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Washington Post Book Club: The Best and the Brightest

November Post Book Club Selection

David Halberstam and Warren Bass
Author and Washington Post Book World Staff
Thursday, January 27, 2005; 3:00 PM

This month, Book World's Warren Bass and author David Halberstam discussed Halberstam's classic "The Best and the Brightest," his angry epic about the JFK and LBJ advisers whose hubris led America into the Vietnam quagmire.

Halberstam and Bass were online Thursday, Jan. 27, at 3 p.m. ET.

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Halberstam is the author of a number of books, including "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning," "Summer of '49," "Playing for Keeps," and "War in a Time of Peace."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Warren Bass: Thanks for joining us, all.

I'm Warren Bass, the nonfiction editor of the Washington Post's Book World section. It's a real treat to be (virtually) here with David Halberstam, whom the Post once described as "the journalist as samurai."

He needs no real introduction, so I won't trouble you with one--except to say that he's one of America's preeminent journalists and authors, that he won the Pulitzer in 1964 for his Vietnam reporting (at the ripe old age of 30), that his war reporting so irked President Kennedy that JFK asked the Times to transfer him somewhere nice and tranquil, and that he's written a staggering 19 books, the last 14 of which have been bestsellers.

Perhaps his most famous one, though, is still "The Best and the Brightest," his angry 1972 epic about the hubris of the JFK and LBJ advisers who led the United States into the Vietnam quagmire.

David was with us and about 1,500 Post readers on Tuesday night in DC to discuss "The Best and the Brightest" with our former executive editor, the inimitable Ben Bradlee. We're delighted that he's also agreed to be with us online. I'll largely leave it to him, but I'll be around to pitch in occasionally and to field questions about the Post's nonfiction book coverage.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Halberstam, isn't it true that when you were a young New York Times reporter in Vietnam, you too supported the war, and were critical of the U.S. government's tactics, but not its strategy? In other words, like Bundy, McNamara and the others, weren't you also a true believer who thought the war could be won if only the right methods were used to fight it?

When and how did you revise your views?

David Halberstam: I started out with generallly conventional views formed by containment in Europe and the influential books on me were Orwell and Milosz and Kessler and the sense that the flow of refugees was east to west. Vietnam fell slowly and systematically changed me in the beginning because it didn't work and then trying to find out why it didn't work and tracing it back to the French-Indochina War. I think it's a mistake to link me with the architects of the war because by '64, like many of my colleagues, I was becoming increasingly critical and thought that while we probably owed the South Vietnamese one last chance to make a go of it, I was wary of any large combat commitment. The phrase that stuck with me was that of Bernard Fall that we were walking in the same footsteps as the French although dreaming different dreams.


Griffith, Ind.: I recently watched the documentary about, and with, R. McNamara in which he made a statement to the effect that if JFK had lived we wouldn't have gotten into VietNam. That seems to me to be a bit of an assinine statement in that McNamara et al. were JFK advisors and JFK had the same pressures and concerns re conflict with China.
I'd like the assessment of a more objective opinion.

David Halberstam: Well I wouldn't trust anything Mr. McNamara says because he was again and again the most egregious of the liars produced by Vietnam. He has zero credibility with me because it was not within him to tell the truth and because he was a driving force for the escalation. I do think, however, that there was a difference between the way John Kennedy saw the war and Lyndon Johnson saw the war. I think Kenndy going back to when he was a congressman and spoke against the French there, had a more profound sense of the importance of the nationalism and of the importance of the colonial past.

Johnson, by contrast, saw it in more simplistic communist vs. anti-communist terms. Though they were roughly the same age it seemed as if there was a considerable generational difference between them on something like this.

