Look Back at Book Of A Lifetime: The Best and the Brightest

February 5, 2017

Look Back at Book Of A Lifetime: The Best and the Brightest, By David Halberstam

by Liaquat Ahamed


Image result for david halberstam the best and the brightest

After college in England, I arrived in the US in the autumn of 1974 to go to graduate school. The war in Vietnam was no longer a bitter political issue on campuses. A few months after I arrived in the US, Saigon fell to the communists. I was not especially politically engaged.

Nevertheless, with the media full of graphic images of desperate Vietnamese scrambling to climb over the wall surrounding the US embassy and of marines dumping helicopters into the sea lest they fall into communist hands, one could not help talking about Vietnam. To understand these events, a friend recommended I read David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest, published a couple of years before to great acclaim. The book was a 700-page study of how the US came to be mired in the disastrous war in Vietnam.

It sounds unspeakably dull and ponderous; it was not. I found I could not put the book down. It had all the ingredients of a great novel: a tragic plot of almost Shakespearean proportions, a fascinating cast of characters, and some wonderful writing.

Image result for david halberstam the best and the brightest

The book is the story of the generation who arrived in Washington in 1960 with the Kennedy administration, one of the most talented groups to have held the levers of power in the country’s history: the best and the brightest. It describes how this band of men, for all their brilliance and idealism, led the country into the most disastrous war in its history out of a combination of arrogance and hubris.

Though The Best and the Brightest is ostensibly about policy, it is mostly about people. Halberstam had a storyteller’s talent for capturing people. He had a reporter’s eye for the little details, those vignettes, which transform a story and make it come alive. What better way, for example, to contrast the lethargy of the Eisenhower years with the energy of the Kennedy White House than to tell us that while the Eisenhower people played golf, the young men around Kennedy played squash to keep themselves fit. Halberstam had spent years covering the Vietnam conflict on the ground. He wrote like the war correspondent he was, in concrete, muscular prose. And yet the final result was much more than the story of the war; it was a history of almost epic sweep that managed to define a tumultuous era in the life of the country.

Image result for david halberstam the best and the brightest

In the intervening years, I have re-read the book a couple of times. I still find myself dazzled by the way Halberstam was able to weave together the various strands – the events, the people, the policy debates – into such a compelling narrative. My one regret is that I never got a chance to meet Halberstam himself (he died almost three years ago) to tell him how much his book had meant to me.

Liaquat Ahamed’s ‘Lords of Finance’ (Windmill Books) won the FT/ Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award


9 thoughts on “Look Back at Book Of A Lifetime: The Best and the Brightest

  1. It is one of the best books written on the Kennedy Administration. After reading it thrice, I remain amazed at how a group of brilliant minds could be so wrong to be involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion. –Din Merican

  2. Quote:- “….amazed at how a group of brilliant minds could be so wrong to be involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion….”

    This catch phrase, “The Best and the Brightest”, has gone down into the literary collective consciousness of a couple of generations of peoples around the World as a kind of immutable gold standard by which peoples, countries are measured, praised and condemned.

    In my humble opinion this phrase has done more harm than good which led to thinking like “…how a group of brilliant minds could be so wrong….” because it fallaciously generates the idea that brilliant minds can’t be wrong or mistaken. Why not? Human minds however brilliant are not perfect or infallible. In fact the more brilliant a mind is the more it is prone to systemic failure because brilliant minds also tend to be intellectually arrogant, and if the brilliant mind happens to belong to someone from the most powerful country in the World, it suffers from self-delusions as well, ala Donald Trump.

  3. There are best and bright minds in the finance sector. But some, if not, most of them are leeches who play around with other peoples’ money, bleed them dry and enrich themselves.

    High talent in politics is less of a liability. There is a spectrum of variations in political leadership – some horrible (Pol Pot), some bad (Mugabe), some nice (Tunku, Mandela, Manmohan Singh) and some exceptional (Lee Kuan Yew).

    It puzzles me why the US got dragged into Vietnam War and for such an extended period (1955-1975) that brought devastation and destruction and took so much of human lives (US casualties alone was some 210,000, 60,000 deaths and 150,000 wounded). Perhaps too many bright minds might have led to this disastrous outcome.

    A simple uncluttered minded leader, possibly, would have finished the job better. Nuking the country with a low yield bomb might have brought a quick closure to the war. The threat of Russia (USSR then) intervening was to be discounted as there was no direct threat to the country. The war was taking place too far away from its border. When its closet ally Cuba was constructing facilities to deploy Soviet nuclear intermediate ballistic missiles on its soil, the US responded with a blockade of the country (1962) and warning of an attack, should the facilities were not immediately dismantled. Cuba complied and Russia turned tail as it didn’t want to risk a nuclear war with America. China would not have dared to take on the US alone in Vietnam without the backing of the Russians. So a negotiated settlement was the best option and that’s how Vietnam War ended.

    • Cuban missile crisis ? The USA also quietly conceded by removing its missiles that had been placed earlier in Turkey and aimed at the USSR.

      The “fallout” (pun intended) was that Khruschev was removed by his peers from power, and the US and USSR subsequently negotiated treaties that lessened the threat of nuclear war.

      “Khruschev Remembers” is an interesting set of memoirs written by the shoe-banging man đŸ™‚ himself.

  4. One of the best books I have read on the Vietnam War and why Vietnamese peasants in the south fought fiercely against the South Vietnamese regime and its American backers is “War Comes to Long An”. Long An is a province in the Mekong delta region.

    The author concludes that they were primarily motivated by the exploitative landlord problem they were enduring and by Vietnamese nationalism. The peasants’ understanding of the ideology of Communism (Marxism-Leninism) was poor.

  5. Yes you are right PKL. But the opening gambit was “dismantle the launchers in Cuba” first and the rest fell in place thereafter.

  6. I normally don’t like to talk about the Vietnam War. I was a young lieutenant assigned to the infantry as a section leader commanding a group of 18 soldiers. We were given a gun and told to defend democracy. But the very minute I set foot on Quang Tri in Vietnam I knew we were going to lose the war because the morale was low.

    I befriended a young Vietnamese girl who came to our barrack to collect our uniforms for cleaning in her father’s laundry shop. I dated her a few times and can never forget what she once asked me: Why was I there to help white men to kill our own yellow people. I could not answer her. I guess that’s how many common Vietnamese saw the war then, not about democracy and communism.

    You put your life on the line to earn the right to be an American. Our mutual friend Semper Fi too was in the marines. I got your message, but American politicians do not understand that America cannot be the Policeman of the World. The lessons of Vietnam is lost on them. That is why America is in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Syria,and Libya.–Din Merican.

    • After WW2 American empire displaced British empire. By 2-3 decades time it was American hegemony almost all over the globe. The Russians didn’t have much except their communist ideology and military hardware. In terms of economic vested interests beyond their borders, they didn’t have much to protect or fight for. But for the Americans it was the reverse. Wherever their interests (economic or strategic) were threatened and challenged, they went into those specific countries to impose their will with both soft and hard power. That is the reason why one finds their footprints everywhere.

  7. Reading LaMoy’s post is why I like hanging out here. It is also revealing as to why his involvement in protest movements is beyond just anxiety that Trump evokes in people.

    I truly believe that Trump does not care about the United States and it is up to people like Lamoy, who do, to change the path he and his coven want the country to be on.

    It is of course sad that this charlatan has managed to fool so many otherwise intelligent people.

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