Halberstam’s ‘Best-Brightest’ Blunder

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam shaped the American narrative of the Vietnam War, making it a cautionary tale about the folly of action-oriented intellectuals who surrounded President John F. Kennedy and whose hubris supposedly plunged the nation into a destructive war. But is Halberstam’s widely embraced storyline correct? In this analysis of the 1972 book, James DiEugenio argues that Halberstam got the history fundamentally wrong, missing Kennedy’s resistance to a wider war and ignoring the fateful change in U.S. policy after JFK’s assassination in 1963.

By James DiEugenio

May 17, 2011

David Halberstam died on April 23, 2007, in Menlo Park, California, killed in a three-car accident on his way to interview former NFL quarterback Y. A. Tittle for a book about the famous 1958 NFL Championship game.

Halberstam was also there to deliver a speech at UC Berkeley about what “it means to turn reporting into a work of history.” [San Francisco Chronicle, April 23, 2007]

Halberstam wrote several books about the sports world, seven to be exact, or about a third of his total output. But he also wrote a number of books that were concerned with contemporary history.

For instance, he wrote The Fifties, an examination of that decade, The Children, a chronicle of the Nashville Student Movement of 1959-62, and The Coldest Winter, about America in the Korean War.

Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting on Vietnam. And he wrote two books on that subject: The Making of a Quagmire (1965), and The Best and the Brightest (1972).

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. [New York Times, May 16, 1965]

A major source for that earlier Vietnam book was Col. 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.S. military was concealing just how bad the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) really was.

For that book, Halberstam was so much in Vann’s camp that he actually seemed to think that the introduction of U.S. forces would win the war. [See the Introduction to the 2008 edition by Daniel Singal, p. xvi.]

Different Take

But Halberstam’s second book on the subject, The Best and the Brightest, argued the contrary: America should have never gotten involved in Vietnam; Kennedy should have never dispatched military advisers; and President Lyndon Johnson should not have sent in a half million troops.

The author wrote that the Vietnam War was the greatest national tragedy since the Civil War. [Halberstam, p. 667. Unless otherwise noted, all references to the book will be from the original hardcover edition.]

Written at a time of mounting skepticism about the Vietnam War and animosity toward its architects, The Best and the Brightest clearly made Halberstam’s career. Previewed in two national magazines, hardcover and paperback sales totaled nearly 1.8 million copies.

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.S. involvement in Vietnam.

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.S. involvement in Vietnam.

But a retrospective on the book today must deal with new historical realities regarding what the record shows and how well Halberstam’s analysis stands up.

Dubious Thesis

As I mentioned above, there was one review of the book that was thoroughly and scintillatingly negative by Mary McCarthy in the New York Review of Books [Jan. 25, 1973]

McCarthy wrote: “If a clear idea can be imputed to the text, though, it is that an elitist strain in our democracy, represented by the ‘patrician’ Bundy brothers, once implanted in Washington and crossed with the ‘can-do’ mentality represented by [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara, bred the monster of Vietnam.”

According to McCarthy, what Halberstam was trying to do with his book was to create the image that Vietnam was a form of Greek tragedy, which the hubris of the Kennedy administration’s protagonists made inevitable.

Thus, by the time of President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in the mid-1960s, the die for a wider war had been cast by the Kennedy team’s arrogance.

As the 1960s wore on, Johnson continued to over-commit until he had more than a half million U.S. troops in country, a huge army that would face the shocking blow of the Tet offensive in early 1968.

McCarthy’s review challenged Halberstam’s thesis that the war’s escalation was inevitable. 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. She was absolutely right on this point as Fredrick Logevall proved in his fine examination of Johnson’s conduct of the war in 1964-65, Choosing War.

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 1965 to 1972?

Writing a Profile

In 1967, Halberstam left the New York Times, and went to work at Harper’s. There he wrote a profile of National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.

In Halberstam’s 2001 preface to the Modern Library edition of his book, the author wrote that it was this article that gave him the idea to do a book about how and why America had gone to war in Vietnam and also about the architects of that involvement.

Securing an advance from Random House, he spent the next four years writing the book. In other words, he started his book at a time when President Johnson’s massive military escalation was failing in a spectacular way.

Johnson’s war policies were being criticized by both houses of Congress, much of the U.S. news media, and by a whole generation of young Americans. 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.

Clearly, John Paul Vann’s escalation advice to Halberstam, and those who had listened to Vann in the Pentagon, had not turned out to be spot on. Halberstam took notice and altered his viewpoint.

Because of Halberstam’s new critical perspective and the book’s historical cast tracing the war’s history back to the late 1940s, The Best and the Brightest was a case of perfect timing.

