The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam:
The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam is an excellent, in-depth look at not only the major officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, but also the attitudes that got us into the Vietnam War. The Best and The Brightest is a book that anyone interested in military history or Cold War politics should read and is far better than his other book about the era, The Fifties. It will help you develop a better understanding of the political aspects of war, the effects of hubris on foreign policy, and why the Vietnam War happened.
Even better than that, it will give you a perspective on what life was like when Democrats loved America. Now, we do not know what that is like as Obama went around and apologized for America and spat on its founding ideals and Joe Biden acted corruptly to sell out America. But, back during the JFK administration, the president and the men in his cabinet loved America. They might have made a few bad policy decisions, especially if you look at those policies from a conservative viewpoint. However, I think it is indisputable that both parties once loved America. How amazing that must have been!
Summary of The Best and The Brightest:
Most military history or Cold War history books, such as Lost Victories and Bridge of Spies, focus on key events rather than key people. What is so special about The Best and The Brightest is that Halberstam does just the opposite. Instead of spending time focusing on the gory details of key battles in Vietnam, Halberstam describes how the outlook and upbringing of the American officials involved led to increased involvement in the war.
Halberstam describes many of the major administration officials and military commanders, such as McNamara, Maxwell Taylor, and Westmoreland in detail. In addition to describing their role in escalating American involvement in Vietnam, Halberstam spends time discussing their backstories.
The Best and The Brightest would not be a good book if Halberstam focused only on Vietnam. It would explain nothing and give no insight into what led to the Vietnam War. But, luckily for us, he doesn’t.
By focusing on what each of the administration officials had done before their service in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Halberstam is able to show how their outlooks affected their desire to send troops to Vietnam.
For example, at one point he describes them as “men that never failed.” They jumped from major success to major success, and their outlook was shaped by that. Because of that, they couldn’t comprehend that their Vietnam policies weren’t working. Furthermore, because they had been so much more successful than the average American, they felt no need to keep the average voter in the loop. That hubris led to the mistaken policies and government secrecy that the Vietnam War is now known for.
The Best and The Brightest is a hard book to summarize because it’s not organized like a traditional military history book. Instead, it reads more like a collection of short biographies paired with anecdotes and stories about how the men in those biographies shaped US policy. Despite its non-traditional organization, The Best and The Brightest does a great job of describing the attitudes that led to the Vietnam war and why the US got involved.
Analysis of The Best and The Brightest:
The Best and The Brightest is an interesting book, but certainly isn’t for everyone. If you have no interest in military history or Cold War history, then it probably isn’t for you.
However, if you are interested in those subjects, then you will love The Best and The Brightest. It is clearly and concisely written and does a great job of showing how the hubris of the period led to the tragic events in Vietnam.
Halberstam’s thesis is that the hubris of Kennedy, Johnson, and their advisers led to the Vietnam War. After reading The Best and The Brightest, I’m inclined to agree.
Furthermore, The Best and The Brightest is a great read because it ties in so well with other books I’ve read recently. For example, many of the same inflection points in American Cold War policy discussed in The Best and The Brightest are also mentioned in Bridge of Spies. Reading both books (or at least my reviews of them) is a great way to gain insight into the various aspects of US policy towards Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. Especially in the Kennedy Administration.
Additionally, one of the Kennedy-era advisers oft-mentioned in The Best and The Brightest is John Kenneth Galbraith. His book, The Affluent Society, which I reviewed this past spring, is what helped make him so influential.
Reading it is a great way to gain insight into the belief in Big Government and government action that defined the Kennedy/Johnson era described in The Best and The Brightest. Reading about Galbraith in The Best and The Brightest is a way to understand how Galbraith tried to get his policy prescriptions from The Affluent Society put into action.
On the other, more positive hand, one important thing to remember is that, however much you might disagree with their policies, such as the failed war on poverty, the JFK and LBJ Administrations loved America.
Yes, they might have implemented Big Government policies that we know to be ineffective and they might have put our young men in the hellish situations described in Phase Line Green, Stalking the Vietcong, and Blackjack-33 because both Kennedy and LBJ listened to advisers, such as Rusk and McNamara and got more and more involved in Vietnam. Those decisions were wrong and we should point that out so that we can learn from those lessons and avoid future endless wars.
But, unlike the modern Democrat administrations, namely the Obama Administration, the JFK and LBJ administrations loved America. They created the program that put a man on the moon, as described in Carrying the Fire, because they loved America and wanted to enhance its prestige. They sent our troops to Vietnam because they wanted to defend freedom abroad. When dealing with the Soviets, they made sure they had the full might of our military so that they were coming from a position of strength rather than weakness. Instead of apologizing for US actions, they went ahead with doing what they needed to.
I think it is important for conservatives to remember that fact, the fact that JFK loved America and hired men who loved America. We can disagree with him all we want; his lifestyle decisions were, at times, immoral, and some of his policy decisions were not the best. But, unlike Obama and Biden, he loved America and wanted to create policies that would benefit America. The current Democrats refuse to push for pro-America policies such as those.
That is important to remember because it can help contextualize the current political discussion. Republicans are not racist or jingoistic nationalists. We just view America as both parties once did; a global force for good that we should fight to protect. Democrats, on the other hand, have drifted wildly from the view of JFK, which was similar to the modern Republican viewpoint. Instead of loving America, as JFK and his party once did, modern Democrats are Marxists that hate the nation. They want to erase its history, refuse to defend it on the world stage, and call anyone who defends it an evil racist.
That is absurd. Democrats can love America. JFK did. Dean Rusk did. The other men in The Best and The Brightest did. That is why they did so much and sacrificed so much; many of them lost out on the opportunity to make millions as CEOs because of their decision to accept cabinet appointments. But to them, that sacrifice was worth it because it meant they would have an opportunity to further the country’s interests. Does that remind you of any administration today? Perhaps the Trump Administration, where a billionaire gave up his business to work for free as president and many of his advisors sacrificed their financial well-being to serve the United States?
The fact is, both parties used to love America and its ideals and were willing to sacrifice for both the nation and its ideals. Now, only Republicans do. Democrats, on the other hand, try to profit from it.
The reason I bring that up is that Republicans need to demand that Democrats rediscover their love for America. We cannot survive as a nation if half of the nation hates our Founding ideals and national character, as Democrats now do. But, instead of demanding that they be like us, which will never work because they hate us just as much as they hate America, we should just tell them to look at their past party icon, JFK, who was a widely loved president. He loved America, why can they not?
So, in summary to my analysis, I found The Best and The Brightest to be such a terrific book not only because of its content and Halberstam’s insightfulness into the hubris of the era, but also because it ties in well with other books to provide a holistic view of that era and the major actors in it. Furthermore, it shows how Democrats once loved American and what the model of Democrat patriotism is that Republicans and moderates should demand. The men in The Best and The Brightest might have not created the most effective policies. But, whatever they did, they did it because they loved America.
It might seem like I say this with most every book I review, but I really enjoyed reading The Best and The Brightest and would highly recommend that you check it out. While it is at times a bit dense and unorthodox in structure, it is overall a terrific book.
Why? Well, in addition to the previously described positive attributes, it serves as an excellent warning against technocracy and Big Government.
The “Dream Team” assembled by Kennedy and described by Halberstam was one of the best groups of high-level advisers that an American president has had. Yet it still failed to properly manage a war against a third-world state. And that “Dream Team’s” programs and policies ended up causing domestic strife not unlike what we currently see with Antifa, a national debt spurred by irresponsible spending, and skyrocketing inflation. The Best and The Brightest shows that technocracy doesn’t work. Support the free market and limited government instead.