Title: The Best And The Brightest
Author: David Halberstam
Halberstam, David (1972, 2001). The Best And The Brightest; foreword by John McCain. New York : Modern Library
- Vietnam War, 1961-1975–United States.
- United States–Politics and government–1961-1963.
- United States–Politics and government–1963-1969.
- Originally published in 1972, New York: Random House
Date Posted: March 3, 2017
Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf
A trenchant analysis by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist of decision making in the Vietnam War, combined with extensive character sketches of the principal policy makers during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Scattered throughout the book are revealing descriptions of the mishandling of strategic intelligence, especially estimates, as well as discussions of covert operations, including the 34 A operations which led to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. A valuable source, but one which is difficult to use since the index is confined to proper names. Should be used in conjunction with Gravel’s edition of The Pentagon Papers.
From The New York Times
The Best and the Brightest; Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam’s latest, most important and impressive book, sets out to discover why America got involved in the worst and messiest war in our history. “What was it about the men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions and above all the era which had allowed this tragedy to take place?” They were, after all, “the best and the brightest,” so why did it happen?
It happened, Halberstam concludes, because “they had, for all their brilliance and hubris and sense of themselves, been unwilling to look and learn from the past.” They ignored Hanoi history and misunderstood Munich history.” And they had been swept forward by their belief in the importance of anti‐Communism (and the dangers of not paying sufficient homage to it.)” The Age of the Pentagon Papers Is, in reality, the Age of the Pumpkin Papers.
It is difficult to argue with Halberstam’s reasonable, compelling and persuasively presented thesis. The rhetoric is occasionally overblown, but he is right, they were “swept forward” by the sense of power and glory, omnipotence and omniscience of America in this century. They were America” and they did want to be defined as “being strong and tough; but strength and toughness and courage were exterior qualities which would be demonstrated by going to a clean and hopefully antiseptic war with a small nation, rather than the interior more lonely kind of strength and courage of telling the truth to America and perhaps incurring good deal of domestic political risk.”`
Moreover, Halberstam is able to bring his case alive through the artful use of warehouses of insider anecdotes, vignettes and detail. What better symbol of the illusion of an antiseptic war than Gen. William Westmoreland breakfasting in his underwear “in order to keep his fatigues pressed?” What more vivid way to convey the Cold‐War assumptions ingrained in L.B.J. than to report that the first thing that raced through his mind as the shots were fired that November day in Dallas was “that the Communists had done it”? How more dramatically to capture the stultifying atmosphere of our embassy in Saigon than to show Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting Jr., replacing a portrait of Thomas Jefferson with one of George Washington, in anticipation of a TV interview, because Jefferson was too controversial?
And yet when one has finished reading these 688 small type but for the most part highly readable pages, one feels that although Halberstam is persuasive as far as he goes, although The Best and the Brightest is a valuable contribution to the literature not only on Vietnam but on the way Washington and our foreign policy establishment work (on one level it is the home front mirror image of the author’s earlier account of his tour of duty in Vietnam, The Making of a Quagmire), and although the book is essential corrective reading to the earlier in‐house memoirs of the period (Schlesinger, Sorensen, Hilsman) and useful companion reading to the Pentagon Papers themselves, Halberstam has only partly answered the vastly ambitious question he set himself. To understand why this should be so, it helps to look at the dominant themes which the work.`
In addition to asking why it all happened, the book’s main and most remarkable contribution is to introduce us in depth to the architects of America’s involvement in Vietnam—not only to the McNamaras and Rusks but to the Rosencrantz’s and Guildensterns of the Federal bureaucracy—and in so doing, to capture aid interplay between personality and policy; second, it illuminates the rules of the game—takes us into the bureaucratic arena and shows us how, time and again, bureaucratic considerations triumphed over ideological or even common‐sense ones; and third, it traces the history of no‐returning points which led to our entanglement in this tragic war, and seems to suggest in retrospect, any number of places where we might have stopped the war because we wanted to get off.`
