The Whiz Kids Go To War
PERHAPS YOUR HIGH SCHOOL English teacher told you that tragedy died on the way to the twentieth century. Lyndon Johnson proved her wrong In an era searching for human grandeur, Johnson flaunted the strengths and flaws of a tragic hero, Puffed with pride and ambition, he dared to challenge the rule of the gods. Or more precisely in our de- deified world he dared to thwart the course of history.
He was not alone in his effort. Surrounding him were the very best minds that America could produce. There was McGeorge Bundy, Superboy, who went to Yale instead of Harvard because "the Bundys had decided that after both Boston and Groton. Yale might be somewhat broadening." There was Robert McNamara, Whiz Kid, razormind under clicked down hair the Motor City intellectual who had a just for numbers and a remarkable ability to convince other people of things he did not believe himself There was Dean Rush the Georgia boy who became a Rhodes scholar an anticommunist fundamentalist a skipper who saved loyal even after the shop had sunk And who could forget Maxwell Taylor the golden general the general who wrote books." Of Walt M. Rostow the mad bomber from MIT. It was quite a cast. It was quite a show.
Would you trust must an historian to tell this story? Fortunately, you don't have to. For almost respected reporters and a former Crimson managing editor has been compiling a Chronicle of the destroys that created the war. His book, The Best and the Brightest, is the finest sort of reporting. Stuffed with anecdotes, charged with drama, this book will still be read when all the half-baked histories of stories and quotations that Halberstam includes are so wonderful you feel compelled to repeat them all to your friends. There was the time, for example, that Richard Goodwin returned to the White House as a speechwriter and informed Hugh Sidey of Life that he was back. Siidey visited President Johnson and asked if Goodwin would be writing speeches, Johnson denied it. He then sat Sidey down and drew a diagram of White House responsibilities. Nowhere did Goodwin's name appear. Then, at the last minute, Goodwin's name appear. Then, at the last minute, Johnson pencilled in the word "Miscellaneous" and beneath it wrote, with deliberate ignorance, "Goodman." It is just as amusing to learn that Johnson's insistence that his subordinates "accompany him into the bathroom for conversations during the most personal of body demands" drove C. Douglas Dillon out of the Cabinet. Then there is Mrs. Averell Harriman's response when told her husband looked terrific at age 70: "You'd look terrific too, if you did nothing but play polo until you were forty years old." These anecdotes provide insight as well as humor. They form the heart of the book.
FOR THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT PEOPLE, specifically, about those powerful men who ran America in the Sixties. With remarkable clarity, Halberstam details the ways that decisions are made. Already we have seen a truckload of books which posit economic, political, psychological or altruistic motivations for American involvement in Vietnam. This book is different, Halberstam reveals how men operating in an institutional context turn theoretical considerations into hard-nosed policy.
The problem is a long-standing one, particularly for the radical historians who see dollar signs beneath the letters of every foreign policy document. You can show that policy is formed by a socio-economic elite, and you can show that in one way or another this policy serves the interests of that elite. The final elusice proof, though, is to reveal what the policymakers had in mind when they made the decisions.
Halberstam helps expose this nexus between interests, principles and actions. The best and the Brightest begins with a meeting between President-elect Kennedy and Robert Lovett, the torchbearer of the Establishment. Kennedy had run as a liberal, Halberstam writes, and he knew the liberal had nowhere else to go. So he turned his back on the liberal stevensonian, Chester Bowies, and cultivated the Lovetts and the Luces. Lovett impressed upon Kennedy the importance of choosing a professional Cabinet of "the right people"--people like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Douglas Dillon. When Kennedy, the Irish Catholic from Boston, replied that he did not know the right people, Lovett told him not to worry, it would all be taken care of. And it was. No statistics dredged up by C. Wright Mills could make the point better than that anecdote.
The institutions, as well as the man provide a continuity to American foreign policy. Presidents must keep an eye on Congress, and the resulting loss in peripheral vision narrows the range of policy alternatives. During the Cuban missile crisis, John Kennedy tempted the holocaust and yet considered his actions dovish because many Congressional leaders demanded "surgical strikes" against the Cuban missile sites. A few years later, Lyndon Johnson remembered that the "loss of China" cost Trumaa control of the Congress. He was determined not to repeat the error in Vietnam.
The options were pre-sat, so that when civilians gave the military only half the number of troops requested, they thought they were "drawing the line." Only later would they find that reading even that many troops turned the line late a rubber hand which would stretch and stretch and stretch. Robert McNamara, who called into the Defense Department determined to end the reliance on nuclear weapons, inevitably compensated by revving up the conventional armed forces. He had experienced similar problems at Ford, where an ill-fated campaign promoting safety in automobiles left the hotshot glamorous car as the only remaining alternative. The options were prefabricated. The questions were always multiple choice, never fill-in.
