Obituary: McGeorge Bundy

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The Independent Online
McGeorge Bundy was "Kennedy's Kissinger". As Special Assistant to the President for National Security, he was a key player in all the great international events of John F. Kennedy's presidency, including the botched invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the triumphant resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. He played an even more fateful role in persuading President Lyndon Johnson to make a major commitment of American air power and ground forces to Vietnam in 1965, but by 1967 he had had second thoughts and counselled withdrawal.

Working with the Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, and a team of brilliant young university specialists, Bundy played a vital part in modernising American defence thinking and organisation. He wrestled with the changes in the Western alliance brought about by the economic revival of Europe and General de Gaulle's rebellion against American dominance and helped to develop the concept of interdependence between the United States and its European allies.

In later life he became a lucid and courageous critic of American overdependence on nuclear deterrence and campaigned for a test-ban treaty and a nuclear freeze. His book Danger and Survival, published in 1988, is a masterly history of nuclear weapons everywhere.

Cautious and cool, Bundy was the epitome of the New England upper class. He took very seriously the responsibilities of the imperial presidency in the age of American hegemony. His father, Harvey H. Bundy, came to Boston from the Middle West, but became a partner in one of the most prestigious of the Boston law firms, Hale & Dorr, and then with the Putnam firm after he married Katherine Putnam, who was related to most of the great Boston upper-class clans, including the Lowells, who in legend speak only to the Cabots, while the Cabots speak only to God. The Cabots were relations too.

Harvey Bundy became special assistant to Henry L. Stimson, who was President Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of War, so that his son grew up, so to speak, in the business of American power and policy almost as heir to a family business. Mac Bundy was the ghostwriter of Stimson's influential memoirs, On Active Service in Peace and War (1947).

Brightest and best of the "best and the brightest", as the writer David Halberstam called Kennedy's staff, Bundy was Dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the youngest dean in Harvard's history when he accepted Kennedy's invitation to serve him in the White House. After leaving the government service in 1966 he was president of the Ford Foundation until 1979 and then for 10 years a professor of history at New York University. From 1990 until 1993 he worked as a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Corporation in New York and chaired its committee on ways of reducing the danger from nuclear weapons.

Bundy was seen as the successor to the "Wise Men", the elite of the international statesmen, many of them with connections with Wall Street banks or Washington and New York corporate law firms, like Dean Acheson (father-in-law of Mac Bundy's brother Bill), John J. McCloy (another Stimson protege) and Averell Harriman. There were even those who called Bundy the "president of the American Establishment", though such talk made him wince and he would deflect it with learned asides about Vilfredo Pareto and his theory of the circulation of elites.

Mac Bundy was educated first at the Dexter School in Boston, where he was a classmate of the young Jack Kennedy. He was considered to be the most talented boy of his year at Groton School, sometimes called the American Eton, rather misleadingly since it is a school with a far more striving and earnest ethos than Eton's. As an undergraduate he studied at Yale, where he was also regarded as one of the most brilliant students of his generation. He was an automatic choice for Skull & Bones, the powerful secret society of which his father and Colonel Stimson had been members before him.

Many bright Yale undergraduates of his generation, including Richard Bissell, the future architect of the Bay of Pigs, and Kingman Brewster, future ambassador to Britain, were enthusiastic supporters of the isolationist American First movement which opposed American intervention. Bundy, influenced no doubt by his father's friend Henry Stimson, was "150 per cent interventionist".

He graduated in 1940 and ran for office as a liberal Republican candidate for the Boston city council. Then he went into the army, where he served as an intelligence officer in London and in Italy under Admiral Alan Kirk, and was on his way to serve in the final campaign against the Japanese home islands when the atomic bombs ended the war.