His portraits are superb—perceptive, literary, multidimensional, in context. We see the seemingly unending procession of characters in actions, transactions from a distance, up close, and occasionally even from inside their heads. It’s not just that we see McGeorge Bundy at the Significant moment returning from Pleiku and, moved by what he saw, recommending the retaliatory tit‐for‐tat raids against the North (which shortly and inevitably were converted to sustained raids), but Halberstam fairly leaps into the New Journalism as he takes us inside L.B.J.’s brain. “He was not like That Other Bundy, as the President called Bill Bundy. The one thing about That Other Bundy—he went through C.I.A. and his brother Mac didn’t. Mac spent too much time at Harvard with all those poets and intellectuals while his brother was dealing with men. But after Pleiku it was, Johnson said, like talking to man next door to a fire who’s hollering for help. Later he told Bundy, ‘Well, they made a believer out of you, didn’t they. A little fire will do that.’ “
And it all makes sense because the literary leap is grounded in facts. We already know Mac Bundy. We have seen him hobnobbing with Henry Brandon, the elite British journalist, and snubbing N.B.C.’s Sander Vanocur. We have seen him at Yale where he was Number One and where he accepted the invitation to join the secret societies his friend Kingman Brewster turned down. We have seen him at Harvard and at Groton and we take time out for a little lecture on Groton, which Halberstam describes as “the greatest prep school in the nation, where the American upper class send its sons to instill the classic values.” We have seen him from the vantage point of the shopkeeper at Shreve’s, a famous Boston jewelry store: “McGeorge Bundy… McGeorge Bundy… Bundy… Oh yes, isn’t he the boy who married Mary Lothrop?” Halberstam stops far short of psychohistory but we meet not only his mother and father and cousins and aunts but his great‐greatgrandfather, who picked no fewer than six presidents of Harvard. And finally, we glimpse him right after he left office, in March, 1966, as Bob Cuniff, a young writer with The Today Show tries to put him at his ease with small talk just prior to going on the air, and remarks that it must be a relief to be out from under the terrible burdens of decision‐making in Washington.`
“Just what do you mean?”`
“Oh, you know, you must be relieved, getting away from the terrible pressures of the war, making decisions on it.”`
“Oh, yes,” said Bundy, “you people up here in New York take that all very seriously, don’t you?”`
But there is something of a contradiction in Halberstam’s concentration and comments on the parade of intriguing characters who pass through his story. Occasionally he appears to be suggesting that if only George Ball or Ave Harriman or Chester Bowles were running the State Department instead of the passive Dean Rusk (“Rhodes scholars tend to be more respectable than restless, more builders than critics”), or if only John Paton Davies Jr. or John Kenneth Galbraith had been sitting at the Far East Desk (F.E.) everything would have been different. After all, the job of Assistant Secretary of State for F.E. is crucial, “perhaps on the subject of Vietnam, the most crucial one. If there were doubts on Vietnam, they should have been voiced first of all by State.” “If anyone should have made the principals uncomfortable in their determination to go ahead and use force, it was a strong and uncompromising Assistant Secretary.” But Davies was in Peru, a tragic victim of the McCarthy era, and at the desk was Bill Bundy, with a picture of McNamara tacked on the wall. “Perhaps if the people who knew a good deal about Vietnam… had gotten together with people who knew something about L.B.J., which way he would react to certain pressures, then they probably could have plotted the course of the future.”`
This assumption — that if you switched the “players” you could change the outcome of the game—seems to be at war with the very thesis of the book that somehow the “best and the brightest” were not good enough, were victims of history, the bureaucracy, of the cold war—of the fall of China, the rise of McCarthy, the war in Korea. It also permits him to sidestep any extended analysis of the power of the Pentagon as over and against State. Was the military‐industrial complex merely a cliché left over from Ike’s farewell address to his troops, or did it guarantee that other things being equal, the President would go with the Pentagon? Given Halberstam’s sophisticated approach to the uses of power, one wishes he had addressed himself directly to that classic conundrum: The role of the hero in history. How much difference could any one of these men have made?`
