The Best and the Brightest

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David Halberstam. The Best and the Brightest. 1972. 20th anniversary edition, Ballantine, 1993. 720 pages. $16.95.



--Mlinhart 10:37, 22 Mar 2006 (EST)

Historians examine social forces, class and race differences and discourses to describe the flow of events, but in so doing they may miss the importance of the influence of individuals. David Halberstam examines the leadership during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. When it comes to the American role in the Vietnam War, Halberstam makes a convincing case that it was the actions and inactions of individuals that resulted in the escalating involvement of the United States in the struggle. However, he does not adequately justify his central thesis that US involvement in the war was an avoidable disaster caused by the bad advice and negligent actions of politically irresponsible leaders. Halberstam was a New York Times journalist who received the Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reports in 1964.

Major influences on the Kennedy policy towards Vietnam were the fall of China to Communism in 1949, McCarthyism, and the Korean War. Halberstam traces American involvement from 1946 when the United States supported the French in Indochina. While Roosevelt and Truman opposed continuation of European colonialism, The US viewed Communism as a greater threat and aided the French. The Kennedy administration accepted the domino theory and the notion of containment. Because of McCarthyism, liberal Democrats were unwilling to be perceived as soft on communism. Halberstam felt that there was a belief in the ‘political weakness of the liberal-left’ and this ‘limited any inclination to look for diversity within the Communist world.’ (p. 151) Furthermore, McCarthy had silenced State Department personnel who might have argued the Vietnamese struggle was not a Communist takeover but a nationalist revolution against colonialism and a war of independence.

JFK took office in 1961, which turned out to be a disastrous year for his administration. In April the aborted Cuban invasion, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, took place, which made Kennedy look weak. The arms race with the Soviet Union escalated, and Kruschev bullied Kennedy at their meeting in Vienna. There were preliminary reports that Vietnam might be a problem, and after the Bay of Pigs the Kennedy administration was determined not to look weak in opposing the Communist takeover of another country. Halberstam quotes Kennedy as saying, "now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place." (p. 76)

After the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954, the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into North and South, with the promise of later unification through free elections. The US decided to maintain a presence in South Vietnam to guard against a takeover by the Communist North. At first that presence comprised a couple of hundred advisers to support the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, a government that never held the loyalty of the people and became increasingly detached from reality. However, by 1961 the US firmly believed in Diem and was committed to him. At the time of his death, Kennedy had reluctantly committed 17,000 advisers to Vietnam and faced increasing pressure from the military to send troops. Key administration figures backed escalation on "the assumption that if we showed our determination, Hanoi would not contest us." (p. 170) Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, was the dominant force. Halberstam is highly critical of him, saying,"It is not a particularly happy chapter in his life; he did not serve himself nor the country well; he was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool." (p. 250)

On November 1, 1963, with American complicity a group of generals mounted a coup and overthrew Diem who was then killed. Kennedy was killed on November 23, and Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. Halberstam quotes Johnson as saying, "I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went." (p. 298) Slowly and inexorably the US military commitment increased. A bombing campaign against North Vietnam was followed by special forces operations. The Tonkin Gulf incident occurred on July 30-August 3, 1964, which Johnson used to support a Congressional resolution giving him wide authority to escalate the war.

From Halberstam’s point of view, the difficulty for the Johnson leadership was failure to appreciate the toughness and intransigence of the enemy. Halberstam believes the North Vietnamese were virtually unbeatable. The United States would have difficulty matching the manpower numbers of the North Vietnamese and there was always the threat of unlimited Chinese manpower. Halberstam demonstrates that particularly after the arrival of General Westmoreland in Vietnam, the War escalated. The civilian leadership was under severe pressure from the military to increase forces. Increases in American forces brought increased retaliation from North Vietnam, which required more American manpower. With each escalation by the US, the North Vietnamese increased their own forces. When Johnson escalated the War to include bombing, the bombing had little impact on North Vietnamese military strength and stiffened their resistance. A study done in early 1964 by Robert Johnson in the State Department accurately predicted that bombing North Vietnam would not work. Halberstam says, "Basically the study showed that the bombing would fail because the North was motivated by factors which were not affected by physical change and physical damage." (p. 356)

Time after time, as Halberstam shows, US officials demonstrated their lack of understanding and underestimation of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. The North matched each US escalation and was unaffected by bombing. Halberstam says, "One of the great illusions of the war for both the French and the Americans was that they could control the rate of the war; in reality the other side always did." (p. 602)