Americans wanted to read about how their country got involved in an epic foreign disaster. They wanted more than their newspaper’s day-by-day accounts and more than just grandstanding by ideologues of the Left or Right.

Halberstam gave that to them and more. In its original hardcover printing, the book runs to 672 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. [The author notes the final tally as 500. Halberstam,  p. 669.]

A Serious Shortcoming

And here emerges one of the first and foremost problems with 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. Which is quite surprising in light of the fact that so much of the book’s material is based on those sources.

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.

Halberstam tried to explain this decision in an Author’s Note. He first writes that because of the political sensitivity of the subject, a writer’s relation to his source was under challenge.

Secondly, he had talked to Daniel Ellsberg and had been subpoenaed by a grand jury in the Pentagon Papers case. Yet, from what I can see, there is nothing in Halberstam’s book that came from classified documents.

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.S. involvement in Vietnam, including the first volume of the Pentagon Papers, the Gravel Edition, which exceeds 300 pages. (To see, click here.)

Fateful Choices

The initial American involvement is usually traced to the decision by President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson to recognize the newly propped-up French proxy government in Vietnam led by the French puppet, Bao Dai.

This U.S. decision was formalized in a February 1950 letter that Truman and Acheson both signed, recognizing French hegemony in Laos and Cambodia.

As Halberstam points out, this was done in response to the fall of China the year before to Mao Zedong’s communists. With the outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950, the U.S. commitment regarding Vietnam began with a relatively small amount of aid to the French military.

As the anti-colonial rebellion against the French, led by Ho Chi Minh and his military chief Vo Nguyen Giap, picked up steam, President Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ramped up the aid. By 1953, the U.S. was paying about 75 per cent of the bill to fight the French Indochina War.

Eisenhower and Dulles also gave the French air cover in 1953 and 1954.  At the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu, 24 CIA pilots flew American planes under French insignia.

This mission was a much smaller version of what the French had requested from Dulles, and which Vice President Richard Nixon had agreed to.

As John Prados outlines in his two books, The Sky Would Fall and Operation Vulture, the proposed American plan was to have the Seventh Fleet use 150 fighters to cover the bombing mission of 60 B-29s. 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.

After the French defeat, it was John Foster Dulles who controlled the Geneva Agreements, which ended the First Indochina War in 1954. 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 1956 to unify the country under one leader.

But Dulles knew that the North Vietnamese communist Ho Chi Minh would win these elections in a landslide.

So even though Dulles’s representative at the conference read a statement saying that the U.S. would honor the agreement and that America would not use force to upset the deal, the U.S. did not sign the agreement, thus giving the Americans an out for later violating it. [See Vietnam Documents by George Katsiaficas, pgs. 25, 42, 78.]

A Covert Scheme

Within weeks of the peace conference, Dulles and his CIA Director brother Allen had begun a massive covert operation to guarantee that Ho Chi Minh would not unify the country under communist rule. [Ibid, pgs. 26, 73, 132 ]

The pair began a colossal propaganda program to scare a million Catholics in the north into fleeing to the south.

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 1955 to get Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu into power. As predicted, and instructed, Diem then canceled the unification election of 1956.

In other words, these events in the 1950s created the basis for direct American intervention in Vietnam: Dulles’s play-acting at Geneva, the almost immediate covert operation by Lansdale, the choice of Diem, the fraudulent election of Diem, and cancelation of unification.

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.

All of this history is absolutely central to understanding what was to come later, but it conflicts with Halberstam’s preferred narrative, placing the primary blame for the Vietnam War on the smart guys who arrived in Washington to serve President Kennedy.

So, Halberstam deals with this crucial prelude to war in less than two pages, 148-49, in a book of almost 700 pages.

The Diem Disaster

It was especially the disastrous choice of Diem that pulled the U.S. deeper into the Vietnam quagmire.

Many writers have described the myriad failures of Diem’s rule. 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.

Unlike Ho Chi Minh, Diem and his family dressed, acted and worshipped like Westerners. 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 1954.

With such a reviled leader in place and Ho Chi Minh’s supporters gaining wider popularity the Americans faced a dilemma, either take a more direct role or abandon South Vietnam.

By 1960, South Vietnam’s army, known as the ARVN, consisted of about 150,000 men and the U.S. had about 700 advisers in country.

