McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996) served as national security adviser to both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. He later was president of the Ford Foundation and was instrumental in expanding its programs to emphasize equal opportunity in the United States. When he died at the age of 77, he was serving as a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Corporation.
McGeorge Bundy was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 30, 1919. His father was a close associate of Henry L. Stimson, who served Herbert Hoover as secretary of state and Franklin D. Roosevelt as secretary of war. Bundy graduated first in his class at Yale in 1940 and became a junior fellow at Harvard in 1941. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II as an aide to Admiral Alan Kirk. In that capacity he assisted with the planning for the invasions of Sicily and France.
After he left the armed forces in 1946 Bundy had the opportunity of working with Stimson on the latter's autobiography, On Active Service (1948). He then worked briefly in Washington on implementation of the Marshall Plan before joining Thomas E. Dewey's presidential campaign as a consultant on foreign policy issues. Any doubt that he was a rising star of the foreign policy establishment was dispelled by his appointment as a political analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations in late 1948.
Bundy stayed with the Council for less than a year and then accepted an appointment to teach foreign policy at Harvard. There, despite the absence of the usual graduate degrees or scholarly publications, he rose rapidly, becoming a full professor within five years. Even before that, at the age of 34, he was appointed dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. Popular with students and faculty, Bundy had an extraordinary academic career.
Although he considered himself a Republican and campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Bundy rejected Richard M. Nixon in favor of John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 1961 Kennedy appointed him special assistant to the president for national security, a post he held until his resignation five years later.
Bundy assembled a brilliant staff and, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, he shared responsibility for advising the president on foreign policy. Unlike his successors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bundy engaged in no ostentatious struggle for power with the secretary of state. He deferred publicly to the courtly Rusk, content with the knowledge that he was closer to the president, had superior access to him, and controlled much of what the president heard or saw. More than anyone else, Bundy controlled the process by which decisions were made. Anyone unaware and/or unappreciative of his modus operandi was unworthy of his concern. He was confident that those who mattered— establishment figures such as Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy and great journalists like Walter Lippmann and James Reston—all recognized the advantages of mind and position he held.
In temperament Bundy was closer to Kennedy than Rusk. Rusk perceived some of the world's problems as intractable. They had antedated his appointment and would doubtless persist long after he was gone. He did not believe that there was an American action that would soothe Indian and Pakistani, Arab and Israel relations. Some problems were best left unaddressed. Bundy, like Kennedy, had little patience for Rusk's approach. They were men of action, always ready to take the necessary risks, confident that as long as they were leading, the United States could fashion the world as it chose. And they did not hesitate to use American power. Kennedy liked action and quick decisions. Bundy's staff was more likely to provide both than was the Department of State.
After Kennedy's death, Bundy stayed on to serve Lyndon Johnson. He played a central role in the decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, joining McNamara in urging the president to approve the bombing of North Vietnam opposed by Rusk. Bundy was also instrumental in the decision to send American troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965.
Although Bundy and Johnson worked well together initially, by 1966 the relationship had deteriorated. Johnson was more comfortable with Rusk, also from the South, than with the upper-class Eastern intellectuals Bundy seemed to personify. Bundy found Johnson's style of leadership disorderly and irritating. He was offended by Texas hyperbole and the concomitant loss of credibility so essential to maintain public support of policy. When offered the presidency of the Ford Foundation in 1966, Bundy was less eager to stay in Washington than he had been in the days of the Kennedy administration and found Johnson less determined to keep him there than Kennedy had been. Bundy accepted the Ford Foundation offer in February 1966.
The Ford Foundation had long played an important role in international development and education. During Bundy's presidency the foundation continued those activities, but it also added major new programs to fight racism at home. The struggle for equal opportunity became its highest domestic concern.
Bundy retired from the presidency of the Ford Foundation in 1979 and joined the Department of History at New York University. Throughout those years, both at Ford and at NYU, he retained his interest in foreign policy and his prestige in the foreign policy community. He was one of the "wise men" who advised Johnson to end the war in Vietnam in 1968. In the 1980s he joined forces with McNamara and George Kennan in an effort to alert Americans to the growing danger of nuclear war and to the need to end the arms race. They failed to persuade President Ronald Reagan.
Bundy later became a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Corporation. While he was there he was deeply concerned with issues of science and survival in the age of nuclear technology. He espoused the importance of proper understanding and implementation of nuclear technology on the part of the President of the United States, and he bemoaned the apparent lack of direction in this regard at the highest echelons of government. He was listed as a contributor to Brown University's Journal of World Affairs in 1995. He died of a heart attack in 1996. Journalist Walter Isaacson said that Bundy "came to personify the hubris of an intellectual elite that marched America with a cool and confident brilliance into the quagmire of Vietnam."
Further Reading on McGeorge Bundy
Among the most useful books touching on Bundy's role are David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972) and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (1965). See also Warren I. Cohen, Dean Rusk, Vol. 19 in Samuel F. Bemis and Robert H. Ferrell, editors, The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (1980) and Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point (1971).
Additional Biography Sources
Bundy, McGeorge, Reducing Nuclear Danger: The Road Away from the Brink, Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993.
Newsweek, September 30, 1996.
The Scientist, June 24, 1996.
Time Magazine, September 30, 1996.