Christian Nünlist. Kennedys rechte Hand. McGeorge Bundys Einfluss als Nationaler Sicherheitsberater auf die amerikanische Aussenpolitik 1961-63 Zürcher Beiträge zur Sicherheitspolitik und Konfliktforschung, No. 50, Zürich 1999.


When McGeorge Bundy unexpectedly died of a heart attack in September 1996, he was working on a book about the Vietnam War. Inspired by Robert McNamara's startling "mea culpa", Bundy - as national security adviser to the Presidents Kennedy and Johnson a major architect of the American escalation in Vietnam - had also intended to break his thirty-year silence. Bundy's fate had already been the central theme in David Halberstam's celebrated bestseller The Best and the Brightest (1972), a scathing indictment of the Washington policy-makers who crafted and escalated the Vietnam War. Halberstam wondered how Kennedy's smart foreign policy elite - the so-called "action intellectuals" - could have marched America into the endless quagmire of Vietnam. Halberstam's sarcastic portrait of Bundy, with its provocative title The Very Expensive Education of McGeorge Bundy, has deeply influenced the modest literature about McGeorge Bundy in the Kennedy and Johnson years. Most of the obituaries stressed his role as a Vietnam hawk under Johnson and, even in the scholarly literature, the name Bundy seems to be forever associated with Vietnam.

On the other hand, Bundy's influence on Kennedy's foreign policy is a nearly uninquired topic. Yet, during his tenure, the function of the national security adviser changed from an anonymous secretary into a prominent and personal assistant to the President. Bundy skillfully filled the bureaucratic vacuum that had occurred due to Kennedy's dissatisfaction with his Secretetary of State Dean Rusk. His job was to evaluate, compress, and clarify the avalanche of foreign affairs information into the White House and to present them to the President in a concise way. Controlling the flow of information to the President gave him great power in determining what issues received priority and which policy options Kennedy could choose from. More importantly, he also controlled the access to the President. As Kennedy's foreign affairs mandarin he helped shape American foreign policy in the early 1960s, although his work was almost entirely behind-the-scenes. Arisen from dean of Harvard to the "dean of the world" (as Max Frankel summarized Bundy's career in 1965), he experienced his golden years in the Kennedy era.

In the early sixties the Cold War reached its climax: there were communist challenges everywhere from Fidel Castro's Cuba ninety miles south of Florida to Khrushchev's pressure on Berlin. This detailed analysis of Bundy's influence on Kennedy's Cuban and European policies traces the evolution of his role in the presidential decision-making and expounds his shaping of Kennedy's foreign policy. Taking into account the huge literature about Kennedy's presidency and recently declassified documents in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, as well as the State Department records in Washington, D.C., this study alters the traditional view about both McGeorge Bundy's personality and Kennedy's foreign policy.

The announcement of McGeorge Bundy, a forty-one-year-old Republican and protegé of Henry Stimson and Dean Acheson, as special assistant to the President for national security affairs occurred only three weeks before Kennedy's inauguration. In the beginning it was not clear at all what Bundy's tasks and role in the new administration would comprise. Kennedy and Bundy only knew what they did not want - to stick to the heavily criticized National Security Council (NSC) system of the Eisenhower years.

They built up a new ad hoc system with Bundy in the center of the vast bureaucracy serving as a kind of "one-man NSC", but this new system soon failed its first test. What crashed in mid-April of 1961 in the Bay of Pigs on Cuba's southern shore was not only the brigade of 1'500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles on their way to getting rid of the Castro government, but also the illusion of an informal decision-making system centered around Bundy and Kennedy. At first, Bundy himself had been very skeptical about American participation in an invasion of Cuba, but in mid-March he enthusiastically endorsed a new plan by the CIA, containing a night landing at the Bay of Pigs. He contributed many ideas to this new plan and even found solutions to the contradictions between the military needs advocated by the CIA and the political restrictions brought forward by Kennedy and his advisers in the State Department. When the invasion dramatically failed in April 1961, Bundy felt guilty having given the wrong advice to Kennedy and therefore offered his resignation from office.

