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Second Glance: Halberstam’s Vietnam and The Anxiety of Power

In 2009, soon after becoming president, Barack Obama found himself under pressure to define his strategy for Afghanistan. As a candidate, Obama had accused George W. Bush of neglecting the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan for a “war of choice” in Iraq. Once in office, with little choice but to live up to his tough campaign rhetoric, Obama began an agonizing, months-long policy review. As he debated his options with his civilian advisers and his generals, they turned for guidance to the history of the Vietnam War. Obama and his White House staff were said to be passing around Lessons in Disaster, a book based on the recollections of McGeorge Bundy, who was the national security adviser to both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Meanwhile, the generals were reading Lewis Sorley’s A Better War, a revisionist history arguing that Vietnam was a war that could have been won if not for faltering support at home.

Obama came up with an awkward compromise to the Afghan dilemma. He would escalate the war with a “surge” modeled on the one which had seemingly pacified Iraq for Bush. But Obama set a built-in expiration date for his surge—it would last just a year and a half. Clearly he was determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of Kennedy and Johnson, who lost control of their war by making open-ended commitments. Yet by opting for even a limited escalation of an intractable war in Asia, hoping to prove his own toughness, he followed their dangerous example—and now has little to show for it.

Unfortunately neither Obama nor his advisers seem to have thought of reading the book most relevant to his dilemma, the classic journalistic account of how Kennedy and Johnson took America into the quagmire of Vietnam: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. Now, on its 40th anniversary, The Best and the Brightest should still be read by presidents and anyone else concerned with the propensity of the United States to lurch into disastrous and drawn-out wars. Halberstam’s book is not only a saga of the stifled debates, bad advice and politicized decisions that led Kennedy and Johnson deeper into the war despite their own misgivings, but also a broader Cold War history that traces the roots of Vietnam to the poisonous domestic politics of the McCarthy era. And it brings the era to life with vivid biographical sketches of the main players, a gallery of novelistic portraits to rival those of the World War I era that John Dos Passos set within his great U.S.A. trilogy.

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the Republicans had blamed the Truman administration for “losing China” to Communism, a charge that tarred with weakness the Democratic Establishment that had led the United States to victory in World War II and built the foundations of a new world order of American primacy. The Democrats’ response was to try to prove that they were even tougher anti-communists than the Republicans; this was especially true of both Kennedy and Johnson. Halberstam’s key insight is that these political battles hardened the US approach to the Cold War into a rigid ideological crusade, particularly in Asia, where a more flexible and prudent policy, better attuned to the realities of the region, might have avoided the tragedy of Vietnam. Instead, he writes,

the China issue…and the coming of the Korean War, would legitimize the fringe viewpoints, would limit rational discussion and rational political activity. China would help freeze American policy toward Communism. A kind of demonology about a vast part of the world would become enshrined as accepted gospel. One major political party would be too frightened to challenge it, the other delighted to reap the benefits of it. All of this would affect Indochina.

Halberstam makes the related point that the false assumptions of the old American foreign policy Establishment were also responsible for this inability to grasp the actual situation in Vietnam. Even as it worked effectively to rebuild Western Europe after World War II, this Establishment had failed to adjust to postwar reality in the rest of the world, unable to come to terms with the new anticolonial forces that were revolting against the enfeebled remnants of European empires. (There was one major exception to this rule, noted by Halberstam: Franklin D. Roosevelt, “a man before his time,” held strong anticolonial views and in particular had expressed his intent of freeing Indochina from French rule and placing it under some form of trusteeship leading to independence. But he was “an overburdened, exhausted man who was preoccupied with too many decisions of greater immediacy,” and died before he could impose his views on his own “Europeanist” State Department.)

The foreign policy Establishment, Halberstam says, was an inbred class, aloof from the nation it purported to serve: its members mostly “came from the great banking houses and law firms of New York and Boston,” and they were “men linked more to one another, their schools, their own social class and their own concerns than they were linked to the country.” His prime example of this special breed, “the brightest light in that glittering constellation” around Kennedy, is McGeorge Bundy, a product of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy whose father was a high-ranking aide to Henry Stimson, the Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt’s Secretary of War during World War II. Elevated by his connections and intelligence, Bundy had become the dean of Harvard at the age of 34, though he lacked a graduate degree. In government, “He was bright and he was quick, but even this bothered people around him. They seemed to sense a lack of reflection, a lack of depth, a tendency to look at things tactically, functionally and operationally rather than intellectually…”

