Friday, December 23, 2011

Best Book of 2011

It's nearly the end of 2011, a year that for me meant a new job, a record year for hits here at Kline Online, and lots of exciting writing projects that have appeared on the pages of publications from the New York Times to the Delmarva Farmer. The other day at a meeting, the topic of 'what good books have you read lately' came up, which, as an avid reader, is always one of my favorite discussions. I read a lot of good books in 2011, a few great ones, and a few that I likely won't be reading again any time soon. But one book in particular takes home the prize 'Best Book of 2011.'

Now, just to be clear, my 'Best Book of 2011' was not published in 2011. Indeed, it was published in 1972, before I was even born. But it was far and away the best book I read in 2011, and makes the short list for best books I've ever read. Written by the incredible David Halberstam, Steve Kline's best book of 2011 is The Best and the Brightest.

Halberstam cut his journalistic teeth covering the war in Vietnam for the New York Times, but quit the paper in order to focus on telling the compelling story of just how the United States fell headlong into a deadly quagmire that was jeopardizing so much American blood and treasure, not to mention nothing of the impact on the Vietnamese. That project became the The Best and the Brightest, which approaching forty years old is still timely and relevant.

McCarthyism scared the pants off this country in the 1950s in ways that most people, then and now, utterly failed to realize. Not just a time of overzealous red-baiting, Halberstam postulates that American political leaders of all stripes, as a result of McCarthyism, became so obsessed with loyalty and defeating Communists (real and imagined) that as a group they were completely unwilling to put the brakes on what was clearly a fools errand on the shores of the South China Sea.

Developed initially by George Kennan, and so-named by Dwight Eisenhower, the domino theory is an oft-cited justification for US involvement in Vietnam. Halberstam credibly makes the case that the real domino theory was a series of bad decisions, each becoming increasingly inevitable making the opportunity for a fundamental change of course virtually impossible. The weight of those decisions began to create their own deadly momentum. At some point, the choices became less choices and more responses, until ulimtately, saving face became a critical justification for continued American commitment in Southeast Asia.

The book's title comes from the manufactured aura of the Kennedy Administration, the idea held by many (to this day) that Kennedy brought to the White House a team of young dynamos, full of new ideas, the so-called best and brightest. But Halberstam makes clear that to a man, these intellectuals were anything but anti-establishment. They were convinced of their own brilliance, however, even while they rephrased old arguments for losing a new war. Many like to think that Kennedy was preparing a statement on Vietnam that would have ended a US military build-up in that country at the time of his death, but the fact remains that all of Kennedy's advisors managed the war for Lyndon Johnson.

Upwards of 60,000 American men lost their lives in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia between 1960 and 1972. The leadership in Washington during this time spanned four presidents and countless aides and advisors at DOD, State, and in the White House. They were no doubt all smart men, but in the final assessment, they were terribly wedded to old assumptions, and the cost couldn't have been dearer. And while The Best and The Brightest is approaching 40 years old, it remains strongly relevant today.


Alaska Bob C said...

Excellent choice. I will have to go back and re-read it, with the glorious examples of iraq and afganistan in fresh memory.

prpark said...

That is a great choice. My uncle always commented that John Paul Vann was a man of integrity and served with him in Vietnam. it is often the lesser known who make the difference: the quiet professionals