists. "I am much affected by my belief that the sentiment in the country on the war has shifted very heavily since the Tet offensive," Bundy told Johnson. "This is not because our people are quitters . . . . What has happened is that a great many people—even very determined and loyal people—have begun to think that Vietnam really is a bottomless pit." A short time later, Johnson announced a halt to the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign and called on North Vietnam to begin peace talks.
Bundy's post-Vietnam career
Bundy remained at the Ford Foundation until 1979, when he joined the faculty of New York University as a professor of history. He taught at the school from 1979 to 1989, during which time he became a notable critic of nuclear arms proliferation around the world. He also wrote two critically acclaimed studies of this issue—Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988) and Reducing Nuclear Danger: The Road Away from the Brink (1993).
In 1990 Bundy accepted the chairmanship of the Carnegie Corporation's Committee on Reducing Nuclear Danger. He continued his association with the Carnegie Corporation until 1996, when he died of a heart attack in his home-town of Boston.
Berman, Larry. Lyndon Johnson's War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.
Bird, Kai. The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.
Heath, Jim F. Decade of Disillusionment: The Kennedy-Johnson Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.
Herring, George C. LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Isaacson, Walter. "The Best and the Brightest: McGeorge Bundy, 1919–1996." Time, September 30, 1996.
Just, Ward. "A Man of the Establishment." Newsweek, September 30, 1996.
McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996) served as national security adviser to both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. He later was president of the Ford Foundation and was instrumental in expanding its programs to emphasize equal opportunity in the United States. When he died at the age of 77, he was serving as a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Corporation.
McGeorge Bundy was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 30, 1919. His father was a close associate of Henry L. Stimson, who served Herbert Hoover as secretary of state and Franklin D. Roosevelt as secretary of war. Bundy graduated first in his class at Yale in 1940 and became a junior fellow at Harvard in 1941. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II as an aide to Admiral Alan Kirk. In that capacity he assisted with the planning for the invasions of Sicily and France.
After he left the armed forces in 1946 Bundy had the opportunity of working with Stimson on the latter's autobiography, On Active Service (1948). He then worked briefly in Washington on implementation of the Marshall Plan before joining Thomas E. Dewey's presidential campaign as a consultant on foreign policy issues. Any doubt that he was a rising star of the foreign policy establishment was dispelled by his appointment as a political analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations in late 1948.
Bundy stayed with the Council for less than a year and then accepted an appointment to teach foreign policy at Harvard. There, despite the absence of the usual graduate degrees or scholarly publications, he rose rapidly, becoming a full professor within five years. Even before that, at the age of 34, he was appointed dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. Popular with students and faculty, Bundy had an extraordinary academic career.
Although he considered himself a Republican and campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Bundy rejected Richard M. Nixon in favor of John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 1961 Kennedy appointed him special assistant to the president for national security, a post he held until his resignation five years later.
Bundy assembled a brilliant staff and, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he shared responsibility for advising the president on foreign policy. Unlike his successors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bundy engaged in no ostentatious struggle for power with the secretary of state. He deferred publicly to the courtly Rusk, content with the knowledge that he was closer to the president, had superior access to him, and controlled much of what the president heard or saw. More than anyone else, Bundy controlled the process by which decisions were made. Anyone unaware and/or unappreciative of his modus operandi was unworthy of his concern. He was confident that those who mattered— establishment figures such as Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy and great journalists like Walter Lippmann and James Reston—all recognized the advantages of mind and position he held.
In temperament Bundy was closer to Kennedy than Rusk. Rusk perceived some of the world's problems as intractable. They had antedated his appointment and would doubtless persist long after he was gone. He did not believe that there was an American action that would soothe Indian and Pakistani, Arab and Israel relations. Some problems were best left unaddressed. Bundy, like Kennedy, had little patience for Rusk's approach. They were men of action, always ready to take the necessary risks, confident that as long as they were leading, the United States could fashion the world as it chose. And they did not hesitate to use American power. Kennedy liked action and quick decisions. Bundy's staff was more likely to provide both than was the Department of State.
After Kennedy's death, Bundy stayed on to serve Lyndon Johnson. He played a central role in the decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, joining McNamara in urging the president to approve the bombing of North Vietnam opposed by Rusk. Bundy was also instrumental in the decision to send American troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965.
