Kennedy and whose hubris supposedly plunged the nation into a destructive war. Tittle for a book about the famous NFL Championship game. But he also wrote a number of books that were concerned with contemporary history. Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in for his reporting on Vietnam. To read the two books today is a bit schizophrenic.
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Kennedy and whose hubris supposedly plunged the nation into a destructive war. Tittle for a book about the famous NFL Championship game. But he also wrote a number of books that were concerned with contemporary history. Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in for his reporting on Vietnam. To read the two books today is a bit schizophrenic. In the first book, Halberstam criticizes the Kennedy administration for, as Bernard Fall wrote, not getting in early enough, fighting smarter and being more aggressive.
John Paul Vann, who had argued for the introduction of American combat troops. He had also warned John F. Kennedy at the start of his presidency that unless this was done soon, the war would be lost since the U. The author wrote that the Vietnam War was the greatest national tragedy since the Civil War. Unless otherwise noted, all references to the book will be from the original hardcover edition. Previewed in two national magazines, hardcover and paperback sales totaled nearly 1. When it was first published, with one notable exception, it was met with nearly universal critical acclaim from every quarter.
For about two decades, this book served as the standard popular reference work on U. It had such a large impact on the American psyche that it created the way that many Americans saw the war.
The book also forged a paradigm through which other authors wrote about the war. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that The Best and the Brightest created a sort of Jungian cyclorama which America stood in front of and visualized the tale of U. As the s wore on, Johnson continued to over-commit until he had more than a half million U.
McCarthy felt that Halberstam had rigged the deck to make it seem that way. She felt that Johnson could have gotten out before he escalated, but that withdrawal for LBJ was never a serious option. But there are other pertinent questions relevant to how and why Halberstam framed The Best and The Brightest the way he did. They include: how did he begin writing the book, and why did his perceptions change from to ?
Securing an advance from Random House, he spent the next four years writing the book. The latter were taking to the streets to protest the thousands of young Americans dying in the rice paddies of Vietnam, before they were even old enough to vote at home. Halberstam took notice and altered his viewpoint. Americans wanted to read about how their country got involved in an epic foreign disaster. Halberstam gave that to them and more. In its original hardcover printing, the book runs to pages of text.
It has a six-page bibliography, which is divided up chronologically. But the heart and soul of The Best and the Brightest is the legwork the author did in securing scores of interviews that pepper the book.
It is not footnoted. Therefore, a reader does not know where the information comes from. Does it emerge from another book, magazine article, or an interview? Even worse, Halberstam decided not to list the names of the people he talked to. It would have been especially instructive to know where the author was getting his information because, in the wake of the Vietnam disaster, many people were desperate to cover their tracks and spin the facts.
Secondly, he had talked to Daniel Ellsberg and had been subpoenaed by a grand jury in the Pentagon Papers case. Yet, because of the overall thesis of the book and its reliance on anonymous self-interested accounts the lack of disclosure regarding interview subjects represents a serious failing. Another shortcoming of The Best and the Brightest is that it gives short-shrift to what came before Kennedy and Johnson.
This crucial period of early American involvement covers 11 years, but Halberstam devotes only 19 pages to it. There have been entire books written about this early U. To see, click here. This U. With the outbreak of war in Korea in June , the U. By , the U. Eisenhower and Dulles also gave the French air cover in and This mission was a much smaller version of what the French had requested from Dulles, and which Vice President Richard Nixon had agreed to.
The bombing included a contingency plan to use three tactical atomic weapons. How close did it come to happening? Reconnaissance flights were done by the Air Force over the proposed bombing site, but President Eisenhower decided he needed approval from London to go ahead with the mission. That was not forthcoming. So, Ike vetoed the plan. Dulles coordinated what was essentially a damage-control operation.
The key point in the peace agreement was that Vietnam was to be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel and free elections were to be held in to unify the country under one leader. The Catholic exodus also fit with the larger plan of the man whom the Dulles brothers put in charge of the operation, master black operator Ed Lansdale. He had decided that the French stand-in, Bao Dai, had to go. Lansdale searched for a substitute acceptable to Washington and found the future president of South Vietnam at Michigan State, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who also had been a French sympathizer.
Lansdale rigged a plebiscite vote in to get Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu into power. As predicted, and instructed, Diem then canceled the unification election of Without these actions by the Eisenhower administration, there very likely would not have been any deeper American involvement in Vietnam.
