The Best and the Brightest

The Vietnam War had all the trappings of a Greek tragedy. America’s best and brightest picking up the French’s tab in a colonial war that ultimately marked the beginning of America’s decline, if not economically at least ideologically. In hindsight, we see the Vietnam War as one of the many conflicts in a series of failed foreign involvement leading us to modern day Afghanistan and Iraq. The specter of communism replaced by that of radical Islam for the lack of a better target to uphold American values of freedom and democracy against a backdrop of meaningless bloodshed, both theirs and ours.

Though “The Best and the Brightest” is far from David Halberstam’s work, having read “The Fifties”, it’s a competent and courageous work for a piece of its time, essentially exposing the foreign failings of the Kennedy administration and those that followed. The election of a bright, scholarly, and young president representing a new post-war America, John F. Kennedy, leading America with inexperienced yet head strong academics newly entrusted with America’s future. These bright young men would forsake wisdom for book-learning and rigorous quantitative analysis drawn from their success with World War II logistics and post-war economic success, essentially the art of “counting beans”.

Despite the academic camaraderie, their fundamental misunderstanding of the Vietnam situation and willingness to take over French foibles and in essence endorsing the repressive, colonial past in the name of fighting communism in Asia, lead to an endless web of underestimates and finally lies that put America at odds with itself.

It chronicles how otherwise brilliant men like Robert McNamara and decorated generals from World War II were faced with a different reality and a different kind of war where sheer scale and air strikes were essentially useless. It was a war fought without conviction against a strong native force, fighting for their independence with every fiber in their body.

One of the standouts of this book are the profiles of both the brilliant but misguided men who walked away from the Vietnam War broken, careers permanently crippled or their twilight years tarnished. Then there are the equally bright men of conscience, one line removed from the forefront of the boys club, who had their ears tuned to the grumbling that brewed beneath the surface in Asia. These were men who sacrificed their careers in vain against a silent wall of denial, the unsung heros and patriots.

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam