David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest -- Twentieth-Anniversary Edition (1969; New York: Ballantine Books, 1992)

“What was even more depressing was the optimism I found among the top Americans in Saigon, which struck me as essentially self-deception. There was much heady talk implying that we were on the very edge of a final victory and that the other side was ready to crack. Invitations were even sent out that December by some high ranking diplomats asking friends to come to the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel Christmas party.” p. viii

“It was the same old false optimism I had first witnessed there five years earlier as a young reporter for the Times, when the stakes were so much smaller. It reflected once again the immense difference between what people in the field thought was happening and what people in the Saigon command, responding to intense political pressure from Washington, wanted to think was happening.” viii

“… the embassy was isolated, it still did not understand the roots and therefore the strength of the adversary, it was once again telling Washington what Washington wanted to hear without knowing. A few months later the Tet offensive caught the American mission, both military and civilian, largely by surprise and undermined the legitimacy of almost everything it was reporting about Vietnam, most particularly its relentless military optimism. What the American army at the highest levels lost in Vietnam … was its intellectual integrity.” p. ix

“The other thing I learned about the Kennedy-Johnson team was that for all their considerable reputations as brilliant, rational managers they were in fact very poor managers. They thought they were very good, and they were always talking about keeping their options open, even as, day by day and week by week, events closed off those options. The truth was that history – and in Indochina we were on the wrong side of it – was a hard taskmaster and from the early to the middle sixties, when we were making those fateful decisions, we had almost no choices left. Our options had been steadily closing down since 1946, when the French Indochina War began. That was when we had the most options, and the greatest element of choice. But we had granted, however reluctantly, the French the right to return and impose their will on the Vietnamese by force; and by 1950, caught up in our own global vision of anti-communism, we chose not to see this war as primarily a colonial/anticolonial war, and we had begun to underwrite most of the French costs. Where our money went our rhetoric soon followed. We adjusted our public statements, and much of our journalism, to make it seem as if this was a war of Communists against anti-Communists, instead, as the people of Vietnam might have seen it, a war of colonial power against an indigenous nationalist force. By the time the Kennedy-Johnson team arrived and started talking about all their options, like it or not (and they did not even want to think about it) they had in fact almost no options at all. In fact, for a team of Democratic politicians they were sooner or later going to be faced with the most unpalatable of choices: getting out, and then being accused of losing a freedom-loving country to the Communists, or sending in combat troops to fight an unwinnable war. 'Events,' wrote George Ball, paraphrasing Emerson 'are in the saddle, and ride mankind.' In addition the Kennedy-Johnson team never defined the war, what our roles and missions were, how many troops we were going to send and, most important of all, what were we going to do if the North Vietnamese matched our escalation with their escalation, as they were likely to do. It was an ill-defined commitment, one made in stealth and in considerable secrecy, because those making it were uneasy about their path and feared an open debate, feared exposing the policy to any serious scrutiny.” pp. xvi-xvii

Of the things I had not known when I started out, I think the most important was the degree to which the legacy of the McCarthy period still lived. It had been almost seven years since Joe McCarthy had been censured when John Kennedy took office, and most people believed that his hold on Washington was over. The people comprising the body politic of America might not in general, particularly if things were honestly explained to them, be that frightened of the Communists (making legitimate claims to nationalism) taking over a small country some 12,000 miles away, or for that matter frightened or very impressed by Joe McCarthy himself. But among the top Democrats, against whom the issue of being soft on Communism might be used, and among Republicans, who might well use the charge, it was still live ammunition.” David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. xvii

“The Republicans’ long, arid period out of office, accentuated by Truman's 1948 defeat of Dewey, had permitted the out-party in its desperation, to accuse the leaders of the governing party of treason. The Democrats, in the wake of the relentless sustained attacks on Truman and Acheson over their policies in Asia, came to believe that they had lost the White House when they lost China. Long after McCarthy himself was gone, the fear of being accused of being soft on Communism lingered among the Democratic leaders. The Republicans had, of course, offered no alternative policy on China (the last thing they had wanted to do was suggest sending American boys to fight for China) and indeed there was no policy to offer, for China was never ours, events there were well outside our control, and our feudal proxies had been swept away by the forces of history. But in the political darkness of the time it had been easy to blame the Democrats for the ebb and flow of history.” David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, pp. xvii-xviii

