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The Best and the Brightest

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Title: The Best and the Brightest  
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Subject: David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (book), Cornelius Ryan Award, John Kenneth Galbraith, National Book Award for Nonfiction
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The Best and the Brightest

The Best and the Brightest (1972) is an account by journalist David Halberstam of the origins of the Vietnam War published by Random House. The focus of the book is on the erroneous foreign policy crafted by the academics and intellectuals who were in John F. Kennedy's administration, and the disastrous consequences of those policies in Vietnam. The title referred to Kennedy's "whiz kids"—leaders of industry and academia brought into the Kennedy administration—whom Halberstam characterized as arrogantly insisting on "brilliant policies that defied common sense" in Vietnam, often against the advice of career U.S. Department of State employees.

Summary

Halberstam's book offers a great deal of detail on how the decisions were made in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that led to the war, focusing on a period from 1960 to 1965 but also covering earlier and later years up to the publication year of the book.

Many influential factors are examined in the book:

  • The Democratic party was still haunted by claims that it had 'lost China' to Communists, and it did not want to be said to have lost Vietnam also
  • The McCarthy era had rid the government of experts in Vietnam and surrounding Far-East countries
  • Early studies called for close to a million U.S. troops to completely defeat the Viet Cong, but it would be impossible to convince Congress or the U.S. public to deploy that many soldiers
  • Declarations of war and excessive shows of force, including bombing too close to China or too many U.S. troops, might have triggered the entry of Chinese ground forces into the war, as well as greater Soviet involvement, which might repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift.
  • The American military and generals were not prepared for protracted guerilla warfare.
  • Some war games showed that a gradual escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam: Every year, 200,000 North Vietnamese came of draft age and could be sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to replace any losses against the U.S.: the U.S. would be "fighting the birthrate."
  • Any show of force by the U.S. in the form of bombing or ground forces would signal the U.S. interest in defending South Vietnam and therefore cause the U.S. greater shame if they were to withdraw
  • President Johnson's belief that too much attention given to the war effort would jeopardize his Great Society domestic programs
  • The effects of strategic bombing: Most people wrongly believed that North Vietnam prized its industrial base so much it would not risk its destruction by U.S. air power and would negotiate peace after experiencing some limited bombing. Others saw that, even in World War II, strategic bombing united the victim population against the aggressor and did little to hinder industrial output.
  • The Domino Theory rationales are mentioned as simplistic.
  • After placing a few thousand Americans in harm's way, it became politically easier to send hundreds of thousands over with the promise that, with enough numbers, they could protect themselves and that to abandon Vietnam now would mean the earlier investment in money and blood would be thrown away.

The book shows that the gradual escalation initially allowed the Johnson Administration to avoid negative publicity and criticism from Congress and avoid a direct war against the Chinese, but it also lessened the likelihood of either victory or withdrawal.

Origins of the title

The title may have come from a line by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his work "To Jane: The Invitation" (1822):

Best and brightest, come away!

Shelley's line may have originated from English bishop and hymn writer Reginald Heber in his 1811 work, "Hymns. Epiphany":

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid.

A still earlier, and more pertinent, use of the phrase is in the letter of Harper's Magazine, and that Mary McCarthy criticized him in a book review for incorrectly referencing the line in the Shelley poem. Halberstam claims he had no knowledge of that earlier use of the term found in the Heber hymn. Halberstam also observed regarding the "best and the brightest" phrase, that "...hymn or no, it went into the language, although it is often misused, failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended." In a 2001 interview, Halberstam claims that the title came from a line in an article he had written about the Kennedy Administration.

Individuals mentioned

The Americans

Presidents

Cabinet

Advisors

Military

Others

The Vietnamese

The Soviets

Further reading

  • Berthelsen, O. (1996). Review: The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Journal of Peace Research, 33(1): 120. (subscription required)
  • Brindley, T. A. (1974). Review: The Best and the Brightest. by David Halberstam. The Journal of Asian Studies. 33(2): 340-342. (subscription required)
  • Hendrickson, D. C. (1997). Review: The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Foreign Affairs, 76(5): 223. (subscription required)
  • Solberg, C. (1973). Review: The Best and the Brightest. by David Halberstam. Political Science Quarterly, 88(2): 276-277. (subscription required)
  • Warner, G. (1974). Review: The Best and the Brightest. by David Halberstam. International Affairs, 50(2): 338-340. (subscription required)
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