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The Best And The Brightest (1993)

The Best and the Brightest (1993)
Rating
4.25 of 5 Votes: 1
ISBN
0449908704 (ISBN13: 9780449908709)
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English
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ballantine books
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The Best And The Brightest (1993)
The Best And The Brightest (1993)

About book: Halberstam gives us the inside story of how America entrapped itself in the Viet Nam War. He shows how the legacy of McCarthyism and 1940’s politics over China left a decimated State Department and influenced JFK’s and LBJ’s thinking. He details the many times JFK and others who doubted the war altered their positions out of fear of being seen as soft. He shows how the arrogance and overconfidence of Kennedy’s team and subsequently Johnson’s led the US into war. He takes us through the constant escalation ending with the Tet offensive of 1968 and the fall of the façade of competence, the public’s realization that its government as well as the war was lost and out of control. Along the way we learn the backgrounds, motivations and impact of key figures: Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, John Paton Davies, McGeorge Bundy, William Bundy, Walt Rostow, Dean Acheson, George Ball, Averill Harriman, Clark Clifford, Roger Hilsman, John McNaughton, Maxwell Taylor, Paul Harkins, William Westmoreland, Robert Kennedy and of course JFK and LBJ. We start with JFK selecting his team. He chose the never outspoken Dean Rusk for Secretary of State, wanting no one who would challenge him. Kennedy was really assigning himself the role of Secretary of State. Picking from the Boston elite, Kennedy chose the intellectual McGeorge Bundy as his Special Assistant for National Security Affairs. Mac Bundy was pedigree Eastern establishment having attended Groton then Yale where he graduated Suma Cum Laude and on directly to Harvard as a Junior Fellow skipping the PhD program and ascending to professor of government and dean even though he had never taken a course in government in college. This skill to impress and advance was well applied in his White House job. The quick and energetic Bundy took control and usurped the Department of State relegating Dean Rusk to the background. As a JFK favorite he controlled access to the president. He was supremely confident of his abilities and eminently capable of getting his way; however, he had no actual experience in foreign affairs. His hardline approach to the Soviets reflected his father’s, a former Henry Stimson aide, and Dean Acheson’s to whose daughter his brother, Bill Bundy, over at Defense was married.Several factors led JFK to look at Viet Nam as a part of the cold war and to take a tough approach. First, the Bay of Pigs debacle which JFK lackadaisically let happen forced him to adopt a strong anti-communist line since he could not again afford to look weak. It led Kennedy to take a hard stance in his meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna ending in Khrushchev’s bombast which in turn caused Kennedy to send more troops to Europe and to Viet Nam to show his toughness. Second, the legacy of the McCarthy period was still acutely felt in the Kennedy administration. While JFK believed that not recognizing and hence not engaging with Red China was a mistake, fear of political backlash prevented any change in policy. JFK’s decision bode ill for any rational policy towards Viet Nam. Making China part of the problem rather than part of the solution only left one option, further escalation. Third, during the Truman administration conservative Republicans challenged the loyalty of Foreign Service officers who dared report the truth about Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists’ likely defeat. China experts such as John Carter Vincent, John Stewart Service and John Paton Davies had their careers ruined. Truman’s attempt to preempt the conservative’s attacks with his own loyalty investigations only gave credence to Republican charges. In 1950, Joseph Alsop’s article in the “Saturday Evening Post” entitled “Why We Lost China” fueled Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts for those responsible. The fall of China, the Korean War and McCarthyism caused a re-characterization of the French Indo-China war from colonial to anti-communist, an altered perception that would carry into the sixties.After the Geneva conference which split Viet Nam into North and South in 1954, John Foster Dulles convinced Eisenhower to send 200 advisors and foreign aid money to bolster the South. Thus America replaced the French in Viet Nam. By 1961 the Viet Cong were expanding and South Viet Nam’s President Diem’s situation was growing dire. With Foreign Service Asian experts discredited and discarded, two European experts with no experience in Asia, the new Ambassador Frederick Nolting and his friend William Truehart, were assigned to Viet Nam. With background in NATO and European affairs they viewed events through the prism of the communist threat and ignored the nationalistic nature of the Viet Cong insurgency.JFK then sent interventionists