“The fear generated in those days lasted a long time, and Vietnam was to be something of an instant replay of China. The memory of the fall of China and what it did to the Democrats, was, I think, more bitter for Lyndon Johnson than it was for John Kennedy. Johnson, taking over after Kennedy was murdered and after the Kennedy patched-up advisory commitment had failed, vowed that he was not going to be the President of the United States who lost the Great Society because he lost Saigon. In the end it would take the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon (the only political figure who could go to China without being red-baited by Richard Nixon) to exorcise those demons, and to open the door to China.” David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. xviii

[Note the assumption about who opened the door. Why not say: “to walk through the door that China had opened”? Also, Note the still-premature prediction of the Specter's demise. See today's Russia hysteria, this time by the Democrats. “Do not teach your grandmother how to suck eggs, Rosenberg. It is you who is getting sleepier and sleepier.” As Mao said to Henry Kissinger, Nixon's emissary: “If I wanted nothing from you, I would not have invited you. And if you wanted nothing from me, you should not have come.”]

“That was the terrible shadow of the McCarthy period. It hung heavily albeit secretly over the internal calculations of Democratic leaders of the period. But of course it was never discussed in the major newspapers and magazine articles that analysed policy making in Vietnam. It was a secret subject, reflecting secret fears. Nor did the men who made the policy have any regional expertise as they made their estimates about what the other side would do if we escalated and sent American combat troops. All of the China experts, the Asia hands who were the counterparts of Bohlen and Kennan, had their careers destroyed with the fall of China. The men who gave advice on Asia were either Europeanists or men transferred from the Pentagon. When my book was finally done and accepted by my publisher, I realized that I had not made this point strongly enough. So, I added another chapter: the story of John Patton Davies, one of the most distinguished of the China hands who had had his career savaged during the McCarthy years. The section reflected my belief that in a better and healthier society he or someone like him might have been sitting in as Assistant Secretary of State during the Vietnam decisions. I think that adding the chapter strengthened the book, but years later as I ponder the importance of the McCarthy era on both our domestic and foreign policy, I am convinced that this flaw in the society was even greater than I portrayed it, and if I were to do the book over, I might expand the whole section. It was one of the great myths of that time that foreign policy was pure and uncontaminated area which was never touched by domestic politics, and that domestic politics ended at the water's edge. The truth, in sharp contrast, was that all those critical decisions were primarily driven by considerations of domestic politics, and political fears of the consequences of looking weak in a forthcoming domestic election.” David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. xviii

[end of Introduction]

Chapter Five

“For all the style and excitement of the new team, and all the great promise, 1961 was a terrible year for the Kennedy Administration.” p. 64

“All the setbacks would seem minor compared with the Bay of Pigs, which as a shattering event, both within the administration and outside. It would seriously disturb the balance of the first two years of the Kennedy Administration; it would almost surely necessitate a harder line both to prove to domestic critics that he was as tough-willed as the next man, and to prove to the Russians that despite the paramount foolishness of this adventure, his hand was strong and steady.” p. 66

“In a way it was a test run for the Vietnam escalations of 1965, and it would be said of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson that both had their Bay of Pigs, that the former’s lasted four days and the latter’s lasted four years. But the component parts were there: serious misreading of aspirations of a nonwhite nation; bringing Western, Caucasian anti-Communism to a place where it was less applicable; institutions pushing forward with their own momentum, ideas and programs which tended to justify and advance the cause of the institution at the expense of the nation; too much secrecy with too many experts who knew remarkably little either about the country involved or about their own country; too many decisions by the private men of the Administration as opposed to the public ones; and too little moral reference. And finally, too little common sense. How a President who seemed so contemporary could agree to a plan so obviously doomed to failure, a plan based on so little understanding of the situation, was astounding.” p. 66

