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Summer Reading: “The Best and the Brightest”

July 4, 2007
Roscoe, N.Y.

I read a lot about the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The prospect of being sent there was a big incentive for education. But by the time David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest was published in 1972, I was in college, I hadn't been drafted, and Vietnam was now Nixon's war. The book probably wouldn't have interested me. As a study of the decision-making processes in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that led to the U.S. entrenchment in Vietnam, I suspect I would have found it somewhat arcane and even irrelevant.

I'm sorry it took the death of David Halberstam two months ago in an auto accident to get me interested in reading this book. The Best and the Brightest is an extraordinary history that probes deeply into the battle of personalities and ideologies in the White Houses of the early 1960s.

Although The Best and the Brightest sometimes looks back to the end of World War II and the 1950's, and in the final chapters quickly scans the first term of the Nixon administration, the book mostly focuses on the period between Kennedy's election in 1960 and the middle of 1965 when Johnson made the commitment of several hundred thousand troops. The title refers to the smart, accomplished men of these administrations — men like Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy — who nonetheless made a series of astonishing miscalculations, and whose trust in rationalism was greater than their humanism.

Halberstam based this book largely on hundreds of personal interviews with the participants of this era. His combination of policy analysis, character profiles, and perfectly revealing anecdotes has an overwhelming cumulative effect, its narrative swept along in a lively rip-roaring style, dependent clauses piling up to the breaking point, with a rhythm that you can't help reading aloud and then imitating. Here's the beginning of the profile of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the primary architects of the war:

Vietnam had been a colony of France since the nineteenth century, and Halberstam traces the history of the region from the end of World War II. France needed to reassert its authority in the world with help from the United States and Great Britain. This meant retaking control of its Indochinese colonies. In Vietnam, however, they were faced with a battle against a new nationalist and Communist revolution led by Ho Chi Minh. France was defeated in this war in 1954, and Vietnam was partitioned into North (under Ho Chi Minh) and South (under French loyalists) with elections scheduled for 1956. These elections were never held. Instead, the U.S. took over France's war.

Throughout the 1950s — and even for many years after — the U.S. was suffering greatly from the mindset and witchhunts of the McCarthy days. There had been a revolution in China, and within America the big political question became "Who lost China?" Beginning with a series of articles by Joseph Alsop in the Saturday Evening Post entitled "Why We Lost China," the State Department under the Truman administration was blamed. Whereas Alsop saw only conspiracy, others — most prominantly Joseph McCarthy — saw outright treason.

Political discourse was poisoned by this atmosphere of recrimination. At least in public, it became impossible for any American politician to be anything but a knee-jerk anti-Communist, and for anti-Communism to be the foremost guiding concept of American foreign policy. To the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh was George Washington delivering his country into independence from colonial rule. To the U.S., Ho Chi Minh was a crucial domino of monolithic Communism.

There once were people in the State Department who were skilled specifically in analyzing the countries of the Far East. But by the mid and later 1950's, Far East experts in the State Department were a rare breed. Many of the best had been hounded out during the McCarthy era for having lost China.

Later in the book, in Chapter 18, is a long extraordinary profile of John Paton Davies, Jr., the son of missionaries who knew China better than any other American, and who understood the revolution there and knew that the United States could do nothing to stop it, and who was severely punished for that understanding.

In theory, the U.S. presence in Vietnam was purely in support of the government of South Vietnam, based in Saigon. Yet this government was often corrupt and the soldiers incompetent. The more the U.S. attempted to aid South Vietnam, the more that South Vietnam came to depend on the U.S. support.

One of Halberstam's strengths is a relatively clear-eyed view of the Kennedy administration as it made its own early awkward steps into Vietnam. Once the policy got moving, it assumed it own momentum. "In government it is always easier to go forward with a program that does not work than to stop it altogether and admit failure." (p. 212)

Yet the Kennedy administration was capable of learning from its mistakes (such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion) and as his administration matured, Kennedy was starting to demand (and get) more accurate information from Vietnam; by the fall of 1963, it seems that Kennedy might have been ready to pull back from U.S. involvement in the war. His assassination brought into power a man who had largely been kept out of the loop. Halberstam captures Johnson well, chronicling his insecurities, his paranoia, his bullying, his value of loyalty in his subordinates above all, and his obstinacy.

Over the course of 1964, Johnson became closer to those secretaries who favored an aggressive stance in Vietnam, while distancing himself from those who urged a more cautious approach.

Less than a year after Johnson became President he had to face an election in the fall of 1964. As the year progressed, it was evident that his opponent would be Barry Goldwater, representing the far right wing of the Republican Party, and a staunch anti-Communist. Johnson needed to demonstrate that he was equally as anti-Communist as Goldwater, and he also needed Congressional and public approval for the war. The Tonkin Gulf incident solved both of these problems.

Congress was misled enough to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that gave President Johnson virtually unlimited war powers against North Vietnam. Only two senators voted against it; many more soon came to regret their trust in the Johnson administration.

Much of the intial debate within the Johnson administration (as in the Kennedy administration) involved bombing. Yet there was a big question whether stategic bombing would work at all. A study known as the U.S. Stategic Bombing Survey done following World War II indicated that bombing Germany had not worked well: "on the contrary, it had intensified the will of the German population to resist (as it would in North Vietnam, binding the population to the Hanoi regime)." (p. 162) Vietnam was largely an agrarian economy with no obvious manufacturing targets. Bombing the trails used by the Viet Cong only widened those trails and made them more accessible!

Of course, no one doubted that larger scale bombing would have an effect — such as the type of bombing recommended by General Curtis LeMay: "We should bomb them into the Stone Age." (p. 462) Nuclear weapons were discussed. But even bombing irrigation dikes would have interferred with civilian food supply and consitituted extreme human rights violations.

The strategic bombing had to be backed up with ground support, and the war eventually became a war of attrition — the hope that Viet Cong could be killed faster than they could be replenished. This never happened. As The Best and the Brightest draws to a close, Halberstam closely chronicles the progressive commitment to more and more ground troops of the course of 1965, and the faith that just a few more troops would make the difference.

Twelve pages earlier in The Best and the Brightest is a phrase I had forgotten about but which was much used in the late 60s: The Johnson administration was said to have a "credibility gap." Eventually, nothing they said about the war could be believed.

The Best and the Brightest is a terrific book and I highly recommend it — both for people who lived through that era and for those who didn't but are brave enough to journey back to those scary years.

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