Although Bundy and Johnson worked well together initially, by 1966 the relationship had deteriorated. Johnson was more comfortable with Rusk, also from the South, than with the upper-class Eastern intellectuals Bundy seemed to personify. Bundy found Johnson's style of leadership disorderly and irritating. He was offended by Texas hyperbole and the concomitant loss of credibility so essential to maintain public support of policy. When offered the presidency of the Ford Foundation in 1966, Bundy was less eager to stay in Washington than he had been in the days of the Kennedy administration and found Johnson less determined to keep him there than Kennedy had been. Bundy accepted the Ford Foundation offer in February 1966.
The Ford Foundation had long played an important role in international development and education. During Bundy's presidency the foundation continued those activities, but it also added major new programs to fight racism at home. The struggle for equal opportunity became its highest domestic concern.
Bundy retired from the presidency of the Ford Foundation in 1979 and joined the Department of History at New York University. Throughout those years, both at Ford and at NYU, he retained his interest in foreign policy and his prestige in the foreign policy community. He was one of the "wise men" who advised Johnson to end the war in Vietnam in 1968. In the 1980s he joined forces with McNamara and George Kennan in an effort to alert Americans to the growing danger of nuclear war and to the need to end the arms race. They failed to persuade President Ronald Reagan.
Bundy later became a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Corporation. While he was there he was deeply concerned with issues of science and survival in the age of nuclear technology. He espoused the importance of proper understanding and implementation of nuclear technology on the part of the President of the United States, and he bemoaned the apparent lack of direction in this regard at the highest echelons of government. He was listed as a contributor to Brown University's Journal of World Affairs in 1995. He died of a heart attack in 1996. Journalist Walter Isaacson said that Bundy "came to personify the hubris of an intellectual elite that marched America with a cool and confident brilliance into the quagmire of Vietnam."
Among the most useful books touching on Bundy's role are David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972) and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (1965). See also Warren I. Cohen, Dean Rusk, Vol. 19 in Samuel F. Bemis and Robert H. Ferrell, editors, The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (1980) and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point (1971).
Bundy, McGeorge, Reducing Nuclear Danger: The Road Away from the Brink, Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993.
Newsweek, September 30, 1996.
The Scientist, June 24, 1996.
Time Magazine, September 30, 1996. □
Born into Boston Brahmin society, Bundy was educated at Groton School, Yale College, and Harvard University. Deemed unfit for military service because of nearsightedness, he memorized the eye chart in order to join the army as a private and rose to become a captain by the end of World War II. In 1949 he joined the Harvard government department, teaching a popular world affairs course, and in 1953, at age thirty‐four, he became dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He was a foreign policy consultant to Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, and afterwards accepted Kennedy's invitation to come to Washington to reorganize and oversee the National Security Council (NSC).
At Kennedy's request, Bundy adopted a broad view of his responsibilities at the NSC, and came to enjoy a close working relationship with the president and other senior officials. As a result, Bundy was at the center of practically all major foreign policy deliberations, including Kennedy's decision to launch the ill‐fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Berlin Wall episode, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the escalation of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
As the United States became involved in Vietnam War, Bundy emerged as a leading advocate of “sustained reprisals” against North Vietnam. When in January 1965 it appeared that the South Vietnamese were nearing collapse, he joined with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in urging President Johnson to step up the use of U.S. military power and to expand the air war against the North. Many historians have since come to see this as a major turning point, setting the stage for the large‐scale U.S. intervention later that year. Much criticized for his role in Vietnam policy, Bundy left government in 1966 to become president of the Ford Foundation. In later years, Bundy devoted himself to research and writing on the threat of nuclear war and ways of curbing it.
David Halberstam , The Best and the Brightest, 1969.
McGeorge Bundy , Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years, 1988.
Kai Bird , The Color of Truth: McGeorge and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms, 1998.
Steven L. Rearden
McGeorge Bundy, 1919–96, U.S. educator and government official, b. Boston. An Army intelligence officer during World War II, he was on the Harvard faculty 1949–61, becoming the youngest dean of the faculty of arts and sciences in 1953. As the special assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson for national security affairs (1961–66), Bundy supervised the staff of the National Security Council and played a major role in making foreign policy. He supported the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, helped determine strategy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and strongly advocated increasing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. He resigned from government to serve as president of the Ford Foundation (1966–79). Bundy was the author of The Strength of Government (1968) and Danger and Survival (1988).
See K. Bird, The Color of Truth (1998); G. G. Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam (2008).