If Alexis de Tocqueville had sat in the bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium for an entire summer, he would have been an even more interesting read. Fortunately, we had our own master observer of Americana. That the essence of the nation’s character resides in its grandest pursuits as well as its simplest rituals is the legacy of David Halberstam.
Halberstam’s death on April 23 was a terrible loss. He was a graceful and compelling writer. His gift was taking a subject—sometimes complex, sometimes mundane or over-covered—and distilling it for readers into immediacy and timelessness. His insight was linked inextricably to his effortless, after-midnight type of eloquence. The Best and the Brightest, his seminal work on the Vietnam War, combines these qualities, and the topic seemed uniquely suited for his sense of style. What better way to capture the mission creep, the corruption, the maddening incapacity of the Diem regime and its successors, or the intellectual rot in Washington, than with one of Halberstam’s meandering, sparsely punctuated sentences?
Any meaningful discussion of Halberstam, and The Best and the Brightest in particular, means quoting at least some of his writing. It also requires thinking about the topic’s relevance and lingering lessons. After four years, the Iraq-as-Vietnam analogy is more than a bit tired. But despite its exhaustive details on the Vietnam War, the book’s real message is that the failures that led to the quagmire are an integral part of the nation’s identity. The main players—Kennedy, Johnson, Bundy, McNamara, Rostow, Rusk, Taylor, Westmoreland—are almost allegorical symbols of the brilliance, determination, hubris, myopia, and hypocrisy that both account for the nation’s greatness and cause periodic disasters. They were indeed the best and the brightest. But when “events are in the saddle and ride mankind,” as Emerson wrote, strengths can become fatal flaws. To Halberstam, General Westmoreland embodied that:
He liked the Vietnamese and was genuinely committed to their cause, but there was never a real sense or feeling for their frailties, fallibilities, their corruption, their loss of innocence (had they ever been innocent?). He was, finally, too American, too successful in the American and Western sense, too much a sterling product of a success-oriented country to feel the rhythms and nuances of this particularly failed society; he was the finest product of an uncorrupted country where doing good was always rewarded, one worked hard, played by the rules, went by the book, and succeeded. Success. Theirs was a corrupted, cynical society where the bribe, the lie, the decadence had become a way of life, where Vietnamese officers lied frequently and readily to their American counterparts. … The Americans, particularly the military, were so straight and Westy was the classic example; he was so American, like all Americans in Vietnam he wanted the Vietnamese to be Americans, he saw them in American terms, he could never seem to see them as themselves.
Substitute a few words here and there—leaving in “corrupted” and “bribe” and “this particularly failed society”—and it’s just as relevant now in Baghdad’s alleys and marketplaces as it was a generation ago when the Ivy League, spreadsheets, and flowcharts met their match in the jungles and rice paddies.
The description of Westmoreland highlights the perils of best intentions. America as bounding puppy—inherently virtuous, sometimes dangerously undisciplined, for better or worse always hopeful—is a recurring theme in Halberstam’s writing:
The collapse in the South, the one force which the American leaders could not control, continued unabated. The Americans had always had the illusion that something might turn it around; a new leader in South Vietnam who would understand how to get with the program; a realization on the part of the South Vietnamese that their necks were on the line, that the feared enemy (the Americans’ feared enemy, though perhaps not the feared enemy of the Vietnamese), the Communists, were about to walk into Saigon. Or magically, the right battalion commander would turn up to lead ARVN battalions into battle against the Vietcong, or the right program would emerge, blending arms and pig-fatteners together to make the peasants want to choose our side. But nothing changed, the other side continued to get stronger, the ARVN side weaker. One reason the principals were always surprised by this, and irritated by the failure of their programs, was that the truth of the war never entered the upper-level American calculations; that this was a revolutionary war, and that the other side held title to the revolution because of the colonial war which had just ended. This most simple fact … entered into the estimates of the American intelligence community and made them quite accurate. But it never entered into the calculations of the principals, for a variety of reasons; among other things to see the other side in terms of nationalism or as revolutionaries might mean a re-evaluation of whether the United States was even fighting on the right side. In contrast, the question of Communism and anti-Communism as opposed to revolution and antirevolution was far more convenient for American policy makers.
