February 12, 2005

Book Review: David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest

Halberstam's book (already discussed here and here) is a review of the political decisions that were made between about 1960 (when Kennedy takes office) and about 1965 (when the decisions were made to Americanize the war and increase troop strength to over 500,000) to involve America in Vietnam. The book does not end in 1965, but the narrative becomes more hurried after that point. The book was written in 1972 (before the final pull-out of American combat troops in 1972, and before the final fall of Saigon in 1975), but does not really suffer much from being written so close to the events described.

It is a very good book. Halberstam was originally a journalist (for the NYT, and won a Pulizter for his work reporting in Vietnam in the early 1960s), and his natural instincts are to talk about the people and the decisions they made (in terms of IR theory, this means that none of the state-level or international-level forces are discussed). He carefully writes biographies of all the major characters of the period. In a literary sense, this is the books greatest flaw, as the flowing narrative of the political story of America in Vietnam is broken by 5 to 20 page biographies of individuals at somewhat random points (i.e., the biographies are not always when a character first appears in the narrative, or when a character makes a fateful or important decision). If you can absorb that, then Halberstam tells a compelling story.

In condensed form, Kennedy got us into the war in the name of standing up to the Soviets (whom he had been badly rattled by at a meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna early in his term) and being resolutely anti-communist. As the war heated up, he began to have doubts and encouraged some members of his staff to see if the military was withholding accurate information (a precursor to perhaps getting America out of Vietnam). Then Kennedy was assasinated. Johnson moves in only 12 months before election, and immediately puts Vietnam on the back burner (make no news so I can win was what he told the military and national security people). After re-election, Johnson personalized the war into a Johnson-versus-Ho face off, and he refused to blink, so he continued to follow the general military recommendations to increase the tempo and force of the war (small bombing ---> large bombing ---> troops for protection of air bases ---> troops to hold areas near the coast to free up the South Vietnamese forces to fight the Viet Cong ---> American combat troops to go after the Viet Cong in large numbers) in an attempt to convince the North Vietnamese (who were fighting, to them, a civil war or war of national liberation) that we were more serious about winning than they were. All attempts by either the military or civilian bureaucracy to try and show that America was losing at every escalation step were squelched either by the military itself or by Johnson's staff (don't bring him bad news) or by Johnson's decision-making style. Hence, America's Vietnam war.

You have to buy Halberstam as objective to buy the story. And that's a somewhat tough nut to swallow. Halberstam is already on record (in newspapers and previous books) as saying that there are serious problems with Vietman. So he's not objective. Of course, history proved that America did make serious miscalculations on just about every political, economic, and miltary level over the course of the many years that this policy developed, so maybe Halberstam (who isn't objective) is right anyway. Certainly the story, logic and quotations are compelling evidence of a government bureaucracy gone horribly wrong.

What does this mean for our country's present actions in Iraq? Perversely, this book made me somewhat more optimistic. In the 1960s (according to Halberstam), the Congress and the People were systematically lied to, ignored, normal Constitutional checks-and-balances were shoved to the side, the Executive practiced active deception on Congress and the Press, and the military clearly had a political role to play (it wasn't a neutral judge of the strengths and weaknesses of Executive policies, but was an active advocate for some political policies over others). As a result of all of this, the country was led into a prolonged war that cost 55,000 lives over more than a decade. Yet, the United States made it out of Vietnam and learned lessons that supposedly would prevent something like this from happening again. In other words, we survived a horribly wrong set of policies. Thus, whatever happens in Iraq (the disaster many claim, or the slowly-improving conditions the administrations points to), the United States will likely (probably) manage to eventually disengage from Iraq without too much damage to us (it was a different story for the Vietnamese themselves, as it likely will be for the Iraqis).

There are two dark clouds in this somewhat optimistic view. First, the press. Halberstam is a supporter (not a shock), and clearly feels that the press did a very good job uncovering the deceptions of the Executive and feeding the growing public sentiment against the war. Today, the press seems more constrained and tame than 40 years ago. Fewer reporters exist to pry around for stories (as a result of the consolidation of the news corporations). Conditions on the ground in Iraq prevent reporters from themselves investigating how good or bad things really are there. The military itself "manages" the press differently (it is clear from Halberstam that its the Colonels and Majors in Vietnam who have enough of a big-picture to be able to see if the overall policy is a success or failure, not the Lieutenants down in the trenches; yet, for all the success of the embedded journalists in Iraq, they are mostly down with the Lieutenants - this makes for good photos and stories about brave soldiers, but doesn't really give the journalists a chance to tell whether things are goind well or not in the big picture in Iraq). Hence, the press seems more limited than it was, which makes it harder for the people to hear of deceptions and failures. But there still is a press, and it still does its job.

