The Best and the Brightest

The Best and the Brightest

by David Halberstam, John McCain

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David Halberstam’s masterpiece, the defining history of the making of the Vietnam tragedy, with a new Foreword by Senator John McCain.

"A rich, entertaining, and profound reading experience.”—The New York Times

Using portraits of America’ s flawed policy makers and accounts of the forces that drove them, The Best and the Brightest reckons magnificently with the most important abiding question of our country’ s recent history: Why did America become mired in Vietnam, and why did we lose? As the definitive single-volume answer to that question, this enthralling book has never been superseded. It is an American classic.

Praise for The Best and the Brightest

“The most comprehensive saga of how America became involved in Vietnam. . . . It is also the Iliad of the American empire and the Odyssey of this nation’s search for its idealistic soul. The Best and the Brightest is almost like watching an Alfred Hitchcock thriller.”The Boston Globe

“Deeply moving . . . We cannot help but feel the compelling power of this narrative. . . . Dramatic and tragic, a chain of events overwhelming in their force, a distant war embodying illusions and myths, terror and violence, confusions and courage, blindness, pride, and arrogance.”Los Angeles Times

“A fascinating tale of folly and self-deception . . . [An] absorbing, detailed, and devastatingly caustic tale of Washington in the days of the Caesars.”The Washington Post Book World

“Seductively readable . . . It is a staggeringly ambitious undertaking that is fully matched by Halberstam’s performance. . . . This is in all ways an admirable and necessary book.”Newsweek

“A story every American should read.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781588360984
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/26/2002
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 720
Sales rank: 21,298
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

David Halberstam is the author of a number of books, including The Powers That Be, The Reckoning, Summer of '49, Playing for Keeps, and War in a Time of Peace. He lives in New York City. 

Senator John McCain
 entered the Naval Academy in June of 1954 and served in the United States Navy until 1981. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona in 1982 and to the Senate in 1986. The Republican Party’s nominee for president in the 2008 election, McCain was also the author of Faith of My Fathers, Worth the Fighting For, Why Courage Matters, Character Is Destiny, Hard Call, Thirteen Soldiers, and The Restless Wave. John McCain died in 2018.

Date of Birth:

April 10, 1934

Date of Death:

April 23, 2007

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

San Francisco, California


B.A., Harvard, 1955

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A cold day in December. Long afterward, after the assassination and all the pain, the older man would remember with great clarity the young man’s grace, his good manners, his capacity to put a visitor at ease. He was concerned about the weather, that the old man not be exposed to the cold or to the probing questions of freezing newspapermen, that he not have to wait for a cab. Instead he had guided his guest to his own car and driver. The older man would remember the young man’s good manners almost as clearly as the substance of their talk, though it was an important meeting.

In just a few weeks the young man would become President of the United States, and to the newspapermen standing outside his Georgetown house, there was an air of excitement about every small act, every gesture, every word, every visitor to his temporary headquarters. They complained less than usual, the bitter cold notwithstanding; they felt themselves a part of history: the old was going out and the new was coming in, and the new seemed exciting, promising.

On the threshold of great power and great office, the young man seemed to have everything. He was handsome, rich, charming, candid. The candor was part of the charm: he could beguile a visitor by admitting that everything the visitor proposed was right, rational, proper—but he couldn’t do it, not this week, this month, this term. Now he was trying to put together a government, and the candor showed again. He was self-deprecating with the older man. He had spent the last five years, he said ruefully, running for office, and he did not know any real public officials, people to run a government, serious men. The only ones he knew, he admitted, were politicians, and if this seemed a denigration of his own kind, it was not altogether displeasing to the older man. Politicians did need men to serve, to run the government. The implication was obvious. Politicians could run Pennsylvania and Ohio, and if they could not run Chicago they could at least deliver it. But politicians run the world? What did they know about the Germans, the French, the Chinese? He needed experts for that, and now he was summoning them.

The old man was Robert A. Lovett, the symbolic expert, representative of the best of the breed, a great surviving link to a then unquestioned past, to the wartime and postwar successes of the Stimson-Marshall-Acheson years. He was the very embodiment of the Establishment, a man who had a sense of country rather than party. He was above petty divisions, so he could say of his friends, as so many of that group could, that he did not even know to which political party they belonged. He was a man of impeccable credentials, indeed he passed on other people’s credentials, deciding who was safe and sound, who was ready for advancement and who was not. He was so much a part of that atmosphere that he was immortalized even in the fiction of his class. Louis Auchincloss, who was the unofficial laureate of that particular world, would have one of his great fictional lawyers say: “I’ve got that Washington bug. Ever since I had that job with Bob Lovett . . .”

He had the confidence of both the financial community and the Congress. He had been good, very good, going up on the Hill in the old days and soothing things over with recalcitrant Midwestern senators; and he was soft on nothing, that above all—no one would accuse Robert Lovett of being soft. He was a witty and graceful man himself, a friend not just of the powerful, the giants of politics and industry, but of people like Robert Benchley and Lillian Hellman and John O’Hara. He had wit and charm. Even in those tense moments in 1950 when he had been at Defense and MacArthur was being MacArthur, Lovett had amused his colleagues at high-level meetings with great imitations of MacArthur’s vanities, MacArthur in Korea trying to comb his few strands of hair from side to side over his pate to hide his baldness, while standing in the blast of prop-plane engines at Kimpo Airfield.