Instead of addressing the issue, Halberstam chooses up sides, and aligns himself (appropriately enough for a fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Institute) with the “humanists” against the “rationalists.” As Halberstam puts it, and fairly, I think, going into the sixties, the Democrats were split between the Eleanor Roosevelt/Adlai Stevenson wing, which included Schlesinger, Bowles, Humphrey, et al., who felt that the United States “must take more initiatives in the arms race, that if America did not recognize Red China it should at least begin to move toward that goal, that nationalism was the new and most potent force in the underdeveloped world, that the U.S. must support it even at the expense of weakening ties with NATO allies, and finally that the greatest threat to the world might prove to be not Communism, but the combination of the arms race, hunger and poverty in the Third World.” Although Kennedy had aligned himself with the humanists in the Presidential primaries, after he was elected “Adlai was someone to take Jackie to the theater” and Kennedy seemed to be more comfortable with the rationalists, the pragmatists, who more or less adopted the view of the world associated with the Dean Acheson wing of the party, and Acheson, we are told, was “the principal architect of our commitment to Vietnam.” The Acheson wing was, briefly, committed to a view of “manifest U.S. destiny in the world. They believed that the great threat to the world was Communist, an enemy at once totalitarian, antidemocratic and antibusiness, and that Communists must be stopped and that the Communists only understood one thing, force.”`
Having identified the good guys and the bad guys (Ball, Bowles and Galbraith were right from the start), Halberstam proceeds to show us how the latter outmaneuvered and outargued the former. There was McNamara, “a ferocious infighter, statistics and force ratios came pouring out of him like a great uncapped faucet,” and when he didn’t have the figures, says Halberstam, he would make them up, content to lie because he was so certain of the rightness of his cause. On the other side, “poor George [Ball] had no counter‐figures, he would talk in vague doubts.”`
But what follows from this after-the‐fact discovery? Not very much. After all, the relatively enlightened Averell Harriman did run F.E. for awhile; J.F.K. himself (along with George Ball) was, Halberstam tells us, one of the two men in the upper reaches of the Government who expressed serious doubts about dispatching a few hundred special forces troops to Vietnam in the fall of 1961. I am not at all sure that had President Stevenson consulted with Secretary of State Ball and Secretary of Defense Finletter or Symington or Jackson that they too would not have been swallowed by the war machine.`
The dominant metaphor of this book—Halberstam’s second theme—sees our Government as a great bureaucratic arena in which generals and Cabinet officers and lesser bureaucrats all are “players” in the game of bureaucratic politics. Their primary loyalty is to their team and what’s good for their team may not necessarily be good for the country. The players are shown winning temporary victories which result in their literally as well as figuratively losing the war: The metaphor is not new, but Halberstam’s application is convincing and shrewd, the examples are legion, and the depressing message is that in addition to deceiving the American people they deceived each other and themselves.`
It was not merely that a man like Gen. Paul D. Harkins managed the institutionalization of optimism by routinely tilting the facts to match Washington’s hopes (when a lieutenant colonel told Harkins that a Vietnamese briefer exaggerated the figures on the Strategic Hamlet program, Harkins upbraided the officer for doubting the word of a Vietnamese, and the lieutenant colonel lost his promotion); rather, the book is strewn with instances of institutional self‐deception, a more ominous finding.`
Item: The argument between State and the military over whether explosives would close the Mu Ghia pass. State argued that they wouldn’t (which is what happened), but “The military were sure explosives would close it…. What did State know about bombing?” In fact, Halberstam notes, the Army people had always had their doubts about interdiction by air but they would vote with the Air Force under the gentlemen’s agreement whereby the Air Force in turn never expressed their doubts about the effectiveness of combat troops. The crucial factor was that the President would ask, what is the vote? And the vote would be yes, the bombing would do it. Thus did the Government protect its capacity to go against its own wisdom and experience.
