Lessons from The Best and the Brightest
By Arnold Kling
In early February 2017, New York Times sports reporter Marc Tracy spotted Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s controversial aide with a book.1 Bannon was reading The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s bitter critique of American involvement in Vietnam, published in 1972. I consider this book to be one of the most influential in my own life, and it certainly deserves a long review.
The Vietnam War was one of the costliest mistakes ever undertaken by American policy makers. That makes Halberstam’s attempt to diagnose the problems in the decision-making process particularly important.
Vietnam War Timeline
As Halberstam does in his book,2 it will be useful here to sketch a timeline of the Vietnam War.
1945. World War II ends. France re-establishes its colonial rule over Indochina (Vietnam), but many Vietnamese people want independence, and war ultimately breaks out. The revolt is led by Communists. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been averse to French colonialism, but he dies in April of 1945. President Harry Truman’s State Department is more sympathetic to the French. (In the 1950s, Senator John F. Kennedy, who also is hostile to French colonialism, gives a speech criticizing the French in North Africa. His speech draws angry rebukes from many American foreign policy leaders.)
1949. China falls to the Communists. In Halberstam’s telling, this sends shock waves through the American political system. There is recrimination over “Who lost China?” McCarthyism emerges. What we might today call “Communophobia” becomes the core of American foreign policy. Many Asia experts in the U.S. State Department are shifted to other areas because their correct predictions of the events in China are viewed as a failure to stand up against the Communists.
1954. After a disastrous defeat in the valley of Dien Bien Phu, the French abandon Indochina. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration considers an option to intervene, but Eisenhower declines. Vietnam is partitioned between a Communist North and a non-Communist South. Many of the top military leaders of South Vietnam were friendly to the French colonial regime, and the South Vietnamese government has little popular base. They soon face an insurgency by the Communist Viet Cong.
1961. Now President, John F. Kennedy builds a team of foreign policy advisers with seemingly outstanding credentials.
1963. The Kennedy Administration determines that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem has lost too much support. They encourage South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Diem. A few weeks later, President Kennedy is assassinated. New President Lyndon Johnson’s top concern is to keep Vietnam quiet until after the 1964 election.
1964. U.S. patrol boats are attacked by North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, in a disputable incident. President Johnson seizes on this incident to obtain passage in Congress of an open-ended resolution that gives him discretion to use American combat forces in Vietnam. In November, he wins the presidential election against Barry Goldwater in a landslide. Goldwater was a hawk on Vietnam, while Johnson ran as a peace candidate.
1965. The Johnson Administration sharply escalates American combat activity, including bombing North Vietnam and a great increase in the commitment of American troops. An anti-war movement begins to emerge on college campuses.
1966-1967. Escalation continues, both in American military action in Vietnam, and in the anti-war protests at home.
1968. Early in the year, an attack by the Viet Cong, known as the Tet Offensive, succeeds in demonstrating to Americans that the war is far from won. Shortly afterward, President Johnson announces that he will not run for another term. The year is filled with increasingly violent anti-war demonstrations and includes the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Junior. Eventually, Richard Nixon is elected President on a platform of “peace with honor” in Vietnam and law and order at home.
1969-1972. The United State changes its strategy in Vietnam, gradually withdrawing American forces and trying to shift more of the burden to the South Vietnamese army.
1973. A peace accord is signed in Paris, but the fighting continues.
1974. The Watergate Scandal brings down President Nixon. Congress cuts off funding for the Vietnam War, forcing a U.S. withdrawal.
1975. The capital of South Vietnam falls, and Vietnam is reunited under the Communists.
Power, Policy, and Intimidation
Ironically, the American loss in Vietnam did not have major consequences for its global strategic position. However, it had enormous consequences domestically. It created or exposed very sharp political differences, which have mostly persisted to this day. For example, the coastal elites came to disdain the basic patriotism of Middle America, and this can be seen in the hostile elite reaction to President Donald Trump’s appeals to patriotism and national interest.
“People who appear to be highly qualified to hold power can nonetheless carry out policies of monumental stupidity.”
Halberstam’s account of the war includes many lessons. However, what I take to be the central lesson is that the people who appear to be highly qualified to hold power can nonetheless carry out policies of monumental stupidity.
The book begins with a description of a meeting that President-elect Kennedy had in December of 1960, as he was working on his transition plan:
… [with] Robert A. Lovett, the symbolic expert, the best of the breed, a great surviving link to a then-unquestioned past, to the wartime and postwar successes of the Stimson-Marshall-Acheson years… He was a man of impeccable credentials, indeed he passed on other people’s credentials, deciding who was safe and sound, who was ready for advancement and who was not. (Halberstam, page 10)
He knew the rules of the game: to whom you talked, what you said, to whom you did not talk, which journalists were your kind, would, without being told, know what to print for the greater good, which questions to ask, and which questions not to ask. He lived in a world where young men made their way up the ladder by virtue not just of their own brilliance and ability but also of who their parents were, which phone calls from which old friends had preceded their appearance in an office. (page 11)
Hence, “the best and the brightest” was not a pure meritocracy. The Kennedy team were men who combined academic credentials with elite social backgrounds. They also held a similar view of recent history.
The lesson of history from Munich to Berlin was basic, they decided: one had to stand up, to be stern, to be tough. Lovett himself would talk of those years in the late forties as almost miraculous ones, when the American executive branch and the Congress were as one, when the Marshall Plan, the Point Four Program and NATO had come about and been approved. (page 14)
The Kennedy Administration faced a number of foreign policy crises, and they seemed to be energized by them. One took place in Laos.
