Book Review—"The Best and the Brightest"—An Entertaining and Tragic Tale

It was a glittering array of talent. Vice president Lyndon Johnson was deeply impressed. After attending his first Cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor, Senator Sam Rayburn, and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next, and that the smartest of them all was “that fellow with the Stacomb hair from the Ford Motor Company” (Robert McNamara). They were mostly young men, in their late thirties and early forties, extremely confident in their own abilities, highly-educated, and well-spoken. “Well, Lyndon,” said Rayburn, “you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” This was, of course the Cabinet hand-picked by President John F. Kennedy, men who reflected his coolly rational style; correct, confident, not one of them with a flabby belly, or less than impeccably dressed; from the best eastern schools, and with all the right social connections. The only one who looked out of placed was, well, Lyndon Johnson, in his off-the-rack Sears and Roebuck suit.

For David Halberstam, the author of “The Best and the Brightest,” this is his favorite story in the book, for “it underlines the weakness of the Kennedy team, the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between abstract quickness and verbal facility which they exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won and often bitter experience.”

These are the people who led the United States into its disastrous war with North Vietnam, a group of highly-intelligent men who lacked the common sense to get out of the rain. None of them had ever experienced failure or been forced to admit they were wrong. Two of the very brightest—and most arrogant—were the two Macs: Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy. As Secretary of Defense, and Kennedy's National Security Advisor, respectively, they also were (unfortunately for the Nation) the most influential with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

McNamara, the master statistician who supplied President Johnson with endless reams of statistics showing America was winning the war, based all of his data on assumptions that were inherently wrong. Indeed, information that conflicted with his core beliefs or with his assumptions, he simply ignored. Two examples (1) strategic bombing: after World War II, the "U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey" conducted by the government proved conclusively that the strategic bombing of Germany had not worked; on the contrary, it had intensified the will of the German population to resist (which is exactly what happened in North Vietnam, binding the population to the Hanoi regime), and (2) the graduated pressure McNamara favored didn't work either.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff organized a war game (called SIGMA I-64) to test McNamara's assumption that graduated pressure on North Vietnam would turn the tide. In fact, it showed the opposite was true. No matter how the game was played, or who the players were, the outcome always favored North Vietnam. McNamara was given these results but refused to believe them. His fact-finding missions to Vietnam were anything but. They were highly-scripted trips in which the decisions about how the war was proceeding had already been decided.

As Halberstam points out, McNamara never actually journeyed into the field to see for himself what was taking place on the battlefields, nor did he query soldiers who were actually doing the fighting. His mind was made up before he departed Washington. Meanwhile he blithely collected data of enemy killed as an indicator that the war was being won, this is a country of 30 million people.

McGeorge Bundy was equally blind. Writes Halberstam: “In early March of 1965, Emmet Hughes, a former White House aid under Eisenhower, a man who had always been at loggerheads with John Foster Dulles (Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense), and who was now terrified that the Johnson Administration was taking a course in Southeast Asia that Dulles had wanted and Ike had avoided, went to see Mac Bundy, an old friend. Hughes was worried about how much control there was, and he would find little reassurance at the White House. He talked for some time with Bundy, and his questions clearly reflected the enormity of his doubts. ‘We’re just not as pessimistic as you are,’ Bundy told him. But what, Hughes asked, if the North Vietnamese retaliated by matching the American air escalation, with their own ground escalation? Hughes would long remember the answer and the cool smile: ‘We just don’t think that’s going to happen.’ Just suppose it does happen? Hughes persisted, just make an assumption of the worst thing that could happen. ‘We can’t assume what we don’t believe,’ Bundy answered.”

Halberstam’s book is well written and I would also say highly entertaining if the subject weren’t so terribly tragic.


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