This is the grave of McGeorge Bundy.
Born in 1919 in Boston, Bundy grew up in the Boston elite. His family were old Brahmin Republicans. His father was a leading attorney and former clerk for Oliver Wendell Holmes. In fact, during the Hoover administration, their close family friend, Secretary of State Henry Stimson, named Bundy’s father Assistant Secretary of State. So we are talking elite of the elite here, with hands in both domestic and foreign policy. Not surprisingly then, Bundy went to all the elite schools, finished at Groton and then was off to Yale. Of course Skulls and Bones was his way at Yale. This elite of the elite finished at Yale in 1940 after having lost an election to the Boston City Council the year before. He had a three year fellowship at Harvard after that, which was interrupted by World War II. Bundy had terrible vision but having been an advocate of American intervention, wanted to join the military anyway. Daddy’s connections made that happen and by 1943, he was a top aide to Rear Admiral Alan Kirk. He left the military as a captain in 1946 and returned to Harvard.
Bundy was a smart guy, but let’s also be clear, his intelligence was more than slightly helped by his family knowing everyone there was to know. So while he was at Harvard, Bundy basically ghostwrote Stimson’s autobiography. He then was Thomas Dewey’s top foreign policy advisor for his 1948 presidential campaign. Shocked that his candidate lost with the disappointment of a sweet position not realized with it, he joined the Council on Foreign Relations. There, he became an expert on the Marshall Plan and worked closely with people such as Dwight Eisenhower and Allen Dulles on foreign policy issues, including covert actions. Harvard hired him in 1949, despite his not having a PhD, and he was promoted to dean in 1953.
Bundy remained a Republican, however moderate on social issues. When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, he named Bundy National Security Advisor. Bundy offered to switch parties for this, but Kennedy wanted the bipartisan credibility that Democratic leaders have so badly desired ever since. Truth was that there wasn’t much difference in their politics anyway. Bundy thus became one of the Best and the Brightest appointees that led the U.S. into the quagmire of Vietnam. Hardly anyone was more excited about sending American troops to Vietnam than Bundy, who advocated for it from 1961. He was a big supporter of Ngo Dinh Diem at first and strenuously argued with anyone who said that the U.S. should cut bait in that nation, before or after Diem’s assassination, even though he had signed off on the coup eventually.
Bundy thought Lyndon Johnson was a fool. He was exactly the kind of elite that Johnson hated. The condescension of the Harvard elites for the Texan was pretty naked. Johnson took his revenge, such as pulling his dick out in front of Bundy to show what a man he was and forcing him to sit through interviews while he was on the pot. Johnson far preferred Robert McNamara, because McNamara had earned his money whereas Bundy hadn’t earned a single thing in his life. But Bundy was committed enough to killing the Viet Cong to put up Johnson. Bundy was a huge advocate for the bombing campaign that followed. But here’s the thing: Bundy was also kind of dumb and willfully ignorant. When Walter Lippmann talked to him to try and convince him to change policies toward Vietnam, he was shocked and horrified to discover that Bundy had no idea that South Vietnam had only existed as a nation since 1954. And yet this sheer ignorance was not only very common in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, it’s hardly the last time that total ignorance toward nations we were invading was proudly adopted by American administration. See the Bush administration not recognizing any meaningful difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam as another example of this. It’s totally mindboggling.
Bundy, a creature of the Marshall Plan, thought it would be easier to sell the war to the American public if it was connected up to a big economic project that would create American jobs. So he got Johnson to support the Southeast Asia Development Corporation that would be a Tennessee Valley Authority for southeast Asia. It did not lead to more support for the war.
Bundy also became super testy about the war. He could not resist responding to criticism. When the Harvard Crimson came out against the war, the ex-Harvard dean wrote an 11 page letter in response. When he agreed to debate a critic on television, an angry LBJ sent him to the Dominican Republic on a made up mission to force him to miss it. Bundy then contacted CBS personally to set up another debate behind Johnson’s back, with Hans Morganthau. Johnson nearly fired him for this and they never had a functional relationship again. Bundy also got a reputation among his fellow Johnson officials as being a lazy thinker who relied more on his background than on doing the work to understand what he was talking about.
On the other hand, Bundy personally urged Kennedy to reject Henry Kissinger’s attempts to get a government position. He knew Kissinger from Harvard and realized he was nothing but the most rank and awful opportunist known to humans. Not quite sure that makes up for Vietnam, but it’s worth noting.
Bundy’s departure from the Johnson administration was as rocky as his tenure there. Although Johnson wanted to fire him, the president was furious when he found out that Bundy had agreed to lead the Ford Foundation. Johnson accused him of personal betrayal and called him a coward who ran at the first criticism of the war he had done so much to create. He forced Bundy to stay until the end of 1966 and then spent the rest of the year berating him to his face.
By 1968, Bundy had a turnabout and now called for the war to end, galling Johnson. He could say this now because he was doling out charity, not crafting policy. It’s also worth noting that he still defended the war at the same time. He remained head of the Ford Foundation until 1979. Because he gave out so much money to Black organizations, including those affiliated with Black Power movements, Richard Nixon put Bundy on his Enemies List. That’s Dick for you. The Church Committee called on Bundy to testify and he actually had the gall to say that no one in the government had ever given the CIA approval to assassinate anyone. It’s possible this claim was technically true, but everyone in the government knew it was happening and was fine with it. Yeah, the CIA did not actually assassinate Diem. But it did approve of the coup if not the killing. Moreover, Bundy was known to have joked about the killing with Kennedy. What an asshole.
In 1979, Bundy took a job in the History department at NYU. There, he specialized in the history he had been involved with and worked toward limiting the use of nuclear weapons at this point in the Cold War. Along with old friends such as George Kennan, he wrote articles in support of ending the policy of using nuclear weapons to stop a Soviet invasion of Europe and contributed to the ideas behind SALT II. He retired in 1988 and then worked for the Carnegie Corporation on nuclear issues from 1990 until his death from a heart attack in 1996, at the age of 77.
McGeorge Bundy is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
If you would like this series to visit more of the architects of the Vietnam War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Maxwell Taylor is in Arlington and Dean Rusk is in Athens, Georgia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.