Yet, the CIA was predicting that unless Diem ended his repressive one-man rule and stopped the widespread corruption, the Viet Cong insurgency would grow and “almost certainly in time cause the collapse of the Diem regime,” perhaps in as soon as a year or so. [David Kaiser, American Tragedy, p.64]

In October 1960, U.S. Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow called on Diem to make fundamental changes, including sending his brother Nhu abroad. Diem resisted Durbrow’s entreaties and blamed all his problems on the communists. (Ibid., pgs. 64-65)

But Durbrow did not relent. He angrily confronted Diem again in December. (Ibid, p. 65)

The crisis in South Vietnam largely the consequence of decisions made by the Eisenhower administration is what the Kennedy administration encountered when it entered office.

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. After all, the reality ran counter to Halberstam’s central thesis, that the disastrous Vietnam War was the result of Kennedy and his whiz kids eagerly biting off much more than they could chew.

To make the thesis work, Halberstam also had to downplay or ignore the extensive evidence of Kennedy’s reluctance about a larger commitment to Vietnam.

For instance, John Newman begins his masterly book JFK and Vietnam, with a memorable scene. Just six days after Kennedy’s inauguration, Assistant National Security Adviser Walt Rostow hands the President a pessimistic report on Vietnam.

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. [Newman, p. 3]

As for the seriousness of the crisis, Lansdale agreed with the CIA: Vietnam could be lost within a year or so. However, as a total Cold Warrior, Lansdale added that if Vietnam fell, Southeast Asia “would be easy picking for our enemy.” [Ibid, p. 4]

So Lansdale, known as the model for the lead character in The Ugly American. was invoking the dreaded Domino Theory in order to get Kennedy to act.

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.S. military intervention.

Halberstam also includes this episode in his book, on page 128. But Newman understands its true significance regarding Kennedy’s thinking on Vietnam.

A Young President’s Dilemma

With Lansdale’s report delivered by Rostow, the young president is confronted with an imminent collapse in South Vietnam. This emergency angle is being pushed by two people Lansdale and Rostow who want him to commit U.S. forces to the theater.

But what happens next? How does Kennedy respond?

By November 1961, Kennedy understood what an unmitigated hawk Rostow was and shipped him out of the White House to the Policy Planning Office at State. [Virtual JFK by James Blight, p. 181]

Lansdale, who was covetous of the ambassadorship to South Vietnam, did not get it. [Newman, p. 3]  Like Rostow, Kennedy shipped him out of the Vietnam sphere altogether and into running anti-Cuba operations.

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. [Goldstein, pgs.  52-58] This is significant for what it says about Kennedy and his reluctance to commit U.S. combat troops to Vietnam.

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. [Newman, p. 136]

An Internal Debate

Air Force Colonel Howard Burris took notes on this debate, which are contained in the James Blight book. [pgs. 282-83]

Kennedy argued that the Vietnamese situation was not a clear-cut case of aggression as was Korea. He stated that it was “more obscure and less flagrant.” Thus, the United States would need its Allies onboard to mute loud criticism from abroad.

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.

What made it worse, Kennedy warned, is that you would be fighting a guerrilla force, and “sometimes in phantom-like fashion.” Because of this, the base of operations for U.S. troops would be insecure.

Toward the end of the discussion, Kennedy turned the conversation to what would be done next in Vietnam, “rather than whether or not the U.S. would become involved.”

Burris notes that during the debate, Kennedy turned aside attempts by Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Lyman Lemnitzer to derail his thought process.

The Burris memo is a clear insight into Kennedy’s resistance to sending combat troops to Vietnam. Either Halberstam never interviewed Burris or, if he did, he chose not to include the memo in the book.

So, these defining comments about Kennedy’s attitudes about Vietnam are not in The Best and the Brightest.

Kennedy’s Resistance

John Newman examined this debate and came to a clear conclusion:

“Kennedy turned down combat troops, not when the decision was clouded by ambiguities and contradictions but when the battle was unequivocally desperate, when all concerned agreed that Vietnam’s fate hung in the balance and when his principal advisers told him that vital U.S. interests in the region and the world were at stake.” [Newman, p. 138]

But Halberstam discounts Kennedy’s resistance, concentrating instead on the issuance of National Security Action Memorandum 111 on Nov. 22, 1961, when Kennedy even as he turned down the hawks’ request for troops granted them around 15, 000 more advisers to see if this would fend off the growing insurgency.

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. [Blight p. 129]

Kennedy then gave the new report to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in private. The instructions were to begin to put together a plan for American withdrawal from Vietnam. [Ibid.]

The evidence on this is simply undeniable. In addition to Galbraith’s account, there is confirmation from Roswell Gilpatric, McNamara’s deputy who in an oral history talked about Kennedy telling his boss to put together a plan “to unwind this whole thing.” [Ibid, p. 371]

In addition to Gilpatric and Galbraith, Roger Hilsman also knew about the plan since another McNamara employee, John McNaughton, told him about it. [New York Times, Jan. 20, 1992]

It’s clear that McNamara did tell the Pentagon to put together this plan since it was presented to him finally at the May 1963 SecDef conference in Honolulu. [Jim Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, pgs. 288-91]

The record of that meeting in Hawaii was not declassified until 1997. When it was released, even the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer acknowledged it.

