Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Best and The Brightest

Growing up in the sixties, my family was torn, like many other American families, over the Vietnam War. The conversations I had with my parents in 1965 about beating the Communists in Southeast Asia, were much different than those we had in 1970, when the war seemed endless and unwinnable. Though I was much too young to serve in Vietnam, had no family that went over, and lost no friends, it is still a painful memory. Vietnam poisoned everything: the Civil Rights movement, the Great Society, the nation's prosperity, and gave us two terms of Richard Nixon, Watergate, and the malaise of the 70's. I've avoided almost everything to do with the period. No books, no wargames, nothing-until now.

My mom gave me her slightly read copy of David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest." I'd considered reading it for many years. I was motivated by a couple of things. I teach American history, for god's sake, and I better know something to teach my kids. I also was interested in the decision-making process that led us into Vietnam, especially because it seemed similar to those decisions that led us into Iraq. It was worth my time to find out.

Any David Halberstam book is an investment in time. I haven't read all the Halberstam collection, but "The Powers That Be" and "The Coldest Winter" are two books I've given many hours to. They are long, the prose is dense, but not a word is wasted. Everything adds to the story Halberstam is telling. It took me most of a month, mostly reading at bed time to finish "The Best and the Brightest,' but I found what I was looking for.

Halberstam, in telling his story, takes us from the fall of China to the Communists to the tragedy of the Tet offensive and the Lyndon Johnson's subsequent withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race. Halberstam traces the purge of Far East experts from the State Department following the fall of China and the subsequent struggle for power between the civilian bureaucracy and the military to shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam after the French decamped from the region. During the Kennedy administration it was clear the South Vietnamese government, weak and torn apart by tribal loyalties, were losing their struggle with the Viet Cong. Those inside the administration faced whether the United States should provide more support than military advisors for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN.) Torn between the military's impulse to fight, the State Department's desire to negotiate and the CIA's assessment that the war was not winnable, Kennedy was unable to reach a decision to intervene by the time of his death in 1963. Johnson, working with many of the same folks, reached the decision to escalate American involvement in Vietnam in 1964.

It is clear the decision to escalate was fully examined and debated by Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as those at State, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and his undersecretary George Ball, as well as many others. Those in the field sent in reports offering a gloomy prospect for defeat, the weakness and corruption of the South Vietnamese government, and projected the response of the North Vietnamese if United States escalated its commitment to the conflict. Yet, Defense, notably Secretary McNamara and the Chiefs, constructed numbers to delude themselves the war was winnable despite the evidence and convinced President to go down the path to the quagmire, embrace the Indochinese tar baby, and plunged the country into conflict that could not be won.

The book is long; it is an incredible investment in time. Yet, Halberstam is so adept at drawing us into the the story and introducing us to the characters that led the nation to war. His portraits of the principal actors; MacGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, Averill Harriman, Lyndon Johnson; are three dimensional, provide some personal insight, and in most cases evoke sympathy for the actors as they develop their views, and stumble toward the waiting catastrophe.

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