General Maxwell Taylor and Mac Bundy deputy Walt Rostow to Saigon to report back. In December 1961, their report caused JFK to send thousands of US “advisory” troops and General Harkins, Taylor’s longtime friend, to lead them. JFK from this point on would be deceived about the true situation in Viet Nam. JFK appointed John McCone to head the CIA. McCone was a conservative Republican California millionaire picked at RFK’s urging. JFK picked the hardline McCone to keep Republicans off his back appalling his traditional liberal supporters. Trying to placate the hardliners JFK was playing right into their hands.Harkins, Ambassador Nolting, and the American contingent worked through the autocratic, insular, moody Diem. The more Diem relied on American aid; the more he was hated by the Vietnamese. But his truth was America’s truth and reporters who dared report anything different were pressured and disparaged as were American field commanders in the advisory mission. When they told the truth about what they saw, the total ineffectiveness of the ARVN, the expansion of the Viet Cong, they were at best dressed down by Harkins, at worst transferred out, their careers shattered. Those who tried to go around Harkins soon found out his support and instructions came from his friend at the top, JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. JFK’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara too was fooled, taking at face value the reporting of Taylor and Harkins as late as mid-1963. McNamara’s stellar image as the dynamic can do businessman lent credibility to the military which was dictating policy to the civilians. McNamara had worked his way up to the President of Ford Motor Company as a financial systems expert, controlling costs and streamlining operations. A former Harvard accounting professor, he had originally done this type of financial, logistics and production planning for the air force during WWII. He brought his statistical control oriented mind set to Washington. The McNamara – Taylor visit to Viet Nam in September 1963 finally made McNamara doubt the information he was receiving from the military. JFK also lost faith in the military’s reporting and realized his administration was hopelessly divided between hardliners and those at State who saw the war both as a military and political failure. While all agreed that Diem was part of the problem, for the liberals criticizing Diem was a copout. It was safe to vent against Diem rather than the military which lashed out at any criticism. But it left the fundamental problem unaddressed which was recognizing the Viet Nam war as one of nationalism rather than as part of the cold war. Diem was killed in a US approved coup Nov 1st. The new South Vietnamese leadership let the truth out about the progress of the war and even the doubters were shocked by how bad things were. JFK was assassinated three weeks after Diem. JFK had kept his misgivings about the war to his inner circle. Publically he extolled the progress of the war and virtue of the American mission thus making it difficult for Johnson to even consider disengaging. Kennedy’s timid approach left a quickly unraveling situation and a public completely unprepared for the reality of the war. Johnson said he would not lose Viet Nam like China had been lost. But he, just as Kennedy had planned, wanted the Viet Nam issue on the backburner until the 1964 election was over. His Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, never one to make waves, gladly went along. Rusk viewed Viet Nam as a military problem, not a political one. He never even visited Viet Nam. One who visited frequently was McNamara and he took charge in 1964 expanding his role in the vacuum of the State Department. Johnson was in awe of McNamara who he regarded as super intelligent and organized. In 1964, McNamara began focusing on Hanoi as the solution. He learned on his December 1963 visit after the coup how much he had been lied to and how precarious the situation was. He switched strategy to focus on North Viet Nam as the source of the problem ignoring the indigenous nature of the Viet Cong. Planning was begun on different bombing scenarios and their effect. Meanwhile Johnson’s style of imposing consensus stifled opposition. Naysayers were driven out at the demands of the military or Johnson himself. Johnson held Viet Nam policy discussions only with his closest advisors shutting out any possible dissent.In August 1964, the destroyer Maddox was “attacked” in the Tonkin Gulf. The US and South Vietnamese had been conducting raids on the North’s coast so this was possibly a response or it could have been a complete illusion. The facts are cloudy, but LBJ used this incident to get a resolution through Congress authorizing the president to use conventional forces. He assured Congress that this authorization did not mean ground troops in Viet Nam which is how Johnson would use it after the election. Bombing a few of the North’s PT boat bases in retaliation, LBJ was seen as being restrained in his response to the alleged attack. Partly this image was due to the comparison to his election opponent, Goldwater, who was seen as possibly starting