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The Best and the Brightest

4.25 of 5 stars 4.25  ·  rating details  ·  6,681 ratings  ·  242 reviews
David Halberstam's masterpiece, the defining history of the making of the Vietnam tragedy. Using portraits of America's flawed policy makers & accounts of the forces that drove them, The Best & the Brightest reckons magnificently with the most important abiding question of our country's recent history: Why did America become mired in Vietnam & why did it lose? ...more
Paperback, 20th Anniversary Edition, 720 pages
Published October 26th 1993 by Ballantine Books (first published 1969)
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Community Reviews

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Jessica
The Best and the Brightest is an 816-page tome about the men who came to power under Kennedy and continued to serve under Johnson. The men who were supposedly the brightest and most able men ever assembled by a President. The men who led their country into the disastrous Vietnam war.

Halberstam spent over two years interviewing people to write this book and he clearly did his research. His writing shows a clear understanding of the region, history, politics and players. Despite some repetitive or
...more
Aaron Arnold
The main question about World War 1 that Barbara Tuchmann's seminal The Guns of August was trying to answer was "How did this happen?" How did all these complacent European countries, many of whose leaders were related, with no clear reason to go to war, and with uncounted amounts of wealth in trade and prosperity at stake, end up sending millions of their youth to die in the mud over marginal amounts of land that they didn't even really want? Tuchmann identified a number of cognitive errors tha ...more
judy
Recently Colin Powell answered a NYT book review question by saying that this book is the one he would require President Obama to read . I read Halberstam's master work decades ago--loved it--own it--in hardback no less. However,I couldn't quite pinpoint why Powell thought Obama should read it, so I had no choice but to read it again (joy). Yes, it is a war book (Vietnam) but far more than that it's a fascinating character study of how the flaws of the top people in government got us into Vietna ...more
John
A wonderfully written and engaging history of the war in Vietnam from its origins in the 1940s until 1970.

I have read this book and three other histories (Fitzgerald, Sheehan and Mann) over the last month, and the story is remarkably consistent: the unshakable, implacable arrogance and the impenetrable, willful ignorance of civilian politicans and bureaucrats over the period, as well as the malfeasance of the US military, i.e. institutional loyalities, personal vanities and careerism of top bra
...more
Max
Halberstam gives us the inside story of how America entrapped itself in the Viet Nam War. He shows how the legacy of McCarthyism and 1940’s politics over China left a decimated State Department and influenced JFK’s and LBJ’s thinking. He details the many times JFK and others who doubted the war altered their positions out of fear of being seen as soft. He shows how the arrogance and overconfidence of Kennedy’s team and subsequently Johnson’s led the US into war. He takes us through the constant ...more
A.J. Howard
At the very end of his long and thorough work, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam comments that "the trap was set long before anyone realized it was a trap." This phrase adequately summarizes the main theme of the work. This book isn't designed to give you an understanding of the war in Vietnam. Instead, its an account of extremely decent, brilliant, and well-qualified men slipped into a trap, and how their struggles to break free of this trap only got them more firmly stuck.

My only ot
...more
James
The torch was indeed passed-passed from one generation of the wealthy elite to the next.

The book is infinitely enjoyable to a political history junkie like myself. It's impressive in it's coverage of a lot of the most interesting political moments of that time. Sadly, it also helped to drive home a cynical reality I've been avoiding for over twenty years and, for that, I am not grateful. While reading this book current political events compelled me to finally give in to the reality of politics
...more
Carl Frankel
I'd always viewed Halberstam as an excellent conventional journalist. The mainstreamest of the mainstream, as it were. Hey, maybe I should have read him? While he did write mainstream books and they're excellent, The Best and the Brightest is something else, very unorthodox in its way and stunningly brilliant. Halberstam researched the dickens out of his material and came to understand it in a way that surpasseth understanding. He got it, deeply deeply deeply, and wrote it from the right side of ...more
Chin Joo
This book features almost all the people who had a hand in the decision on the US’ involvement in Vietnam. There was no question that these were the best and the brightest, which all more makes the reader wonder why the US eventually found herself in the quagmire. By the end of the book the reader may still not find the answer, but what he or she will find is a lesson in human folly and how the illusion of superior ability can lead one to arrogance, or perhaps less, over-confidence, but ending i ...more
Larry Bassett
The short version of the book: Boys will be boys!

