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MARCHING AMERICA INTO A QUAGMIRE

THE COLOR OF TRUTH
McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms
By Kai Bird
Simon & Schuster 496pp $27.50

Three years ago, I watched as Robert S. McNamara stood before a crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York to discuss his new book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. In front of men who had killed for their country in Vietnam, the former Secretary of Defense admitted with icy calm that he had made a mistake. The protesters had been right all along. The war was unwinnable from the start. The domino theory was ridiculous. Nationalism had been confused with communism. There had never been a serious threat to U.S. security.

But McNamara did not apologize. Washington policymakers just didn't have all the facts, he said. There were people around Kennedy and Johnson who knew about Russia and Europe. No one knew anything about Asia.

A silence fell over the room. Middle-aged men in uniform, faced with the shattering truth of their actions in Vietnam, slowly shook their heads. After some moments, a lone woman rose from her chair and, in a voice choking with disbelief, asked: ''Why didn't you listen to the people in the streets, or the French who had decades of experience in Indochina, or the dozens of Asian specialists on campuses?''

McNamara smiled down from the podium and said: ''But they weren't in our circle.''

The Color of Truth by Kai Bird is a story of two who were in that circle--National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and his brother William P. Bundy, a high-ranking official in the State and Defense Depts. They were liberal, anticommunist cold warriors who served in both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, at the center of the decision-making that brought the U.S. into Vietnam and kept it there. Like McNamara, they believed in internationalism, interventionism, and liberal idealism. Unlike McNamara, however, they knew from the beginning, in 1962 and 1963, that the war was unwinnable--yet they remained in power for nearly a decade to prosecute it.

This compelling book tells how two extremely clever men--both well-bred, well-schooled, and well-intentioned--came to put loyalty to relationships over commitment to the nation's well-being. In tale after tale, it shows how deference to Presidential authority came to outweigh obligation to the soldiers in the field.

Bird tells the beginning of the story well: the fateful decision in the summer of 1963 to encourage the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, a move that paved the way for the introduction of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. Bird describes the National Security Council meeting on Aug. 31, where all but one at the table agreed on the decision. The lone dissenter was Paul Kattenburg, who had spent the 1950s in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer. Just back from Saigon, he saw that the South Vietnamese were tired of the war and wanted an end to it. Diem was secretly negotiating with the North.

President Kennedy's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell D. Taylor, challenged Kattenburg openly. Secretary of State Dean Rusk called his comments ''speculative.'' McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, sat silent. Years later, Kattenburg recalled that ''there was not a single person there that knew what he was talking about.''

Kattenburg was wrong. Bundy did know. In a masterful bit of reporting, Bird shows how Bundy had just weeks before sent his close friend, Michael V. Forrestal, to Vietnam. Unlike previous envoys, Forrestal listened to lower-ranking troops and to journalists such as Neil Sheehan of United Press International and David Halberstam of The New York Times. He reported back to Bundy that only major political reform could save the day, and that such reform was practically impossible. So Bundy knew what Kattenburg was saying--but he kept his own counsel, as he did throughout the entire war.

Bird does an impressive job of taking the reader behind the scenes throughout the Vietnam War years. But I found his early chapters on the upbringing of the Bundy boys the most telling. They explain the brothers' absolute confidence in the abilities of men like themselves--self-assured graduates of Groton and Exeter, of Yale, Princeton, and Harvard.

Bird shows how, at an early age, they attached themselves to older, powerful men--men such as former Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, brought to the dinner table by their father, who had himself served in the Cabinets of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Ideas were fiercely debated over dinner, but the key lesson learned was that relationships determined one's destiny. That led William and McGeorge to actively support their colleagues in the Cabinet and their President in prosecuting the war, despite private doubts.

McGeorge Bundy, of course, went on to head the Ford Foundation and promote liberal policies for many years after Vietnam, in much the same way as McNamara did at the World Bank. It was their reward for a job poorly done. Along with Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest and The Wise Men by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, Kai Bird's The Color of Truth forms a trilogy that shows that America, in times of difficulty, finds ''wise'' men to lead it. But they often lack the courage of their convictions to do so properly.

BY BRUCE NUSSBAUM



RELATED ITEMS

PHOTO: Cover, ``The Color of Truth''

BOOK EXCERPT: Chapter One of ``The Color of Truth''

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