a nuclear war. JFK had appointed General Maxwell Taylor as his personal military advisor then made him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Taylor had deferred to JFK on policy supporting his and McNamara’s graduated approach, quieting the Joint Chiefs who wanted either all-out war or to leave. LBJ appointed Taylor ambassador to South Viet Nam in July 1964. Taylor, frustrated, began to entertain bombing as an answer, albeit as a political statement more than an effective military measure. Thinking Hanoi would not want to lose its industrial base that they would negotiate.LBJ was leery of bombing, listening to the lone major dissenter left, George Ball, whose memos critical of bombing were funneled to the president through Press Secretary Bill Moyers. But the pressure was on from Taylor, McNamara and the JCS and the press in the form of the strident Joe Alsop. The CIA and INS had studied bombing and found it would be ineffective, but these studies were suppressed by Taylor and never reached LBJ. The likely Hanoi response was to infiltrate more troops to the South which they did. Bombing advocates had no plan B if Hanoi matched Washington’s escalation. Bombing advocates looked at it as a middle ground between abdicating and sending in ground troops believing they could always stop. But they couldn’t, the war became personal. Taylor, McNamara, Bundy, Rostow and others could not admit defeat and ever increasing escalation ensued. The turning point was February 1965. With the Viet Cong mortar attack that killed eight Americans and wounded fifty at Pleiku, McNamara and Bundy said the US must retaliate against the North or look hopelessly weak hitting Johnson in a soft spot. A major rationale for bombing was to avoid sending in ground troops. But ground troops would be needed to protect the airfields, which would expand to controlling enclaves surrounding them and ultimately to Westmoreland’s use of troops for search and destroy missions. While the JCS and Westmoreland expected and planned for ground troops, Taylor objected, but found himself out of the loop. He was now a civilian and the military had taken control. Taylor realized the inadequacy of Americans fighting in the jungle, but Westmoreland and his top general Depuy saw Americans as superior fighting men armed with more and better weapons. They would learn the hard way.By April 1965, plans were made to increase the troop commitment to 80,000. Westmoreland requested troops to protect airstrips and provide security for infrastructure, but his real intent was to use them for search and destroy missions. Several factors led to the commitment of combat troops: The declining influence of Taylor who opposed search and destroy operations but acquiesced in the enclave strategy; the continued ascendency of McNamara and his facts and figures such as force ratios which he pulled out of nowhere; the acknowledged failure of the bombing campaign (Rolling Thunder) to bring the North to the table; the unwillingness of LBJ to look weak by looking for a way out; the lack of any real opposition, only George Ball actively dissented.By July of 1965, it was apparent that as fast as the US sent troops, more infiltrated from the North, thus Westmoreland constantly upped his requirements from 200,000 to 300,000 to 400,000 to 500,000. McNamara submitted budgets with the false assumption that the war would end in 1967. Much of the rationale was LBJ’s desire to get his Great Society programs through Congress first. If the true cost of the war were known, LBJ was sure his domestic programs would be rejected.Through 1966 and 1967, departures of disillusioned doubters and advocates turned doubters ensued: George Ball, Bill Moyers, Mac Bundy and Bob McNamara. Some like McNamara turned dove (Johnson shipped him off to the World Bank and replaced him with Clark Clifford), others like Moyers and Bundy simply moved on, and longtime dissenter George Ball left in disgust. Johnson simply became more insular. Bundy was replaced with eternal optimist Walt Rostow who fed Johnson his preferred diet. The 1968 Tet offensive was the final straw. Now the whole nation saw the hopelessness of the war and dissent took hold across the country. Eugene McCarthy took on Johnson in the 1968 primaries and showed Johnson he had no support for reelection. Clark Clifford, to Johnson’s chagrin began telling Johnson the truth. But it took a group of powerful establishment business and political leaders to meet with Johnson and tell him he was destroying the country, before he relented and agreed to begin backing off the war.In spite of Halberstam’s tendency to belabor his points, the book is highly readable. But what makes this book so valuable is the insight into how arrogance, fear of being seen as weak, and misapplication of past experience led to failure. It was disheartening to see how those who saw the dangers and knew better compromised with those who didn’t, eroding their positions, allowing the relentless hawks to get their way. I was struck by the similarity of the failure to take on Joe McCarthy early on and the failure to take on vigorously the Viet Nam hardliners. Clearly compromise is not always the best way.

