The Best and the Brightest
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The Best and the Brightest

4.24 of 5 stars 4.24  ·  rating details  ·  4,865 ratings  ·  204 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, 720 pages
Published October 26th 1993 by Ballantine Books (first published 1969)
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Miss Leacock
Apr 14, 2014 Miss Leacock is currently reading it
I just went to Vietnam and visited the Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton). There were pictures of the American POWs playing basketball and chess and billiards, making it look like they really enjoyed their time there. I knew that wasn't true, but didn't know much else. I want to read the section in Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir in which John McCain describes his imprisonment to see what it was really like for the American POWs.
I don't know very much about the Vietnam War either. During a tour o...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
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
Andrew Tollemache
The Vietnam War has always fascinated me and no, not in a Hueys and rice paddy kind of way, but in how it represents an utter failure of the foreign policy apparatus of 4-5 presidents. Halberstam's book is most concerned with the Kennedy and Johnson years, but he also goes really in depth in exploring how the Indochina/Vietnam issue progressed from obscure post WW2 French colonial war into the biggest foreign policy debacle of the 20th century. The war shattered the "elite consensus", greatly di...more
Amit
This is a book about how people regarded as some of the brightest of their generation led the US into the Vietnam war.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was that, in any sizable organization, once a leader starts a project (whether it is a war or merely a new product development initiative), it takes a life of its own. People in the organization stake out positions, internally and externally. Commitments get made that cannot be broken without losing face. Careers get tied to its success. Naysay...more
Luke Terry

I wonder what our perception of Kennedy would be with his involvement in Vietnam if he wasn't assassinated and if his wife wasn't hot.

Some quotes from the book (there's a lot of them):

· “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 were easy to get off of it, we would already have gotten off. I think it gets harder every day, each day we lose a little control, each decision that we make wrong...more
Abby
Can't remember why I wanted to read this; I might have confused it with A Bright, Shining Lie--two books about Vietnam that have Bright in the title. It's 678 small-print pages; I thought I'd be reading it for months, yet it's compelling. It's largely character driven, and if you're not familiar with the characters, you'll be at something of a loss. I also sensed a smugness on the part of the author that put me off some. The tone is a little odd, yet I could never figure out why I thought that....more
Jeff Lacy
A magnificent intellectual work, dense and informative, a book worth reading whether one is interested in the Vietnam War or not (credibly researched but poorly edited leaving one to plow through some confusing, too long, complex passages, pages). Like Thomas Ricks', THE GENERALS, Halberstam's THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST teaches lessons beyond historical events. This book is about the players at the highest level of U.S. Government (Gen. Harkins for one, and Gen. Maxwell Taylor) that created a wa...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
Bob
Oct 19, 2012 Bob rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Bob by: Seymour Russell
Brilliantly written, Halberstam's account of the men who made the key political and military decisions on Vietnam is a graphic warning for our times. The military, focused as it is on the benefits of war to advancement of military careers (more budget $$, more officers, more troops, more equipment), tells its own lies about how the war is going and will go; the politicians, focused on the need to appear sufficiently "tough" and "anti-Communist" (read "anti-terrorist" for today), ignore their own...more
Aaron Million
Outstanding book, as is anything that I have read by Halberstam. He was such a gifted reporter and writer, able to flesh out the often conflicting motives in people and describe how their personalities significantly impacted policy decisions. Halberstam does focus on personalities as far as history goes - believing that peoples' beliefs, concerns, fears, flaws, and strengths had much more impact on events than the reverse. I recently read "War in a Time of Peace" which definitely seemed like it...more
Gene
Reading David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" 40 years after its first printing has afforded this student of history a perspective which wouldn't have been available back in the 1970's (when it was published) or the 1980's. Halberstam wrote the book in 1972- just as the Vietnam War was starting to wind down, but before we had truly seen "the light at the end of the tunnel". Halberstam conducted over 500 interviews and did an enormous amount of research into the backgrounds of all the m...more
Brian
The Best and the Brightest is one of Halberstam’s most remembered works and explores how one of the most intelligent cabinet and advisers in the history of the Presidency was able to become embroiled in a conflict in Vietnam that so many knew was a bad idea. Was it a case of eggheads looking past the obvious and trying to show intellectual superiority, was it a case of following numbers even when they did not make sense from a logical standpoint despite what the chart says? It is this and much m...more
Tim Giauque
Oh, what a frustrating and depressing read The Best and the Brightest is. This book has a well-earned reputation for being the definitive account of the political story behind the Vietnam War, and one can only marvel at the extreme amount of work that must have gone into researching and preparing the book, but, oof.

This is a book about arrogance, first and foremost. Just stare in awe at the magnitude of the miscalculations and egotism on display throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administration...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
More about David Halberstam...
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