The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

The Best and the Brightest (1972) by David Halberstam is an account of the origins of the Vietnam War. The book provides great detail on how the decisions were made in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations that led to the war. The book focuses on the period from 1960 to 1965. It also covers earlier and later years up to the publication year of the book.

I am a fan of the late David Halberstam. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the Tate Lecture Series held by Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas five years ago. I also had the pleasure of meeting him at a meet and greet held in concert with that event.

I first read this book in late 1972. I reread the book after hearing Halberstam speak at SMU.

When I reread The Best and the Brightest I found it as fresh as when I read it back in late 1972. Halberstam does an excellent job of showing how bad decisions, deceitfulness, a reluctance to face facts and complete rudimentary stupidity got America into a war that was lost from the start. The book makes known how so many smart, highly successful people, the best and the brightest of the American foreign policy and military were so unbelievably mistaken for so very long.

Halberstam examines diverse factors that contribute to America’s involvement. We learn that the Democratic Party was still haunted by claims that it had ‘lost China’ to Communists. They did not want to be said to have lost Vietnam also. During the McCarthy era the government lost or got rid of experts in Vietnam and surrounding Far-East countries. We learn that early studies called for close to a million US troops in order to fully defeat the Viet Cong. It would be impossible to persuade congress or the US public to deploy that many soldiers. We discover the fear that declarations of war, and excessive shows of force, including bombing too close to China or too many US troops might have triggered the entry of Chinese ground forces into the war, and greater Soviet involvement (and perhaps repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift).

Halberstam points out some war games showed that a slow escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam. He shares that every year 200,000 North Vietnamese came of drafting age. They could possibly be sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to replace any losses against the US. In essence the US would be fighting the North Vietnamese birthrate. Interestingly he makes us aware that both administrations believed any show of force by the US in the form of bombing or ground forces would signal the US interest in defending South Vietnam. This would therefore cause the US greater shame if they were to withdraw.

We see Lyndon Johnson’s concern and belief that too much attention given to the war effort would jeopardize his Great Society domestic programs. These programs were his personal priority. Additionally, the effects of strategic bombing policy were examined. Here we see the wrong belief that North Vietnam valued its industrial base so much it would not risk its annihilation by US air power. There was the false belief that the North Vietnamese would negotiate peace after experiencing some limited bombing, but others reflected back that even in World War II strategic bombing united the victim population against the attacker and did little to encumber manufacturing output.

Halberstam also mentions the simplistic Domino Theory rationales. Interestingly we learn the thought that after placing a few thousand Americans in harm’s way, it became politically easier to send hundreds of thousands to Vietnam with the promise that with sufficient numbers they could defend themselves, and that to abandon Vietnam now would mean the earlier investment in money and lives would be thrown away.

The book shows that the gradual escalation chosen allowed the LBJ Administration at the outset to avoid negative publicity and criticism from Congress. Gradual escalation also avoided a direct war against the Chinese, but at the same time removed the possibility of either victory or withdrawal. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.