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Sons of the Morning

The Best and the Brightest

by David Halberstam
Random House, 688 pp., $10.00

What is the purpose of this book? Six hundred and eighty-eight pages of “colorful” narrative that seem to have been breathlessly dictated to a recording device and, except for the portions that appeared in magazines, never to have been touched by an editorial pencil wielded by the author or anybody else. One keeps asking oneself to what end all these excited words were assembled, what they add to the already replete literature on the US and Vietnam. The book is now a fantastic best seller, yet the author cannot have aimed simply at the market. He is too sincere, too “concerned,” and who could have foreseen that the time was right for a huge “backgrounder” on our Vietnam involvement, studded, like a ham, with anecdotes and gossip about historic decisions and high-status personalities, syrupy with compassionate insights into the gamesmanship of power?

In fact the book’s success is a mystery to this reader, who was unable to stay awake for more than a few paragraphs at a go without ferocious application of will power, tea, coffee, drinks of water, propping open of eyelids, pinches, strolls about the room. I attribute my stupefied boredom partly to Halberstam’s prose, which combines a fluency of cliché with deafness to idiom and grammatical incomprehensibility. Yet I have read many dull and badly written books about Vietnam with no particular effort. If Halberstam’s was such a grind to get through, there must be other reasons. A soft, spineless construction: nuggets of research stuck together with a repellent sweetish glue serving as connective? Still, unavoidably, the narrative moves ahead (since events did), though the persistent regular insertion of biographical flashbacks, like the occurrence of nuts and raisins in some rather doughy hermits, makes the plot thicken more perhaps than was necessary.

But even if the slowness of pace, especially on familiar ground, may cause one impatience, that is not the basic problem—one could skip. The basic problem lies in that question of purpose, which keeps arising: the crying lack of any discernible intention. The author has an air of having something on his mind, some weighty portentous burden (having to do, somehow, with the shaping of US foreign policy and the selection of personnel), but whatever it is, or was, he is unable to convey to the reader, who comes out of the experience with no clearer notions than he had before on the cause and prevention of Vietnams. And the bewildered demand “Why is he writing this book? What is he trying to say?” may become, in the course of pages, “Why, for God’s sake, am I reading it?”

Despite the tone of concern and civic commitment, the book has less to contribute to the public interest (compare the Pentagon Papers) than to consumer appetites for unauthorized prowls down the corridors of power. If Halberstam has any message to impart, it is the anguished cry “Can we not learn from history?” But the historian cannot learn much from him, since he virtuously declines to give his sources, pleading the right of journalists not to identify their informants. This means that a great deal here is unverifiable. And though one may rely on his general good faith in reporting, his use of language does not inspire trust. For example, he is free with the word “lie,” as applied to McNamara and others, but one starts wondering what he means by that and did they lie, really, when on page 408 one reads that Adlai Stevenson “had stood and lied at the UN about things that he did not know,” and again on page 410, “It was better for Stevenson to go before, the United Nations and lie.” But Stevenson, as is semi-plain from the context, was not lying; he was innocently repeating the lies that had been told him.

Books addressed to the public interest are essentially remedial, conducive, it is hoped, to action, for which information and argument are necessary. But Halberstam is concerned with the reader, as opposed to the citizen. He is writing for an audience primed for suspenseful happenings, not doers but listeners, with breath duly bated—an apolitical state. I cannot think who will be benefited by The Best and the Brightest, who corrected or instructed, and if the book fails to hold the reader’s attention, as it so dismally did in my case, another reason may be that the pieties of the avowed purpose, the sighing and deploring, the reiterated “Why?” “Why?” (“What was it about these men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions, and above all the era which had allowed this tragedy to take place?”) dampened my vulgar eagerness to learn Mrs. McNamara’s nickname (“Marg”) or what author John Marquand’s author son said to “Lydie” Katzenbach on the Vineyard that spoiled her whole summer.

The Best and the Brightest (Bishop Heber had a better ear; shouldn’t it be The Brightest and the Best?) belongs at heart to the genre of popular historical fiction, as the writing shows: “Long afterward…the older man [Robert Lovett] would remember…,” “The great banking-houses,” “That cold December day,” “In the great drawing-rooms of Georgetown,” “In the great clubs of Washington and New York,” “after the assassination and all the pain,” “the great chambers of Europe,” “He [Chester Bowles] seemed behind the times; a few long years [sic] it would seem that he was ahead of them,” “Perhaps, just perhaps, it need not have been that way.”