Halberstam’s main focus is on the men who served in top echelons of government and the military and were active in the escalation of the Vietnam War. Most were liberal Democrats selected by Kennedy and asked to remain in office by Johnson. The Kennedy intellectuals had been praised as the best and the brightest men of a generation, and yet they were the ‘architects of a war which I (Halberstam) and many others thought the worst tragedy to befall this country since the Civil War.’ (p. 667) They had been ‘heralded as the ablest men to serve the country in this century.’(p. 668) Besides the Presidents, Halberstam discusses the backgrounds, roles and viewpoints of Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, William Bundy, General Maxwell Taylor, General William Westmoreland, Walt Rostow, Averill Harriman, George Ball and many others who influenced the course of the war. These men were bright but failed to use their brightness to accurately assess information and properly evaluate their enemy. Faulty assumptions and hardened Cold War thinking caused them to become mired in an unwinnable war. --Mlinhart 10:36, 22 Mar 2006 (EST)


--Mlinhart 12:00, 20 Mar 2006 (EST)

Halberstam is writing about the liberal Democratic elite, the inheritors of Roosevelt. The ‘best and brightest’ were attracted to government by Kennedy. Several, like McNamara, and Kennedy (and Halberstam himself) were Harvard graduates. Most could be considered mid-twentieth century liberal elites, not necessarily wealthy but men of intellectual ability and talent. There was a belief in the Establishment, ‘the right people deciding on the right policies in the right way.’ Bundy ‘believed in the capacity and the right of an elite to govern on its own terms.’ The war resulted in a ‘major challenge to the right of an elite to rule.’ ‘Outlanders, Negroes, women, workers, were determined to play a greater role.’ (657) Shulzinger concurs; ‘At the beginning of the U.S. involvement in the war most Americans trusted their leaders to make appropriate choices.’ By 1968, a sizeable portion of the public no longer believed that government officials waged the Cold War properly.’ (215, A Time for War)

Unlike Joseph Califano, Halberstam gives little attention to the Great Society. He characterizes Lyndon Johnson as a master parliamentarian who developed his skills as Senate leader and who tried to manage the executive branch as he had the legislature by seeking consensus. Like Califano, Halberstam shows Johnson as reluctant to fight in Vietnam because it would detract from his domestic agenda. Halberstam shares Garth Davies views that the strain of the Vietnam War had a devastating effect on liberalism and the Democratic Party.

Halberstam’s views on the best and brightest and their relations with the military are congruent with the arguments of Mary Shelia McMahon in The Sixties From Memory to History about the elites’ loss of leadership when faced with the specialists. In the case of Vietnam, once the military took control of the war, reluctant elites, including McNamara, lost control.

Halberstam believes the Vietnam War was an overriding domestic issue by late 1967. He only briefly mentions the civil rights movement and the various activists and counter culture of the Johnson era discussed in The Sixties From Memory to History. He calls the war the ‘one issue’ of Johnson’s Presidency in 1969. Johnson had ‘initiated the Great Society but never really built it.’ He had ‘let the Democratic Party disintegrate.’ ‘Inflation was rampant.’ Younger blacks were ‘busy linking the peace movement with what had once been the civil rights movement.’ Johnson ‘had lost control of the country.’ (649)

In evaluating the best and the brightest, Halberstam seems to believe that only those who concur with his anti-war views were the real wise men of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He admires Averill Harriman and George Ball. There is a tone of disdain for those who supported the War. Halberstam implies that Bundy and McNamara were intelligent and effective but fools. He calls McNamara ‘the quantifier trying to quantify the unquantifiable.’ (247) In fact, he bluntly says about McNamara before his dovish days, ‘He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.’ (250) In Halberstam’s view Dean Rusk is to be blamed for the fact that in 1964 ‘there was no real investigation of what kind of a deal might be worked out with Hanoi and the Vietcong.’ Rusk was ‘content to wait, to let events come to him.’ (307) Rusk who had many good qualities, did not press a more moderate course and was not forceful or effective as a presidential advisor.

Halberstam’s book is not a history. His book was written before the war was over. His attitudes against United States involvement in Vietnam are obvious. The strangest thing about Vietnam is that it is hard to pin down responsibility for American involvement. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all were reluctant warriors and their main fight was the cold war. For them, the Vietnam War was part of that larger struggle. It is almost as if they are trapped and forced to go with the pressures and flows generated by events, their advisors and the military. Halberstam’s narrative shows that even the ‘best’ can be carried along by events and by the rigidity of their views.