My own feeling was that Kennedy was trying with the advisory and support mission to support South Vietnam without making the fateful decision to go to combat troops and make it an American war. And I also believe that he intended to try and keep Vietnam on the back burner in '64,
run against Goldwater, win handily and then make the final decision on Vietnam. I always thought he was too cool and skeptical an Irish-American politician to waste his precious second term in the rice paddies of Indo-China. But it should be noted that he greatly increased the number of Americans serving there from, I believe, roughly 600-20,000, escalated the rhetoric and gave us the can-do team of architects including Mr. McNamara who turned it into an American war.


Warren Bass: I think David is very much right about JFK and nationalism. His most famous speech as a senator was a 1957 one warning the French they were going to have to get out of Algeria. As president, he tried to reach out to a range of Third World leaders like Sukarno in Indonesia, Nasser in Egypt, and Nehru in India. It didn't always work, but JFK very much resisted the notion that Washington should just ally itself with the forces of reaction and let Moscow pocket all the interesting young nationalists.


Lenexa, Kan.: In December 1964 (bomb or don't bomb, escalate or don't escalate), you quote LBJ as saying "If we get into this war I know what's going to happen. Those damn conservatives are going to sit in congress and they're going to use this war as a way of opposing my Great Society legislation."

How about the flip side today? Do you see any hope our "liberals" will rally and use Bush's own "tar baby" war to save the Great Society programs? Also, ever think seriously of writing the flip side of "The Best and the Brightest?" I can guarantee one immediate sale out here in the Heartland. Thank you.

David Halberstam: Well, I am pondering doing a smaller book on Iraq when my current book on the Korean War is done, but I'm not sure yet that I'll do it.

As for opposition to the Iraqi war, right now the Democrats are a fairly fragmented opposition and they're on the defensive but as I suspect the news from Iraq continues to be bad and the country turns away from the war and it becomes less and less a supportable war with the majority of the American people, I think the pressure on other Republicans will be very interesting to watch. There's a real danger here right now of something that happened during the Vietnam War which is an administration being more and more caught up in what it believes are its own truths but which many, many others increasingly see as self-deceptions. When that happens the administration often becomes, as happened with the Johnson administration, more and more isolated and it begins to see those who wish it well but dissent from it on this issue, not as friendly but reluctant critics but as sworn enemies.

It's my own belief that some of that process of isolation has already begun and I am made very uneasy by what seems to be a process to politicize the intelligence agencies so they will be able to give those in power the intelligence that they want rather than the reality that exists.


Fredericksburg, Va.: Sir,

Your book paints a picture of pro-interventionist U.S. officials pushing faulty analyses and suppressing contrarian assessments. This bears resemblance to the debate over U.S. intervention in Iraq, from 2002 to present. If you agree with this assertion, what do you think are the reasons that the development of policy on Iraq closely mirrored the development of policy in the 1960s? Do you think the nation has internalized any of the lessons of "The Best and the Brightest?"

Thank you.

David Halberstam: Well I thought for a long time we were involuntarily tempered by battlefield defeat in Vietnam and that we were being careful not to repeat those mistakes. I think it's important to note that in Gulf War I, the first President Bush did not get caught in a political war but used American forces skillfully in the field as in an old border crossing war, using our power therefore in a way that it was applicable. And he was very careful not to get caught in urban guerrilla fighting inside Baghdad.

I think there's been a dramatic change with the second President Bush and that his team of advisers is significantly more ideological than the first Bush team of Baker, Scowcroft, Eagleburger and Powell with only Cheney as a major ideological figure with his ideology somewhat suppressed. In a way, that administration has more continuity with the administrations that preceded it including Democrat administrations than the administration of Bush II.

The critical difference here seems to be what happened on September 11 and the added leverage it gave for action in Iraq that otherwise could not have been taken. Something that the neoconservatives in the administration immediately seized on and maximized.


Warren Bass: If not McGeorge Bundy-esque hubris, did you see other forms of folly in the Clinton administration's decision-making about the use (or non-use) of force in the 1990s, especially about Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo?