This is a baby boomer book. The idealism of the Kennedy presidency seems very much like the idealism of the Obama campaign and early presidency. Some reviewers have compared how the U.S. got into Vietnam with how we got into Iraq: Congressional action based on misinformation. In both places the ‘enemy’ wears no uniform and blends into the people and the countryside.

Learn about Laos. Maybe you have barely heard of it, let alone know anything about
...more
Judy
The back cover endorsement by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reads, "A story every American should read." I would amend that statement to say a history that everyone should read, for David Halberstam fabricates no fiction, but unearths what really went on in the corridors of power during the build up to and execution of the Vietnam War.

I was especially interested in reading this because this is history that I lived through as a young girl coming of age in the Midwest in a politically conservative f
...more
Renee
A big ole nonfiction book that explains the background behind American involvement in Vietnam. It also gave me a new insight into how decisions are made in Washington by walking you through all the people that were influencing JFK during his presidency. It helped me understand more about the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq.
Eric_W
Read this years ago when it first appeared. As a result, I read everything Halberstam wrote. Whenever I hear anyone discuss hiring only the "best and the brightest" now, I shudder.
Jim Mallon
If there were ever any doubt what a disastrous clusterf#ck was the war in Vietnam, this book confirms it. I had initially thought the book was a comprehensive history of the war, but the bulk of it focuses only on the years 1964 and 1965, the period during which the entire sorry cast of characters, from LBJ on down, deluded themselves into believing the United States could prevail in a conflict that had confounded the French for more than 15 years and led to their ignominious departure in 1960-6 ...more
Samarth
Jun 14, 2012 Samarth rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: own
More of a 2.5.

Pros:
1. The book doesn't seem to have any political bias.
2. There is an amazing amount of information in this book.

Cons:
1. In an effort to explain a butterfly effect, instead of dumbing it down to a simpler problem, the author doesn't really pin down actual causes of the escalation instead cramming with bios and reporting events without clear analysis.

2. The title of the book is faulty. The title hints that the book informs us how the "Best and the Brightest" (I assume mainly McN
...more
Rick
Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest describes America’s inexorable drift into war in Southeast Asia. Reviewing the political players in Washington DC during the slide, Halberstam begins with a focus on the Kennedy years and how JFK emerged on a promise of change after years of disappointment in leadership … much like Barack Obama would come forward 50 years later. The key for JFK, and eventually Lyndon Baines Johnson, was the people he surrounded himself with — the titled The Best and the Br ...more
Troy
Put this on the wish list after reading Halberstam's "Coldest Winter", a book which I enjoyed very much, and which taught me a lot.

This one was also very insightful, and like Coldest Winter is focused on the political climate, the people at the top, the psychology of international politics as it boiled down to a personal level for the leaders involved. It's not a history of the Vietnam War, so much as it is a history of the Vietnam White House - through two administrations - the Pentagon, and Wa
...more
Benjamin  Berman
It is amazing how history repeats itself. These quotes from the book could easily be slightly modified to refer to America's recent misadventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan:

"One of the things which surprised me was how thin most of the newspaper and magazine reporting of the period [prior to Kennedy escalation in Vietnam] was, the degree to which journalists accepted the norms of the government"

"We believed in the army, the South Vietnamese did not. We saw it as a real army which needed
...more
Billy
Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest

In Short: Policymakers “deluded themselves into thinking they could achieve their goals in Vietnam by ignoring, suppressing, or dismissing the information that might have suggested otherwise” In short, they were so committed to their ideals, they could not even conceive of failure in SE Asia. Their arrogance was at fault.

Was the escalation of war in Vietnam foregone by the Kennedy Administration? Two books argue that, no, escalation was not necessary and t
...more
Louis
This is a story of hubris. The U.S. presidential administration of John F. Kennedy came to office in 1961 full of promise. In particular, he assembled some of the brightest people from academia and business to advise and guide the country. This book is document who these men were, where the came from, how they were recruited, and the attidudes and hopes they brought with them.

The book covers the building of the Kennedy cabinet thruough their service under Lyndon Johnson. It looks at the Bay of P
...more
John Hawklyn
Spoiler: My favorite passage is a scene in which a presidential avisor, dispatched to Vietnam meets with a buddhist monk, and endeavors to work with him to resolve the problem of the monks immolating themselves.