Or if there were, it would have been of a radically different character and degree. So, Halberstam deals with this crucial prelude to war in less than two pages, , in a book of almost pages. As a cruel dictator, he put thousands of people to death and imprisoned thousands more. He engaged in nepotism, giving powerful positions to unqualified family members who proved totally corrupt.
So, they could never win over the mass of peasants in the countryside. Diem also put a halt to the redistribution of land, which had begun after Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow called on Diem to make fundamental changes, including sending his brother Nhu abroad.
He angrily confronted Diem again in December. Ibid, p. Ignoring Inconvenient Truth Halberstam knew all of this. Indeed, he largely won his Pulitzer Prize based on his early reporting about how badly the Diem family was ruling South Vietnam. He devoted much of his first book to this subject. But this key part of the story is largely absent from The Best and the Brightest. The report was commissioned by the Eisenhower administration and was written by Ed Lansdale, the man John Foster Dulles sent to Vietnam.
Quite understandably, Lansdale did not see the problems in Vietnam as Ambassador Durbrow did, that Diem was mostly at fault.
Lansdale saw them as Diem did: the communists were to blame and to resist them Diem needed more American help. It is only natural that Rostow was the one who showed the report personally to Kennedy, because as many commentators have noted, on Vietnam, Rostow and Lansdale were two peas in a pod: they both wanted direct U. Halberstam also includes this episode in his book, on page This emergency angle is being pushed by two people Lansdale and Rostow who want him to commit U. But what happens next?
How does Kennedy respond? But further, and a point almost completely missed by Halberstam, this report represented the first request in the White House to send combat troops to South Vietnam, as noted by Gordon Goldstein in his book Lessons in Disaster. Goldstein then lists seven more such requests for combat troops in the next nine months. Each one was turned down. The flurry of requests for combat troops caused Kennedy to send Rostow and military adviser Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam to report back on the conditions there.
As authors Newman and Blight note, this Taylor-Rostow report started a two-week debate in the White House over the dispatch of combat troops to save Diem and South Vietnam. Almost everyone in the room wanted to send combat troops. But Kennedy was adamantly opposed. He was so opposed that he recalled copies of the report and then leaked to the press that Taylor had not recommended dispatching troops, even though he had.
Kennedy then brought up how the Vietnamese had resisted the French who had spent millions of dollars fighting them with no success. He then contrasted Vietnam with Berlin. Whereas in Berlin you had a well-defined conflict that anyone could understand, Vietnam was a case that was so obscure that even Democrats would be hard to convince on the subject.
Either Halberstam never interviewed Burris or, if he did, he chose not to include the memo in the book. Kennedy did something else that Halberstam completely missed or chose to ignore. Realizing that his advisers opposed him over Vietnam, he decided to go around them on the issue.
He sent John K. Galbraith to Vietnam to put together a report that he knew would be different from the one that Taylor and Rostow had assembled. The instructions were to begin to put together a plan for American withdrawal from Vietnam. However, the man says he did interviews. Are we really to believe that he did not talk to Galbraith, Hilsman or Gilpatric?
The Best and the Brightest Review
Tuchmann identified a number of cognitive errors that clouded the minds of the people in charge: overconfidence in their own military prowess, fear of looking weak to domestic constituencies, excessive influence of war hawks in decision making, excessive bureaucratic infighting, the elevation of political considerations over military realities, disregard for negative feedback, and perhaps most crucially, a failure to understand how small moves could irrevocably commit nations to much larger future moves, with much greater consequences than originally anticipated. However, in one of those little ironies of history, he was completely unable to avoid following a similar path of small but irreversible escalations in Vietnam, until the full-on war he had been trying to avoid eventually trapped his successors and millions of people in the senseless slaughter of the Vietnam War. Tuchmann is only cited once, briefly, but even though this book, written in , had a much closer vantage point to its still-active subject than The Guns of August, and hence is closer to unusually detailed and eloquent journalism than a straight-up history, Halberstam observes and recounts all the same organizational pathologies that plagued the French General Staff and the Prussian High Command that were still present in the American political and military leadership. One thing above all that this book does, alluded to in its title, is shatter the illusion that the only thing you need to face big problems is to acquire smart people. There are endless sections chronicling the brilliance and acuity of people like Robert McNamara, who could revolutionize vast domains like the auto industry, but were unable to figure out how to get themselves out of the Vietnam trap or even to make anything close to progress in any direction.
The Best and the Brightest