There are many effects suggestive of leaves fluttering from a calendar in an old movie to indicate the passage of time, and the author is infatuated with a tense I can only describe as the Future Past, as in “the older man would remember.” See “Luce’s…conscience would bother him,” “Those years would show,” “These stories would surface,” “At a dinner party after the Bay of Pigs Bundy would tell friends…,” “The very process of choice would mark what the Administration was,” “the power and prestige that the McNamara years would bring,” “Years later he would sit in Saigon bars…,” “He would write of the early Philippine experience…,” “his very entry into the Vietnam war would catalyze them and give them muscle previously missing,” “But the Saigon years would not be happy ones.” Never “Bundy told friends,” “The stories surfaced.”

The tone is autumnal, soughing, with many “was to be”s, as well as the uncountable “would”s (certainly up in the thousands), signifying a future already plangent when it has not yet happened. And the “might have been”s, rarer but always present by wistful suggestion, chime in with their own melancholy: if only Kennedy had made Bowles his Secretary of State, if only Johnson had listened to George Ball, if only Harriman had been given more power, if only the reliable old China hands had not been languishing in exile…. Yet the “if only” music is quite out of key with the dominant Future Past, which persuades the listener that nothing could have been otherwise, since fate had written its tale in advance, foreseeing with Halberstam in a series of flash-forwards that what would be would be.

That awful tense, seeming to endow the author with prophetic powers, implies that this is a book of revelations. Actually there are few disclosures of the ordinary kind, that is of facts not generally known. I learned that Kennedy was a very good golfer, much better than Eisenhower, but kept it dark (no doubt fearing a confusion of “images”), that he used an “auto pen” to mimic his signature on letters (whereas Johnson didn’t), that behind a locked door in a bathroom he asked Michael Forrestal if he couldn’t persuade Harriman to use a hearing aid, that David Bruce’s wife cried when Kennedy was nominated in 1960, which helped lose her husband the Secretaryship of State when “it hung in the balance,” that Kennedy was appalled by photos showing what napalm had done to people and did not like defoliation either but finally approved the limited use of both, that aboard the Honey Fitz, where a party was going on, he turned red with anger as he read Senator Mansfield’s private and pessimistic report on his 1962 visit to Vietnam (“Do you expect me to take this at face value?”), that Johnson enjoyed reading FBI files and pretended to drink bourbon when he really drank scotch, that he was loath to start bombing North Vietnam during the Christmas season….

On Rostow: that he proposed putting sugar in the Cuban oil refineries during the missile crisis (taking the thought over from General Lansdale, who in 1954 had gone around Hanoi putting sugar in the gas tanks of trucks), that he gave a party at his home in Cambridge for “Joyce Carey [sic], the famous English novelist,” that he played the guitar….

I had not known that General Westmoreland sometimes are breakfast in his underwear to keep the press in his uniform. I think I had never heard of General Bill Depuy, an “intellectual” and the coinventor, with Westmoreland, of the search-and-destroy strategy. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, the details of the Paul Kattenburg story (gloomy in 1963 about Vietnam to the point of suggesting withdrawal, this rising official paid for his accuracy by having his career blasted), of the Lewis Sarris story (essentially the same: wrote a “devastating” study; was passed over repeatedly for promotion), of the David Nes story (same, though what happened to him finally is not told). Add the Colonel Dan Porter story (“brutally frank report” suppressed in 1963; he quits the Army), the story of his superior, one-star General York (pessimistic report suppressed in 1963; whether or not he left the Army unclear).

There is nothing surprising in these personal histories; the opposite would be news, on the man-bites-dog principle: a case of somebody being promoted in Washington or Saigon for telling the truth. But they are useful as reminders of a governmental pattern applied to Vietnam up until March, 1968, when Clark Clifford, at Defense, listened to the dark assessments of his subordinates and then secured Johnson’s attention while managing to keep his job. We knew from the Pentagon Papers that CIA estimates of the Vietnam picture were generally quite accurate, but Halberstam, I think, is the first to disclose that early in 1965, while to bomb or not to bomb was still the question, two CIA intelligence estimates of the over-all situation in Vietnam were sent to Washington from the Saigon embassy with the negative paragraphs deleted: those paragraphs warned that bombing would bring escalation of the war effort from both Hanoi and the Viet Cong.

Such acts of censorship, as anybody familiar with the literature can imagine, had no doubt become almost routine, capable of scandalizing no one. Nor would receipt of the deleted paragraphs have made the slightest difference. Reading this nth confirmation of a sad record, we nod, as we do when we are told of the scaling down of Colonel William Crossen’s report on the enemy’s capacity for reinforcement. That was the way the big ball was bouncing. But it was a surprise to learn that in the spring of 1963, “Buddhists were told by government troops to disburse [sic].” Likewise that under Kennedy, “High officials were inveighed to study Mao and Lin Piao.”

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