Friday, March 11, 2011

Halberstam - Best and the Brightest

Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.

Halberstam uses his reporters' eye and writing skill to set the personalities of the JFK and LBJ Presidencies over the written evidence (particularly from the Pentagon Papers, which emerged a year before this was published) to answer the question: How and why did such intelligent, thoughtful men get involved in the quagmire (as Halberstam's '65 book title called it) of Vietnam?

More specifically, their faith in bombing's chances of success was misplaced and could have been anticipated, and they never fully grasped why France had lost so they were doomed to repeat those mistakes.

The How - From as early as 1950 through JFK Presidency, intelligence and diplomatic correspondence from Vietnam, as well as from policy experts state-side (George Kennan, for example) was filtered before it reached the White House to paint a positive and optimistic picture and support the vision of a winnable intervention in Vietnam. At the same time, various military officers were presenting truthfully pessimistic reports from the field, but they too were filtered out to give the White House what commanders thought they wanted to hear.

The Why - Halberstam suggests that had the post-WWII anxiety about communism not been so thick in the U.S., America would have supported Vietnamese nationalism. Set against Korea (a relatively traditional geopolitical war rather than the nationalist war of Vietnam) and the fall of China, however, the U.S. opted to support France, and eventually step into France's place. Culturally at that moment in time, most U.S. leadership could not see Vietnam for what it truly was: a nationalist war, not a Cold War war.

Culpability of Individuals
JFK - JFK may have erred in putting Dean Rusk in Sec State; he wanted a weak Sec State and got that, but a stronger Sec State might have pushed more policy recommendations in front of JFK instead of telling him what he wanted to hear. When the few honest, pessimistic reports reached him, he was furious. Halberstam implies JFK might not have proceeded with the war escalation LBJ did.

LBJ - Persevered in Vietnam partly because he felt he owed it to JFK's legacy, partly out of his personality.

McNamara - "even if he was brilliant, [McNamara] was not wise." Mac's success in reorganizing the defense budget came from collecting data and making a thorough analysis on his own, outside of the recommendations of military. In Vietnam, he took the reports of others at face values from the beginning.

Westmoreland - Intentionally lowered estimates of troops needed. "Lyndon Johnson was a great salami slicer, and no one was smarter than Westmoreland at knowing how much salami to order at a given time, how much he would be allowed to carry home."

Useful link
Critique: assumption implied by Halberstam, that the history might have been different if the people who understood Vietnam, as well as the people who understood LBJ, had been in the positions of power. This seems to undermine the thesis: the best and the brightest weren't good enough, and were victims of history, bureaucracy, and the Cold War.

Deception of the elite military and bureaucrats: the American public, each other, and themselves

"What shortly becomes clear is that no single military turning point, no single or two or three arch villains explains anything. "Dean Acheson was the architect of our commitment to Vietnam." The Europeanists got us in there to support the French. The Kennedys got us in there because "it gave them opportunities for grace under pressure." The Bay of Pigs really did it because ironically, its aftermath saw "the strengthening of State's tough-minded realists," and the weakening of those less inclined to use force, like Bowles. Maxwell Taylor and the military mind are really responsible because as late as 1961 he mistakenly saw Korea as the parallel war, whereas as Halberstam points out, "The former was a conventional war with a traditional border crossing by a uniformed enemy massing his troops; the latter was a political war conducted by guerrillas and feeding on subversion." Walt the culprit because of his infectious enthusiasm, as a member of the L.B.J. White House, for air war. Machismo, says Halberstam, "was no small part of it." [particularly for LBJ] ...Westmoreland and McNamara are guilty because of their misplaced confidence in ground troops. L.B.J. was the real war criminal when he deceived the American people in July, 1965... Dean Rusk ("color him neutral or color him hardline. Which side was he on? . . .") ought to take the rap because he never spoke up; he never fought; he let McNamara take over State. Take your pick the list is endless. What's interesting, though, are not any key decisions or decision-makers, but the pattern that emerges, a phenomenon we might call The Fallacy of the Misplaced Center. " - From NYT review

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