Besides writing this resignation letter, Bundy also typed a defense paper to the internal investigation committee and a few important self-critical memoranda to Kennedy. The President gave Bundy a second chance and made him the dominant staff assistant in the White House. Angered by what he considered the State Department's, the Joint Chief of Staff's and the CIA's poor advice during the months prior to the attack, Kennedy began relying more and more on Bundy for foreign policy information and counsel. Bundy moved his office from the Old Executive Building to the West Wing of the White House and set up a communications system that allowed him to have all the needed information available from State and Defense. This way Bundy created a "mini State Department" in the White House and assisted his President in the daily management of foreign affairs.

During the Berlin Wall Crisis of 1961, Bundy operated as honest broker inside the U.S. administration. He gave momentum to an alternative to the purely military defense strategy of Dean Acheson who operated as Kennedy's special counsel for nuclear strategy and Berlin. Together with other liberals (Marcus Raskin, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., or Carl Kaysen), he endorsed negotiations with the USSR over Berlin, Germany, and Central Europe. Kennedy followed Bundy's recommendations both before his famous TV address in July and after the construction of the Berlin Wall in mid-August. By the end of 1961, Bundy had become a member of Kennedy's "inner circle", the very small group of advisers whom the President consulted daily and whose counsel he trusted in times of crisis.

Bundy was the first to report to Kennedy that the Russians were secretly installing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. During the two-week crisis, Bundy played the role of the devil's advocate in testing the consensus of the Kennedy administration before the President reached his decision. He was anxious to keep the process of decision-making open until all policy ramifications had been explored. Although Bundy often changed his opinion during the first few days concerning the course of action the President should pursue, his personal preference clearly was a limited air strike against the Soviet missile bases in Cuba. Kennedy's disappointment in his trusted national security adviser in the first week was forgotten on the last and most important day of the crisis, on October 27, 1962, when Bundy emphasized the importance of the NATO alliance and invented the strategy Kennedy chose as the crisis seemed to escalate.

After the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy administration saw itself in the middle of a complex web of tensions with its allies Great Britain, Canada, France, and West Germany while pursuing a cautious policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Bundy's ideas were crucial in finding a way out of the obvious contradiction of a NATO nuclear multilateral force (MLF) - used as a clever U.S. strategy to counterweigh the French-German treaty of friendship in January 1963 that shocked the American policy-makers - and in promoting negotiations with the Soviet Union leading to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) of August 1963. Bundy was deeply involved in writing the famous words for Kennedy's "peace speech" at the American University in June 1963 and Kennedy's even more famous words during his trip to Europe in the same month: "Ich bin ein Berliner." He also followed with interest the secret disarmament negotiations in Moscow in July 1963.

In the Kennedy years, Bundy operated "behind the throne", as one scholar has argued. He was one of the President's closest cold-war advisers, counselling him on all important foreign policy decisions, including those on Berlin and Cuba. He clearly enjoyed working with Kennedy and due to their mutual trust Bundy's power started to grow. He contributed the most to Kennedy's foreign policy in long-term processes, for example as the Berlin negotiations were under way in 1961/62 or during the debate over the MLF and the LTBT in 1963. His style of operation improved a great deal after the debacle of the first few months and Kennedy started to blindly trust his national security adviser. Bundy's insisting on air strikes against Soviet missiles in Cuba during the first week of the missile crisis (certainly the lowest point in Bundy's career) remains in contrast with his many great contributions to American foreign policy in the Kennedy years. 

Before plunging into the Vietnam war, an era which changed his reputation from a wunderkind into a war criminal, Bundy advocated the departure from the traditional containment strategy which had been America's foreign policy doctrine since 1947. Although brought up in a traditional Republican household that had deeply influenced his thinking, Bundy was not an old fashioned Cold Warrior. As a specialist for European affairs, Bundy was surprisingly pragmatic and flexible in his thinking about U.S.-Soviet affairs. Surrounded by hardliners like Walt W. Rostow and liberals like Marcus Raskin, he supported a policy of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union from as early on as the height of the Berlin Crisis. He tolerated and even encouraged dissent from conventional wisdom. In order to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union he seemed ready to alienate the traditional European allies, especially West Germany. Bundy's contribution to the territorial and nuclear status quo in Central Europe has been missing in the Kennedy literature and in the assessments of Bundy's role in shaping American foreign policy in the 1960s. Yet as the "dean of the world" he proved to be the ultimate heir of Henry Stimson, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John J. McCloy, as well as other famous "wise men" of the early Cold War.

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