I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest for the first time in 40 years or more, and returning to it after all this time my primary response is that it has been somewhat overrated.
To be fair, Halberstam has an incredibly difficult task, because in order to pursue his main goal, which is to explain how it is that “the best and the brightest” of American society, the intellectual elite of the nation – highly educated, exceptionally intelligent, shrewdly perceptive – nevertheless managed to immerse us in a quagmire in Vietnam, he has to give us huge chunks of the history of Southeast Asia in the 20th century. He chose to to do this by introducing each chunk of history only when it appears to be necessary to the stage of the narrative that he is in. The relevant history gets doled out in bits and pieces – a little bit when we’re hearing about LBJ, a little bit when we’re told about the appointment of an ambassador, a little bit when we’re learning about the relevant figures in the State Department or the Department of Defense. We hear a lot about the French in Indochina and how that involvement shaped the later American involvement before we hear about the Communist takeover in China, which was the very event that made the U.S. so willing to intervene in Southeast Asia. This kind of historical mosaic can be an effective technique – it’s what Rebecca West does in what I have said many times is the best book of the twentieth century, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – but it is exceptionally difficult to pull off, and I don’t think Halberstam does it well at all. As I read I struggled to assemble all his little chunks of historical narrative into a coherent arc or structure.
There are also a good many errors, mostly minor. For instance, Halberstam writes of “the great English novelist Joyce Carey,” but his name is spelled Cary, he was born and mostly raised in Ireland and is therefore better described as Anglo-Irish, and I doubt anyone ever called him great. Another problem is repetition: we are twice told, in detail, the story of how General Maxwell Taylor was thought by the Kennedys to have resigned from the Eisenhower administration when in fact he retired at the end of his term.
This is a book whose thesis is strong, original, and highly significant, and whose weaknesses in exposition and development have therefore been perhaps too readily excused. I don’t totally quarrel with that perspective. The great strength of the book is the same as that of Breaking Bad: it shows how you can get from one moral condition to another radically different moral condition without ever planning or even wanting to go there. Halberstam is especially good at character sketches: he shows how people of vastly different personality types – Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, JFK himself – can nevertheless all be caught up, in their different ways, in a situation that seems to have its own momentum, a momentum that could only be arrested by people of exceptional self-awareness and even more exceptional courage and decisiveness.
That’s a lesson worth learning, though, of course, no one in politics ever learns it.