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The Best and the Brightest?
on 17 May 2004
Of all the books I've read on the Vietnam conflict, McMaster's offers the clearest insight on the political and military policy decisions which sucked America into an unwinnable war. McMaster analyses the decisions and perspectives of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations through to 1966, by which time American troops were fully engaged in Vietnam.
This book should really be read in conjunction with Robert MacNamara's 'In Retrospect', which I thought was a fairly honest account of MacNamara trying to come to terms with the consequences of his (and LBJ's) mismanagement of American policy on Vietnam, which, to his credit, he later recognised as wrong.
McMaster is justifiably harder on both the folly and outright deception of the Johnson administration's actions than MacNamara's version of events and his insights are profound, cool and lucid.
MacNamara's 'Whiz Kids' (Halberstam's 'The Best and the Brightest'), the technocrats from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, emerge from this account as arrogant, ignorant and shallow policy wonks who thought they knew war better than the military and thus kept the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) out of all major policy decisions on the war. They believed that any situation could be resolved through analysis, statistics and 'war as communication'. Tragically, the hubris of these nerds got 58,000 soldiers killed in a war they all clearly knew couldn't be won.
Johnson's determination to both commit to a limited war without the approval of Congress and hide his actions from the American people was breathtakingly cynical, even by US political standards. All his decisions were based on domestic political criteria (the Great Society programme) and he always seemed to believe that his reputation as a deal-maker would allow him to pull any iron out of the fire. As a political bully and shrewd cynical manipulator, he (with MacNamara's active help) was responsible for the shockingly (and knowingly) bad advice he received from his advisors, both political and military. His actions were fully conscious ones, framed by his limited defining perspective of domestic political considerations.
MacNamara's enthusiastic support and encouragement and his willingness to lie about the administration's actions is clinically exposed. The role of the JCS Chairman, and later US Ambassador to Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, exactly fulfils the term 'dereliction of duty' referred to in the title.
The JCS, unable to overcome crippling inter-service rivalry and torn between offering professional military strategic advice (as they were charged to do under the constitution) and loyalty to a President they rightly perceived as authorising military actions which could only have disastrous results, allowed themselves to be marginalised from the decision-making process. They, too, emerge with little credit, clearly seeing the consequences of the administration's decisions but lacking sufficient conviction or backbone to either act or resign, tried to make the best of a very bad job, making a bigger mess in the process.
An extremely well-researched and written book, the conclusions are more damning due to the balanced and cool approach adopted by McMaster. It would be easy to tip into righteous indignation, but McMaster's approach is all the more effective.
Along with Bernard Fall's books and Neil Sheehan's 'A Bright Shining Lie', one of the best on the subject.