A half-century ago this year, journalist David Halberstam published The Best and the Brightest, his massive and influential account of America’s war in Vietnam. Filled with scathing judgments of the chief dramatis personae, the book remains eminently entertaining. Read against the backdrop of the present-day crisis over Ukraine, it retains considerable relevance. Despite the decades that have passed since it first appeared, it’s a book that President Joe Biden would do well to check out of his local library.
At one level, U.S. policy regarding Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s and the ongoing contretemps regarding Ukraine have nothing to do with one another. But look closer, and similarities emerge—as well as warnings for our present situation.
The Vietnam War was neither the first nor the only crisis that the United States has confronted since donning the mantle of global leadership. But in terms of horrors inflicted and damage sustained, that particular misadventure occupies a category all its own. Halberstam’s account describes how senior U.S. officials talked themselves into classifying the Republic of Vietnam as a vital national interest, its survival a cause for which young Americans should be willing to fight and die.
Those who advised Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were smart and ambitious, impeccably educated, tested by their own service in World War II, and eager to lead the nation at a moment of seemingly maximum peril. By their own lights, they were tough-minded pragmatists, given to seeing things as they actually were, without ideological blinders. On that score, Halberstam shows otherwise. In fact, the Vietnam War offers a textbook example of what happens when a political elite abandons moral realism in favor of fantasy.
In Cold War Washington, through the 1950s and 1960s, the governing fantasy centered on a conviction that “monolithic communism” directed by aging revolutionaries in the Kremlin posed a direct threat to freedom everywhere, not least of all in the United States. Halberstam’s book appeared during the very year that Richard Nixon made his famous trip to China. With that event, the myth of monolithic communism collapsed. Halberstam shows that as early as 1961, members of the U.S. national-security elite had known full well about the Sino-Soviet split. But for bureaucratic and domestic political reasons, they found it expedient to ignore its implications. One result was the Vietnam War, fought because, according to the specious “domino theory,” Communist victory there would ostensibly put America itself at risk.
In fact, to the extent that we can trace the roots of our present-day malaise and disunion back to the 1960s, we might conclude that the Vietnam War actually served to undermine rather than to uphold American freedom. Even today, the mournful consequences of that war linger. By that measure, the legacy of the best-and-brightest lives on.
In the decades since, this absence of moral realism has become something of a signature of U.S. policy. For evidence, we need look no further than the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), undertaken by members of an elite fancying themselves infinitely smarter than, say, McGeorge Bundy or Robert McNamara (who figure prominently in Halberstam’s account), but who are actually cut from the same cloth. Governed by their own fantasies, the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz wildly misconstrued actual U.S. interests after 9/11 and expended American power on a prodigious scale without purpose. They too have left behind a mournful legacy, not only in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but also among our own increasingly demoralized and alienated fellow citizens.