William P. Bundy, 83, Dies; Advised 3 Presidents on American Policy in Vietnam

 

By Douglas Martin, , October 7, 2000

William P. Bundy, who under three presidents was a central figure in Vietnam policy and who ultimately concluded that the war was "a tragedy waiting to happen," died yesterday at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 83.

A family friend, Harry McPherson, said he died of heart trouble.

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Mr. Bundy's name "would probably be on more pieces of paper dealing with Vietnam over a seven-year period than anyone else's," David Halberstam wrote in "The Best and the Brightest."

Yet, Mr. Halberstam observed, "he was the man about whom the least was known."

Mr. Bundy served at high, but never the highest levels of the foreign policy bureaucracy, the Central Intelligence Agency and the defense and state departments. By contrast his brother McGeorge, who was 18 months younger, was national security adviser to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

William's role in Vietnam and its escalation was so deep, pervasive and ultimately complex that his final influence eludes precise definition. Some saw him as an early dove, particularly before the decision was made in 1965 to bomb North Vietnam. Others saw him as a hawk, both before and after.

To both camps, he was a consummate bureaucrat, dealing with the imperatives of privately advising public men about dangerous and fluid situations. His own judgment was that it was all immensely difficult.

"I was never able to convince myself that there was a cost-free alternative course, as from 1961, or that any of the different strategies since proposed, especially those involving stronger military action, would have made sense," he wrote in 1989 as part of a publication celebrating his 50th reunion at Yale University. "In a nutshell, my present feeling is that it was a tragedy waiting to happen, but one made much worse by countless errors along the way, in many of which I had a part."

Few doubted his integrity or dedication.

"He had this extraordinarily strong feeling of traditional obligation to serve the nation," Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense and Mr. Bundy's boss, said in an interview.

Seymour Hersh, the journalist, said Mr. Bundy learned from mistakes. "He changed an awful lot," Mr. Hersh said. "He began to see the other side of the Vietnam War more."

William Putnam Bundy was born in Washington, on Sept. 24, 1917, a family with a tradition of service.

His father, Harvey Hollister Bundy, a lawyer who had been a clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, was an aide to Henry L. Stimson , President Herbert Hoover's secretary of state and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of war.

His mother, the former Katherine Lawrence Putnam, was from the bedrock of Boston tradition. She was closely related to the Cabots, the Lowells and the Lawrences. His wife was the former Mary Eleanor Acheson, the daughter of the former secretary of state.

The family was talkative and so intellectually animated that the father coined a family motto: "Don't talk while I'm interrupting." William and McGeorge were products of Groton, Yale and Harvard. Their friends and mentors included the journalists Walter Lippman and Joseph Alsop, Justice Felix Frankfurter and Judge Learned Hand, and officials such as Allen Dulles, director of central intelligence.

William's and McGeorge's personality differences emerged early. "Mac was the pragmatist, and Bill was the deep thinker," Kai Bird wrote in the 1998 book "The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms."

"Mac was also fiercely competitive, and it quickly showed in his school marks, for however well Bill did, Mac the next year was always a point or two above him," Mr. Bird continued.

William graduated from the Groton School at the top of his class in 1935. He studied history at Yale, where he worked on the Yale Daily News, played hockey and was president of the Yale Political Union.

He earned a master's degree in history from Harvard in 1940 and then entered Harvard Law School. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army Signal Corps, working in Britain to decoded intelligence intercepts. He reflected on his work at Bletchley Park, the headquarters for the code breakers, in a 1999 BBC interview, saying "Although I have done many interesting things and known many interesting people, my work at Bletchley Park was the most satisfying of my career." He left the Army as a major, and was awarded the Legion of Merit and was made a member of the Order of the British Empire.

After finishing his law degree in 1947, he worked for three years with the Washington firm of Covington and Burling, but became bored. The Korean War had begun, and he was considering returning to the Army when one of his Harvard professors called to ask if he was interested in joining the Central Intelligence Agency. He was, and quickly became chief of the staff preparing "national intelligence estimates," as efforts to judge situations and policies in other nations are called. He prepared and coordinated papers for meetings of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's National Security Council.

