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The Best and the Brightest

4.25  ·  Rating Details  ·  7,008 Ratings  ·  251 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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13th out of 209 books — 368 voters
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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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
Dec 14, 2008 Jessica rated it really liked it
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
Jul 13, 2012 judy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, history
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
Jun 15, 2014 John rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 17, 2015 Max rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
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
Aug 01, 2011 James rated it really liked it
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
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
Carl Frankel
Nov 02, 2013 Carl Frankel rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 27, 2014 Chin Joo rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cold-war
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
Jun 09, 2015 Judy rated it really liked it
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
Nov 28, 2008 Renee rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 07, 2012 Eric_W rated it it was amazing
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.
Jack Wolfe
Nov 15, 2015 Jack Wolfe rated it it was amazing
"The trouble with you... is that you always think we can turn this thing off, and that we can get off of it whenever we want. But I wonder. I think if it was easy to get off of it, we would have already gotten off. I think it gets harder every day, every day we lose a little control, each decision that we make wrong, or don't make at all, makes the next decision a little harder because if we haven't stopped it today, then the reasons for not stopping it will still exist tomorrow, and we'll be ev ...more
Jim Mallon
Apr 29, 2015 Jim Mallon rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 14, 2012 Samarth rated it it was ok
Shelves: own
More of a 2.5.

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

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
Oct 06, 2014 Rick rated it it was amazing
Shelves: vietnam-war
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
Feb 26, 2011 Troy rated it really liked it
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
Benjamin  Berman
Mar 14, 2011 Benjamin Berman rated it really liked it
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
Mar 16, 2009 Billy rated it liked it
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
Oct 05, 2007 Louis rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
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
David Steece, Jr.
Jan 23, 2016 David Steece, Jr. rated it it was amazing
Shelves: vietnam
In a league of its own. As he says in the afterword, a book about America, not Vietnam. A book about what power and success mean in America, and the way those forces guided the tragedy in Vietnam. I felt that it was, in many ways a companion to "A Bright and Shining Lie" (the other titanic work in English language Vietnam literature). Points left out of "Bright & Shining" (particularly the fate of the State Department's China specialists in the early 1950s) are covered, and things pored over ...more
John Hawklyn
May 19, 2009 John Hawklyn rated it it was amazing
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
Sean Kottke
May 03, 2015 Sean Kottke rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 08, 2014 Kim Anderson rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 21, 2014 Canavan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Jul 12, 2010 Judy rated it it was amazing
This book was first published in 1972 and has held up quite well over time. It is an examination of the men who were brought into government by President Kennedy and who stayed in government to work with Lyndon Johnson. Unfortunately, these "best and brightest" also worked together to form the policies that gradually drew the United States into the war in Vietnam. A must read for anyone who is involved in developing public policy.
Nov 20, 2015 Pmacke rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Halberstam is not only a fantastic writer, but a near genius - and you would have to be to write over 600 intricate pages on this or any subject ... the book is incredibly detailed and complex ... it requires an intellectual commitment by the reader - and i was unworthy ... i wanted to know how we got into Vietnam and how we could have avoided it (or what our foreign policy SHOULD have been in southeast asia at this time); some of this the boom delivers, maybe all of it if you're smart enough to ...more
Adri Nurellari
Jan 23, 2016 Adri Nurellari rated it really liked it
This is one of the most interesting books I have ever read on American history and politics. It provides a comprehensive and well researched explanation of the actors and events that lead to the involvement of the USA in the Vietnam war. The author does so by dwelling into the biographies of the protagonists of the Kennedy administration who came from top schools full of arrogance but lacked a thorough understanding of colonialism and nationalism in Asia and as a consequence underestimated the r ...more
Walter A
Mar 20, 2015 Walter A rated it it was amazing
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
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  • A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
  • The Final Days
  • Vietnam: A History
  • In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
  • The Making of the President 1960
  • Arms and Influence
  • Perception and Misperception in International Politics
  • Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers
  • The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966
  • Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
  • A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House
  • They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967
  • Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet
  • Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam
  • The White House Years
  • Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam
  • Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam
  • The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays
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
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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.” 5 likes
“Some of his [Chester Bowles's] friends thought that his entire political career reflected his background, that he truly believed in the idea of the Republic, with an expanded town-hall concept of politics, of political leaders consulting with their constituency, hearing them out, reasoning with them, coming to terms with them, government old-fashioned and unmanipulative. Such governments truly had to reflect their constituencies. It was his view not just of America, but of the whole world. Bowles was fascinated by the political process in which people of various countries expressed themselves politically instead of following orders imposed by an imperious leadership. In a modern world where most politicians tended to see the world divided in a death struggle between Communism and free-world democracies, it was an old-fashioned view of politics; it meant that Bowles was less likely to judge a country on whether or not it was Communist, but on whether or not its government seemed to reflect genuine indigenous feeling. (If he was critical of the Soviet leadership, he was more sympathetic to Communist governments in the underdeveloped world.) He was less impressed by the form of a government than by his own impression of its sense of legitimacy. ... He did not particularly value money (indeed, he was ill at ease with it), he did not share the usual political ideas of the rich, and he was extremely aware of the hardships with which most Americans lived. Instead of hiring highly paid consultants and pollsters to conduct market research, Bowles did his own canvassing, going from door to door to hundreds of middle- and lower-class homes. That became a crucial part of his education; his theoretical liberalism became reinforced by what he learned about people’s lives during the Depression.” 4 likes
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