In 1948, after he was demobbed, he worked for Thomas Dewey, who was running against "Uncle Dean's" boss, President Harry Truman. The next year saw him on the faculty of Harvard, even though he had nothing higher than a BA degree, something which even then raised eyebrows. He was regarded as a brilliant teacher, and in particular students thronged to his lectures on the disastrous consequences of appeasement in the 1930s. As dean, he was credited with adventurous investment policies and with the building of a strong team of teachers and researchers, attracted by Harvard's high reputation, high salaries and willingness to get involved in area studies and other contemporary fields.

All of this well equipped Bundy for the job which President Kennedy summoned him to do in January 1961, even though some Democrats were irritated by the fact that Bundy was a Republican. Although Henry Kissinger was to achieve far greater popular renown and to go on to be Secretary of State, it was his Harvard colleague Mac Bundy who created the powerful office of presidential national security adviser in the form in which it was to develop.

He was able enough and confident enough to attract exceptionally talented men to work for him, and his hard work, drive and exceptional intelligence soon established dominance over the slower-moving State Department and its head, the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. Bundy was highly skilful in arranging the flow of paper so that the President could focus only on the most important issues. The fact that his social and intellectual confidence sometimes struck people as arrogance was Bundy's misfortune: he was thoughtful and civilised, though he did not suffer fools gladly, and was sometimes a little quick to let people see that he thought they were fools.

If his personal qualities and his disciplined working methods made him the kind of dedicated and reliable bureaucrat who is too rare in Washington, where many officials are only concerned to make a reputation and then go off and turn it into a high income somewhere else, Bundy's actual role in the great foreign policy controversies of the day is not easy to assess. Perhaps his greatest gift was to set out the issue clearly for his two presidents to decide.

He played a restraining role when some, including Dean Acheson, were calling for a tough line over the Berlin crisis of 1961, and his influence during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis was also on the side of caution. On Vietnam, however, he was at first what was called in the jargon of the day a hawk.

He was actually in South Vietnam on a fact-finding trip when the Viet Cong attacked an American base at Pleiku with heavy casualties, and Bundy's report to President Johnson undoubtedly encouraged him to launch the air strikes known as Operation Rolling Thunder and the build-up of American troops in Vietnam. Within two years, however, he had changed his mind. He was instrumental in bringing in groups of veteran Cold Warriors to persuade the President that the war could not be won. After one fierce argument with his brother's father-in-law, Dean Acheson, Bundy minuted cheerfully, "The moustache was voluble!"

As President of the Ford Foundation, Bundy seemed somewhat out of place. He was responsible for the foundation's somewhat maladroit involvement in the racially envenomed politics of New York's public school system.

He was on surer and more familiar ground when he taught at New York University and in particular when he lent his expertise and prestige to the cause of reassessing and mitigating the dangers of nuclear war.

McGeorge Bundy was an American gentleman, with a Victorian sense of obligation and ethical standards. As an undergraduate, he once said he could explain his commitment against isolationism in a single sentence: "I believe in the dignity of the individual, in government by law, in respect for the truth, and in a good God; these beliefs are worth my life and more; they are not shared by Adolf Hitler."

If he sometimes seemed both an elitist and a Machiavellian, it was perhaps because he found himself dealing, both in Washington and abroad, with those who were not as high-minded as he. A memory lingers. As the aircraft bringing President Kennedy's body back to Andrews air force base near Washington taxied to a stop, the photographers focused on the figure of the widow, still stained with her husband's blood. Unobtrusive, McGeorge Bundy was waiting, with under his arm the files the new president would have to master to reassure the country and the world: the very image of a great public servant doing his duty.

McGeorge Bundy, historian: born Boston, Massachusetts 30 March 1919; political analyst, Council of Foreign Relations 1948-49; Visiting Lecturer, Harvard University 1949-51, Associate Professor of Government 1951-54, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences 1953-61, Professor 1954-61; Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, White House 1961-66; President, Ford Foundation 1966-79; Professor of History, New York University 1979- 89; married 1950 Mary Lothrop (four sons); died Boston 16 September 1996.