In 1953, William was singled out by Senator Joseph McCarthy for having contributed $400 to the defense fund of Alger Hiss, who was being tried as a Soviet spy. William explained that a junior partner of his former law firm was David Hiss, Alger's brother, and that he wanted Alger to get a fair trial. Allen Dulles and Vice President Richard M. Nixon defended Mr. Bundy and the matter was dropped.

By then, Mr. Bundy was involved in Vietnam. He disagreed with many analysts who thought Vietnam should hold democratic elections. Documents show that he favored letting Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem hold on to power without elections.

In 1959, Mr. Bundy become staff director of Eisenhower's Commission on National Goals in 1960.

The privately funded group, which included educators and executives, anticipated the civil rights act, the war on poverty and the rise in women's status in the work force. The final document became something of a blueprint for Johnson's Great Society, Mr. Bird wrote.

In 1961, Bundy became deputy to Paul H. Nitze, then an assistant secretary of defense for areas where foreign and military policy are intertwined.

When Mr. Nitze became secretary of the Navy, Mr. Bundy replaced him. In February 1964, Johnson named him assistant secretary of state for the Far East.

Mr. Halberstam characterized the job as "the pivot" of the State Department's Vietnam policy. He was the one "who had contact with the secretary and under secretary, while at the same time the lower-level men, the experts, had 90 percent of their contact with him."

Mr. Bundy seemed to have tried to stem escalation of the war in the fall of 1964. In an Oct. 19 memorandum, he used a baseball adage to characterize a strategy suggestion: "Swing wildly at the first one, then bunt." The idea was to heavily bomb North Vietnam for less than a week to create an international crisis that would allow Washington to ask the United Nations to reconvene the Geneva Conference of 1954 and negotiate a settlement.

The probable result, he said, would be a coalition government that would likely later become communist. This memorandum, according to the Bird book and Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst at the time, received no reply.

In a late November memorandum, Mr. Bundy again advocated essentially the same strategy. But, in the final version of the memorandum, he made his proposal even more dovish, suggesting that Washington simply negotiate a clean-cut withdrawal.

Mr. Bundy later wrote that Mr. McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk answered personally, telling him, "It won't wash."

In the summer of 1965, before the decision was made to send in American troops in large numbers, there was another opportunity to suggest a less aggressive course. George W. Ball, an under secretary of state, was making a stand for a milder course, and tried to enlist Mr. Bundy. Mr. Bundy declined.

Thomas L. Hughes, a top state department official at the time, said in an interview with Mr. Bird in 1993 that it would "have made all the difference" if Mr. Bundy had then opposed the war.

Mr. McNamara said he remembered no time when William had been markedly more dovish than other decision makers, even Mr. Ball, who Mr. McNamara said never renounced the idea that a victory by the North Vietnamese would lead to Communist victories elsewhere.

Mr. Bundy left government in May 1969 to teach at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He was called a "murderer" and "liar" by antiwar protesters, and a bomb exploded in a bathroom adjacent to his office.

His next role, as editor of Foreign Affairs, began in October 1972.

Mr. Bundy opened the pages of Foreign Affairs to war critics, including Richard Barnett who had accused the war managers of "bureaucratic homicide."

During his later years, Mr. Bundy researched and taught part-time at Princeton University. He had lived in Princeton since 1972.

In 1998, he published "A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency."

Mr. Bundy is survived by his wife Mary, and two sons, Michael of Waltham, Mass., and Christopher of New York City; a daughter, Carol Bundy of Cambridge, Mass.; two sisters, Harriet B. Belin of Cambridge, Mass., and Katherine L. Auchincloss of Westwood, Mass.; and three grandchildren.

A lifelong Democrat, Mr. Bundy's interest in public affairs never waned. In January 1999, he wrote a letter attacking President Clinton's critics, calling their pursuit "murky, unprecedented and partisan."


