At the Cold War’s Center of Power

Published September 1, 1999

International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence

The Color of Truth: McGeorge and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998, 496 pp.)

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s Big Brother asserts: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Indeed, history is written not only to clarify and validate the past, but to provide lessons for the present and the future.

Both mainline and revisionist United States historians recognize that the past and future are inextricably bound. America’s national morale and cohesion require something approximating an honest and widely accepted historical memory, especially of the great national traumas that divided its people. Achieving a working consensus on the Civil War took generations and the task is not yet finished.

Today, Americans are still struggling for a common memory of the Cold War, especially of the nation’s involvement in Vietnam and its assessment of the Soviet threat. The Color of Truth examines the public lives of two brothers from the Eastern cultural establishment, McGeorge and William Bundy, who played major roles in formulating public policy in both of those critical areas.

Lively, painstakingly researched, and often rich in nuance, Kai Bird’s volume portrays the privileged youth, Ivy League immersion, and impact of two of the “best and the brightest” who advised Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on Cold War issues.

In quoting McGeorge Bundy, special assistant for national security to both Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1966, that “Gray is the color of truth,” Bird acknowledges the moral and political ambiguities of the complex confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet Bird’s final audit is more black and white, probably reflecting his own left-leaning stance, as suggested by his association with The Nation magazine, and with revisionists such as Richard J. Barnet, Marcus G. Raskin, and Gar Alperovitz.


Mr. Bird contends that the Bundys’ advice on Vietnam and their support of U.S. participation in that conflict was wrong because the American involvement was profoundly flawed. And, in contrast to other “managers of the national security state,” such as Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Bundy brothers were decent “vital center liberals,” who, nevertheless, supported the Cold Warriors.

Bird implies that the Cold War itself was unnecessary, the result of U.S. arrogance and an exaggeration of the Soviet threat. He castigates Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R., Wisc.) but glosses over the real danger of deep Soviet penetration into U.S. atomic secrets at Los Alamos and into the foreign policy establishment in Washington.

He sheds light on and confuses America’s Vietnam involvement. Secretary of State Dean Rusk is castigated for seeing Vietnam as a potential replay of the Korean War, in which Beijing threw thousands of troops against U.S. forces. At the same time, he acknowledges that “the Chinese sent more than 320,000 troops to North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973,” and that “some 1,100 Chinese” were killed by American bombing there.

Presidents Kennedy and Johnson are accused of arrogance and bad judgment. Perhaps so, with the most egregious example of hubris and miscalculation being Kennedy’s complicity in the 1963 coup that killed Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s authoritarian but able civilian president. Johnson later said that ousting Diem was “the worst mistake we ever made.” The power vacuum created by Diem’s violent death led to protracted instability and hog-tied Washington to Vietnam’s future.

Three Presidents, from Kennedy to Richard M. Nixon, supported the imperfect Saigon regime for laudable reasons—to help a fledgling state preserve a measure of freedom against the onslaught of Communist tyranny—which is what Americans had done effectively in Korea. Their motives were neither economic nor racist.

In pursuing this just cause, Washington’s zero-sum Cold War assumptions fed the false notion that Vietnam was as strategically important as Korea. Yielding to domestic critics, the White House prevented U.S. forces from taking the war to enemy territory. Mining the Haiphong Harbor would have curtailed the massive flow of Soviet army supplies to Hanoi. This, plus early bombing of military targets deep in the North, might have ended the war on Korea-like terms and saved several hundred thousands of American and Vietnamese lives.

Despite errors and miscalculations, U.S. involvement in Vietnam produced some good results. Its allies were reassured that an America that would not cut and run in far-off Vietnam would hardly abandon its key partners in Europe and Asia. U.S. steadfastness also strengthened nationalist and anti-Communist forces elsewhere in Southeast Asia—notably in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, all of which have remained free and independent, leading to a regional balance of power conducive to peace.


While Kai Bird devotes most of his attention to the failure of Vietnam, he does turn briefly to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Throughout the whole thirteen days of the crisis, the Central Intelligence Agency coordinated all intelligence for the National Security Council. Mac Bundy was totally absorbed in the crisis, and received from the CIA the first hard evidence on U-2 film of Soviet missiles being installed near Havana. Immediately on 22 October, President Kennedy went on national television to inform the American people of the danger and to impose a naval quarantine around the island. Until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev finally withdrew the Soviet missiles, Bird concludes, “Mac had not only been a key adviser in the most dangerous of Cold War’s nuclear confrontations, but he also later became an influential historian of the crisis.”


