A Review of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest

The Best and the BrightestThe Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A true masterpiece. It is hard to believe that I am reading this book in 2017, but it is still relevant today, offering insights that policy makers can still learn from. To that end I was reminded of this book by a news report that Steve Bannon was spotted with a copy of the book at an airport. Yes, very relevant today.

Halberstam does a deep dive here, looking back at the historical record, rolling back to Truman and Acheson, looking at how the political scars of the “who lost China” meme impacted the U.S. psyche, how the Joseph McCarthy campaigns, over by 1960, exercised gravitational pull on the foreign policy establishment, most especially the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs in the Department of State. Halberstam shows us how, in the run up to the Kennedy Administration, the GOP assault on “who lost China” managed to not only ruin the careers of many qualified people, but that “realistic” policy ideas on China, and Indochina were just not welcome at the State Department. From the book:

“Of the things I had not known when I started out, I think the most important was the degree to which the legacy of the McCarthy period still lived. It had been almost seven years since Joe McCarthy had been censured when John Kennedy took office, and most people believed that his hold on Washington was over. … among the top Democrats, against whom the issue of being soft on Communism might be used, and among the Republicans, who might well use the charge, it was still live ammunition. …

McCarthyism still lingered … The real McCarthyism went deeper in the American grain than most people wanted to admit … The Republicans’ long, arid period out of office [twenty years, ended by the Eisenhower administration], accentuated by Truman’s 1948 defeat of Dewey, had permitted the out-party in its desperation, to accuse the leaders of the governing party of treason. The Democrats, in the wake of the relentless sustained attacks on Truman and Acheson over their policies in Asia, came to believe that they had lost the White House when they lost China. Long after McCarthy himself was gone, the fear of being accused of being soft on Communism lingered among the Democratic leaders. The Republicans had, of course, offered no alternative policy on China (the last thing they had wanted to do was suggest sending American boys to fight for China) and indeed there was no policy to offer, for China was never ours, events there were well outside our control, and our feudal proxies had been swept away by the forces of history. But in the political darkness of the time it had been easy to blame the Democrats for the ebb and flow of history.

The fear generated in those days lasted a long time, and Vietnam was to be something of an instant replay after China. The memory of the fall of China and what it did to the Democrats, was, I think, more bitter for Lyndon Johnson than it was for John Kennedy. Johnson, taking over after Kennedy was murdered and after the Kennedy patched-up advisory commitment had failed, vowed that he was not going to be the President of the United States who lost the Great Society because he lost Saigon. In the end it would take the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon (the only political figure who could probably go to China without being Red-baited by Richard Nixon) to exorcise those demons, and to open the door to China.”

So group think took over, with no room for nuance, and a total failure to recognize that the communist world was not a monolith. With this mindset prevalent recognizing the nationalism of Ho Chi Minh, or the long history of enmity between China and Vietnam, was not possible, or desired. The idea that real trouble could erupt between China and the Soviet Union was not something on the minds of those making U.S. foreign policy.

Halberstam effectively shows us the history preceding JFK, and gives us extensive background on the Kennedy team that took over in 1961. The book provides biographical data on “The Best and the Brightest” that joined the Kennedy Administration, renowned as whiz kids as they came into government. The focus is on Robert McNamara, an auto executive turned Defense Secretary with an astounding ability to quantify issues and policy, always believing that problems could be solved by the application of superior brainpower. George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, and of course Dean Rusk are examined in detail. With all that brain power how could things have gone so wrong?

The book is not ideological, and in my view has a very good grasp of some of the political considerations that played a role in decisions made by JFK, and then LBJ. Halberstam counts JFK as one of the whiz kids, but he does not spare Kennedy from criticism, providing an unvarnished view of his actions that at least started the train rolling down the track to the disaster that Vietnam became. JFK, at least in my view, likely had a better grasp of the nonsense propagated by the military, but kept the ball moving forward, slowly, towards American military escalation. The lessons that should have been taken from the massive defeat suffered by the French were ignored, and JFK, with fears of being considered soft, allowed an expansion of U.S. involvement. Halberstam cites a Kennedy conversation on China policy as instructive as to how he would approach some foreign policy issues:

“Early on, when Stevenson and Bowles repeatedly mentioned China to Kennedy, saying that the policy was absurd and that it was urgent to try to change it, Kennedy would smile and agree and say yes, it was a stupid policy, but it would all have to wait. Until the second term. It could not be changed now. There was a limit to the things he could do.”

I got the sense that Kennedy felt he might be able to kick the Vietnam can down the road as well, looking to make real decisions about involvement after 1964. With little evidence I also believe JFK more likely to have cut our losses there rather than allowing the escalation that led to ruin. LBJ carefully hid the actions on Vietnam until after his election in 1964, and then, feeling his options (as he understood them) closed, turned to military escalation, buying into the utter nonsense being sold by the military. He would give Ho Chi Minh a little “touch-up,” and Ho would sue for peace. A more severe miscalculation by an American leader would be hard to identify, with some similarity to the one made later by George W. Bush in Iraq.

