David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Random House, 1972)
Reissued in paperback by Random House in 1993.
Without the benefit of the Pentagon Papers, long before the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, and before we knew just how right we were about the vast futility of Vietnam, David Halberstam had already managed to shade in one of the most exhaustive portraits ever on the great minds behind an even greater disaster.
The book is not so much a history of the Vietnam War as it is a series of layered anecdotal profiles. Halberstam lowers you into the bath of optimism enveloping the Kennedy administration, introducing the brilliant assemblage of handpicked staffers who gave the book its name. It traces the meteoric arcs of careers like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Mac Bundy, and Max Taylor into the fumbling ambivalence of Vietnam policy. We watch the specter of mutually assured destruction haunt them after the Cuban missile crisis and throughout their misadventures with a fledgling foreign policy of containment. The book ends with Nixon's 1968 election.
With America still mired in the Vietnam conflict, 1972 would seem a precipitous time to inquire into how we became involved and, braver still, why we lost. But Halberstam's answers, which hint not lightly at a world of political self-delusion and failed decision-making, seem that much more prescient in the 1993 paperback anniversary edition.
An excerpt from the Columbia Journalism Review
Reviews compiled by Powell's Books
Brief Biography of Halberstam