David Halberstam: When the Clinton administration came in it was in no way up to speed in matters of foreign policy for a variety of reasons. First, the president himself had run as a critic of foreign policy, criticizing President Bush for being more concerned about the Middle East than the middle west. Secondly, the Democrats had been out of power for 20 of the preceding 24 years and thus they had not developed their own foreign policy people. They had them by the end of the administration but not at the beginning. Third, there was still a deep cleavage within the party between the dove wing which was critical of the war in Vietnam and the harder line Democrats, whether they were the Scoop Jackson Democrats or the old Lyndon Johnson loyalists. As such there was a certain schizophrenia to the party. And finally, in areas of national security there was a vulnerability in dealing with the military because of the president's own personal handling of the draft. He was quite defensive on that issue. You add to that the damage done when an existing program to Somalia blew up it made the Democrats even more defensive. News footage clips from Mogadishu on CNN were devastating to Clinton as they might not have been for a republican president.


Arlington, Va.: Have you had the opportunity to speak with some of those you profiled in "The Best and The Brightest" about how they were portrayed and how accurately you captured both their personalities and their actions during the Vietnam War?

David Halberstam: I never became close to many of them and we did not break bread together or shared salt but I think it was the general assumption of many of their close friends speaking to me covertly that I had gotten them right. I've never heard anybody who knew them say that I got them wrong. I think there's a general consensus that those protraits were accurate.

If a writer gets a portrait of someone wrong, he'll be the loser because the truth will eventually out. You can't do a portrait of Lyndon Johnson with all those extraordinary contradictions and get it wrong because somehow the larger truth will emerge. Comparably, if I do a portrait of McNamara as a man of certitudes, intellectual arrogance who was disrespectful of the uniform military and was not wise and by contrast he was warm and tolerant of subordinates with whom he disagreed. If I had a portrait of him that made him too confident of his own truths, too sure of what technology could do in Vietnam and too quick to run roughshod over uniform military subordinates who disagreed with him and it turned out that the reverse was true, then it would be the writer whose credibility would suffer. But instead, what I wrote has validity because so many people who had to deal with him felt that we rode roughshod over them.


Annapolis, Md.: Last night's discussion was so interesting -- wondering if now with instant and constant news, can there/is there now a system that allows journalists to investigate as you, Woodward, and Bernstein did? Or is the system limited to reporting what just happened, not why it happened?

David Halberstam: It's a very good question because one of the problems of the coming of modern super technology is that journalism has become too instantaneous. It's all too fast and there's less emphasis on a crucial part of it which is the verification process. I do think there's all kinds of very good journalism being done, whether it's in The Post or The Times and young reporters are doing a very good job of trying to find out why things happen but in so many of our other media outlets more than ever there is a pressure to be first, a lack of reflection and a danger of a lack of verification because of the ferocious force of modern technology. Whether from the Internet or from the satellite as shown on modern new television channels like CNN.


Rockville, Md.: You said during your talk Tuesday night at the Omni Shoreham that events of the late 60s and early 70s had signifcantly changed the way journalism is practiced in this country. Do you think these same changes would have taken place had there not been a Vietnam War nor a Watergate scandal?

David Halberstam: We became a media society in the '60s and '70s because of the rising importance of television news and that even applied to print because a print reporter would have what he or she did in The New York Times or The Washington Post amplified before a huge national audience of many millions on CBS or NBC or ABC News and that process speeded up and television news seemed to become more important going from 15 to 30-minute news shows in 1962 with the coming of color and then with the coming of the satellite.

