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The Best and the Brightest

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  11,356 ratings  ·  534 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, 688 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 g…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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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
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
Stefania Dzhanamova
Since I read his The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, which is a most dishonest and misleading account of what happened in Vietnam prior to President Lyndon B. Johnson's full-scale invasion, I have blacklisted David Halberstam. His reporting on Vietnam had been shallow and sensationalist, and so was his book. I knew in advance that THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST would probably be just as full of lies, but I could not bypass it. The status of a bestseller has given ma ...more
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
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
Michael Perkins
The author tries to turn this densely written tome into a compelling moral drama, like something from the Greeks, but it doesn't quite work. ...more
Apr 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing
How can brilliant and accomplished people make such terrible decisions? The Best and the Brightest , which focuses on the JFK and LBJ years of the Vietnam War, explores this question. Relative to other books about the war, the book gives special emphasis to the JFK years and his leadership team, as they would provide the intellectual foundation for intervention that proved very hard to shake off.

Each of the Vietnam War orchestrators profiled in the book has a little bit of a different story for
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.
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
Aug 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam appears on a number of lists of the most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century. I totally concur. It should be required reading for college Twentieth Century American History, and maybe even high school. It is a 5-plus star book in every sense.
This is the definitive story of how America found itself in the quagmire of the Vietnam War in the decade of the 1960's. And no one was better equipped to tell this story than Halberstam. He wo
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
Joseph Sciuto
Feb 06, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Hands down, The best book I have ever read about the policies that got us deeper and deeper involved in Vietnam! Throughout, it brought me to tears when I thought of the ignorance, lies, incompetence, dismissal of facts, and egos in the American government and military that cost the lives of fifty-six thousand American soldiers and quite possibly a million or more lives of civilians living in Vietnam.

In 1961 the new administration of President Kennedy was supposed to represent a new and glorious
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
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
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
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. ...more
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
Kurt Reichenbaugh
Feb 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Long, dense and ultimately devastating history of the currents and ideals that got America into a war in Vietnam. I would recommend this book after familiarizing yourself with a general history of the Vietnam War first. It begins with the Kennedy administration looking for a Secretary of State and ends with the Johnson administration bowing out of the 1968 campaign in disgrace.
Jeffrey (Akiva) Savett
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
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
John Devlin
Jun 06, 2016 rated it liked it
A detailed look at many men who worshipped at the feet of the same intellectual font. The tragic opus of how the well intentioned, the well prepared, and the well armed failed to meet the demands of the central foreign policy challenge of their time.
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
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
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 in ...more
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
Everett Probasco
Dec 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: hardcopy-owned
Two of the many themes that stood out to me in this book were 1) the failure of centrism and 2) the fallibility of the "experts".

Having to choose between the "Hawks" and the "Doves", JFK and LBJ chose the ostrich. The Hawks never got the all-out war they wanted at the beginning, and the ultimate failure of the war validated what the Doves believed they knew all along. I see a valid argument on both sides, but a side was not chosen, the failure was not choosing one. Experts that thought they coul
Bob Mayer
Jul 10, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Those who do not learn from history . . . .

I never thought after the lessons learned from Vietnam that we'd do it again. But here we are, slinking away, having killed hundreds of thousands, spent over a trillion dollars, and achieved nothing.

Except, of course, make a lot of money for some people.

This book is a classic about Vietnam and how we were deceived, by those who, in many cases, deceived themselves. I'm now seeing generals and pundits wondering what what happened, when what would happen
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. ...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.” 8 likes
“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 whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” It is my favorite story in the book, for it underlines the weakness of the Kennedy team, the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal fluency which the team exuded, and the true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience. Wisdom for a few of them came after Vietnam.” 7 likes
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