“… Senator J. William Fullbright and Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles, public men with a sense of public responsibility, were objecting to a clandestine operation organized by private men who seemed to be responsible to no one but their own organizations, with even that responsibility so secret it was difficult to define whether it existed.” p. 67

“… the crux was how the U.S. government could have so misjudged the Cuban people. Had there been even the beginning of serious anti-Castro feeling in the country, nothing would have rallied the average Cuban more quickly to the cause of Fidel than to have an invasion sponsored by the United States.” p. 67

“Truman, pushed by his military advisers who were wary of what anticolonialism might mean as far as the future of U.S. naval and air bases in Asia was concerned, urged that we go along with the British. Having accepted the surrender, the British would permit the French to return, and all subsequent events would flow from this: The French would reassert their authority, they would smile politely at all American requests to deal with the indigenous population, but they would pay no attention; the Americans, after all, had given away the leverage, the French Indochina war would begin, and the Vietnamese would gain their freedom by force of arms.” The Best and the Brightest, p. 79

“This worries me a great deal,” De Gaulle said, “and it comes at at a particularly inopportune time. As I told Mr. [Harry] Hopkins when he was here, we do not understand your policy. What are you driving at? Do you want us to become, for example, one of the federated states under the Russian aegis? The Russians are advancing apace, as you well know. When Germany falls, they will be upon us. If the public here comes to realize that you are against us in Indochina, there will be terrific disappointment and nobody knows to what that will lead. We do not want to become communist; we do not want to fall into the Russian orbit, but I hope you will not push us into it.” The Best and the Brightest, p. 82

“The U.S. government knew what was going to happen in Vietnam, but committed to its European allies, it could not or would not use any leverage to change the course. p. 83

Chapter Six

“… the most dangerous thing about power is to employ it where it is not applicable.” p. 90

Chapter Seven

“All of this was part of one of the great illusions of the country and the Administration in 1961, the belief that the McCarthy period had come and gone without the country paying any real price, that the Administration and the nation could continue without challenging or coming to terms with the political and policy aberrations of that period.” David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 103

“Yet the truth was altogether different The scars and the victims were real, and the McCarthy period had frozen American policies on China and Asia. The Kennedy Administration would in no way come to terms with the aberration of those policies; it had not created them, as its advocates pointed out, but it did not undo them either. It would take no stands on China (the one Kennedy Administration speech on China, by Roger Hilsman, was not given until after the President's assassination), and Davies was finally cleared by the State Department in the last few months of the Johnson Administration.” David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. xviii

The failure to come to terms with China and with the McCarthy period was costly, because without looking realistically at China, the Administration could not look realistically at the rest of Southeast Asia. It was failures and frustrations over China which had involved the United States in Vietnam and changed American policy there in 1949; now, because it was not coming to terms with China, the Kennedy Administration would soon expand the Eisenhower Administration policy and commitment in Vietnam. … Thus, because he did not look back on America’s China policy, it was easier for him, in 1961, to move forward into Vietnam.” David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 104

“A kind of demonology about a vast part of the world would become enshrined as accepted gospel. One major party would be too frightened to challenge it, the other delighted to reap the benefits from it. All of this would affect Indochina.” p. 106

“... thus did a Democratic Administration offer up as justification for its foreign policies something far closer to what the Republican minority wanted, which reflected the interests and prejudices of the most influential bankers and lawyers. In order to get the job done, the Administration was willing to see the conflict in ideological rather than nationalist terms. The Democrats, feeling themselves vulnerable on this question (liberals often associated with reform causes which were tainted with domestic Communism), were increasingly willing to trim their own sails and accept the assumptions of their more conservative domestic adversaries.” p. 108