So what happened? Were the principals simply guilty of political and military miscalculation? A lack of understanding of Vietnam? This book shows how hubris, and buying into “facts” on the ground that were easily debunked as false, kept driving the U.S. effort until it could no longer continue, and had destroyed the Presidency of LBJ. The book deals with how Eisenhower, being pushed by Dulles to intervene to save the French in 1954, simply would not buy in. He was aided in that determination by one of the military people who had it right, General Matthew Ridgway. MacArthur’s successor as commander in Korea, Ridgway undertook a look at what would be needed for a “successful” intervention in Indochina. What did he find? From the book:

“The answers were chilling: minimal, five divisions and up to ten divisions if we wanted to clear out the enemy (as opposed to six divisions in Korea), plus fifty-five engineering battalions, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men, plus enormous construction costs. The country had nothing in the way of port facilities, railroads and highways, telephone lines. We would have to start virtually from scratch, at a tremendous cost. The United States would have to demand greater mobilization than in Korea, draft calls of 100,000 a month. Nor would the war be as easy as Korea, where the South Koreans had been an asset to the troops in the rear guard. It was more than likely that in this political war the population would help the Vietminh (Ridgway was thus willing to make this crucial distinction that everyone glossed over in 1965). Instead of being like the Korean War it would really be more like a larger and more costly version of the Philippine insurrection, a prolonged guerrilla war, native against Caucasian, which lasted from 1899 to 1913 and which had been politically very messy. Nor did the Army permit the White House the luxury of thinking that we could get by only with air power. Radford’s plans for an air strike were contingent on seizure of China’s Hainan Island, which seemed to guard the Tonkin Gulf, because the Navy did not want to enter the gulf with its carriers and then have Chinese airbases right behind them. But if we captured Hainan, the Chinese would come across with everything they had; then it was not likely to remain a small war very long.”

Ridgway, in 1954, had the military component exactly right, with the added bonus of recognition of the political support enjoyed by the Viet Minh. Analysis existed in the JFK/LBJ Administrations that showed that a bombing campaign could not:
1. Change the political calculus of Ho, or harm the North Vietnamese economy enough to force them to the peace table, or
2. Interdict either North Vietnamese supplies or troops flowing South.

This analysis, known to the military and political leadership, was ignored. Manpower analysis, which showed that introduction of more U.S. personnel into the war could be matched by the North, was also ignored. The U.S. embarked on both courses of action, with the bombing of the North failing to interdict supplies or manpower, or bring the North to its knees.. The expansion of the U.S. military footprint, sold by the military as a way to overwhelm the enemy, simply escalated the violence, as the North introduced additional manpower to match. Although the military issued glowing reports about the military and political progress being made, the Tet offensive blew those lies apart, and put some light onto the long deception that had occurred by the military in its war reporting. That deception was put forward not only by the military, but by McNamara as well.

McNamara did not need this book to destroy his reputation, but it certainly played a large role in so doing. Rusk comes out not much better, an antiquated player failing to adapt. The U.S. mindset, anti-colonial under FDR, shifted gears after Roosevelt’s death, with generic anti-communism overwhelming every other possible principle. LBJ was a prisoner of this mindset, ever fearful of “losing Vietnam” and suffering the same political fate as those who had “lost China.” His belief that an exit, on favorable terms, could be facilitated by military expansion, led him to make bad decision after bad decision. This book exposes the bad judgements, inexplicable military decisions, and flat out dishonesty of the U.S. policy makers that led us into Vietnam. The book is renowned, and after all the years I know why. A final note, on Steve Bannon carrying the book. A short snippet has Averill Harriman answering an inquiry from Khrushchev on the true power structure in the United States. Not who held office, but who held power: From the book:

“Harriman had been the perfect figure for the Democratic party in foreign affairs in the Roosevelt-Truman years, a full-blown true-blue capitalist who had the allegiance of his class and yet was a party partisan on domestic issues as well. He was the party’s most legitimate capitalist, and foreign governments, including the Soviet, knew that he spoke not just for an Administration but for the power structure as well. (When Khrushchev came to America in 1959, he asked Harriman to round up the real power structure of America for him, not the paper power structure. Harriman did just that, thus confirming to Khrushchev that his own view of who held power in America, as opposed to that of those who thought they held power in America, was correct, which it probably was.”

We have identified the existence of the “deep state.”

View all my reviews

The C-Span look at the David Halberstam book.

Books that might be good follow ups to this.

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes

Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint chiefs of Staff by H.R. McMaster

The Memoirs of Richard Nixon by Richard Nixon

White House Years by Henry Kissinger

The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969 by Lyndon Johnson

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