The Best and the Brightest – Halberstam

Someone suggested posting really thought-provoking books on La Flog. Great idea, Zach Jones!

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet finished the ~700 page monster, The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. With less than 200 pages to go, though, I wanted to toss out some of my thoughts. The book traces the original, highest-level government decisions that led to the quagmire in Vietnam. Thus, the book is an in-depth look at the John F Kennedy administration (Eisenhower refused to engage Vietnam because (1) it was a colonial war between France and the colonial population and (2) it was even more complicated, in his mind, than the Korean War).

The title comes from the optimism that surrounded the Kennedy administration – the brightest minds from academia, business, and government were all joined to rationally and glamorously solve the world’s most difficult problems. According to Halberstam, newspapers were tracking how many Rhodes Scholars, articles published, and other prestigious awards the administration was bringing together.

The book follows the early turning points that limited later actions. For example, Kennedy played a strong hand publicly even after he began asking more questions privately about escalating involvement. The decisions were not critical at the time, but as they continued under Johnson, options became more and more limited. Another notable example is the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, where intelligence reports obfuscated the actual incident and used weak sources – to such an extent that top leadership made poor decisions and misled the country into war.

So far, I am finding four general lessons to which Halberstam points:

  • Education, high honors, great “Establishment” reputation is no panacea to world problems;
  • Rational decisions, if based on questionable evidence, can be more harmful than helpful;
  • Good intentions and good training are simply not enough in crises; and,
  • The best and the brightest still must play internal politics, survive bureaucratic systems, and manage the diverse challenges in US government.

As someone born after the Vietnam War, this book is a good read on the time’s frustration watching the war escalate. Written in 1969, the anger

Image from

Image from

is readily apparent. How could such smart individuals fail to look past political games and McCarthy-esque fears of being ‘weak’? Their public speeches were grand, optimistic, hopeful, and promised change – yet their Yale, Harvard, and Princeton-educated cabinet secretaries couldn’t retract us from war. Familiar?

If you have lots of extra time, this book is worth a read. The prose is long and sometimes difficult (he starts chapters with several paragraphs of describing people before telling the reader who they are). It is helpful, however, to remember to be skeptical of leaders and data, no matter how much we want to trust them. John McCain’s forward to the 20th edition adds eloquently:

“It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay.” – John McCain


About Nate

Graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison. I am studying public policy, administration, and law. More importantly, I am getting the La Follette School Student Association out and onto the blogosphere. Here we come!
This entry was posted in Books, Ethics, International, Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Best and the Brightest – Halberstam

  1. Pingback: McNamara « La Flog

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