Thursday, November 10, 2011

FORUM - An Undergraduate Book Review: The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam reviewed by Luke Rogers

The Best and the Brightest. By David Halberstam, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
ISBN # 449-90870-4

American foreign policy in the Post-World War II world has been studied and critiqued by journalists, historians, politicians, theologians, and average citizens of numerous nations. One of the most frequently analyzed instances of American foreign policy is its intervention in Southeast Asia that ultimately matured into the Vietnam War. In “The Best and the Brightest”, David Halberstam attempts to explain how both the informal and official decisions of the Presidents and Washington elite from Eisenhower to Johnson contributed to American’s unsuccessful and seemingly inextricable stint in Vietnam.  

Halberstam’s conducted “…some five hundred interviews for this book…” [1] and as a result, he had the background necessary to poignantly describe the personal faults of leaders which contributed to faults in American policy. For example, Halberstam chronicles the gilded past of McGeroge Bundy. Bundy served as National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. On one hand, Bundy was the perfect Vietnam-era whiz kid; a blue blood intellectual from the Eastern elite blessed with impressive intellect, undeniable charisma, and a belief that any ill, large or small, could be remedied by American knowhow, management, and military might. On the other hand, Bundy was also everything negative about the best and the brightest - openly contemptuous and dismissive of anyone he deemed intellectually or politically inferior to him, obdurate in his convictions, and unwilling to relinquish that America had engineered and intransigently executed its own defeat in Vietnam. The author brilliantly defines Bundy with the entirely accurate and unfortunately disheartening statement, "McGeorge Bundy, then, was the finest example of special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country; in their minds they become responsible for the country but not responsive to it [2]". Halberstam applies this brilliant mix of storytelling and critical analysis to multiple situations and figures throughout the text.

Halberstam conducted personal interviews with some of the most important American leaders during the Vietnam era. In addition, Halberstam combed through congressional examinations of those same leaders. Therefore, Halberstam’s argument of America’s failure in Vietnam being rests on strong evidence. For example, Halberstam invokes the testimony of Graham Parsons, ambassador to Laos during the Eisenhower administration, to a congressional committee, “I struggled for sixteen months to prevent a coalition [a peaceful coalition between factions involved in the Laotian civil war]”. Why did Parsons prevent a coalition? So the Eisenhower administration, through the CIA, could install an indigenously unpopular, but pro-American dictator just as Kennedy later did in Vietnam with Ngo Dinh Diem. The only critique this author has of Halberstam’s strategy is it can sometimes distort the reader’s proper understanding of historical context. For example, because most readers have at least some sense of the course of the Vietnam era and because Halberstam is critical of America’s role in that era, he can sometimes present leaders and decisions in a retrospective light. When Halberstam discusses Kennedy’s willingness to increase the number of American troops, he teeters on Monday morning quarterbacking. Kennedy did not have the advantage of knowing exactly how the conflict would play out or what the next weeks would bring. Halberstam does. As a result, Halberstam almost vilifies some leaders by writing with a “well, what did you think was going to happen” prose when those same leaders made the best decisions they could with the information they had within the historical culture and context.

The overall effectiveness of The Best and The Brightest is dependent on the reader. If the reader is a novice of American history, especially American history in the latter half of the 20th century, then this book will most likely overwhelm them. The author spends significant time telling the stories of second tier leaders which may leave the beginning reader feeling lost and or as if they are missing the “big picture”. On the other hand, if the reader has a decent understand of American history, the Best and Brightest will help shed new light on the subtle decisions that snowballed into foreign policy. Finally, readers should not look to Best and Brightest for detailed analysis of the military tactics nor should they expect extended, first-hand accounts of daily life for the American soldier in Vietnam. In other words, Halberstam intends for his work to serve as a metaphysical evaluation of the socio-political and philosophical principles guiding America, neither as a satire of military strategy nor a compendium of memoirs. 

[1] Best and Brightest, page 669
[2] Best and Brightest, page 60

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