Item: In early 1964 when the Joint Chiefs decided to “test” the new President by moving to expand the war via bombing, McNamara thought he was heading them off by writing a paper on the goals of war which recommended that instead of bombing they plan for two different types of bombing. As Halberstam notes, McNamara was “Secretary of Defense playing Secretary of State” and yes, the immediate action of the Joint Chiefs was postponed but at what cost? First, McNamara’s paper “bought the domino theory”; and, second, with no debate at State, and “without seeming to make a decision, the bureaucracy both at Defense and State had been given the go-ahead, and told in effect to start for war.”`
Anyone who would understand the decision‐making process during these years cannot do without analyses of this sort. But again one must ask whether focusing on “the players” in the game doesn’t tend to downgrade the possibility that they are primarily instruments of the so‐called war system rather than determiners of the war.`
Another reason to drop (or augment) that particular metaphor may be found in Halberstam’s account of what happened when Col. William Crossen, a top intelligence officer, was asked to do an estimate for Westmoreland on the enemy capacity for reinforcement in April, 1965. When he put it together, “he was appalled: the number of men that Hanoi could send down the trails…. was quite astonishing… he could not believe it, so he checked it again… brought the study to Westmoreland’s staff and showed it to a general there…. ‘Jesus,’ said the general, ‘if we tell this to the people in Washington we’ll be out of the war tomorrow. We’ll have to revise it downward.’ So Crossen’s figures were duly scaled down considerably, which was a good example of how the Army system worked, the staff intuitively protecting the commander from things he didn’t want to see and didn’t want to hear, never coming up with information which might challenge what a commander wanted to do at a given moment. Because the Westmoreland staff in February, March and April of 1965 knew that he wanted to get in the ball game with combat troops, it did everything carefully, never getting ahead of itself. Lyndon Johnson was a great salami slicer, and no one was smarter than Westmore-salami to order at a given time, how much he would be allowed to carry home”
Ronald Steel, writing in The New York Review of Books about the study of bureaucratic politics, has an observation which is apropos: “Emphasizing game playing,” he says, “reduces political responsibility. Where everyone, is responsible for a decision no one is responsible. If politics is the result of bargaining games among players, neither the President nor the nation can be held responsible for the decisions made.” Halberstam does not exonerate Colonel Crossen or the anonymous general on Westmoreland’s staff, and yet it is true that the tone of The Best and the Brightest, which is in large part a function of the games metaphor, doesn’t distinguish between such perhaps criminal deception and, say, Dean Rusk’s restricted dential adviser, or Robert McNamara’s futile efforts to have a team of Harvard engineers erect an electronic barrier to stop infiltration from the North.`
Halberstam’s third theme, the berstam provides the music. He doesn’t go back into “deep history,” nor does he attempt the sort of radical psychological or economic analysis that can be found in the recently published Roots of War by Richard Barnet. But there is value in what he has done, which is to concentrate on more recent events, zeroing in on the socalled fall of China, the purge of State’s best China experts (Davies, Service, Clubb) and a generation of Democratic de‐Pensiveness on the loshigAsia‐to‐the‐Reds issue. He then takes us through the various decisions to support Diem, not to support Diem, to send Special Forces, to send unconventional forces, to send protective forces, to send search and destroy forces, to try retaliatory bombing, to commence sustained bombing etc. etc.
What shortly becomes clear is that no single military turning point, no single or two or three arch villains explains anything. “Dean Acheson was the architect of our commitment to Vietnam.” The Europeanists got us in there to support the French. The Kennedys got us in there because “it gave them opportunities for grace under pressure.” The Bay of Pigs really did it because ironically, its aftermath saw “the strengthening of State’s tough‐minded realists,” and the weakening of ‘those less inclined to use force, like Bowles. Maxwell Taylor and the military mind are really responsible because as late as 1961 he mistakenly saw Korea as the parallel war, whereas as Halberstam points out, “The former was a conventional war with a traditional border crossing by a uniformed enemy massing his troops: the latter was a political war conducted by guerrillas and feeding on subversion.” Walt Rostow (of whom J.F.K. had observed that he has 10 ideas a day, one of them useful but the other nine disasters, therefore there ought to be a filter between him and the President) is the culprit because of his infectious enthusiasm, as a member of the L.B.J. white house for air war.`
