Sunday, August 12, 2018
NYT Book review, 1972: The Best and the Brightest," Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam's latest, most important and impressive book, sets out to discover why America got involved in the worst and messiest war in our history. "What was it about the men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions and above all the era which had allowed this tragedy to take place?" They were, after all, "the best and the brightest," so why did it happen?
It happened, Halberstam concludes, because, "they had, for all their brilliance and hubris and sense of themselves, been unwilling to look and learn from the past." They ignored Hanoi history and misunderstood Munich history. "And they had been swept forward by their belief in the importance of anti-Communism (and the dangers of not paying sufficient homage to it)." The Age of the Pentagon Papers is, in reality, the Age of the Pumpkin Papers.
It is difficult to argue with Halberstam's reasonable, compelling and persuasively presented thesis. The rhetoric is occasionally overblown, but he is right, they were "swept forward" by the sense of power and glory, omnipotence and omniscience of America in this century. They were "America" and they did want to be defined as "being strong and tough; but strength and toughness and courage were exterior qualities which would be demonstrated by going to a clean and hopefully antiseptic war with a small nation, rather than the interior more lonely kind of strength and courage of telling the truth to America and perhaps incurring a good deal of domestic political risk."
Moreover, Halberstam is able to bring his case alive through the artful use of warehouses of insider anecdotes, vignettes and detail. What better symbol of the illusion of an antiseptic war than Gen. William Westmoreland breakfasting in his underwear "in order to keep his fatigues pressed?" What more vivid way to convey the cold-war assumptions ingrained in L.B.J. than to report that the first thing that raced through his mind as the shots were fired that November day in Dallas was "that the Communists had done it?" How more dramatically to capture the stultifying atmosphere of our embassy in Saigon than to show Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting Jr., replacing a portrait of Thomas Jefferson with one of George Washington, in anticipation of a TV interview, because Jefferson was too controversial?
In addition to asking why it all happened, the book's main and most remarkable contribution is to introduce us in depth to the architects of America's involvement in Vietnam--not only to the LBJs, McNamaras and Rusks but to the Rosencrantz's and Guildensterns of the Federal bureaucracy--and in so doing, to capture and interplay between personality and policy; second, it illuminates the rules of the game--takes us into the bureaucratic arena and shows us how, time and again, bureaucratic considerations triumphed over ideological or even common-sense ones; and third, it traces the history of no-returning points which led to our entanglement in this tragic war, and seems to suggest in retrospect, any number of places where we might have stopped the war because we wanted to get off.
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