• U.S.

Books: Hangover from Hubris

6 minute read
Melvin Maddocks



688 pages. Random House. $10.

Like Viet Nam itself, The Best and the Brightest starts with a thread and leads into a labyrinth. The beginning is the simple question: “Why, why had it happened?” Before David (The Making of a Quagmire) Halberstam, one of the pre-eminent war correspondents of that undeclared war, can contain his question, he is deep in his own maze, wrestling with his own minotaur. It is an awesomely pretentious and yet unavoidable monster, which he describes as “a book about America, and in particular about power and success in America, what the country was, who the leadership was, how they got ahead, what their perceptions were about themselves…” And so on, and so on.

Above all, Halberstam’s Viet Nam is a disaster made to seem as inexorable as Greek tragedy. Here, in all conceivable detail, is the story of confident men misled by ambition, by pride, by a kind of moral and political blindness into a still incredible catastrophe—one in which a whole nation appeared to lose its innocence along with them.

Like all proper tragedies, The Best and the Brightest begins with hubris: the certainty of a young and ebullient President Kennedy and his New Frontiersmen that they constituted an elite, “a new breed of thinkers-doers” who could handle the world, to say nothing of what President Johnson was to refer to as “a raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country.” Halberstam’s satirical passion is to discount Camelot mercilessly—all the famous “pragmatists,” the zesty lovers of power, the “lean, swift young men who thought it quite acceptable to have idealistic thoughts and dreams just so long as you never admitted them.”

At times, for all his series of painstakingly individual biographies, Halberstam seems to be in the process of inventing a sort of composite Kennedy man: Walt McNamara Rostow-Bundy. A man with “impeccable credentials” (the phrase occurs again and again) and the small withering smile that confirms them. A man less liberal than he might try to look. A superclerk, the “supreme mover of papers,” possessed by “the belief that sheer intelligence and rationality could answer and solve anything.”

Again as in all proper tragedies, there are choruses to sound the alarum on the McNamara Rostow-Bundys, including old Senate Majority Leader Sam Rayburn (“I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once”). There was also plenty of handwriting on the walls. As early as 1954, General Matthew Ridgway had drawn up a report indicating that if the U.S. wanted to follow France into Indochina the price would be between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men tied down to a prolonged guerrilla war.

Camelot ignored all this and went blithely into the quagmire—”a war,” writes Halberstam, “which no one wanted, but which the rhetoric seemed to necessitate.” Not only the rhetoric of ritualistic anti-Communism but the rhetoric of machismo: the compensatory swagger of the liberal, the intellectual, to demonstrate he was a Realpolitik he-man by the American code. Here Halberstam simplifies in his zeal to give history a firm story line. He is more thoroughly convincing when he depicts what might be called the debacle of drift.

One of the solid virtues of The Best and the Brightest is the way Halberstam breaks down the tragedy of Viet Nam policy, showing it in slow motion. In fact, at first it all went deceptively slowly, a careless drift into a game of “counterinsurgency and special forces.” To support a policy that was no policy, only a momentum, the Kennedy Administration, Halberstam charges, “invented Diem and his country,” then became captive to its own myth. Escalation was only the logical extension of an original departure from reality. Perhaps the most sobering Halberstam homily concludes thus: “The best way for civilians to harness generals” is to “stay out of wars.”

As a moralist, Halberstam tends to paint his villains monochromatic black. The distinctions between tormented, self-divided men like McNamara and a hyperoptimist like Rostow get blurred by the author’s urge to define a single Viet Nam type. Halberstam’s heroes seem more varied, more living. His few heroes are the men who said no:

> Averell Harriman, described by an aide as “the only ambitious seventy-seven-year-old I’ve ever met,” fighting optimists like General Maxwell Taylor (“the key military figure,” Halberstam thinks, “in all the estimates”).

> George Ball, “the theologian,” and “the last man in Washington to write his own speeches,” warning that Viet Nam might require 300,000 American troops. Kennedy’s answer: “George, you’re crazier than hell.”

> Daniel Ellsberg, cornering McNamara on a plane to argue against escalation—”a Dostoevskyan figure” in mortal combat with a computer.

But, as with a classical tragedy, there was no turning back. By 1965, the proud, rational men had “completely lost control,” and a bitter Lyndon Johnson was left to watch the Great Society come all unstuck, while only Dean Rusk remained “steadfast” and only Walt Rostow dared offer hopeful predictions “like Rasputin to a Tsar under siege.”

What lessons in hindsight does Halberstam learn? The “national security” policymakers, he concludes, have constituted a club, a dangerously self-perpetuating Establishment, an inner Government confident of its expertise and zealous to guard itself by secrecy and quick retaliation from the democratic uses of criticism.

What is the solution next time? Halberstam is a bold, even reckless generalizer. He has not hesitated to indict an entire political generation. But even he falters at this point. Rather weakly he waves the flag of the new populism—an alliance of “Negroes, women, workers” that will somehow transfer power from the elite to the grass roots. He hopes vaguely that an excess of bloody rationalism will produce a rekindled “need for political humanism.”

Halberstam’s nearly 700 pages of doom dwarf his tentative footnote on salvation. Can there be a cure for a disease to which there is no diagnosis? An American tragedy, the war deserves, like this book about it, the summary of the Greek tragedy Antigone: “The pains that men will take to come to pain.” The only comfort may lie in the usual hangover from hubris. A nation that never doubted its invincibility and its innocence, as if those two were one, should never be that awfully certain of itself again. Who can quarrel with Halberstam here? The danger may be that, given the notorious wide swings of the American pendulum, the next phase will be corrosive self-doubt and excessive withdrawal from the world. With luck, though, the loss of hubris may lead to a new realism without fatigue or despair.

∎ Melvin Maddocks

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com