The real dark cloud is Congress. It is clear from Halberstam's narrative that, while Congress was Democratic for both Kennedy and Johnson, there were real political battles as Congress took its job seriously as a check and a balance on Executive power. Democratic Senators would call for investigations and give public speeches in the Senate condemning Johnson and his latest policies. You couldn't imagine that happening now. For all the power of the press, Congress has the authority (and, I would argue, the duty) to force the Executive to come clean about the real story and the real policy. Congress acted this way in Vietnam (a Democratic Congress took on a Democratic President), but I think is clearly avoiding it now in the name of Republican party unity. This is not a partisan issue: every American should be in favor of Congress doing its Constitutional duty and forcing the executive to explain itself. I'll be just as in favor of this when a Democrat makes it back into the White House as I am today. This is critical to making our democratic experiment work, and its right there in the Constitution.

One final note on the optimistic front. One of the most depressing aspects of todays debate on Iraq is the constant attack by pro-Adminstration people on the patriotism of the critics, the liberal-anti-administration bias of the press, and how any criticism of the war is tantamount to treason because if fails to "support the troops". That the resolute path the adminstration has choosen is correct, whether we see it today or not. It's an ongoing attempt to shape the dialog and suppress larger questions of the rightness of the overall goals in the policy. I worry that the longer it goes on, the harder and harder it is to have those real debates. However, it happened in Vietnam as well and while that war was longer the debate never died out, and in the end the policies were overturned. Thus, one can read this paragraph fairly optimistically today (pg. 655):

Nor had they, leaders of a democracy, bothered to involve the people of their country in the course they had chosen: they knew the right path and they knew how much could be revealed, step by step along the way. The had manipulated the public, the Congress and the press from the start, told half truths, about why we were going in, how deeply we were going in, how much we were spending, and how long we were in for. When their predictions turned out to be hopelessly inaccurate, and when the public and the Congress, annoyed at being manipulated, soured on the war, the the architects had been aggrieved. They had turned on those very symbols of the democratic society they had once manipulated, criticizing them for the lack of fiber, stamina and lack of belief. Why weren't the journalists more supportive? How could you make public policy with television cameras everywhere? The day after he withdrew from re-election in 1968 Lyndon Johnson flew to Chicago for a convention of broadcasters and he had placed the blame for the failure squarely on their shoulders, their fault being that the cameras had revealed just how empty it all was. A good war televises well; a bad war televises poorly. Maxwell Taylor was the key military figure in all the estimates, and his projections - that the war would be short, that the bombing would be a major asset - had proven to be false, but he had never adjusted his views to those failures; there was no sense of remorse, or concern on why they had failed to estimate correctly. Rather, even in his memoirs, the blame was placed on those elements of society which had undermined support for the war; when the book was finished, friends, looking at the galleys, cautioned him to tone down criticism of the press. What was singularly missing from all the memoirs of the period - save for a brief interview with Dean Rusk after the publications of the Pentagon Papers - was an iota of public admission that they had miscalculated. The faults, it seemed, were not theirs, the fault was this country which was not worthy of them. So they lost it all.

In the end, all the propaganda couldn't change the underlying reality of the wrong policy in the wrong place. I have hope that, if Iraq is the wrong policy in the wrong place, that the reality of that will eventually shine through, and the US will adjust the policy. With the Republicans controlling all three branches, and Congress prostrating itself in front of the Executive, all I have is hope. However, that's about the same position many people were in 40 years ago. I hope it doesn't take 10 years this time around.


Posted by baltar at February 12, 2005 12:40 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Books


Nice review.

Posted by: Armand at February 12, 2005 01:37 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks, I appreciate that. Has Halberstam written anything else I should read, or was this his high water mark?

Posted by: baltar at February 14, 2005 01:17 PM | PERMALINK

Well, he's written on all kinds of topics over the years (civil rights era, baseball), but in this vein War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals (it deals most heavily with the Balkans, but also covers things like Somalia) is really good. I assigned it in American Foreign Relations last summer, and my better students really loved it. It's got the same sort of biographical, choppy style that drives me to distraction at times, but (to me eyes) he uses that to better effect in this book. I recommend it.

Posted by: Armand at February 14, 2005 04:07 PM | PERMALINK
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