This book should be mandatory reading for any government official who is above "line worker." It is extremely compelling and almost always horrifying, to see such powerful people make such terrible errors of judgment, and Halberstam covers all of the major players in great detail. I have to hold back my highest praise for a few reasons:1. I wish there were a little bit more contextualization of the sourcing here than there was. Halberstam's explanation for why he doesn't list his sources is perfectly fair, given the time when it was published. However, he sometimes recreates dialogue from high-level meetings. This is great reading, but I would like to know how confident he was in the various "facts" he presents.2. The structure of this book is hard to follow. It's not really chronological; it's not really thematic. The best comparison for this book, in terms of its magisterial scope and ambition, is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. But where The Power Broker has an almost literary quality to it, this one feels frenetic at times, as Halberstam bounces from idea to idea, argument to argument, person to person. (To be fair, I'm not sure how I would have structured it.)3. I think that Halberstam is far too credulous to what he deems the liberal position, and seems to imply throughout that better experts would have generated a better outcome. I don't see the proof for that in this book at all; it's just an assumption he carries because they were right about the war being a bad idea. That is true, but if anything, to me, the lesson here is about hubris in general, moreso than about bad ideas versus good ideas. (I have a similar critique of his portrayal of the journalist cadre in Saigon, though he atones for it with an excellent item in the author's note section.)Still, this is a very important book, and it offers us a few core lessons that I will try to retain: intelligence is not wisdom, policymaking is not science, and tactics are not grand strategy. The country certainly could have used a better read of Clausewitz during this period.And frankly, sometimes, I'd rather read 1 3.5-star book than 10 5-star books that aren't all that provocative. (I'd give it 3.5 stars if I could, but I'm feeling generous and will go to 4.)
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Reviews
Judy
The back cover endorsement by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reads, "A story every American should read." I would amend that statement to say a history that everyone should read, for David Halberstam fabricates no fiction, but unearths what really went on in the corridors of power during the build up to and execution of the Vietnam War.I was especially interested in reading this because this is history that I lived through as a young girl coming of age in the Midwest in a politically conservative family. Had I known then what Halberstam discovered through thorough research including his own experience in Vietnam as a journalist and interviews with principle players, I may have been more inclined to join the protesters. I say may have because I likely would still have been too shy and insecure to actually take to the streets, but I'd like to think I would have been more vocal in speaking out against what has turned out to be a dark blot in our political and military history.To fully understand the history of US involvement in IndoChina, Halberstam goes back to the 1940s and events and decisions at the close of WWII that precipitated the West's involvement in Vietnam and the role of colonialism and rise of nationalism. Halberstam relates what could become a tedious recital of dates, places, and events in a gripping fashion, aided by in-depth character sketches of key military and political players. Understanding how individuals' background, upbringing, and education shaped them is key to understanding how and why they arrived at the decisions they did in regard to South Vietnam.My one regret (other than that I didn't read this book a long time ago) is that I fear our leaders have not learned nor really taken the lessons of this era to heart. I fear too many leaders continue to tell the public only what they want to hear, make decisions based on "best case" scenarios, listen only to advisors who support their own inclinations and generally make self-serving decisions rather than those that, though difficult, may be in the best interests of the country.
Chin Joo
This book features almost all the people who had a hand in the decision on the US’ involvement in Vietnam. There was no question that these were the best and the brightest, which all more makes the reader wonder why the US eventually found herself in the quagmire. By the end of the book the reader may still not find the answer, but what he or she will find is a lesson in human folly and how the illusion of superior ability can lead one to arrogance, or perhaps less, over-confidence, but ending in hubris nevertheless.This book is cleverly structured, the first half featuring one president (and the presidency) and the second half the next. Under this over-arching framework, the author added the layers below the presidents, starting with the national security advisor, secretaries of defense and states, their deputies and assistants, then the chief of staffs, and finally the ambassadors to South Vietnam. In some cases these happen to be the same people who worked across the administrations, in others there were multiples changes. But all the time the message was consistent – these are the most brilliant people, although in different ways. Yet there was no denying that these were the best and the brightest.And thus the reader is led to ask – why then did the US eventually slipped into the Vietnam War which killed more than 50,000 Americans, severely draining the treasury, divided the country, and lost the country of a lot of its prestige and goodwill? The author did not provide a simplistic answer to this complex question, rather, he showed the mixture of personalities, beliefs, politics, and self-interest that