Halberstam’s Gaps

We can’t hold it against Halberstam that he did not have this plan or the records of this meeting. However, the man says he did 500 interviews. Are we really to believe that he did not talk to Galbraith, Hilsman or Gilpatric? And that if he did, they all forgot to tell him about this?

With McNamara finally formulating a withdrawal plan — and the situation in Vietnam getting worse in 1963 — Kennedy decided to take action in that direction.

In late September of 1963, he sent McNamara and Taylor back to Saigon to assess the progress of the war. McNamara understood what Kennedy wanted.

In keeping with Kennedy’s wishes, he asked several military advisers if their mission would be substantially reduced by 1965. [Newman p. 402]

McNamara also knew that Kennedy would have to keep Taylor under control. And he did. As Newman and Fletcher Prouty have noted, the Taylor-McNamara Report was not really written by them. It was a complete backchannel operation from Washington.

The final arbiter of what went in the report was President Kennedy. One can pretty much say that instead of the two travelers presenting Kennedy with their report, the President presented his report to them. [Ibid, p. 40]

Consequently, the report delivered a rosy picture of what was going on in Vietnam and stated that because of this, U.S. forces could be withdrawn by the end of 1965. It also said that this withdrawal would begin in December of 1963 with the removal of a thousand American advisers. [Newman p. 402]

Taylor did not want to include the thousand-man withdrawal in the report. But Kennedy insisted on it. [Ibid, p. 403]

The Bundy brothers objected to completing the withdrawal by the end of 1965. However, Kennedy, through McNamara, insisted on that also. [Ibid, p. 404]

In his discussion of the meeting over the report, Newman makes clear that it was Kennedy who applied the pressure to push it through a mostly reluctant cabinet.

Kennedy then sent McNamara to announce the withdrawal plan to the awaiting press. As McNamara proceeded outside to address the media, Kennedy opened his door and yelled at him, “And tell them that means all of the helicopter pilots too!” [Ibid, p. 407]

This became the basis for National Security Action Memorandum 263, Kennedy’s order for the withdrawal to begin.

Shocking Omissions

Yet, what Halberstam does with this crucial information is nothing less than shocking. He writes that McNamara had no different assumptions from the Pentagon.

The author adds that McNamara “wanted no different sources of information. For all his idealism, he was no better and perhaps in his hubris a little worse than the institution he headed. But to say this in 1963 would have been heresy.” [Halberstam p. 215]

What McNamara would have said in 1963 was that he was not working for the Pentagon; he was working for President Kennedy and Kennedy had told him to start winding down the war to have the U.S. out in 1965.

In fact, McNamara did say this to the people mentioned above; he said it to the press in October 1963 on Kennedy’s orders; and he said it during a meeting with Kennedy and McGeorge Bundy. [Blight, pgs. 100, 124] Halberstam missed all of these.

Or did he? For besides misrepresenting McNamara, the author does something even worse. There is no mention of NSAM 263 to be found in his culminating chapter on the Kennedy administration.

Halberstam does mention the debate over the mention of withdrawal in the Taylor-McNamara report. [p. 285] But he does not say that the report was the basis for the NSAM ordering withdrawal.

And he does not say that the report was supervised by President Kennedy and presented as a fait accompli to Taylor and McNamara. Further, he never mentions that it was Kennedy who got the recalcitrant members of his staff to sign on to the report.

Halberstam misses, too, the whole point about the rosy estimate of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. He tries to write it off as all wishful thinking so Kennedy can put off decisions into the indefinite future. [p. 286]

As Newman makes clear in his book, Kennedy was trying to put the military in a corner. McNamara understood this and asked certain agencies in the State Department to give him more optimistic estimates, which he could use to construct the withdrawal plan. [Blight, p. 117]

Halberstam mentions that the intelligence estimates changed in November 1963, but he never makes the connection as to why. [p. 297]

Misreading Kennedy

How does Halberstam sum up Kennedy’s stewardship of Vietnam? He writes that it “was largely one of timidity.” [p. 301]

But Halberstam could reach that conclusion only by ignoring Kennedy’s withdrawal plan and NSAM 263, misrepresenting what McNamara was doing, cutting out the SecDef Conference of May 1963, and disregarding how Kennedy stage-managed the Taylor-McNamara report to support his plan for withdrawal.

