peteg's blog - noise - books - 2009 09 14 Halberstam TheBestAndTheBrightest

David Halberstam: The Best and the Brightest

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I picked up this book on the strength of Fred Kaplan's citation in his Wizards of Armageddon, hoping for more insight into Robert S. McNamara's decision making. Well, wasn't I disappointed; Halberstam's take is that it is indeed turtles all the way down, until we get to the one with the weak knees.

This book is expansive, a reporter's in-depth reconstruction of the decision making processes surrounding the U.S. engagement with Vietnam from the post-war period up to about 1968. Structurally it is a narrative with mini-biographies of the major players embedded at mostly opportune points. Clearly Halberstam immersed himself in Vietnam itself in the 1960s, mined the Pentagon Papers and made the most of his time with Daniel Ellsberg.

Most interesting to me was Halberstam's narrative of how the substantial expertise on Asia in the State Department was sidelined and purged by the the irrational U.S. policy towards post-revolutionary China, from circa 1950 to the early 1960s. Roughly McCarthyism (exemplified by the platitude that only Nixon could go to China and not be red-baited by Nixon) gave rise to the idea that those interested in China were by-and-large fellow travellers, whereas those following the Russians were apparently OK because of the big-boy issues of missile gaps and atomic tensions.

Hence by the time that Kennedy and his best-and-brightest were taking decisions that would severely limit Johnson's options in 1965, Communism had become this atomic red monster that ate all the dominos before it. It was quite late in the day, 1966 or so, that McNamara acknowledged that the Vietnamese just might be fighting on nationalistic grounds, quite at odds with the idea of the Comintern (etc). As Halberstam wryly observes, at the time the dominoes themselves didn't seem to mind too much.

Unlike so many other books on this time in history, much attention is paid to the antecedents to the American involvement. News to me was how the preeminent general of the time, General Matthew Ridgeway, kept the U.S. out of the French disaster at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954. This wise consul went unheeded a decade later. Eisenhower comes out sounding like a man of rare reason to me, winding down the military in a way that slipped away from McNamara. Also Halberstam pointed to events I wasn't aware of, such as the Brinks Hotel bombing. (These days Wikipedia's coverage of just about anything is superior to just about any non-principal source — which publisher could ever devote so many pages to so much arcana? — but this book still provides a top-notch jumping-off point.)

Generally the decision making mechanisms in the various bureaucracies (Defence and State in particular) seemed debased by the all too familiar cover-your-arse selective hearing that we get so much of now. Truth tellers were marginalised, 'yes' men rose rapidly, systems were implemented that kept the noise and discarded the signal. In essence, rational the best-and-brightest may have been, but also quite disconnected from reality: evidence-based activity was M.I.A. The why and how of Johnson (et al) hiding of the escalation from the congress and the citizenry is quite plausibly constructed, and perhaps the saddest part of this debasement of the American deliberative apparatus.

It seems that McNamara understood the limits of force (at least in Vietnam) by about 1966, about two years into the escalation. Eerily familiar is the absence of a plan for winning, let alone what to do after winning: was the U.S. going to occupy South Vietnam for decades?

The text itself is slightly flabby, and could have been more tightly edited in a few places. It sometimes got a bit too repetitive, going beyond the rehashing that makes such a long narrative tractable to the casual reader.

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