"You can't beat brains," John F. Kennedy liked to say. When picking his national security team, the dashing young president chose a crop of the finest minds around: a proudly tough-minded crew of self-avowed "hard-nosed realists" and World War II veterans whom David Halberstam immortalized as The Best and the Brightest. Kennedy's aides "carried with them an exciting sense of American elitism, a sense that the best men had been summoned forth from the country" to bring "a new, strong, dynamic spirit to our historic role in world affairs, not necessarily to bring the American dream to reality here at home, but to bring it to reality elsewhere in the world."
This was "heady stuff," Halberstam writes, and it came to grief. The term "best and brightest" has become an insult, not an accolade, thanks largely to Halberstam's magnificent, scabrous epic about the policymaking blunders that swept the United States into Vietnam. This classic work is part of the Vietnam canon, but it is not really about Vietnam; it is very much a Washington book, focused on the surety of the hawks stateside rather than the misery and warfare in Indochina.
Most accounts of insider decisionmaking have only a limited shelf life, but The Best and the Brightest continues to captivate. The first reason is that it is a brilliant piece of reporting and writing, propelled by a young man's fury and ambition. Halberstam was a fine war correspondent for the New York Times, and even though Vietnam itself is seen only fleetingly in the book's pages -- in visits by Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and others and in the cables of Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge -- its horrors were only too vivid in Halberstam's own memory.
The second reason is that Halberstam proved a masterly student of policy. He traces the making of the Vietnam quagmire meeting by meeting, memo by memo, power-play by power-play. He imbues the decision-making process with the gathering force of tragedy, from JFK's inaugural vow to "pay any price" to stem the communist tide, to the South Vietnamese army's 1963 coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, to Lyndon B. Johnson's fatal July 1965 decision to send massive numbers of U.S. ground troops to save Saigon from falling to Ho Chi Minh.
Third, Halberstam proved an expert at portraiture. (Indeed, the book began as a Harper's article bitterly entitled "The Very Expensive Education of McGeorge Bundy.") Its sketches -- of Bundy, McNamara, Taylor, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and especially LBJ -- are coruscating, gossipy and devastating.
The final reason for rereading The Best and the Brightest ought almost to go without saying: It's simply impossible to open the thing today and not hear the echoes of Iraq. To take just one example, when the State Department's George Ball warned JFK that Washington would soon have 300,000 troops in Vietnam, the president laughed and said, "George, you're crazier than hell." Or consider Walt W. Rostow, who made a short trip to Latin America during his stint at the State Department's Policy Planning office and returned to inform his startled colleagues that one could understand Latin Americans once one understood that they are, in fact, Asians. "Oh, for God's sake, Walt," someone replied, "why are you talking about something you know nothing about?" Maybe you can't beat brains, but brains can often defeat themselves.
So I hope you'll join David Halberstam and me online at www.washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Jan. 27, at 3 p.m. to discuss The Best and the Brightest. I also hope you'll join other Washington Post readers in person on Tuesday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m. in the Regency Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel (2500 Calvert Street, NW) for what promises to be a wonderfully stimulating evening: David Halberstam will discuss The Best and the Brightest, his writing and today's foreign policy challenges, in conversation with the Post's own former executive editor Ben Bradlee, himself also something of an expert on presidential hubris.