Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

In government it is always easier to go forward with a program that does not work than to stop it altogether and admit failure.
--David Halberstam

The best history books don't just teach you about the past, they also teach you about today.

The Best and the Brightest is a brilliant history of why America failed in Vietnam. It's a history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and it's a history of the lives of the key Cabinet members and agency leaders Kennedy chose--the leaders Johnson later inherited when he unexpectedly became president.

This book is also an exceptionally well-written postmortem of an era when our government made some of the worst decisions in its history.

The title is an ironic reference to Kennedy's Cabinet, which he filled with the best and brightest minds of that era's establishment elites. These were leading intellectuals, captains of industry and key political thinkers of the day. People like McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara. Leaders who made fortunes in business in America, who were confident to the point of arrogance in American exceptionalism and, unfortunately, oblivious to Southeast Asian history and culture. Our best and brightest. Men full of optimism and self-confidence who assumed that the South Vietnamese actually wanted our protection, and thought that Americans, with their can-do spirit, could once again do what the French could not.

These were the men who made the policies that ultimately mired us in Vietnam. And when Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson, a brilliant domestic legislator who was woefully unsuited for nuanced foreign policy issues, got stuck with Kennedy's Cabinet and their decisions on Vietnam, and because of his lack of political courage, he took us still deeper into the quagmire. It wouldn't be until 1975 before the United States finally got out.

Sam Rayburn, the House Speaker at the time, said it best: "Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they [JFK's Cabinet members] may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once."

If you want to hear, at last, a balanced and non-fawning view of the Kennedy presidency, you'll get it in this book. Most peoples' perception of JFK's presidency is sadly limited to a few speeches and a few images from his tragic assassination. After reading this book, you'll have a far more thorough picture of this era in US government history.

And it ain't pretty. It leaves you with the sneaking suspicion that great men don't create history. Rather, history is created in spite of them by the enormous, shapeless bureaucracies that they supposedly lead.

And yet. It always seems so easy to look back on history and claim how obvious the right decisions should have been. It's another thing entirely to make prescriptive and predictive policy when you're right in the middle of events. And there were plenty of reasons supporting US involvement in Vietnam. We had "lost" China to the Communists in 1949. We were still reeling from the red-baiting era of Senator Joe McCarthy. No politician in this era could afford to appear soft on Communism. And Kennedy was badly roughed up by Kruschev in a key summit meeting early on in his term.

It was a widely held belief that Vietnam was the next domino in an entire chain of countries across Asia that would fall to Communism. No one in JFK's administration felt they could afford to let Vietnam fall.

And of course, the thought that a country like Vietnam could stand up to the magnificent power of the American army was dismissed as laughable to these best and brightest.

I never thought it would go on like this. I didn't think these people [the Vietcong] had the capacity to fight this way. If I had thought they could take this punishment and fight this well, I would have thought differently at the start.
--Robert McNamara, in late 1966.

The unexpected bonus today's readers will get from The Best and the Brightest is the book's direct relevance to our era today--both to the Iraq War and to the 2008-2009 mortgage meltdown. Really dumb things get started when the people in power look for what they want to find--whether it's finding evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, finding highly politicized solutions to the mortgage crisis, or finding the key to resisting Communism in a corrupt South Vietnam. You'll see examples of war intelligence massaged to meet the needs of superiors, you'll see Presidents surround themselves with sycophants, and you'll see entire agencies of the government crush every voice of intelligent dissent in their organizations.

By the nature of his office, a President is separated from his natural constituency and from the art of his profession, politics. The office restricts his movements, his access to events and reality, since few want to bring the President bad news.
--David Halberstam

And once policy is set in motion--whether that policy is misguided or not--the wheels of government start turning. Soon those wheels become impossible to stop. This is why terrible things happen whenever a government becomes enamored of its own genius. We saw it with the second Iraq war, and we risk seeing it with the government's various responses to the financial crisis. Let's hope Barack Obama knows his history.

I highly, highly recommend this book.

Suggested Reading List for The Best and the Brightest:
Dean Acheson: Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department
Graham Greene: The Quiet American
Rowland Evans and Robert Novak: Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise Of Power
David Halberstam: The Powers That Be
Don Oberdorfer: Tet: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War
Theodore White: The Making Of A President 1964
Lyndon B. Johnson: The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency

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