Instead of dealing with the reality of Kennedy’s scheming in favor of withdrawal, Halberstam spins the facts to fit a preconceived conclusion, the one Mary McCarthy characterized as Vietnam being an inevitable American tragedy.

Halberstam claims that the Pentagon Papers, which leaked in 1971, “confirmed the direction in which I was going.” [p. 669] Yet in Volume 2 of the Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers the following sentences appear:

“Noting that ‘tremendous progress’ had been made in South Vietnam and that it might be difficult to retain operations in Vietnam indefinitely, Mr. McNamara directed that a comprehensive long range program be developed for building up SVN [South Vietnam’s] military capability and for phasing out the U.S. role.

“He asked that the planners assume that it would require approximately three years, that is, the end of 1965, for the RVNAD [South Vietnam’s military] to be trained to the point that it could cope with the VC.

“On July 26, the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] formally directed CINPAC [the Pacific Command] to develop a Comprehensive Plan for South Vietnam in accordance with the Secretary’s directive.”

Does it get much clearer than that? These sentences are part of a chapter, entitled “Phased Withdrawal of US Forces, 1962-64,” which covers 40 pages.

It’s hard to imagine that Halberstam could have read the Pentagon Papers and missed this crucial point, that the Kennedy administration had its eyes set on an exit from Vietnam, not that it was arrogantly rushing to escalate with divisions of combat troops.

Halberstam apparently ignored this evidence because it did not confirm the direction in which he was going. In fact, it contradicted it.

A Dramatic Shift

Rather than a hubristic continuum from Kennedy to Johnson, Kennedy’s assassination marked a dramatic change in direction for the Vietnam War. If Kennedy had not been assassinated, he might have completed the withdrawal after his reelection in 1964.

But acknowledging that reality would have completely messed up the thesis of Halberstam’s book. It would have rendered pointless all those boring mini-biographies of the “bright” men recklessly plunging the nation into the Vietnam War. (The mini-bio on McNamara goes on for 25 pages, 215-240.)

Not wanting the facts to get in the way of a good story also may explain why Halberstam soft pedals, or does not mention at all, Kennedy’s actions in the Congo where he favored leftist rebel leader Patrice Lumumba; or Kennedy’s speeches as far back as 1951 assailing the boilerplate Cold War platitudes of both Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles; or his attacks on French colonialism in both Vietnam and Algeria.

If Halberstam had not short-changed or ignored these parts of Kennedy’s history, then Kennedy’s withdrawal plan would make even more sense to the reader.

But then the epic American tragedy of Vietnam would not have been “inevitable,” a seamless narrative from Kennedy’s brief presidency to Johnson’s, with Kennedy’s assassination representing no significant change in approach.

To accept that Kennedy and some of his “best and brightest” aides were maneuvering toward a timely exit from Vietnam would have required Halberstam to write a very different book.

Instead of indicting Kennedy and his team as too smart for their own britches, Halberstam would have had to give Kennedy credit for knowing when to shift direction and when to run around his own cabinet.

A taped conversation dramatically illustrates the point. When McNamara mentions the withdrawal plan, Bundy reveals that he does not know anything about it.

Yet, recall, Halberstam started his book with a profile of Bundy and his presumed influence on the Vietnam War. The truth was that Kennedy understood that Bundy was too hawkish and decided to circumvent his National Security Adviser.

Bundy did not realize what Kennedy had done until he heard the conversation played back to him three decades later. [Blight, p. 125] Yet this is the man whom Halberstam felt controlled the Vietnam decisions.

In other words, The Best and the Brightest was flawed from its inception. It was further undermined when the Pentagon Papers contradicted the thesis. But Halberstam press ahead anyway.

(Part Two of this retrospective on Halberstam’s landmark book examines Halberstam’s treatment of Johnson’s conduct of the war.)

James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era.


1 comment for “Halberstam’s ‘Best-Brightest’ Blunder

  1. Geoff Brown
    May 18, 2011 at 18:23

    This is much ado about nothing. What is described is that, in fact, the “best and the brightest” were indeed misguided and arrogant hawks on Viet-Nam. The material does give some substance to the notion that JFK (whose tragic death was indeed a disaster for the country) might not have let himself be pushed into a deeper involvement. But so what? He was assasinated and we will never know what “might have been.” Counter-factual history is a waste of time. What did happen is that LBJ became president and pretty much the same people JFK had assembled supported him in his mistaiken notion that he was refighting the Korean war. One of the few who opposed our involvement throughout was George Ball – a sophisticated man of an earlier generation who understood the importance of history and the danger of simplistic analogies. And it is a desperate reach indeed to look to the late Mary McCarthy for political and historical analysis.

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