Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest, published when American military engagement in Vietnam was still at its height, helped turn public opinion against the war through its meticulous reconstruction of how good intentions went astray in the escalation of the Unted States’ Vietnam involvement.

Summary of Event

Though U.S. military forces were still thoroughly engaged in support of the government of South Vietnam against the communist government of North Vietnam in 1969, American public opinion had been dissatisfied with the war for several years. Massive protests and rising casualties had led to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection in 1968, but there was no general understanding of how the country had become so embroiled in Vietnam. David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest (1969) considered the conundrum that the people responsible for escalating the Vietnam War were a group of well-educated, urbane men with degrees from prestigious universities and views generally considered liberal and enlightened. The phrase “the best and the brightest” referred to this well-credentialed cadre of government officials and the ironic gap between their qualifications and the reality their decisions helped engender. The book’s publication at the height of the war called into question U.S. leadership and helped place U.S. policy in perspective. Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. involvement Best and the Brightest, The (Halberstam) [kw]Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest (1969) [kw]American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam Reflects on (1969) [kw]Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in (1969) [kw]Best and the Brightest, Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The (1969) Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. involvement Best and the Brightest, The (Halberstam) [g]North America;1969: Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest[10110] [g]United States;1969: Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest[10110] [c]Vietnam War;1969: Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest[10110] [c]Publishing and journalism;1969: Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest[10110] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1969: Halberstam Reflects on American Involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest[10110] Halberstam, David Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Vietnam War Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Vietnam War McNamara, Robert Westmoreland, William Rusk, Dean Bundy, McGeorge

The book is both a general history of the early years of America’s Vietnam era and a multiple biography of several key policy makers: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, General William Westmoreland, and McGeorge Bundy, the special assistant for national security affairs (a position commonly known as national security adviser). Other figures, such as State Department officials Chester Bowles Bowles, Chester and William Averell Harriman Harriman, William Averell and U.S. ambassadors to South Vietnam Frederick Nolting Nolting, Frederick and Henry Cabot Lodge Lodge, Henry Cabot, Jr. , Jr., also figure in Halberstam’s analysis.

Halberstam’s particular skill lies in his capsule portraits: In five to ten pages, he offers a brief yet detailed sketch of a key individual at just the point in the overall narrative at which a reader needs more information about that person’s role and background. This gives readers a sense of the people as individuals and of the motivation behind their policy stances. Though McNamara in many ways is the book’s cynosure, his back story is not provided until the middle of the book, when it is most appropriate in narrative terms.

Halberstam demonstrates both the aristocratic and the technocratic sides of “the best and the brightest:” aristocratic because nearly all of them attended Harvard, Yale, or Oxford Universities, and many came from prestigious families. It is carefully pointed out, for example, that Nolting came from a “good” Virginia family, that Lodge came from two of America’s best-known elite families, and that Harriman was the son of a railroad tycoon. It is also noted as surprising that Dean Rusk received his undergraduate degree only from the University of Georgia, even though he subsequently was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. (Then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, according to Halberstam, equated Rusk’s lack of social polish with that of Anthony Celebrezze, a cabinet member from Ohio.) The prejudice-ridden South strangely opened a clearer path for individual merit than the ostensibly more liberal North, as Rusk and Westmoreland both overcame Southern backgrounds that were hardly privileged to assume substantial responsibilities for the nation.

Technical expertise was as important to these men’s authority as was social background. In the mid-twentieth century, there was a sense that there was such a thing as objective, technical knowledge and that even public-policy problems involving substantial historical and sociological issues could be solved in a quantified way. McNamara, particularly, was seen as the emblematic proponent of this sort of efficient, analytical expertise. A former president of the Ford Motor Company, McNamara was lauded as a pragmatic problem solver, a brilliant yet nonideological genius who, as defense secretary, would lead the Pentagon into an era of rational decision making that would be nearly as scientific as it was political. McNamara’s insistence on preplanned solutions to increasingly messy problems did not, however, serve him well in dealing with the Vietnam imbroglio. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor Taylor, Maxwell , similarly, was seen as a cool, passionless military leader possessed of a higher level of intellectual reasoning than were his military predecessors.