At the same time a second thing was happening which was because of Vietnam there was an increasing skepticism of what the government said about the most important issue of the time which was a war in southeast Asia and that was followed in time by Watergate which, in effect, completed the circle. Since then it's changed dramatically again driven by technology with the fragmentation of the media caused by the coming of cable which diminished the power of the three traditional networks and then the coming of the Internet which is changing how people communicate, talk to each other, read and send messages.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Halberstam, I attended your discussion of The Best and the Brightest at the Omni Shoreham on Tuesday. It was most interesting. Here's my question: Your portrait of Robert MacNamara in The Best and the Brightest, shows him to have an unshakeable faith in quantitative methods. This, I suppose, was one of the reasons "body counts" (of dead Viet Cong) were used as an indicator that we were "winning" the fighting in Vietnam. These statistics were easily manipulable by army careerists trying to advance. My question is: Has the U.S. government ever really gotten away from this macabre practice? It was a false indicator of "winning" in Vietnam. Is it any more true now? In Iraq? In the global war on terror? Will government officials always cite such numbers to create the impression we are prevailing in a conflict? Thanks for your reply, and I really look forward to reading your next book on the Korean War.

David Halberstam: I don't think they're using body counts in Iraq in the same way. I don't think the measure of success such as it is is the same. What you suggest, however, in your question, is quite right. As soon as the military learned that McNamara wanted quantification of everything and as it was obvious that this, unlike WW II or Korea, was not a war where you gained and held terrain and therefore you badly needed some indicator of success, the military readily gave McNamara what he wanted which was the "body count."

Because what's going on in Baghdad is so different and because so far it is largely an urban guerrilla war, I don't have a sense of the numbers game as played in Vietnam. The other thing you have to remember is that it is not a good idea in a country like Iraq in the Islamic world where we are trying to win some degree of indigenous sympathy for our policy, to boast at the end of the day how many Iraqis we've killed.


Arlington, Va.: Thirty years on, the people of Vietnam remain subject to an authoritarian government, impoverished and politically repressed. By contrast, South Korea is enjoying unprecedented political freedom and economic prosperity. While the Vietnam War may have been damaging to the US for a number of reasons, a case can certainly be made that our decision to abandon the war was a disaster for the people of South Vietnam, denying them any opportunity to evolve toward the sort of success that the South Koreans have managed. Do you ever reflect upon what the anti-war movement meant for the people of Vietnam? Do you feel any sense of regret or responsibility toward them?

David Halberstam: I think everybody who went there would've wanted a Vietnam with a maximum amout of personal freedom. It's not the way it worked out and that goes back to the very beginning of the French war. When the French decided to reimpose their colonial order and the only way the local people could succeed was by combining nationalism with communism, what's interesting about Ho in the early days is the country he turned to for help was the United States and the document that he believed in was the Declaration of Independence but we gave him no support. In fact, for the last four years of the French-Indo-China war we supported and financed the French becoming the major financial backer. Out of that came a dynamic that allowed Hanoi and Viet Cong to win but to run the country in a regressive totalitarian manner. It's a great irony a system that worked exceptionally well when they were at war works terribly once they've succeeded in winning.

But I wouldn't blame what exists on the antiwar movement. I think it goes much much further back than that.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: An anti-war journalism major at college, then Vietnam era draftee and veteran -- I finally read "The Best and the Brightest" in late 2003. I'm in my 50s.

In the movies, George Ball is played as the thoughtful, angry, go-against-the-herd guy in a room full of gods and generals. I can't recall how you described him exactly. I know he died in the 1990s.

Is this who and what he was? If so, how did he manage to survive the Johnson junta?

And where are the George Balls in the present administration?

"Good words to you." (John Ciardi's sign-off)

Thanks much.

David Halberstam: George Ball was the number two man in the State Department in the Johnson years. He had been a lawyer in France durin the first part of the Indo-China War when the French were fighting the Vietnamese and losing. And it made him very wary of American intervention there and as such, he made a strong case against sending combat troops. It was a lonely business; he believed that Johnson was listening to him and taking him seriously but in the end, the forces for escalation were too strong.

To the degree that there was a dissenter within the Bush circle on Iraq at comparable moments, I believe it was general and then secretary Powell but in the end the forces aligned against him were, for a variety of reasons, too strong.

The question now as the Bush team head to its second term and seems to be more a group of true believers is whether anyone with a differing reality can penetrate their sertitudes.


Warren Bass: This has been terrific—many thanks for being with us, David, and best of luck on book #20.


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