“Rather than combating the irrationality of charges of softness on Communism and subversion, the Truman Administration, sure that it was the lesser of two evils, moved to expropriate the issue, as in a more subtle way it was already doing in foreign affairs. So the issue was legitimized; rather than being the property of the far right, which the centrist Republicans tolerated for obvious political benefits, it had even been picked up by the incumbent Democratic party.” page 109

“Then a major event took place in 1949 which meant that a French victory in Indochina was impossible, and yet, ironically and tragically, also meant that American support of the French was inevitable and that eventual U.S. entry into the war was a real possibility. The event was the fall of China and it was, again, produced by great historical forces outside our control; Barbara Tuchman would write in her book on General Joseph Stilwell in China: “In the end, China went her own way as if the Americans had never come.” p. 110

“Why We Lost China.” China was ours, and it was something to lose; it was an assumption which was to haunt foreign policy makers for years to come. Countries were ours, we could lose them; a President was faced with the blackmail of losing a country. page 115

“Tail gunner Joe. The accidental demagogue. How quickly he came and how quickly the disappeared, and how much he left behind.” page 117

“It had really begun. The issues were drawn, false issues; the real issues were postwar fear and uncertainty. … the American press [were] exploited in its false sense of objectivity (if a high official said something, then it was news, if not fact, and the role of the reporter was to print it straight without commenting, without assaulting the credibility of the incredulous; that was objectivity).

All of which did not displease the Republican Party. The real strength of McCarthy was not his own force or brilliance, it was the acquiescence of those who should have known better. … so the Democratic party, victim of his charges, did not fight as an institution.” pages 118-119

The confluence and the mixing of these three events, the fall of China, the rise of McCarthy and the outbreak of the Korean War, would have a profound effect on foreign policy. The Democratic Administration was on the defensive; a country could not be lost without serious political consequences; each new administration became increasingly susceptible to blackmail from any small oligarchy which proclaimed itself anti-Communist. The anti-Communist rhetoric of the Truman Doctrine had come rather easily in 1947, now even more; succeeding U.S. governments would find themselves prisoners of that rhetoric.” p. 120

Chapter Eight

“His pleas to Diem about governmental reform, about improving the quality of commanders, about broadening the base of the government resembled nothing so much as the pleas of General Stilwell to Chiang Kai-Shek to do the same thing, and they were met with the same lack of appreciation.” p. 129

“… And there was the President himself, reluctant to send combat troops and repeat the French experience, but at the same time afraid of being charged with losing a country and deserting a brave ally,and thus of the domestic implications of not giving greater aid, of not having tried.” p. 175

“The Kennedy commitment changed things in other ways as well. While the President had the illusion that he had held off the military, the reality was that he had let them in. They now began to dominate the official reporting, so that the dispatches which came into Washington were colored through their eyes. Now they were players, men who had a seat at the poker table; they would now, on any potential dovish move, have to be dealt with. He had activated them, and yet at the same time had given them so precious little that they could always tell their friends that they had never been allowed to do what they really wanted. Dealing with the military, once their foot was in the door, both Kennedy and Johnson would learn, was an awesome thing. The failure of their estimates along the way, point by point, meant nothing. It did not follow, as one might expect that their credibility was diminished and that there was now less pressure from them, but the reverse. It meant that there would be an inexorable pressure for more – more men, more hardware, more targets – and that with the military, short of nuclear weapons, the due bills went only one way, civilian to military. Thus one of the lessons for civilians who thought that they could run small wars with great control was that to harness the military, you had to harness them completely, that once in, even partially, everything began to work in their favor. Once activated, even in a small way at first, they would soon dominate the play. Their particular power with the Hill and with hawkish journalists, their stronger hold on patriotic-machismo arguments (in decision making they proposed the manhood positions, their opponents the softer, or sissy, positions), their particular certitude, made them far more powerful players than men raising doubts. The illusion would always be of civilian control; the reality would be of a relentlessly growing military domination of policy, intelligence, aims, objectives and means, with the civilians, the very ones who thought they could control the military (and who were often in private quite contemptuous of the military mind), conceding step by step, without even knowing they were losing.” pp. 178-179