 

OCTOBER 10 2000

William Bundy

Presidential adviser who supported America's intervention in Vietnam

AN ADVISER to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, William Bundy was an ardent supporter of America's futile military involvement in Vietnam during the 1960s. Long after the final withdrawal from Saigon in April 1975, Bundy continued to insist that America's intervention had been right, although he had gone on record to criticise President Johnson's lack of honesty with the American people. Despite the disastrous outcome of the campaign and the consequent blow to American prestige, he continued to claim that, but for the Vietnam War, China would have taken over the whole region; he did, however, concede that a little more candour with the American people would have removed the rancid atmosphere which has so poisoned things over the past few years.

Bundy first visited South Vietnam in 1963, with America deeply entrenched in its Cold War position. Accompanying the US Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, he was there to inspect the country's efforts at resisting Communist insurgence from the North. Returning to Washington, Bundy soon succeeded Paul Nitze as Assistant Defence Secretary, and after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 he was given responsibility for Far Eastern affairs at the State Department.

Fourteen months later Bundy wrote a memo to Dean Rusk, the American Secretary of State, who was preparing for a briefing with President Johnson. The introduction of limited US ground forces in the northern area of South Vietnam still has a great appeal for many of us, he said, adding that it would have a real stiffening effect in Saigon and a strong signal effect to Hanoi.

In mid-February American planes began pounding the North, and by the end of the following month, the Marines were embroiled in what was to become the superpower's most unsuccessful and costly military adventure. The Vietnam War stretched well into Richard Nixon's presidency, putting more than 58,000 American servicemen in body bags and leaving a scar on the psyche of the nation for many years afterwards ó besides making American Presidents instinctively reluctant to involve their country in overseas conflicts from which it might not readily be able to extricate itself.

Bundy, a lifelong Democrat, remained a powerful figure until Nixon arrived at the White House. Even when he had left the State Department he remained unrepentant over his part in initiating the Vietnam War. The issue is not whether we were right or wrong at the time the decisions were made in 1965, he said in the early 1970s. The important thing is what we should be doing in the light of changed conditions.

William Putnam Bundy was born in Washington into a well-connected family, and studied at both Yale University and Harvard Law School. His high-flying younger brother, McGeorge Bundy, who died in 1996, became a National Security Adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and was later Dean of Harvard.

During the Second World War William Bundy enlisted in the ranks with the Army, but by the time he was posted across the Atlantic to join the Bletchley Park codebreaking centre he was a captain. There he found himself working in Hut 6 on the Ultra project.

After the war Bundy was called to the Bar and in 1951 he joined the CIA. While there he became briefly entangled with Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witch-hunt when it emerged that he had contributed $400 to the defence campaign of Alger Hiss, a State Department official convicted of passing secret government papers to a spy. On that occasion Alan Dulles, the Director of the CIA, came to Bundy's rescue.

As a member of the Kennedy administration Bundy was deputy assistant defence secretary for international security affairs and participated in deliberations on such matters as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.

After Nixon took office in 1970, he joined the Centre for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a regular focus for anti-war protesters who, on one occasion, attempted to blow up his office. He retreated to edit Foreign Affairs magazine, but even there his appointment proved controversial. Academics on the magazine's council claimed that his role in planning and executing illegal and criminal war policies in Indo-China should disqualify him from holding an editorial position of this kind. David Rockefeller, the chairman, stood by the appointment, which lasted until 1983.

Bundy emerged from retirement two years ago with the publication of his book A Tangled Web, a critical study of foreign policy during the Nixon-Kissinger era including the latter years of Vietnam. The Bundy brothers were also the subject of a critical joint biography, The Colour of Truth (1998), by Kai Bird, which concluded that the colour of truth in Vietnam was neither black nor white but, in the words of one reviewer, blood red.

William Bundy is survived by his wife, Mary, and by two sons and a daughter.

William Bundy, US presidential adviser, was born on September 24, 1917. He died on October 6 aged 83.


 

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov