February 5, 2017
Look Back at Book Of A Lifetime: The Best and the Brightest, By David Halberstam
by Liaquat Ahamed
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.
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.
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