But the figure of the Kennedy-Johnson era who would be most closely associated with the war represented another side of American elitism, one based on meritocracy rather than aristocracy: “the can-do man in the can-do society, in the can-do era.” This was Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, whom Kennedy plucked from the Ford Motor Company, where he had just been named president. That promotion had capped a storied career at Ford, which he revitalized as a leader of the Whiz Kids, a team of young experts in the new science of business administration. They had gone to Detroit as a group after making a name for themselves by directing the massive buildup of the Air Force during World War II, using “business methods applied to war.” As defense secretary, he displayed an intimidating command of statistics: Halberstam tells of a meeting at which, after viewing slides for seven hours, he ordered, “Stop the projector. This slide, number 869, contradicts slide 11.” But his confidence in his data-crunching ability led him astray in Vietnam: “he simply had all the wrong indices, looking for American production indices in an Asian political revolution.”

It was the combination of men like Bundy and McNamara, the old-guard Brahmin and the new-style technocrat (both of them, incidentally, were Republicans) that gave the Kennedy team its special mystique, its “exciting sense of American elitism,” as Halberstam puts it. But it was JFK himself who set the tone with his cool, stylish persona, overlaid with a veneer of lightly-worn intellectualism, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books he might plausibly have written himself. He merged the varieties of the new American elite in his own person: the hungry ambition of an immigrant family combined with the glamor and ease of great wealth. Yet under the smooth surface, toughness was another quality that was prized, perhaps above all others, by both JFK and his brother Robert, the Attorney General. In the Kennedy administration, “the new men were tough—‘hard-nosed realists’ was a term often used to define them.” Halberstam shows how this cult of toughness played an important role in Kennedy’s deepening of the American commitment in Vietnam.

That commitment had a long history, not often remembered today; it went back to 1950, when Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, pledged to finance the French colonial war in Indochina, which encompassed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Acheson was the prime mover of containment, the Cold War strategy of blocking the spread of Soviet influence anywhere in the world. Halberstam argues that the “loss” of China in 1949, when Mao’s Communists won a civil war against the US-backed Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, had stiffened the containment policy, draining it of all nuance. From then on it was defined by the stark simplicity of the domino theory, which deemed Indochina a vital bastion against the advance of the Red hordes.

Dwight Eisenhower won the presidency in 1952 thanks to the weakening of the Democrats’ reputation in foreign affairs that resulted from the loss of China and the bloody stalemate against the Chinese in the Korean War. As a military hero with little to prove, Eisenhower was a cautious president despite his administration’s rhetoric about “rolling back” Communism, and he resisted pressure to send in American troops to rescue the French in Indochina when they lost the decisive battle at Dienbienphu in 1954. Still, he did fatefully agree to the plan of his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to send a few hundred military advisers to train the army of the new South Vietnam, a frail creation of the Geneva peace conference that ended French rule. (Dulles is one of the villains of the book, for having appeased McCarthy by purging the State Department of its best Asia experts, the “China Hands,” who were accused of being traitors because they had predicted the victory of the Communists in the Chinese civil war and advocated negotiating with them. Halberstam repeatedly and passionately argues that the loss of this area expertise weakened the subsequent decision-making on Vietnam, but given his own account of the political motivations driving that process, it seems doubtful that even the wisest counsel could have done much good.)

When Kennedy took office in 1961, he was looking for a way to prove his toughness to the Soviets. His anxiety to do so increased after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs, the bungled invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained exiles, and his first face-to-face encounter with Nikita Khrushchev, a meeting in Vienna at which Kennedy felt bullied by the blustery Soviet leader. Halberstam quotes a shaken JFK as saying after that summit, “If he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him. So we have to act…now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place” to do it.

Acting on the advice of his generals (and seduced by their modish counterinsurgency doctrines, as Obama would be in his turn), Kennedy sent thousands more advisers to South Vietnam, but within two years he had become bitterly frustrated with the situation: the South Vietnamese leadership was hopelessly corrupt and its army was inept—much like present-day Afghanistan. Yet the military and the US embassy in Vietnam continued giving him optimistic reports he no longer trusted, and he “complained that he had to read the newspapers to find out what was going on.” (With winning immodesty, Halberstam claims that one of his own New York Times dispatches from Vietnam badly shook JFK.) He hinted that he intended to withdraw from Vietnam after winning reelection in 1964, but whether he actually would have done so has become a matter of counterfactual speculation. Halberstam credits Kennedy with making serious efforts to thaw the Cold War, such as pursuing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but on Vietnam his judgment is harsh:

He had worked to conceal the truth about Vietnam from the public and had markedly increased the American commitment…. He had preached, both in his book and in his speeches, about the importance of political courage, but his Administration had been reasonably free from acts of courage.