Halberstam appears not be concerned about the cold war dangers from Russia and China and does not seem to believe that the fall of South Vietnam would demonstrate the validity of the domino theory. Berman shows that the North Vietnamese engaged in frequent conversations with the Chinese Communists during the peace talks and presumably they sought at least moral support, if not other kinds of support from China and engaged in similar conversations during the war. One of the greatest tragedies of the Vietnam War for Halberstam is that he can find no reason for it.

--Mlinhart 10:37, 22 Mar 2006 (EST)

Tom Demharter, fall 2005

--Tdemharter 23:28, 7 Nov 2005 (EST)

One of the debates that historians continue to partake in surrounds the making of policy within any government. Whether it occurs during times of war or peace, what goes into the development of this policy has sparked continuous argument since the 1960’s. Unwilling to believe that individuals alone make decisions in some sort of vacuum that is void of any influence, revisionist historians began to argue that other factors were at work and that those factors needed to be examined and included into the overall picture. Without a broader understanding and examinations of the influences that policy-decision makers must ultimately face, no history is truly complete. Traditional historians, on the other hand argue that while these influence from below must be taken into consideration, policy is still ultimately made by individuals, many of whom are insulated from the public via the fact that they are appointed to their positions and not elected by the people.

While David Halberstam attempts to provide a much broader picture of the origins of the Vietnam War in his book The Best and the Brightest, the author cannot escape from the traditional perspective that allows the historian to examine the topic from the top down to the masses. While considered a dangerous individual by many in the government at the time he was writing the book, the only real danger the Halberstam provided to the public in general was the fact that the government was fighting a war that it could not win. Outside of that, the book is rather traditional in its examination of the individuals responsible for the policies that would ultimately cost the United States billions of dollars and the lives of over 58,000 of its citizens.

The sheer coverage that Halberstam provides to the reader in The Best and the Brightest is phenomenal; the fact that he was writing the book while America was still fighting the war is beyond imagination. Through thousands of hours of interviews and investigation, much taking place within Vietnam itself, Halberstam attempts to unlock the values and thought processes involved in the ever-evolving war policy. No one individual or thought strain developed by these men and examined by the author was the primary influence in the development of the Vietnam policy. However, one thing is clear from reading the book - the individuals involved in the creation of the policy were young, well-educated and idealistic men who were determined to escape from the traditional Cold War policies of the past 15 years.

Much of what Halberstam provides to the reader is background information on the players involved during the Kennedy Administration. While this information is important to help the reader to better understand where these individuals were coming, this line of examination is limiting in the fact that it provides a false sense of timing. The Vietnam conflict did not begin with the election of John Kennedy in 1960. Instead, Vietnam was a problem that had been developing throughout the presidencies of both Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. While the lives of the men who would be prominent in the continued development of America’s involvement in Vietnam receive the majority of the coverage, Halberstam ignores the fact that a policy was already in place and had gone through similar changes. Without this knowledge, it is difficult for the reader to make connections between the three administrations.

Another problem that the book faces is documentation. Because Halberstam was writing the book while the war was still going on, he does not provide sources for his information. Much of what the author condemns the government for doing he does as well. Halberstam wants the reader to take his work as being honest and void of bias, even though he makes it apparent that he is against America’s involvement in Vietnam. While this may work when writing for a newspaper or magazine, it is not how historians do their job. Hiding behind the First Amendment, Halberstam argues that he originally had intended to provide to the reader the sources that he used but thought better of it because of the “political climate is somewhat sensitive these days and the relationship of reporter to source is very much under attack.” (669) While this sounds good, it simply does not excuse Halberstam from providing to the reader the same proof he believes that the government should provide to its citizens.

While one could spend hours arguing about the numerous faults within this work due to the lack of footnoting and sources, what Halberstam does provide to the reader is a near exhaustive overview of those Kennedy sought out to assist him in foreign policy decision making. What does become apparent is that these individuals were not traditional Washington insiders who were simply going to continue the policies developed through Cold War rhetoric. These men wanted to do things different once Kennedy assumed office; they wanted to escape from the policy of containment and the Domino Theory. For them, the world was not the same place, as it existed in 1948. While China had gone Communist, it had not united with the Soviet Union to bring about the demise of the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought awareness that there would be no winners in a nuclear war and the changes were necessary to avoid a war from occurring. The irony that I believe is lost in the book’s name is the fact that the best and the brightest were not even around to assist Kennedy in his decision-making. The McCarthyism of the 1950’s had destroyed the careers of those who were experts on Southeast Asia. Someone had to receive the blame for the loss of China to the communists. Those who had been trying all along to warn the government of this situation ultimately lost their positions within the State Department and other critical areas of the government.