It was the classic crisis, the kind that the policy makers of the Kennedy era enjoyed, taking an event and making it greater by their determination to handle it, the attention focused on the White House… officials were photographed briskly walking (almost trotting) as they came and went with their attaché cases, giving their No comment’s, the blending of drama and power, everything made a little bigger and more important by their very touching it. Power and excitement came to Washington. There were intense conferences, great tensions, opportunities for grace under pressure. Being in on the action. (pages 111-112)
Of course, one of the crises that they made bigger and more important by touching it was the Vietnam War. One of Halberstam’s themes is that the commitment to Vietnam had an internal dynamic, in which each additional increment of effort by the United States made it more difficult to back away, even when the situation in Vietnam deteriorated. For example, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara made frequent trips to Vietnam, and just the publicity surrounding these visits served to deepen our commitment.
Of McNamara, Halberstam writes,
He was a man of force, moving, pushing, getting things done, Bob got things done, the can-do man in the can-do society, in the can-do era. (page 265)
This description offers yet another lesson. I have come to see the “can-do” attitude, and its attraction to politicians and the public, as very dangerous. On economic matters, the “can-do” adviser offers the promise of a free lunch: increased access to health care without raising health care spending; tax cuts that “pay for themselves”; budget deficits that will create millions of jobs, projected with outrageously exaggerated precision.
When an entrepreneur in the private sector has a can-do attitude that dismisses doubters, this may occasionally work out well. At worst, the entrepreneur is risking his own money and those of others who voluntarily invest with him. The downside risks of the can-do man in the private sector are limited.
In contrast, when a can-do man receives the backing of the state, the downside risk is much higher. The government can stick with a misguided plan for much longer than a private firm. And the government is able to tap into a much bigger pool of resources to squander.
Intellectuals who lack the can-do attitude seem to be at a disadvantage in politics. In the Kennedy Administration, such individuals were either less powerful or out of the government altogether. Halberstam describes a lunch that Harvard sociologist David Riesman had with
… two of the more distinguished social scientists in the Kennedy government. On the subject of Vietnam, the others talked about limited war with the combativeness which marked that particular era, about the possibilities of it, about the American right to practice it, about the very excitement of participating in it… Riesman became more and more upset with the tone and the direction of the conversation… it occurred to him that his friends did not know much about America, about how deep the evangelical streak was. “You all think you can manage limited wars and that you’re dealing with an elite society which is just waiting for your leadership. It’s not that way at all,” he said. “It’s not an Eastern elite society run for Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations.” (page 55)
Halberstam also describes some of the flaws in President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam by contrasting it with Eisenhower’s decision not to intervene in 1954.
Whereas Eisenhower genuinely consulted the Congress, Johnson paid lip service to real consultation and manipulated the Congress. Eisenhower’s chief of staff had made a tough-minded, detailed estimate of what the cost of the war would be; eleven years later an all-out effort was made by almost everyone concerned to avoid determining and forecasting what the reality of intervention meant. In 1954 the advice of allies was genuinely sought; in 1965 the United States felt itself so powerful that it did not need allies, except as a means of showing more flags and gaining moral legitimacy for the U.S. cause. Eisenhower took the projected costs of a land war to his budget people with startling results; Johnson and McNamara would carefully shield accurate troop projections not only from the press and the Congress but from their own budgetary experts. The illusion… that bombing could be separated from combat troops, which was allowed to exist in 1965, was demolished in 1954 by both Ridgway and Eisenhower. (pages 178-179)
President Johnson was known as an intimidator. In Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power3, the fourth volume of his monumental biography of Johnson, Caro cites an interview that Robert Kennedy gave to a journalist in which Kennedy complained about Johnson’s
… treatment of subordinates…. “They’re all scared, of course. He’s a very mean, mean figure.” (Caro, page 243)
President Kennedy himself was not an intimidator. When he was succeeded by Johnson, the new President frightened away advisers who failed to show a can-do attitude on Vietnam. This intimidation factor made it very difficult to change policy. In fact, it made it difficult for anyone with dissenting views or pessimistic assessments to even obtain a hearing.
Other key members of the Kennedy team also were intimidators. McNamara was one. Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was another. Halberstam recounts an incident in 1962 in which an American officer with a realistically negative assessment of the situation was scheduled to give a briefing to high-level officials, but at the last possible moment his briefing was canceled by Taylor.
For more on these topics, see “Political Romance in the Internet Age,” by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, August 5, 2013. See also the EconLog blog posts How Not to Be a Pacifist, by Bryan Caplan, August 17, 2012; The Great Society at 50, by Alberto Mingardi, May 12, 2014; and the EconTalk podcast episode Weingast on Violence, Power and a Theory of Nearly Everything.
In the private sector, the CEO position is sometimes filled successfully by an intimidator, such as Steve Jobs. However, it is quite common for CEOs to follow a different management style, one which treats subordinates with courtesy and deference. Such CEOs encourage honesty on the part of those around them, rather than telling the boss only what he or she seems to want to hear.
If I had the access to President Trump that Steve Bannon once seemed to enjoy, the lesson that I would want to impart to President Trump is that he should try to restrain the urge to be an intimidator. The office of the President is intimidating in its own right. The President needs honest advisers more than he needs yes-men.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.