They got along well, these two men who had barely known each other before. Jack Kennedy the President-elect, who in his campaign had summoned the nation’s idealism, but who was at least as skeptical as he was idealistic, curiously ill at ease with other people’s overt idealism, preferring in private the tart and darker view of the world and of mankind of a skeptic like Lovett.

In addition to his own misgivings he had constantly been warned by one of his more senior advisers that in order to deal with State effectively, he had to have a real man there, that State was filled with sissies in striped pants and worse. That senior adviser was Joseph Kennedy, Sr., and he had consistently pushed, in discussions with his son, the name of Robert Lovett, who he felt was the best of those old-time Wall Street people. For Robert Lovett understood power, where it resided, how to exercise it. He had exercised it all his life, yet he was curiously little known to the general public. The anonymity was not entirely by chance, for he was the embodiment of the public servant–financier who is so secure in his job, the value of it, his right to do it, that he does not need to seek publicity, to see his face on the cover of a magazine or on television, to feel reassured. Discretion is better, anonymity is safer: his peers know him, know his role, know that he can get things done. Publicity sometimes frightens your superiors, annoys congressional adversaries (when Lovett was at Defense, the senior members of the Armed Services committees never had to read in newspapers and magazines how brilliant Lovett was, how well he handled the Congress; rather they read how much he admired the Congress). He was the private man in the public society par excellence. He did not need to impress people with false images. He knew the rules of the game: to whom you talked, what you said, to whom you did not talk, which journalists were your kind, would, without being told, know what to print for the greater good, which questions to ask, and which questions not to ask. He lived in a world where young men made their way up the ladder by virtue not just of their own brilliance and ability but also of who their parents were, which phone calls from which old friends had preceded their appearance in an office. In a world like this he knew that those whose names were always in print, who were always on the radio and television, were there precisely because they did not have power, that those who did hold or had access to power tried to keep out of sight. He was a twentieth-century man who did not hold press conferences, who never ran for anything. The classic insider’s man.

He was born in Huntsville, Texas, in 1895, the son of Robert Scott Lovett, a general counsel for Harriman’s Union Pacific Railway, a railroad lawyer, a power man in those rough and heady days, who then became a judge, very much a part of the power structure, the Texas arm of it, and eventually a member of the Union Pacific board of directors and president of the railway. His son Bob would do all the right Eastern things, go to the right schools, join the right clubs (Hill School, Yale, Skull and Bones). He helped form the Yale unit of pilots which flew in World War I, and he commanded the first U.S. Naval Air Squadron. He married well, Adele Brown, the beautiful daughter of James Brown, a senior partner in the great banking firm of Brown Brothers.

Since those post-college years were a bad time for the railways, he went to work for Brown Brothers, starting at $1,080 a year, a fumbling-fingered young clerk who eventually rose to become a partner and finally helped to arrange the merger of Brown Brothers with the Harriman banking house to form the powerful firm of Brown Bros., Harriman & Co. So he came naturally to power, to running things, to knowing people, and his own marriage had connected him to the great families. His view of the world was a banker’s view, the right men making the right decisions, stability to be preserved. The status quo was good, one did not question it.

What People are Saying About This

Robert A. Caro

As I was researching the Vietnam War -- how we wandered into that quagmire -- I found myself going over much the same ground that David, a friend of mine, had covered forty years before, in this vivid and deeply reported work.

See more of Robert Caro's Recommendations

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The Best and the Brightest 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A comprehensive review of how the United States became embroiled in Vietnam, with a particularly perceptive view on how domestic American politics played such a large role in influencing foreign policy decisions, this book by David Halberstam is a keeper. I had previously borrowed a copy from the library, but decided to buy the Nook version and consider it well worth the purchase price. As is typical of such works, Halberstam provides brief biographical information about key players, such as McGeorge Bundy and Robert MacNamara, but without straying so far from the main topic that the reader will become frustrated and lose interest. It is must reading for those interested in how the United States gradually descended into the quagmire of Vietnam, and as events of the previous decade have shown it remains very much relevant in the 21st Century.
Anonymous 19 days ago
cwhouston on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an amazingly good political history of the machinations of the JFK and LBJ administrations and their involvement in Vietnam. Full of detail about the policy makers, military top brass, bureaucrats etc and contains a large amount of analysis of the decision making process and its influences and outcomes.The book is rather lengthy and yet does not cover the events following Nixon's election in 1968, which is a shame.Despite this, however, the 'Best and the Brightest' is one of my favourite books and I have since bought other titles by the author and found them excellent, if not up to quite the same standard.Belongs on the shelf next to 'Bright Shining Lie', 'Fire in the Lake', and Karnow's 'Vietnam: a History'. First class.
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JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An absolute must-read for anyone interested in the dynamics of government decision-making.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful study of the dreadful people who committed the crime of aggression against Vietnam. It shows how they fooled themselves, and others too, that theirs was some noble mission, to save other nations from communism. In fact, it was a crime, resulting in the killing of three million innocent Vietnamese, who were killed trying to save their country from a savage, unjustified and illegal assault.