After some conversation he mentions to the monk that he feels they've made progress, and that they're working on parallel tracks. Realizing that the idiom might not translate well, he asks the monk whether he was acquainted with the idea. The Monk agrees and replies that oh, yes. Parallel
...more
Sean Kottke
Sitting on my bookshelf for nearly 30 years after receiving a must-read endorsement from my high school US history teacher, this book has woven its way through my consciousness in innumerable ways ... just not via direct reading. That's a shame, but after having invoked its key arguments multiple times over the years, I've now filled that gap in my experience. I've shelved this under adult-professional because it should inform the perspective of anyone with a serious interest or vocation in poli ...more
Kim Anderson
I always wanted to learn more about the Vietnam war ever since high school, when the history textbooks mention it and move on in the blink of an eye. What was it about? Why did we send so many soldiers there? Why did so many Americans stand up against it? Why did supposedly liberal presidents like JFK and LBJ escalate? The answers are complicated, of course. But the bigger picture was deceptively simple. The historical context that a state of war is good for America, the economy, etc. and how wr ...more
Walter A
After reading Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter” I put “The Best and the Brightest” on my reading list. But, it was the current escalation in the Middle East with ISIS that caused me to read it now because of the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I found myself blindly on the side of “Bomb ISIS. They are riding around in Toyota trucks.” I was not old enough during the Vietnam era to understand it so this book seemed to be a way to learn. And, it lived up to t ...more
Wilte
Very detailed account of the run up to the Vietnam war, and all the political, bureaucratic and military intrigues. Readable but too elaborate for my taste.

In the epilogue (p.614):"now that illusion was gone, the real world was tougher than the world of doctored war games and high-level meetings". Reality caught up to the generals and bureaucrats.

How the US military described the ARVN promotion system (South Vietnamese army): Fuck up and move up. "They did not realize that by now the slogan appl
...more
Dan
Feb 17, 2014 Dan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2014
This book should be mandatory reading for any government official who is above "line worker." It is extremely compelling and almost always horrifying, to see such powerful people make such terrible errors of judgment, and Halberstam covers all of the major players in great detail. I have to hold back my highest praise for a few reasons:

1. I wish there were a little bit more contextualization of the sourcing here than there was. Halberstam's explanation for why he doesn't list his sources is perf
...more
Robert
Is it in the nature of organizations that goal displacement works to render them unaccountable to all but their members? This is one of the questions Halberstam's brilliant work raises. So many ways in which organizations, public and private, fail in their missions. Halberstam writes a cautionary tale of the perils of bureaucracy, the all too easy transition from competence to hubris, the mistake of assuming brilliance is wisdom.

What can be done to cure these malfunctions of large and complex or
...more
Jsavett1
I'd been wanting to read this for many years and I'm glad I finally made the commitment to plow through it.

Not that doing so is difficult. Halberstam is a masterful writer and storyteller, and he brings alive the incredibly complex characters who masterminded and pursued the Vietnam war despite evidence and realities which suggested the US could never succeed. Obviously, this has many echoes with the Bush administration's pursuit of the war in Iraq and it's interesting to consider how they are s
...more
Peter Jakobsen
Definitive parable of hubris leading to apocalypse. Whiz kids from the ivy-league encounter a Big Texas Democrat as their new boss; tragedy ensues in a companion piece to his earlier The Making of a Quagmire but which is wider in scope. Larded with mean detail, such as when LBJ enthuses to Sam Rayburn how brilliant all the new kids are, to which the paterfamilias of Congress replies that Lyndon might be right, "but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff o ...more
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David Halberstam (April 10, 1934–April 23, 2007) was an American Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author known for his early work on the Vietnam War and his later sports journalism.

Halberstam graduated from Harvard University with a degree in journalism in 1955 and started his career writing for the Daily Times Leader in West Point, Mississippi. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, writing for
...more
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“What it came down to was a search not for the most talent, the greatest brilliance, but for the fewest black marks, the fewest objections. The man who had made the fewest enemies in an era when forceful men espousing good causes had made many enemies: the Kennedys were looking for someone who made very small waves. They were looking for a man to fill the most important Cabinet post, a job requiring infinite qualities of intelligence, wisdom and sophistication, a knowledge of both this country and the world, and they were going at it as presidential candidates had often filled that other most crucial post, the Vice-Presidency, by choosing someone who had offended the fewest people. Everybody’s number-two choice.” 3 likes
“The Marshall Plan had stopped the Communists, had brought the European nations back from destruction and decay, had performed an economic miracle; and there was, given the can-do nature of Americans, a tendency on their part to take perhaps more credit than might be proper for the actual operation of the Marshall Plan, a belief that they had done it and controlled it, rather than an admission that it had been the proper prescription for an economically weakened Europe and that it was the Europeans themselves who had worked the wonders.” 2 likes
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