With the entrance of Lyndon Johnson as president, Halberstam delivers a full sense of the tragic misuse of presidential power, and at the same time a perversely comic portrait of this raw, ungainly figure—one that rivals, in a much more compact form, Robert Caro’s monumental biography of LBJ. When Johnson became president after Kennedy’s assassination, Halberstam writes, he was “unsure of himself, unsure of the men around him, unsure of his relationship to the country, and the country’s acceptance of him. He was above all unsure of himself in foreign affairs.” If Kennedy was lured into Vietnam by the need to prove his toughness, Johnson massively escalated the war for the same reason; and the scale of the commitment was orders of magnitude greater, matching LBJ’s giant ego, ambition and insecurities. Johnson had made himself a reputation in Congress as a Democratic Cold War hawk. He too was haunted by the damage done to his party by the idea of the loss of China, and was even more determined than Kennedy to show no weakness in Vietnam. Days after Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson told Henry Cabot Lodge, the US ambassador to Vietnam, “I am not going to lose Vietnam…. I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”

Halberstam convincingly asserts (backed up since by Caro’s extensive documentation) that Johnson’s personal obsession with machismo was another major factor in his decision-making: “He had always been haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job, that he would lack courage at a crucial moment.” This expressed itself in “his instinct to personalize. He and Ho Chi Minh, out there alone, in a shoot-out.” LBJ, “the earthiest man in the White House in a century,” repeatedly described his aggressive actions as amounting to cutting off Ho’s “pecker,” whereas he took setbacks in the war as the equivalent of Ho ramming various objects, such as the trucks the North used to supply the Viet Cong, “right up my ass.” Halberstam notes that the columnist Joseph Alsop—who had done much to popularize the “loss of China” myth with his articles for the Saturday Evening Post in 1950—knew just how to goad LBJ into escalating in Vietnam, by questioning whether he had the same “manhood” that Kennedy had displayed when he faced down the Soviets in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Johnson’s concern that the legitimacy of his presidency was in doubt after Kennedy’s assassination led him to keep JFK’s cabinet in place. Johnson seemed to regard this group with awe, often remarking that as a humble graduate of San Marcos State Teachers College in Texas, he had never expected to have a dean of Harvard and a president of Ford working for him. (Halberstam notes the skeptical response of Johnson’s shrewd Texan mentor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn: “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as they say…but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”) But if the pedigree of Bundy, McNamara and the others impressed Johnson, he also knew how to impose his will on them. The force of LBJ’s personality, as Halberstam says, was overwhelming when combined with the power of the presidency: “It tends by its nature to inhibit dissent and opposition, and it was simply too much, too powerful an office occupied by too powerful a man.” Traditional deference to the office became slavish loyalty to the man, and intellectual honesty, which Kennedy had encouraged in his advisers, was suppressed.

McNamara was the worst example of this tendency. Kennedy, Halberstam says, had known McNamara’s weakness: that “even if he was brilliant he was not wise.” The defense secretary dominated the war councils with his legendary computer-like brainpower and command of facts (although his facts sometimes proved to be invented), ruthlessly tearing apart arguments opposed to escalation. Eventually McNamara himself turned against the war, but even then hesitated to go public with his change of heart, fearing (correctly) that he would lose all his influence with Johnson if he did come out as a dove.

Johnson had his own doubts about Vietnam from the start, but these were overcome by his political ambitions and anxieties. He feared that the Republicans would thwart his grand domestic agenda, the Great Society, whatever course he took. So Johnson tried to have it both ways, by opting for open-ended escalation—first with a heavy bombing campaign against North Vietnam and then with a rapidly growing deployment of combat troops—but trying to keep the extent of these commitments and the true cost of the war secret for as long as he could. There was “a deliberate policy not to surface with real figures and real estimates which might show that they were headed toward a real war”; it was “a major deception of the American people.”

Neither the bombing nor the troops seemed to have much effect on the enemy, and Halberstam offers a convincing explanation for this impotence: we were fighting a “limited” war while North Vietnam and its Viet Cong proxies were engaged in a “total” war—one which they had been fighting for two decades, since long before the Americans arrived. Ultimately the North Vietnamese understood the key to the war: “they found out that we could not accept heavy casualties as they could,” as Halberstam puts it. Of course, the US did suffer very heavy casualties, with nearly 60,000 dead by the war’s end in 1973 (against hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong casualties), but the American public did not accept this cost, which resulted in the end of the draft.

