‘The Best and the Brightest’: Column
By Rich Elfers
The year was 1975. I had just received my master’s in history from Pepperdine University in Central L.A. I had also just left the religious cult I had been involved with since I was a teenager in 1963. Traveling home to Renton from Pasadena, California, in my 1963 American Motors Ambassador station wagon with all my worldly possessions packed in the back, I had a lot to think about.
A few months earlier I had read a book by David Halberstam, “The Best and the Brightest.” “Published in 1972, it’s the definitive account of the decision-making process that led to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, written while the war was still being fought.” (Shapiro, David. “Geopolitical Futures”, March 5, 2019)
Halberstam’s book dramatically changed my rather cloudy thinking about the Vietnam War and the federal government. It was as if scales fell from my eyes and I saw reality from an entirely different perspective.
The cult, the Worldwide Church of God, led by Herbert W. Armstrong, was anti-war. I was classified as an “IV-D” divinity student on my draft deferment. The WCG, as we called it, paradoxically favored the Cold War interpretation of the Vietnam conflict as a war against godless communism. Implicit in that stand was the belief in the domino theory myth: If Vietnam fell to the Communists, all of Southeast Asia would fall, too, all the way through the rest of Asia to Europe.
The men who led the U.S. government during the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations were considered the “best and the brightest,” thus the reason for the book title. They were “men of the best caliber and the best of intentions,” according to Halberstam. They were also filled with hubris. Their pride and inability to break out of the cultural straitjacket of the Cold War trapped them into a costly conflict that could have and should have been avoided.
Unfortunately, the war did not go as planned for the United States. The North Vietnamese and the Communist Viet Cong (guerrilla fighters in U.S.-backed South Vietnam) did not view the war in the same way as the highly educated American elites.
This war was not a standoff between capitalism and communism as it was portrayed in the media and by the government. Instead, it was a war of independence and self-determination. It was not a war against the Soviet Union.
Had they been able to see the world through different eyes, the lives of millions of Vietnamese and Americans could have been saved. At the same time, we might have avoided the decay of trust of the U.S. government that has brought us to our current polarized nation that we live in today.
Shapiro notes in his book review: “in part because the experts who might have explained it to them had been tarnished and purged from the system by McCarthyism and replaced with less knowledgeable men who saw the world as they wanted to see it, not as it was.”
Both Kennedy and Johnson believed they could fight a war of moderation; one that was not all out. Some wanted no U.S. troops on the ground in Vietnam. Others wanted American soldiers. The compromise was to have some, but not enough to win. Defeat based upon this desire for moderation was inevitable.
This was not even counting Vietnamese nationalism that would make victory impossible. Shapiro thinks this war was winnable. I do not. The Vietnamese fought the Chinese for 1,000 years and drove them out. They drove out the French between 1946 and 1954. The U.S. was just one more colonial power to defeat.
Whatever the case, American government leaders were unwilling or unable to face reality. Body counts of dead Viet Cong turned this war into a war of statistics. There was no clear purpose or goal. Rising American opposition to a war 10,000 miles away, and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974, forced American leaders to face the facts.
We could win on the battlefield, but, as the Afghan and Iraqi wars have later shown us, mere firepower is not enough to win the hearts and the minds of the populace against a determined and patient enemy. With good reason, President Obama, and now President Trump have endeavored to get us out of similar conflicts, with only partial success. They both realized that we have our limitations as the world’s only superpower.
That is the reality I came to after reading Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” in 1974.
Rich Elfers is a columnist with the Courier-Herald in Enumclaw, a former Enumclaw City Council member and a Green River College professor. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.