The same ambivalence about the nature of the Soviet threat during the Cold War still haunts the American psyche, or at least the intellectuals who worry about such things. Here again, the Bundys expressed occasional misgivings—some of them after the fact—but at the time they ended up supporting the anti-Communist consensus of the White House and the general public.

During his seven and a half years presiding over the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) estimates, a diligent William Bundy generally endorsed a hard-line interpretation of the Soviet threat, including the hawkish NSC 68 issued in 1950 by Harry Truman’s National Security Council.

During the 1959-1960 missile gap debate, “Bundy opted for the comfortable middle-range estimates—which were lower than the air force’s number, but still too high.” That the gap was in America’s favor finally became evident only after satellite photographs rendered their verdict. In 1961, says Bird, the Air Force estimated that Moscow had 200 ICBMs. The CIA estimate was 50, but Moscow “probably had only 24-44 ICBMs.” In the Office of National Estimates—whose staff included both liberals and conservatives—Bill Bundy usually sided with the latter.

After Stalin’s death in early March 1953, the State Department’s George Kennan and others argued for accommodation with Moscow over a divided Germany, but Bundy was skeptical of Kennan’s view. Later, says Bird, Bundy acknowledged that he may have been too skeptical. “Bundy also admitted to being slow to recognize the Sino-Soviet split.” But then, assessing the capabilities and intentions of highly secretive adversaries is hardly an exact science. The endless battles within the CIA took their toll on Bundy who reached out for more certainty than the world offered. Bird notes:

“By the end of 1961, Bundy’s characteristic self-confidence had taken a battering. One crisis had followed another and none seemed to have a decisive ending. Fidel Castro was still a problem, and the situations in Berlin, Laos, and Vietnam were filled with more ambiguity than Bundy liked. None of these festering issues were likely to disappear, and absent military intervention—which he realized the president shunned—Bundy increasingly looked to the CIA to provide alternatives.”


Kai Bird accuses Cold War Washington of viewing the world through a Manichaean prism that portrayed a tragically exaggerated and oversimplified picture of the Soviet threat. Denouncing Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communism as demagoguery, Bird is reluctant to concede that Soviet espionage within the U.S. government was serious. Years before Bill Bundy joined the CIA, he had innocently contributed $400 to the Alger Hiss defense fund. This case, like Dean Acheson’s gentlemanly statement, “I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss,” infuriated McCarthy. Bird rightly supports the successful efforts of the Director of Central Intelligence, Allen W. Dulles, to prevent any senators or their aides from questioning Bundy on his relationship to Hiss.

It is difficult to avoid the verdict that Mr. Bird occasionally selects facts to buttress his preconceived notions. And he occasionally cites retrospective statements of both Bundys to soften his criticism of their behavior while in office, asserting they were remarkably complex and “thoughtful men who had the capacity to write critically about what they had done as mandarins of power.” Less convincingly, he argues that their good intentions on Vietnam “were shattered by the Cold War compulsion to wage an unjust and unwinnable war.”

Today, in the upper reaches of academia, the battle rages over two competing interpretations of the Cold War. At one pole are those revisionists who claim that the protracted conflict was virtually caused by America’s “inordinate fear of Communism, to use former President Jimmy Carter’s phrase. At the other, are those who believe that the Cold War was thrust upon the United States by an arrogant and expansionist Soviet Union. The U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Unit’s Venona decrypts and other post-Cold War revelations—at least on the issue of Soviet espionage—tend to support the more hawkish stance. Until the Cold War issue is resolved, a kind of historical schizophrenia will diminish America’s capacity to fully accept its heavy responsibilities as the world’s preeminent power in the twenty-first century.

In assessing the Cold War era historians are likely to devote far more space to the views and influence of the Bundy brothers than has been the case so far. The Color of Truth is an important first step in that direction.

Source Notes
The Color of Truth: McGeorge and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998, 496 pp.)

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