According to Halberstam, the North Vietnamese saw the war as a continuation of their revolutionary struggle for independence from colonial rule, while the American leadership viewed it through the crude schema of anti-Communism and the domino theory, which failed to take account of such nationalist motivations. Comparing the performance of the North and “our” South Vietnamese, he writes,

The truth of the war never entered the upper-level American calculations; that this was a revolutionary war…it explained why their soldiers would fight and die, and ours would not; why their leaders were skillful and brave, and ours were inept and corrupt.

And furthermore, “The North was led by a man who had expelled the foreigners, the South by a man who had been installed by foreigners.”

This is an argument powerful in its simplicity, yet just a little too neatly put, and in that sense symptomatic of a certain reductive tendency throughout The Best and the Brightest, insistently equating Communism and nationalism. In his zeal to dismantle the rigid doctrine of anti-communism, to prove that it lost sight of the facts on the ground, Halberstam sometimes goes too far and dismisses the importance of ideology in the Cold War, the reality of the global contest between democracy and totalitarianism. This is one flaw in his argument that stands out now, after the fall of the Soviet empire, and with the continuing dictatorship of one-party rule in China, and in Vietnam as well.

Based on the historical record, and with the benefit of hindsight, it must be conceded that, overall, containment worked (even with horrible misadventures like Vietnam, the costs were not nearly as bad as another world war would have been); and where it didn’t, people lost their freedom. But Halberstam’s book is imbued with the anguish of the time of its writing, when the ugly morass of Vietnam caused so many Americans to lose the old, once-unquestioned faith that their country was a force for good in the world, and when the Cold War was still a matter of existential dread and moral uncertainty, so different from the triumphalist nostalgia with which it is too often remembered today.

The scope of Halberstam’s inquiry is quite narrow—most of the book’s nearly 700 pages focus on the early deliberations over escalation in the period from 1961 through 1965. He compresses the rest of Johnson’s term, and sketches Nixon’s policy only briefly in an epilogue. So this is not the book to turn to for a balanced historical overview of the Vietnam War. Nor does it address what the North Vietnamese, the Soviets or the Chinese were thinking, and for that matter it has little to say about the mounting unrest in the US outside the White House and Congress.

But these omissions are due to Halberstam’s intense, minute focus on the muffled bureaucratic warfare behind the war, and he invests this potentially dull material with an obsessive urgency. His approach would belong to the old Great Man school of history, except that he is also interested in what the lesser men (and at that time they were all men) of the government were up to, the assistant secretaries and their staffs; every dissenting argument that failed to reach the highest levels, every paper prematurely shelved, is painstakingly reconstructed as an exhibit in his case against the negligence of those at the top. Halberstam spent nearly three years at the end of the decade preparing to write the book by conducting hundreds of interviews with “people primarily in the second, third and fourth tier of government.” One of his key sources was Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the secret internal history of the US involvement in Vietnam, in 1971. Halberstam rewards Ellsberg by giving him flattering cameo appearances in the book—cast as “a Dostoevskyan figure,” he confronts cluelessly optimistic higher-ups with his despairing pessimism.

The Best and the Brightest appeared during the heyday of New Journalism, when Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, et al., were creating an irreverent and flamboyantly personalized style of reportage, reflecting the countercultural sensibility of the era. Halberstam here and there adds a somewhat jarring touch of New Journalese (such as a mysterious allusion to “hip Pentagon circles,” or the observation that “Dean Rusk would not, so to speak, do his thing,” or a—nowadays cringe-making—recurring metaphor likening Vietnam to a “tar baby”), but for the most part he plays it straight and serious, as befits his subject. And despite the relative squareness of his style (though it sometimes, like Caro’s, takes on a purplish flavor in reaching for dramatic effect), his book is now less dated and more relevant than most of the showier products of New Journalism. Halberstam dug his way to the heart of American power and exposed its failings with a dogged thoroughness. The Establishment would never recover its old mystique of infallibility and noblesse oblige.

Yet Halberstam’s detailed portrait of erratic presidential behavior has unfortunately had less of a chastening effect. Senator William Fulbright, who broke with LBJ over Vietnam, famously coined the phrase “the arrogance of power.” The Best and the Brightest shows that what should cause equal concern is the anxiety of power, the common frailty of most occupants of the Oval Office: the need to project toughness, the tendency to fear paying a political price for a principled decision to choose restraint over the reckless use of force. Had Obama read Halberstam, he might have avoided the temptation of escalation in Afghanistan.

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Joshua Lustig is managing editor of the world affairs journal Current History, based in Philadelphia, and a contributing editor at Open Letters Monthly.