I read a lot about the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The prospect of being sent there was a big incentive for education. But by the time David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest was published in 1972, I was in college, I hadn't been drafted, and Vietnam was now Nixon's war. The book probably wouldn't have interested me. As a study of the decision-making processes in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that led to the U.S. entrenchment in Vietnam, I suspect I would have found it somewhat arcane and even irrelevant.
I'm sorry it took the death of David Halberstam two months ago in an auto accident to get me interested in reading this book. The Best and the Brightest is an extraordinary history that probes deeply into the battle of personalities and ideologies in the White Houses of the early 1960s.
Although The Best and the Brightest sometimes looks back to the end of World War II and the 1950's, and in the final chapters quickly scans the first term of the Nixon administration, the book mostly focuses on the period between Kennedy's election in 1960 and the middle of 1965 when Johnson made the commitment of several hundred thousand troops. The title refers to the smart, accomplished men of these administrations — men like Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy — who nonetheless made a series of astonishing miscalculations, and whose trust in rationalism was greater than their humanism.
Halberstam based this book largely on hundreds of personal interviews with the participants of this era. His combination of policy analysis, character profiles, and perfectly revealing anecdotes has an overwhelming cumulative effect, its narrative swept along in a lively rip-roaring style, dependent clauses piling up to the breaking point, with a rhythm that you can't help reading aloud and then imitating. Here's the beginning of the profile of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the primary architects of the war:
He was Bob, Bob McNamara, taut, controlled, driving — climbing mountains, harnessing generals — the hair slicked down in a way that made him look like a Grant Wood subject. The look was part of the drive: a fat McNamara was as hard to imagine as an uncertain one. The glasses straight and rimless, imposing; you looked at the glasses and kept your distance. He was a man of force, moving, pushing, getting things done, Bob got things done, the can-do man in the can-do society, in the can-do era. No one would ever mistake Bob McNamara for a European; he was American through and through, with the American drive, the American certitude and conviction. He pushed everyone, particularly himself, to new limits, long hours, working breakfasts, early bedtimes, moderate drinking, no cocktail parties. (p. 215 of the softcover "20th Anniversary Edition" published by Ballentine Books in 1993)
Vietnam had been a colony of France since the nineteenth century, and Halberstam traces the history of the region from the end of World War II. France needed to reassert its authority in the world with help from the United States and Great Britain. This meant retaking control of its Indochinese colonies. In Vietnam, however, they were faced with a battle against a new nationalist and Communist revolution led by Ho Chi Minh. France was defeated in this war in 1954, and Vietnam was partitioned into North (under Ho Chi Minh) and South (under French loyalists) with elections scheduled for 1956. These elections were never held. Instead, the U.S. took over France's war.
Throughout the 1950s — and even for many years after — the U.S. was suffering greatly from the mindset and witchhunts of the McCarthy days. There had been a revolution in China, and within America the big political question became "Who lost China?" Beginning with a series of articles by Joseph Alsop in the Saturday Evening Post entitled "Why We Lost China," the State Department under the Truman administration was blamed. Whereas Alsop saw only conspiracy, others — most prominantly Joseph McCarthy — saw outright treason.
Political discourse was poisoned by this atmosphere of recrimination. At least in public, it became impossible for any American politician to be anything but a knee-jerk anti-Communist, and for anti-Communism to be the foremost guiding concept of American foreign policy. To the Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh was George Washington delivering his country into independence from colonial rule. To the U.S., Ho Chi Minh was a crucial domino of monolithic Communism.
The anti-Communist rhetoric of the Truman Doctrine had come rather easily in 1947, now even more; succeeding U.S. governments would find themselves prisoners of that rhetoric. There would be, and this was a subtle thing, a disposition to see the world somewhat differently, and this was particularly true in Indochina. There was now less of a disposition to see the French war as a colonial war, more of a disposition to see it as a Western war against the Communists, a war which sought to bestow freedom upon Vietnam. (p. 120)
There once were people in the State Department who were skilled specifically in analyzing the countries of the Far East. But by the mid and later 1950's, Far East experts in the State Department were a rare breed. Many of the best had been hounded out during the McCarthy era for having lost China.
The fall of China would send American policy — first domestic and then inevitably foreign — into a crisis and convulsions that would last for more than two decades and give the policy in Asia a hard-rock interior of irrationality. Good men of genuine honor and intelligence would have their careers destroyed. (p. 324)
The men who might have served at FE [Far Eastern affairs in the State Department], John Davies, Jack Service, Edmund Clubb, had all been destroyed by the McCarthy investigations, and their successors had been men willing to serve in Asia under the terms dictated by [Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles, terms of the most rigid anti-Coummunism, where viewpoint and rhetoric often had very little to do with the facts. (p. 189)
Later in the book, in Chapter 18, is a long extraordinary profile of John Paton Davies, Jr., the son of missionaries who knew China better than any other American, and who understood the revolution there and knew that the United States could do nothing to stop it, and who was severely punished for that understanding.
The Americans who followed John Davies would be very different, they were determined to impose American versions and definitions of events upon Asian peoples. It became easier to be operational rather than reflective. Reflection brought too many problems. (p. 391)
In theory, the U.S. presence in Vietnam was purely in support of the government of South Vietnam, based in Saigon. Yet this government was often corrupt and the soldiers incompetent. The more the U.S. attempted to aid South Vietnam, the more that South Vietnam came to depend on the U.S. support.
