McGeorge Bundy

McGeorge Bundy

McGeorge Bundy was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 30th March, 1919. After graduating from Yale University in 1940 he joined the office of Facts and Figures in Washington. After the Second World War he took up a teaching appointment at Harvard University. Eventually he became Dean of Arts and Sciences (1953-61).

When John F. Kennedy was elected he appointed Bundy as his National Security Adviser. William Attwood was the leading advocate inside the Kennedy Administration for talking to Fidel Castro about the potential for improving relations. He was supported by Bundy who suggested to Kennedy that there should be a "gradual development of some form of accommodation with Castro".

In April 1963 Lisa Howard arrived in Cuba to make a documentary on the country. In an interview with Howard, Fidel Castro agreed that a rapprochement with Washington was desirable. On her return Howard met with the Central Intelligence Agency. Deputy Director Richard Helms reported to John F. Kennedy on Howard's view that "Fidel Castro is looking for a way to reach a rapprochement with the United States." After detailing her observations about Castro's political power, disagreements with his colleagues and Soviet troops in Cuba, the memo concluded that "Howard definitely wants to impress the U.S. Government with two facts: Castro is ready to discuss rapprochement and she herself is ready to discuss it with him if asked to do so by the US Government."

CIA Director John McCone was strongly opposed to Lisa Howard being involved with these negotiations with Castro. He argued that it might "leak and compromise a number of CIA operations against Castro". In a memorandum to McGeorge Bundy, McCone commented that the "Lisa Howard report be handled in the most limited and sensitive manner," and "that no active steps be taken on the rapprochement matter at this time."

Arthur Schlesinger explained to Anthony Summers in 1978 why the CIA did not want John F. Kennedy to negotiate with Fidel Castro during the summer of 1963: "The CIA was reviving the assassination plots at the very time President Kennedy was considering the possibility of normalization of relations with Cuba - an extraordinary action. If it was not total incompetence - which in the case of the CIA cannot be excluded - it was a studied attempt to subvert national policy."

Lisa Howard now decided to bypass the CIA and in May, 1963, published an article in the journal, War and Peace Report, Howard wrote that in eight hours of private conversations Castro had shown that he had a strong desire for negotiations with the United States: "In our conversations he made it quite clear that he was ready to discuss: the Soviet personnel and military hardware on Cuban soil; compensation for expropriated American lands and investments; the question of Cuba as a base for Communist subversion throughout the Hemisphere." Howard went on to urge the Kennedy administration to "send an American government official on a quiet mission to Havana to hear what Castro has to say." A country as powerful as the United States, she concluded, "has nothing to lose at a bargaining table with Fidel Castro."

William Attwood read Howard's article and on 12th September, 1963, he had a long conversation with her on the phone. This apparently set in motion a plan to initiate secret talks between the United States and Cuba. Six days later Attwood sent a memorandum to Under Secretary of State Averell Harriman and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Attwood asked for permission to establish discreet, indirect contact with Fidel Castro.

On September 20, John F. Kennedy gave permission to authorize Attwood's direct contacts with Carlos Lechuga, the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. According to Attwood: "I then told Miss Howard to set up the contact, that is to have a small reception at her house so that it could be done very casually, not as a formal approach by us." Howard met Lechuga at the UN on 23rd September 23. Howard invited Lechuga to come to a party at her Park Avenue apartment that night to meet Attwood.

The next day William Attwood met with Robert Kennedy in Washington and reported on the talks with Lechuga. According to Attwood the attorney general believed that a trip to Cuba would be "rather risky." It was "bound to leak and... might result in some kind of Congressional investigation." Nevertheless, he thought the matter was "worth pursuing."

On 5th November 5, Bundy recorded that "the President was more in favor of pushing towards an opening toward Cuba than was the State Department, the idea being - well, getting them out of the Soviet fold and perhaps wiping out the Bay of Pigs and maybe getting back into normal." Bundy designated his assistant, Gordon Chase, to be Attwood's direct contact at the White House.

Attwood continued to use Lisa Howard as his contact with Fidel Castro. In October 1963, Castro told Howard that he was very keen to open negotiations with Kennedy. Castro even offered to send a plane to Mexico to pick up Kennedy's representative and fly him to a private airport near Veradero where Castro would talk to him alone.

John F. Kennedy now decided to send William Attwood to meet Castro. On 14th November, 1963, Lisa Howard conveyed this message to her Cuban contact. In an attempt to show his good will, Kennedy sent a coded message to Castro in a speech delivered on 19th November. The speech included the following passage: "Cuba had become a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This and this alone divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible."

Kennedy also sent a message to Fidel Castro via the French journalist Jean Daniel. According to Daniel: "Kennedy expressed some empathy for Castro's anti-Americanism, acknowledging that the United States had committed a number of sins in pre-revolutionary Cuba." Kennedy told Daniel that the trade embargo against Cuba could be lifted if Castro ended his support for left-wing movements in the Americas.

Daniel delivered this message on 19th November. Castro told Daniel that Kennedy could become "the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas." Daniel was with Castro when news arrived that Kennedy had been assassinated Castro turned to Daniel and said:"This is an end to your mission of peace. Everything is changed."

President Lyndon B. Johnson was told about these negotiations in December, 1963. He refused to continue these talks and claimed that the reason for this was that he feared that Richard Nixon, the expected Republican candidate for the presidency, would accuse him of being soft on communism.