“Something might turn it around”—a spider-hole capture, purple fingers, a smart new general, or a surge. But Halberstam saw firsthand how hope turned into expectant paralysis and confidence into dangerous myopia. In that dynamic come easy bromides about “terrorists” and rejection of complex terms like “civil war.” Honest analysis and re-evaluation become the enemy of convenience, military and political holding patterns set in, and the can gets kicked down the road for a perpetual six more months.
As the credibility gap grew and the war went south, Halberstam’s anecdotes captured the delusions and the search for scapegoats:
And so in early 1967, Joe McGinniss, then just a young reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, would spend a day traveling with Westmoreland to the coastal town of Phan Thiet. There a young American officer startled McGinniss by giving an extraordinarily candid briefing on how bad the situation was, how incompetent the ARVN was. Westmoreland had demanded the briefing and the young American had been uneasy about giving it, apologizing for being so frank with a reporter present, but finally it had come pouring out: the ARVN soldiers were cowards, they refused to fight, they abused the population, in their most recent battle they had all fled, all but one man. That one man had stood and fought and almost single-handedly staved off a Vietcong attack. When the officer had finished his briefing, still apologizing for being so candid, Westmoreland turned to McGinniss and said, ‘Now you see how distorted the press image of this war is. This is a perfect example—a great act of bravery and not a single mention of it in the New York Times.’
Halberstam was no stranger to the aiding-and-abetting charge. A Pulitzer Prize winner at the age of 30 for his reporting on Vietnam, he was an early target for criticism by the White House, Pentagon, and hawkish colleagues in the media. That’s ironic because his later work showed that he, too, believed in American exceptionalism, albeit a version that had nothing to do with manifest destiny. It would be difficult to read Summer of ’49 or The Children or Firehouse and argue otherwise. The claim (and its variations) that “the media isn’t showing all the Iraqi schools we’ve painted” has subsided a bit recently but only because reality has become so undeniable.
One of Vietnam’s lessons is the difficulty of ending a war that by definition has no finite or discernable end. On April 19, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Iraqis that “the clock is ticking” on America’s patience. On March 26, Zalmay Khalilzad said, “I constantly signal to the Iraqi leaders that our patience, or the patience of the American people, is running out.” Halberstam wrote of our message to South Vietnam’s leadership in 1965:
Although they were warned that America would stand for no more, that they could not toy with a great power like this, that American support was becoming more difficult, they did not believe it. They had already learned that the worse things got and the more the Americans threatened them with disengagement, the more the Americans coughed up; that they had sunk the hook deeper into the Americans than the Americans had sunk it into them.
Just a few years into our involvement in Vietnam, we were warning about the limits of our patience. A decade and tens of thousands of KIA’s later, we finally put our last helicopter where our mouth was and dislodged the hook.
One shortcoming of The Best and the Brightest is its original date of publication: 1972, three years before Saigon fell to the North. The narrative stops in 1968, and Halberstam started working on the book in early 1969, so it lacks a full treatment of Nixon as well as the Domino Theory and its dire warnings about the consequences of withdrawal. While parts of Southeast Asia weren’t pretty after 1975, the warnings proved false; just six years after the last chopper dusted off the roof of the U.S. embassy, the Reagan revolution had started along with the Soviet Union’s final throes.
But it’s a minor quibble. The value and relevance of the book is less its Vietnam-specific facts than its enduring lesson, which is that every generation is at risk of its own deceptions, delusions, and Five O’Clock Follies. And they are just as likely to result from the best of intentions—our “best and brightest”—as the worst. Because this is part of what it means to be American, knowing or even experiencing history is no guarantee against disaster. The ultimate validation of Halberstam’s thesis appears ironically in the wisdom of John McCain, arguably one of our best and brightest, who wrote the book’s reflective and tragically prophetic foreword:
It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone.
Halberstam saw firsthand the consequences of McCain’s memory hole, of hubris and jingoistic adventurism, of lessons studied but never learned. With his passing, we lost one of our most sharp-eyed observers at a time when vigilance is more important than ever.
Wilson Burman is the pen name for a New York City financial executive who writes The Cunning Realist blog.