[T]he truth of the war never entered the upper-level American calculations; that this was a revolutionary war, and that the other side held title to the revolution because of the colonial war which had just ended. This most simple fact, which was so important to the understanding of the political calculations (it explained why their soldiers would fight and die, and ours would not; why their leaders were skillful and brave, and ours were inept and corrupt), entered into the estimates of the American intelligence community and made them quite accurate. But it never entered into the calculations of the principles, for a variety of reasons; among other things to see the other side in terms of nationalism or as revolutionaries might mean a re-evaluation of whether the United States was even fighting on the right side. In contrast, the question of Communism and anti-Communism as opposed to revolution and antirevolution was far more convenient for American policy makers. (p. 463)
[I]t became increasingly a policy based on appearances; Vietnamese realities did not matter, but the appearances of Vietnamese realities mattered because they could affect American realities. More and more effort went into public relations because it was easier to manipulate appearances and statements than it was to affect reality on the ground.... And Vietnamese elections from the very start, once the original Geneva elections were avoided, were always aimed not at expressing Vietnamese aspirations, but at implanting American values on the Vietnamese and reassuring Americans. (p. 207)
A question that was almost never raised was whether the Vietnamese might or might not be better off under Ho, and to what degree the success of the Vietcong was a reflection of this. (p. 491)
One of Halberstam's strengths is a relatively clear-eyed view of the Kennedy administration as it made its own early awkward steps into Vietnam. Once the policy got moving, it assumed it own momentum. "In government it is always easier to go forward with a program that does not work than to stop it altogether and admit failure." (p. 212)
Yet the Kennedy administration was capable of learning from its mistakes (such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion) and as his administration matured, Kennedy was starting to demand (and get) more accurate information from Vietnam; by the fall of 1963, it seems that Kennedy might have been ready to pull back from U.S. involvement in the war. His assassination brought into power a man who had largely been kept out of the loop. Halberstam captures Johnson well, chronicling his insecurities, his paranoia, his bullying, his value of loyalty in his subordinates above all, and his obstinacy.
"I am not going to lose Vietnam," the new President answered. "I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went." (p. 298)
Over the course of 1964, Johnson became closer to those secretaries who favored an aggressive stance in Vietnam, while distancing himself from those who urged a more cautious approach.
Thus, without attracting much attention, without anyone commenting on it, the men who had been the greatest doubters on Vietnam, who were more politically oriented in their view of the war than militarily, were moved out, and the bureaucracy was moved back to a position where it had been in 1961, more the old Dulles policies on Asia than anyone realized. (p. 377)
Less than a year after Johnson became President he had to face an election in the fall of 1964. As the year progressed, it was evident that his opponent would be Barry Goldwater, representing the far right wing of the Republican Party, and a staunch anti-Communist. Johnson needed to demonstrate that he was equally as anti-Communist as Goldwater, and he also needed Congressional and public approval for the war. The Tonkin Gulf incident solved both of these problems.
The evidence on Tonkin is still clouded, in part because McNamara's story was so filled with old-fashioned lies, but the evidence, clear or not, is peripheral to the real question of what had taken place in the days immediately prior to the incident, and what kind of U.S. and South Vietnamese provocation had taken place. Because of the secrecy and the covert nature of the operation, because of Administration lies, both the Congress and the public were seriously misled.
Congress was misled enough to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that gave President Johnson virtually unlimited war powers against North Vietnam. Only two senators voted against it; many more soon came to regret their trust in the Johnson administration.
[T]he lack of legal authority for the war continued to bother not just the critics of the war but the President as well, and in 1965, as the escalation mounted, he turned to Nicholas Katzenbach, the Attorney General, and asked, "Don't I need more authority for what I'm doing?" Katzenbach assured him that he did not, that on a legal basis he had all the authority he needed with the Tonkin Resolution. (p. 421)
Much of the intial debate within the Johnson administration (as in the Kennedy administration) involved bombing. Yet there was a big question whether stategic bombing would work at all. A study known as the U.S. Stategic Bombing Survey done following World War II indicated that bombing Germany had not worked well: "on the contrary, it had intensified the will of the German population to resist (as it would in North Vietnam, binding the population to the Hanoi regime)." (p. 162) Vietnam was largely an agrarian economy with no obvious manufacturing targets. Bombing the trails used by the Viet Cong only widened those trails and made them more accessible!
Of course, no one doubted that larger scale bombing would have an effect — such as the type of bombing recommended by General Curtis LeMay: "We should bomb them into the Stone Age." (p. 462) Nuclear weapons were discussed. But even bombing irrigation dikes would have interferred with civilian food supply and consitituted extreme human rights violations.
The strategic bombing had to be backed up with ground support, and the war eventually became a war of attrition — the hope that Viet Cong could be killed faster than they could be replenished. This never happened. As The Best and the Brightest draws to a close, Halberstam closely chronicles the progressive commitment to more and more ground troops of the course of 1965, and the faith that just a few more troops would make the difference.
In the summer of 1965, dissenting senators going to the White House, uneasy with the number of troops there, and the rumors that more, many more were on their way, were assured by the President that they need not worry. They should just sit still for six months; all we wanted was negotiations, and these would come by Christmas. All we had to do was show them some of our muscle and give them a sense of our determination. Just six months. (p. 611)
Twelve pages earlier in The Best and the Brightest is a phrase I had forgotten about but which was much used in the late 60s: The Johnson administration was said to have a "credibility gap." Eventually, nothing they said about the war could be believed.
The Best and the Brightest is a terrific book and I highly recommend it — both for people who lived through that era and for those who didn't but are brave enough to journey back to those scary years.