Bundy continued to serve Johnson as National Security Adviser and was later blamed for being partly responsible for escalating the Vietnam War. In 1966 he left office to become President of the Ford Foundation.

Bundy was also Professor of History at New York University (1979-1989). He was also the author of several books including Presidential Promises and Performance (1980), Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (1988) and Reducing Nuclear Danger: The Road Away from the Brink (1993).

McGeorge Bundy died of a heart attack in September, 1996.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) National Security Archive (24th November, 2003)

On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the eve of the broadcast of a new documentary film on Kennedy and Castro, the National Security Archive today posted an audio tape of the President and his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, discussing the possibility of a secret meeting in Havana with Castro. The tape, dated only seventeen days before Kennedy was shot in Dallas, records a briefing from Bundy on Castro's invitation to a US official at the United Nations, William Attwood, to come to Havana for secret talks on improving relations with Washington. The tape captures President Kennedy's approval if official US involvement could be plausibly denied.

The possibility of a meeting in Havana evolved from a shift in the President's thinking on the possibility of what declassified White House records called "an accommodation with Castro" in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Proposals from Bundy's office in the spring of 1963 called for pursuing "the sweet approach…enticing Castro over to us," as a potentially more successful policy than CIA covert efforts to overthrow his regime. Top Secret White House memos record Kennedy's position that "we should start thinking along more flexible lines" and that "the president, himself, is very interested in (the prospect for negotiations)." Castro, too, appeared interested. In a May 1963 ABC News special on Cuba, Castro told correspondent Lisa Howard that he considered a rapprochement with Washington "possible if the United States government wishes it. In that case," he said, "we would be agreed to seek and find a basis" for improved relations.

(2) James C. Thompson, A Memory of Mcgeorge Bundy, New York Times (22nd September, 1996)

Probably the brightest of the lot, McGeorge Bundy, died suddenly of a heart attack last week at the age of 77. Most of the obituaries stressed his role as a Vietnam War hawk when he was national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and (especially) Johnson.

In my view, the obit writers got it wrong. The man, and the circumstances, were a lot more complex.

I was a callow 33-year-old when he summoned me from the State Department to join his National Security Council staff in July 1964. But I watched him up close in those critical two years of decisions about Vietnam, before we both left Washington in 1966.

Mac Bundy was one of the few Kennedy loyalists to stay on under Lyndon Johnson and adjust to the formidable and volatile new boss. Mac's job was to evaluate, compress and clarify the avalanche of foreign affairs information in the White House.

He was a skilled adjudicator, not an advocate -- especially on Vietnam. He tolerated and even encouraged dissent from conventional wisdom, as long as it was expressed with brevity and evidence. He seemed to have no firm convictions on the inherited Vietnam mess. His loyalty was to the president and to our nation's security.

When I reported that the 1964 turmoil in Saigon might result in a Buddhist-neutralist coup and a polite invitation to the United States to withdraw, Mac would nod and smile almost hopefully. When I would express doubts about the whole Vietnam intervention, he would ask me to put them very privately on paper.

In December, after the LBJ landslide, he called me into his office to read the chosen interagency option for dealing with Vietnam now that the election was over. Out of three grossly oversimplified options -- the first being, roughly, turn tail and run, the second, blow up the world -- the third, a gradual and sustained bombing of North Vietnam until Hanoi cried uncle, seemed moderate.

I told Mac that although I was an ignoramus on weaponry, I had learned quite a bit about the history of Vietnam's struggles against foreign powers. I thought we might bomb them back to the Stone Age, but that Ho Chi Minh's deeply rooted Vietnamese revolutionaries knew that if they retreated we would eventually go home. Mac nodded and sighed. "Well," he said, "you may very well be right."

What happened two months later was the critical turning point. Lyndon Johnson wanted to make sure that South Vietnam would (italics)not(end italics) be lost to communism. But he was uneasy about escalating the war. So he delayed, and finally sent to Vietnam his one detached and trusted adviser, Mac, to make a recommendation.

Mac arrived in Saigon just before the Vietcong blew up the American barracks at Pleiku. Much has been written about how the visual horror of dead and wounded young Americans affected his judgment.

And, indeed, it was only then that Mac wrote his famous message urging Johnson to escalate the bombing of North Vietnam. Mac, the dispassionate man, became, for a while, ardent.

But Mac, the skeptic, was still alive, if hobbled by the suspicious, tyrannical LBJ. After the February escalation in 1965, Mac told one of my senior NSC colleagues to explore the possibility of negotiating with Hanoi, but demanded that the suggestions be written out longhand, for Mac alone, lest LBJ or the Senate hawks find out.

On June 30, 1965, Mac sent a one-page memo to the arch-escalator, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, suggesting, with amazing prescience, that the Pentagon's plan was "rash to the point of folly."

There is no indication that Mac shared that memo with LBJ. In any case, the US ground forces were augmented.

Perhaps Mac should have quit on principle. But in December 1965, he announced that he would leave the following March to become the president of the Ford Foundation.

In February, he and I overlapped briefly in Saigon, and we had one quiet talk. On my return to Washington, I learned that Mac had told the NSC staff he was optimistic about the war, but, much to my astonishment, that they they should wait to hear my very different views.

In 1968, after I wrote a critique of Vietnam policy in The Atlantic, Mac chastised me for betraying LBJ's trust. We didn't make up for eight years. By then I was running Harvard's Nieman Fellowships for journalists, and Mac came to talk to the fellows.