Halberstam’s title phrase was never intended to be a tribute to the accomplished, a fact lost on the countless scribes who have since appropriated it. The best and the brightest of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations went to all the right schools and followed all the supposedly right procedures in engineering the Vietnam War. Look what happened. Halberstam sharpened his skepticism of elites as a student busboy in the cafeterias at Harvard. And as a reporter on the front lines in Southeast Asia, he stood out from the gaggle for his confrontational style with preening generals, with whom he refused to shake hands. Drawing on that experience, the reporter’s reporter defangs the whole lot by displaying how a steadfast faith in Pentagon models, in the face of contradictory reports from the ground, led to the deaths of more than 50,000 Americans in the rice paddies. The prolific war architect Walt Rostow could “see the bright side of any situation” and told defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg in 1965 that “victory is very near. I’ll show you the charts.” Indeed, Halberstam’s account, published in 1972, gave teeth to a generation’s firmly held conviction that it was the American authorities who were the real enemy. But The Best and the Brightest survives the tumult of Vietnam as the most devastating exposé yet crafted in American journalism of the dangers posed when a technocrat’s ego blinds him to reality.
Autobiography / Memoir
Self-Help / Instructional