"Grey is the color of truth."
So observed Mac Bundy in defending America's intervention in Vietnam. Kai Bird brilliantly captures this ambiguity in his revelatory look at Bundy and his brother William, two of the most influential policymakers of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It is a portrait of fiercely patriotic, brilliant and brazenly self-confident men who directed a steady escalation of a war they did not believe could be won. Bird draws on seven years of research, nearly one hundred interviews, and scores of still-classified top secret documents in a masterful reevaluation of America's actions throughout the Cold War and Vietnam.
The color of truth? McGeorge Bundy is quoted as saying it's gray, but there is nothing gray about this crisply written, carefully researched dual biography of brothers, who during the Vietnam era were regarded as fascists by the protesters and wild-eyed liberals by the right wing. The gray area comes when Bird (The Chairman) looks into motives. As stellar examples of what David Halberstam ironically called "the best and the brightest," the Bundys (McGeorge as JFK's National Security adviser; William was at the Pentagon) recognized early in Kennedy's administration that an American war in Southeast Asia was folly. But both actively pursued it into the Johnson administration. Bird is a sympathetic, but not apologetic, biographer, and his portrait shows two exceptional men who parlayed brains, a knack for cajoling influential older men and impeccable family connections into successful careers both in and out of government. He comes up with no tidy explanations for why they promoted a war they morally opposed. Perhaps, he suggests, they feared appeasement (the lesson of Munich) more than disastrous involvement, or that others would do an even worse job containing the conflict. The book, for which both brothers were interviewed, covers more than Vietnam. Besides being a sharply detailed depiction of a social class that Bird all too often calls "Boston Brahmin," the book covers breaking the enemy military codes during WWII, Harvard in the 1950s, Senator McCarthy and the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis and the liberal agendas of the Great Society. This is a careful, intelligent biography of two careful, intelligent men.