Halberstam also looks at more abstract issues that helped make the Vietnam commitment such a quandary for the United States. American policy-making elites were trained to deal with foreign policy as basically involving Europe. They had been educated about European history and in many cases had even studied at European universities. The collective heart of American policy makers was really in Europe. Asia was largely an unknown continent to them, and they regarded Asia in relation to Europe, seeing it as either similar to or different from Europe in various respects.

The only constituency for South Vietnam that consisted of interests in the country itself rather than those forming a bulwark against communism were the conservative Roman Catholics, who felt solidarity with South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem Ngo Dinh Diem , a fervent Catholic, and his sister-in-law, Madame Nhu. Even though President John F. Kennedy was Catholic, the Kennedy administration did not emphasize Catholicism in its Vietnam policy. The visibly Protestant Lodge was sent as ambassador to South Vietnam, to some degree in a symbolic gesture designed to countermand Diem’s Catholicism. Indeed, it was partially because Kennedy did not wish to be too identified with Diem in terms of religion that the U.S. government gave passive support to his overthrow in November, 1963. It was felt that a government more acceptable to the Buddhists in South Vietnam would be one to which the U.S. government could give more disinterested support. Kennedy, though, was assassinated a scant twenty days after Diem, making the whole point moot.

President Johnson inherited a policy that had been formulated by officials appointed by Kennedy. He came passionately to embrace the war and massively escalated it, but the contours of the United States’ Vietnam policy had been molded long before Johnson assumed the presidency.

Significance

Halberstam’s book was one of several nonfiction books in the late 1960’s that examined prominent American institutions and revealed their internal operations. Gay Talese’s book on The New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power (1967), is but one other example. Although these books were not usually written with a polemical edge and conveyed a great deal of essentially objective information, their close-up, irreverent look at American institutions could not help but undermine their subjects in the eyes of ordinary Americans, who were accustomed to seeing the integrity of these institutions as beyond question. As part of this “New Journalism,” New Journalism The Best and the Brightest illustrated the potential of nonfiction to serve a purpose more abstract and more entertaining than mere reportage. Halberstam was out to give his readers the deep background of the events he chronicled.

By 1969, the futility of the effort in Vietnam was old news. What was more of a revelation for the book’s readers was the elite background of the people who had formulated the policy and the author’s tacit conjecture that their technical knowledge did not necessarily bring true wisdom to bear on that policy. Halberstam’s exposé was part of a society-wide process in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s by which traditional values, hierarchies, and authorities were questioned and in many cases refashioned. The Best and the Brightest exemplified this skepticism toward customary channels of power, a skepticism that was a substantial factor in the disquiet and the sense of upheaval felt by Americans during this era. Vietnam War (1959-1975);U.S. involvement Best and the Brightest, The (Halberstam)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. Rev. ed. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Includes a new introduction by Halberstam, that testifies to the book’s status as a contemporary classic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983. The standard general history of the Vietnam era; written by a journalistic contemporary of Halberstam who was stationed in Saigon during the same period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988. Halberstam’s fellow Vietnam War correspondent writes on Vann, one of the few “dissenting” U.S. military officials to be deployed in Vietnam, also mentioned in Halberstam’s book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strober, Gerald, and Deborah Hart Strrober. Let Us Begin Anew: An Oral History of the Kennedy Presidency. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Includes much information about the buildup in Vietnam, the Diem coup, and the indirect way by which the United States became militarily committed to an area which its government elite never fully valued or understood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Talese, Gay. A Writer’s Life. New York: Knopf, 2006. One of Halberstam’s fellow New Journalists, author of The Kingdom and the Power, relates the rise of nonfiction reportage as a literary genre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weingarten, Marc. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution. New York: Crown, 2006. A thorough look at the milieu of innovative nonfiction reportage and feature writing from which Halberstam’s book emerged.

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