The Color of Truth

Kai Bird, a contributing editor to The Nation and scholar of post-World War II American foreign policy, uses a wide variety of primary sources including declassified government documents to trace the lives of two brothers who became central foreign policy advisers in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Born to an aristocratic Boston family, the Bundy brothers excelled in school, followed their father into public service, and were mentored by such prominent establishment liberals as Dean Acheson, Walter Lippman, and Henry Stimson. Bird contends that as Cold War liberal policy intellectuals, the Bundys followed Stimson’s twin gods of military preparedness and internationalism.

During World War II both brothers were trained as signal intelligence officers. Their experience left them convinced that weapon intercept intelligence was vital to American national interest as the world cascaded into the Cold War. In 1961 the Bundys were tapped along with other anti-communist liberals to assume major policy positions in the Kennedy administration. McGeorge was named the president’s special assistant for national security and William became deputy assistant secretary of defense.

According to Bird the Bundys were Cold War liberals but they were not Cold War ideologues. They believed in containment of communism; thus it was in America’s vital interest to respond to communist challenges in Cuba, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and especially Asia. The Vietnam War ultimately undermined the Bundys and many other Cold War liberals’ policy recommendations and decisions. Bird’s research shows that the Bundys privately harbored serious doubts about American involvement in Vietnam much earlier than historians previously have contended. By late 1964 they understood the grave risks associated with a ground war that would turn the conflict into a “white man’s war.” Yet publicly they defended president Johnson’s policy of escalation and remained loyal until they left government in 1968. Bird contends that the Bundys championed the limited war concept to contain communism in the face of conservative alternatives. The Bundys did not fear the liberal left, but feared the right who would call for use of tactical nuclear weapons, which they unalterably opposed. Thus, the Bundys were establishment liberals who spent most of their careers wrestling with the rising tide of American conservatism.