Machismo, says Halberstam, “was no small part of it” Johnson “had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job, that he would lack courage at a crucial moment.” Westmoreland and McNamara are guilty because of their misplaced confidence in ground troops. L.B.J. was the real war criminal when he deceived the American people in July, 1965, by deciding to send over 100,000 to 125,000 troops, but telling the American people that it was only 50,000 and that it “does not imply any change in policy whatever” In fact, notes Halberstam, “it was the beginning of an entirely new policy which would see what was the South Vietnamese war become primarily an American war.” Dean Rusk (“color him neutral or color him hardline. Which side was he on?…”) ought to take the rap because he never spoke up; he never fought; he let McNamara take over State.`
Take your pick, the list is endless. What’s interesting, though, are not any key decisions or decision ‐makers, but the pattern that emerges, a phenomenon we might call The Fallacy of the Misplaced Center. Consider, for example, J.F.K.’s response to the Taylor‐Rostow report in the fall of 1961, his decision on napalm in 1963 and L.B.J.’s response to Westmoreland’s request for 17 more battalions in 1965.`
The Taylor-Rostow report shocked J.F.K. by recommending that up to 8,000 troops be sent to Vietnam. (Of course had he not wanted to be shocked he might have had Galbraith and Schlesinger make the official tour and report). “For many reasons,” Halberstam points out, “it was far more decisive than anyone realized not because Kennedy did what they recommended but because in doing less than it called for, he felt he was being moderate, cautious. There was an illusion that he had held the line, whereas in reality he was steering us far deeper into the Quagmire.”`
Move now to April, 1965. On one side is Gen. Maxwell Taylor, arguing for enclaves (troops operating with limited initiatives from strategic positions on Vietnamese soil); and on the other was Gen. William Westmoreland, asking for 17 more battalions who would carry out “search and destroy” missions, previously forbidden. The President ended up in the “middle.” He gave Westmoreland only two of the requested 17 battalions, but he approved the expansion of their mission to “search and destroy” under guidelines to be worked out by Rusk and McNamara.
The choice was never, say, unilateral withdrawal vs. negotiated withdrawal (as it came to be in 1972) but always between competing escalations and the political center was always way over on the right someplace. Halberstam is not unaware of The Fallacy of the Misplaced Center and in fact, on the occasion of John McCone’s appointment as Director of the C.I.A., he notes that “One reason the President had been so secretive…was that he knew the opposition to McCone within the Government would be so strong as to virtually nullify the appointment,” which “had shown the political center of the Kennedy Administration to be a good deal farther to the right than his original supporters hoped.”`
It is an omission of The Best and the Brightest that Halberstam himself never defines the real center and aside from a moving and brief mea culpa in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, we get little sense of how the Halberstam center has shifted since his days in Vietnam, since he wrote The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965.
This is not a book about the destructive impact of the war on America; it is not a book on the immorality of the war. Piety‐avoidance is to be congratulated, and Halberstam has achieved that. But it turns out, in the case of the Vietnam War, that it is impossible to ask why without getting a fix on whether, political and military considerations aside, we ought to have been there in the first place; or when, if ever, there was a moral imperative which demanded withdrawal. It turns out to be insufficient to talk directly about the political center and indirectly about the bureaucratic center and to ignore the moral center.`
“Why do we find it so hard,” Henry Steele Commager has recently asked, “to accept this elementary lesson of history, that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the truest patriots?” I would answer that rhetorical question by observing that for those of us not directly involved with the war at either end, it is not hard at all, but that’s partly because we were not there. Long distance morality is the easiest kind. Halberstam, however, was there, and he has been back, and if the Halberstams don’t help us discover where the political brink stops and the moral abyss begins, who will?
Why are we in Vietnam? In portraying the decision‐making process as a struggle between the humanists and the rationalists; in suggesting that had the humanists been in charge all might have been well; in finding the origins of the Vietnam war primarily in the cold war; in focusing on the politics of bureaucracy to the exclusion of the morality of politics, Halberstam has been faithful to, if critical of, the perspective of his subjects, and to that extent his inquiry may lack optimal historical imagination. It may be, ironically, that to get a book as rich in inside information, insight and occasional wisdom as this one, requires someone who lives in the penumbra of “‘the best and the brightest,” who has access to their confidence, their living rooms and their files; and that the beneficial limits of such a collaboration are the same shared assumptions which make it possible.
 Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., pp. 212-213
 Gravel, Mike (1971-2), Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam (The Senator Gravel edition – 5 vols.). Boston, Beacon Press