“In Vietnam, the influx of American aid recommended under the Taylor-Rostow report changed nothing. ...
Almost as soon as the Americans decided to increase their commitment, the Ngo regime began to renege on the promised reforms; the Americans, as they had systematically since 1954 in dealing with Diem, quickly acquiesced.” p. 181

“… But the important thing was the overall impact of the American aid; it was not finally a booster shot which would liberalize the government, but instead a shot of formaldehyde. The Americans were not modernizing Vietnamese society as Rostow had hoped; they were in fact making it more authoritarian and less responsive than ever. It did not change the balance in the countryside; if anything it simply meant that the Vietcong would now capture newer, better American weapons instead of old, used French weapons (“Ngo Dinh Diem will be our supply sergeant,’ said one highly accurate Vietcong paper of the period).” pp. 182-183

“If this failure to change the political balance was not realized in Washington, it was understood by many in Saigon, particularly among the Vietnamese military, and it was certainly understood in Hanoi. There Bernard Fall, the French historian, was visiting in early 1962 on a rare visa. He was granted an interview with Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, and instead of finding Dong upset by the newest infusion of American aid, Fall saw that he was rather amused by it all. Poor Diem, Dong was saying, he is unpopular. And because he is unpopular, the Americans must give him aid. And because the Americans must give him aid, he is even less popular, and because he is even less popular, the Americans must give him even more aid . . . At which point Fall said he thought it sounded like a vicious circle. “Not a vicious circle,” Dong said, “a downward spiral.” p. 183

“What the new major American involvement affected was not Vietnam, but the United States. … Since nothing changed, which meant there was little in the way of results, the American Administration would have to justify the decision it had made by manipulating the facts, by press agency, by trying to manage the news and events, and finally, when that failed, by constant assaults on reporters in Vietnam who continued to report pessimistically. What could not be affected on the ground against the enemy the administration tried to affect by public relations, with only slightly greater success.” p. 183

“In addition, the Army was beginning to function more and more like a separate organism, responding to its institutional needs, priorities, vanities, and careerism. Challenged by outsiders, by civilians, it responded by protecting its own senior officers.” p. 280

“The only problem, as the Pentagon Papers would later note, was that the newspaper account was right and the Stilwell-Krulak account was wrong. Sound misreporting did not impede the careers of either Stilwell or Krulak … but it did offer a fascinating insight into the way the military worked. Loyalty was not to the President of the United States, to truth and integrity, or even to subordinate officers risking their lives; loyalty was to uniform, and more specifically, to immediate superior and career. It was an insight into why the military in Saigon, despite all the contrary evidence in the field … managed to retain their optimism. The Americans in Vietnam, long frustrated by the ineptitude of their ARVN counterparts, and by the fact that ineptitude guaranteed career advancement, had come up with a slogan to describe the ARVN promotion system: “Fuck up and move up.” They did not realize that by now the slogan applied to their own Army as well.” pp. 280-281

“He had always dreamed of being the greatest domestic President in this century, and he had become, without being able to stop it, a war President, and not a very good one at that.” p. 658

“We will make our own mistakes and they will be completely our own.” There was appreciative laughter and much enjoyment of the moment. One thing though – Kissinger was wrong. To an extraordinary degree the Nixon men repeated the mistakes and miscalculations of the Johnson Administration, which prompted Russell Baker to describe it all as “the reign of President Lyndon B. Nixonger.” For step by step, the repeated the mistakes of the past.” p. 664

Author's Note

“So I set out to study the men and their decisions. What was it about the men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions and above all the era which had allowed this tragedy to take place? The question which intrigued me the most was why, why had it happened. So it became very quickly not a book about Vietnam, but a book about America.” p. 668

“Like almost everyone else I know who has been involved in Vietnam, I am haunted by it, by the fact that somehow I was not better, that somehow it was all able to happen.” p. 671

[Note in 2017 – and it has all happened again. Hence, The Worst and the Dullest]