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The Best and the Brightest

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  9,421 ratings  ·  404 reviews
The Best and the Brightest is David Halberstam's masterpiece, the defining history of the making of the Vietnam tragedy. Using portraits of America's flawed policy makers and accounts of the forces that drove them, The Best and the Brightest reckons magnificently with the most important abiding question of our country's recent history: Why did America become mired in Vietn ...more
Paperback, 20th Anniversary Edition, 720 pages
Published October 26th 1993 by Ballantine Books (first published 1969)
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Ellen This book came up in Fire and Fury, the Michael Wolff book about the Administration that I am reading now. I can't say for sure who is giving Bannon…moreThis book came up in Fire and Fury, the Michael Wolff book about the Administration that I am reading now. I can't say for sure who is giving Bannon grief for reading it, but by Wolff's account, Bannon considered it either a how-to manual for government or an indictment of ALL bureaucracy and establishment politics. (I don't think was the spirit in which Halberstam intended his account, but I haven't read it yet so I couldn't say for sure. My impression is that it's a more specific critique than that.) (less)

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Lori
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"It sounds unspeakably dull and ponderous; it was not. I found I could not put the book down. It had all the ingredients of a great novel: a tragic plot of almost Shakespearean proportions, a fascinating cast of characters, and some wonderful writing." —Liaquat Ahamed, The Independent. 01 January 2010

"In 1963, the notion that a newspaper reporter might challenge the official story of generals and ambassadors in the middle of a war, essentially accusing them of lying, was so improbable that it co
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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
judy
Jul 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction
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
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
Max
Feb 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
J.
Dec 14, 2008 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
...more
John
Dec 10, 2009 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
...more
Peter Mcloughlin
The hubris, the miscalculation, the turning a deaf ear to bad news, telling the boss what he wants to hear, generals who give rosy reports so as not to spook the civilian authorities, lying to the public and minimizing the problems. This tale is told from the commanding heights of powerful men who driven by very human frailties and flaws plowed the US into a quagmire costing 60,000 American lives and millions in Indochina. This tale only talks about Vietnam and each move drawing us deeper into ...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
Jul 22, 2011 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
...more
Michael Perkins
Jul 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
“Among those dazzled by the Administration team was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. After attending his first Cabinet meeting he went back to his mentor Sam Rayburn and told him with great enthusiasm how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next, and that the smartest of them all was that fellow with the Stacomb on his hair from the Ford Motor Company, McNamara. “Well, Lyndon,” Mister Sam answered, “you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a wh ...more
Carl Frankel
Nov 02, 2013 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
Eric_W
Nov 07, 2012 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.
David Steece, Jr.
Sep 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Christopher
An incredibly good narrative on how America became so heavily involved in Vietnam. His profiles of the major figures, such as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and MacGeorge Bundy, are both enlightening and disheartening. It is disheartening because many of these guys were so smart that they should have (and probably did) know better than to make the decisions they made. I guess the moral that anyone who reads this books should take away is that any president and/or administration that misleads and do ...more
Brian Eshleman
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Tragic in the truest sense. It shows the cost of huebris and reminds us that even the best of our leaders cannot really see the end from the beginning. Real leaders with equal parts curiousity to ask question after question and the skeptism to evaluate answers from all angles are rare indeed.
charlie
Apr 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The Vietnamese war was an epic failure of governance on every level.

In 1969, a New York Times reporter who witnessed from the front lines the impact of twenty five years of bad management, where the results are truly felt, comes home to dissect the mistakes and the people responsible. The Best and The Brightest is his indictment... His effort to hold every single one of them responsible. And to define each of their failures - whether trying to do too much, or too little... Or as he often points
...more
Chin Joo
Jul 08, 2013 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
Aaron Million
Mar 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
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
Rick
Apr 23, 2012 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
Judy
Jul 12, 2010 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.
Renee
Nov 28, 2008 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.
Michael C.
Jan 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Finally I have an understanding of the political and military evolution of our tragic involvement in Vietnam. Phenomenal/ unbiased research and presentation by the author.
A book to be reread in the future.
Bill Manzi
Apr 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A true masterpiece. It is hard to believe that I am reading this book in 2017, but it is still relevant today, offering insights that policy makers can still learn from. To that end I was reminded of this book by a news report that Steve Bannon was spotted with a copy of the book at an airport. Yes, very relevant today.

Halberstam does a deep dive here, looking back at the historical record, rolling back to Truman and Acheson, looking at how the political scars of the “who lost China” meme impact
...more
Marsinay
5 stars for the amazing amount of research and analysis that went into this work. Oh, and it’s well-written.
Louis
Oct 03, 2007 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
...more
Jack Wolfe
Sep 06, 2015 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
Troy
Feb 07, 2011 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
...more
Jim Mallon
Feb 22, 2015 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
Benjamin  Berman
Apr 18, 2010 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
...more
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David Halberstam was an American journalist and historian, known for his work on the Vietnam War, politics, history, the Civil Rights Movement, business, media, American culture, and later, sports journalism. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1964.

Halberstam graduated from Harvard University with a degree in journalism in 1955 and started his career writing for the Dai
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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.” 6 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.” 5 likes
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