slowly pushes the country deeper and deeper into a situation from which they could not extricate themselves, even after some have changed their minds about the US’ involvement.At the beginning there were those who did not know what Vietnam was about, besides the unpalatable fact that it was a French colony which the French should quit, but would not. But in view of the need for France’s support in Europe a little sweetener for them in Vietnam is of negligible cost to the US. Then there were those who framed it with cold-war rhetoric of having to stop the spread of Communism in Asia. After “losing” China, it would be unthinkable to let the rest of the dominoes fall. Later it began to look to others like it was a good place to fight a good war. To be sure, there were those who tried to stop the tide and where impossible, to at least retard it. But these were in the minority, their cases always weak and their stance uncoordinated. In the end they were among the earliest casualties, and the author took us up the hierarchy again, only this time showing the sequence of the casualties: the ambassadors, the deputy and assistant secretaries, the secretaries, and ultimately the president himself. Few came out looking good, those who escaped rather unscathed politically would look unprincipled in the book.The author did not just write a book that recorded the events and the decisions, he wrote a book to caution decision makers of all kinds. His message is for people to remember that arrogance has no place even (or especially) among the best and the brightest, for the game will eventually play you. But the biggest chill that the author gave me was not the fact that if the best and the brightest can fall into such a folly what more the lesser beings, it was that it is precisely when you think you have control of the game that you lose control. When you think you have resisted the tide because you managed to not give your opponent all that he wanted, you have actually forgotten what you had to give him in exchange for that. The illusion of being on top of things will lure you into the trap. I think this book should be kept handy, not because it would serve as a reference, but it would serve as a good reminder that even if you think you are the best and the brightest, you can still be catastrophically wrong. And then you would have to live with it.
Billy
Halberstam’s The Best and the BrightestIn Short: Policymakers “deluded themselves into thinking they could achieve their goals in Vietnam by ignoring, suppressing, or dismissing the information that might have suggested otherwise” In short, they were so committed to their ideals, they could not even conceive of failure in SE Asia. Their arrogance was at fault. Was the escalation of war in Vietnam foregone by the Kennedy Administration? Two books argue that, no, escalation was not necessary and that those in the JFK and later LBJ administrations myopically pursued a course of Americanization. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest illustrates the tragic course of policy-making. To Halberstam, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and President Lyndon B. Johnson were flawed characters who for various reasons could not decidedly change the course of escalation in Vietnam. Halberstam, who covered the war as a journalist in the 1960s and who earlier supported increasing American intervention in the war, takes a disappointed look back on the men who sent 58,000 American men to die in SE Asia. Each of these cabinet members came from the upper echelons of American society. Most were academically trained and many participated in World War II. Because of their education, these men were confident in their ability to manage a war. McGeorge Bundy and McNamara best exemplify the “best and brightest” mentality of the Vietnam era. Hand picked by Kennedy, these technocrats’ intellectual acumen did not make-up for their scant experience in conducting foreign policy. Their personal character flaws, however, make up most of Halberstam’s critiques. Rusk, for example, was a Secretary of State with little voice in either JFK’s or LBJ’s administration, an affable yes-man who did acquiesced policy-making to McNamara or others. McNamara, on the other hand, was a manager par excellence, but one who repeatedly input faulty data into his calculations on the feasibility of winning in Vietnam. Later released audio tapes from the LBJ’s White House reveal that McNamara’s was less than certain about American victory in the White House. Nevertheless, his loyalty towards JFK transferred to LBJ; his desire to keep power and prestige also hurt McNamara’s objectivity. Johnson, in particular, was ill suited to deal with the increasingly difficult situation in SE Asia, and for many reasons. First, Johnson was a consummate domestic politician, a virtual master of the senate. He could cajole or bully most congressmen into his position. His folksy southern upbringing lent him an air of authenticity that conflicted with JFK’s New England elitism and made him an outsider as VP in JFKs White House. His folksy demeanor also led LBJ to take Ho Chi Mihn’s threat to American soldiers in the south in a personal manner; something of a direct challenge, or an affront to his manliness. Johnson, while taking a diplomatic tour of Vietnam in the early 1960s (one of many missions JFK sent his older VP on to keep the restless politician away from DC), made comparisons of the Veitnamese to his own down-trodden southern voters. In short, LBJ felt that if the South Vietnamese could experience progress in democracy, or perhaps if LBJ could incubate the region long enough for democracy, he was sure that these people would embrace democracy. All they needed was time and support. Even if others in the administration were hesitant to openly disagree with Johnson’s assessment of Vietnam, the president remained the primary architect of this conflict, lending credence to the title of a modest Michael Hunt book, Lyndon Johnson’s War.
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