AND THE RIGHT ANSWER was the one that the teacher--or the president--wanted. The office of President "creates such respect and awe that it has almost a cowering effect on men." Robert Kennedy wrote in Thirteen Days, "Frequently I saw advisers adapt their opinions to what they believed President Kennedy and later, President Johnson wished to hear." There were two cardinal tenets I We are doing the right thing? We are doing it well When the China experts with three names apiece--John Carter Vincent, John Stewart Service indicated that the Chinese Nationalists were losing and only a rapprochement with the Communists could prevent Chiang Kai-snek's defeat they were booted out of office as traitors When during the Cuban missile crisis Adlai Stevenson suggested that the United States remove from Turkey its obsolete missiles (which the President had already slated for the dustbin) so that the Russians could withdraw from Cuba and save a little face, the other government officials jumped on him and the proposal never received serious consideration. When the Vietcong attacked the American barracks at Pleiku in February. 1965, Hubert Humphrey opposed retaliators bombing against North Vietnam for the next several months he was shut out of meetings and cut off the memo circuit until in early 1906 the President subjected him to a humiliating trip to Vietnam and then let him rejoin the fraternity.
John Kennedy realized the danger of yes-men and tried to encourage dissent. Lyndon Johnson was a more jealous and insecure man. "I don't want loyalty," he once said, "I want loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy's window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses. I want his pecker in my pocket," He wanted more than loyalty "Servility" might be a better word. After Hubert Humphrey gave a speech which seemed to take some personal credit for the Administration's education policies, Johnson called in the White House correspondents and remarked, "Boys, I've just reminded Hubert than I've got his balls in my pocket." The reminder was probably unnecessary.
EVERYONE KNEW that Johnson, a man of enormous talent and capability, felt out of place among the Ivy League Acheson-types. Insecure, he demanded enthusiastic support and judged all opinions by the "loyalty" or "disloyalty" of their proponents.
Before he lost everything, including the all-important loyalty, he dreamed of becoming the architect of the greatest society in American history. The war was a sideshow, something which could blow up in his face if it became too important or too controversial, So he made the decision to hold the line in Vietnam. As the line became harder to hold, he kept hoping that a little more force would do the job. There were always wise men around him to reinforce the delusion. And thus he proceeded, propelled by pride and fear, to become not the great healer and friend of the little man, but the prosecutor of a bitterly hated war. Lyndon Johnson destroyed Vietnam; Vietnam destroyed Lyndon Johnson. It was a next apposition of tragedies.
THE TRAGEDY of Lyndon Johnson fascinates Halberstam, so it fascinates us as well. Too easily we can forget that the far vaster tragedy was suffered--and is still being suffered--by the Vietnamese. Their tragedy was not, like Johnson's in the classical mold. Their own flaws and hubris (a word which threatens to repeat the rise of "chairman") did not cause their undoing. Like the antagonist in a twentieth-century novel by Kafka or Camus, their enemy is faceless, irrational and overpowering. The Vietnamese are the real-life counterparts of Joseph K. and Meursault; they attain nobility by resisting oppression.
The world contains millions of other victims whose struggle is less dramatic than the Vietnam War. And while David Halberstam may be right to say that John Kennedy was too skeptical and shrewd over to permit such a disastrous escalation of the conflict, we cannot blame Lyndon Johnson for every repressive American-supported regime throughout the world. The personality of Lyndon Bolnas Johnson is one reason for the criminal blunder in Vietnam. But the Vietnam War is anomalous only in its failure.
Similarity, the personality of Johnson is only the most colorful and powerful of many. When reading Halberstam's book, we should not permit Johnson's gaudy figure to obscure the Image of his staff. Sam Rayburn described than best. When his good friend Lyndon came to him after the 1960 election, gushing over the brilliance of the new Cabinet, the shrowd old Speaker said, "Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole let better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once." Knowledge untempered by experience and detached from moral underpinnings is a dangerous and uncontrollable weapon. Witness McGeorge Bundy. After he left the White House, he appeared on a television show in New York, Making small talk before the show began, a TV aide told Bundy he must be relieved to escape the terrible pressure of the war, "Oh, yes," Bundy said, "you people up here is New York take that all very seriously, don't you?" He was not joking.
Bundy is the best example of these cold-blooded men who developed their policies in the thin air to statistics and game-theory, divorced from the flesh-and-blood results of their decisions. When Bundy waited Pleiku a year before he left the White House, he was shocked to see the wounded American soldiers. He had never thought about the people dying over there; he was genuinely moved. This human reaction aid not cause a reassessment of policy, however. On the contrary. Bundy's emotion was channeled into hatred of the enemy." It made him a more fervent supporter of the existing unemotional policies.
BECAUSE THEY KEPT the bloodshed far from their own front door, Bundy and his colleagues were able to remain fine citizens, good husbands and fathers, upright and moral men. They retained their integrity by limiting their range of experience. The same phenomenon occurred in World War II. The Nazis gassed and started the Jews and the Slavs (among others); the Allies bombed the civilians of Dresden and Hiroshima (among others). Nobody felt any guilt The criminals never saw their victims.
The Best and the Brightest provides an extraordinary view of bureaucratic evil in the making It explores the way historical events like the McCarthy repression influence the treatment of subsequent situations. It shows how blunders are compounded and options are closed off; Halberstam has substitued the metaphor "tar baby" for his previous "quagmire" to indicate that the process is not a passive one, even after the first misguided step. Perhaps because the scope of the book is so ambitious, some readers will expect it to solve all the problems of the Cold War, to furnish an analytic framework for all Americans Foreign policy after 1945. Clearly, more historical and particularly economic analysis is still needed. But for an understanding of power and the men who wield it, of bureaucracies and the ways they function and malfunction, and of the arrogance of America in the Sixties, Halberstam's book is invaluable. Here at Harvard, home of many of the best and the brightest, it is time to learn that pure knowledge without guidance has no moral value.