Finally, the ultimate irony lies in the fact that it was not one of the best and brightest who would be responsible for the escalation of America’s involvement in the war. Instead, it was Lyndon Johnson, the Vice President whose ideas took shape during the Roosevelt Administration, who would be responsible for the increased American involvement in Vietnam. Halberstam leads the reader to believe that Kennedy was close to reversing gear and withdrawing from Vietnam just before his assassination in Dallas. If not for that, the outcome of Vietnam may have been quite different.

Jim Daniels, fall 2005

Well Tom beat me to the punch here. I agree with his analysis of the book, so will not repeat it. I particularly share his concerns about the lack of footnotes.

What struck me about this book however, was the easy way Halberstam wove together the many threads he saw as leading up to America's involvement in the Vietnam war. Like any historical event, a change in any one of these strands would have changed how the event unfolded. The challenge for the historian is to describe and analze those strands in such a way as to make it clear to the reader how the event unfolded. In my opinion Halberstam does an excellent job of this.

Like Jeffrey Kimball in Nixon's Vietnam Halberstam looks at the evolution in attitude of the major players involved. Like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the men that surrounded President Kennedy were also dedicated cold warriors, and their view of the Vietnam War was colored by that mindset. In fact, during the 1960 Presidential campaign, there was very little difference in the foreign policy positions of Kennedy and Nixon. Both were strongly anti-communist, and viewed world events from that perspective.

Halberstam looks as far back as the Roosevelt administration and his dislike of colonialism. Roosevelt made some attempt to keep the French from re-colonizing indochina after the war. It was viewed as less important than keeping Eurpoe happy however, and there was never a serious push to prevent it. Later on, as the French again fought the VietMinh for control of Vietnam, American leaders viewed France as fighting not a colonial war, but as fighting against communist control of Asia. Underlying both Kimball's and Halberstam's arguments in my opinion, was the lack of understanding of the local issues in Indochina, thus leading them to underestimate the strength and resolve of the North Vietnamese.

As Tom notes however, the major part of the book is a look at the men who advised both President Kennedy and President Johnson, and how their views and personalities helped direct policy in Vietnam. How they tried to control what information reached the President is the most fascinating, and in some ways disturbing aspect of this. That men such as Gen Taylor, Gen. Harkins, and even Robert McNamara would conciously distort the facts to push a policy position says alot about how America became embroiled there in the first place. What is more remarkable, is that somehow Kennedy partially as the result of his experiences during the Cuban missile crisis, and partially through the efforts members of his administration like Averell Harriman, was able to see through this disinformation, and he began to question the level of involvement. So perhaps the most fateful strand was the assasination of President Kennedy.

Dave Smith, Fall 2006

Halberstam's book is a political history focused on the decision-making process of American foreign policy in Vietnam. He analyzes the role of key Presidential advisers, "the best and the brightest," who were men drawn from the elite ranks of society. For the most part, the book ignores economic, social, and cultural aspects of the Vietnam War and concentrates on the poltical process that seemed to inexorably pull the US into an escalating conflict.

The book has no footnotes, and Halberstam's failure to cite sources makes it difficult to challenge his version of events. His background as a newspaperman explains his approach in protecting sources, but the lack of citations certainly is a drawback in any work meant to be considered historical.

He is highly critical of certain key individuals, such as Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, and his criticisms are to some degree justified. But he seems to go too far in portraying these and other key advisers as willing participants in a devious program to push the US into a military debacle. While he refers to the Cold War, he does not seem to find it credible that key advisers and the Presidents they served from Eisenhower on all believed in a monolithic Communism seeking a foothold in Southeast Asia. They honestly believed in the Domino Theory, and the fact that it turned out to be fallacious does not justify impugning their motives at the time. Judging them by standards defined by subsequent events constitutes inappropriate presentism.

Halberstam is clearly an anti-war liberal whose views of the war are colored by his partisan orientation. He denigrates everyone except those who actively opposed the war. In fact, for the most part US leaders were drawn into the war reluctantly. Even Halberstam admits that there was no desire for expansion or conquest. "Stability" was the objective, "though stability as we defined it was colonialism as the Vietnamese defined it." (p. 337) US leaders were simply unable to understand that perhaps what they thought was best for the Vietnames was not what the Vietnamese wanted. While it would be a gross mistake to describe the Vietnam War as a "misunderstanding," Halberstam's analysis does show that a better understanding by US leaders of the cultural values, motivations, and objectives of the Vietnamese might well have averted a long and bloody conflict that failed to advance American interests.

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