The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Suicide of a Ruling Class (book review)

David Halberstam
The Best and the Brightest


History – remembrance of a past – has a strange way of shifting over time. Contemporary history is conceived in the minds of each in the uncertainties of the moment. Our ideas of events are shaped by our limited experience of them, our position in relation to them, the haphazard reports of media. A confused conception exists in the general consciousness. The work of historians destroys this confusion, replacing it not with what occurred, but with the system, the chronology, the morality tale that their years of reflection and writing have brought them to. We hope through this process of filtered and selective memory to be wiser for the triumphs and failures of our predecessors.

David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is one of those classics that defines events that new generations were unable to experience themselves. It is huge, like all major works dealing with the Vietnam War it needs to be downright Homeric in its scale. It needs to be epic. Here, the Greek tragedy is provided its magnitude by the contrast between the promise and brilliance of a new generation of American leaders, sharply counterpoised with the disaster they caused in Vietnam. It is a vast, sprawling collection of anecdotes and sketches that attempt to show how these people brought up the catastrophe.

The promise is apparent from the beginning. There is the glamour of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot”. There is a sense that this young, modern, industrial nation might no longer be dominated by the “old White Southerners from small towns” that ran Congress. After Kennedy’s death, the promise paradoxically becomes, if anything, greater. Lyndon Johnson leads the Democrats to a glorious, overwhelming victory in the 1964 campaign. A man who was once the master of the Senate as a legislator, would now pass the great acts to redeem America: desegregating the South, launching the Great Society and the War on Poverty, and putting down the bases for healthcare provision for the neediest and the old.


Though LBJ could never replace the Golden Boy that was JFK, he could console himself with the shining CVs of his cabinet. And indeed it was impressive. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara is a number cruncher who saved Ford Motor Company. He had once been a brilliant student of philosophy and even as Secretary maintained a voracious appetite for fact, so that even as others in government “frolicked, he plowed through the unabridged Toynbee.” General Maxwell Taylor is a politically savvy soldier-scholar and an apparent expert on limited wars and counter-insurgency. Averell Harriman is an old Kremlinologist who – a septuagenarian – can still be said to be ambitious. General William Westmoreland, the man to eventually command 500,000 men in Vietnam, has a brilliant record and could not have a profile more suited for the air of a general than if God himself had chiseled him from marble. We have detailed sketches of all of these men in all their talents, flaws, ambitions and failings. The question becomes: how did these Captains of Industry, Rhodes Scholars, Harvard Deans, Ivy Leaguers and West Pointers – the “best” products of the American ruling class – come to fail so completely?

This is not a book about Vietnam. As such, there will be some difficulty in understanding why U.S. policy failed there, why propping the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem did not succeed, why the Americans had to intervene. Diem is repeatedly and casually described as “feudal” but there is little on how he ruled. We get a sense that the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, Free Vietnam) is unreal. That the Americans fell to their own illusions as to the solidity of their creation when the CIA established the Diem regime on the corpse of France's puppet "State of Vietnam" in the crucial years of 1954-55. But there is not the verve or color of Halberstam’s descriptions of the Americans. Equally, the war itself is not the subject of this book. And while strategic hamlets, napalm, defoliation and free fire zones are mentioned, Halberstam is concerned with the war's origins, and not its nature.

It is a book about the United States of America and why that nation unleashed all the marvelous terrors of modern, industrial civilization on a small, peripheral peasant country. A country so weak and so marginal, it is hard to conceive why one would fight there at all. It is a book about why the Liberals came to doom themselves and their dreams. And here we are treated to all the crimes of American liberalism and all the complicities with those of American conservatism. It begins early. It is Kennedy who campaigns on a non-existent “missile gap” with the Russians (McNamara proposes adding 950 missiles to the U.S. arsenal for domestic political reasons, not strategic necessity.) It is Kennedy who reappoints J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles to head the FBI and CIA. They would go on, respectively, to spy on domestic leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK himself, and continue hair-brained secret interventions abroad. It is Kennedy who refuses to overturn the irrational policy of not recognizing the government of the most populous country in the world, an absurdity that would last for three decades. It is Robert F. Kennedy who is the most hawkish in the early years. It is Lyndon Johnson who goes to war in South Vietnam, apparently because he could not face the domestic political consequences of “Losing Vietnam” as Harry S. Truman had once “Lost China”.


It is a dour business to see this descent into the bloody abyss. The causes emerge from the text. And here, disaster has many fathers, many necessary causes. Perhaps the most serious is the Liberal tendency to overcompensate for appearing to not be sufficiently “anti-communist”. There were no experts on Asia left in the American government, no people with “real expertise at the operational level.” We have touching portraits of Foreign Service China experts like John Stewart Service and John Patton Davies who were purged in the McCarthy Era merely for predicting the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek. In the 1960s, Foreign Service officers would be more cautious before stepping out of line. We have the United States exporting fears of the Communist Soviet Union to the Third World, describing all Communist national movements as the “new colonialism of a Soviet communist empire”. As though there were no such thing as Titoism, that Russia was now capable of transcontinental domination, that Mao was not capable of independence. There is the preponderant power of the United States itself, deriving from its size, its technology, its economy. If one has power, one will after all be tempted to use it, and Halberstam is on to something when he identifies “the enemy” as “bigness, technology and the government itself.” There is American nationalism, the mythology of the Second World War, and movies with John Wayne. There is finally, and this is eternal and universal, “the escalatory logic of White Crosses.” As one commits one soldier one commits the whole prestige of the nation. As one soldiers dies in an endeavor, it becomes all the more difficult to abandon it, so much easier to sacrifice more soldiers.

It is then, a rather discouraging affair. Ostensibly, it is one that we should learn from. And here we can identify crude parallels. There was the faddism with “counter-insurgency” (now shortened to “COIN”). There were the usual knee-jerk hawkish journalists like Marguerite Higgins and Joe Alsop, always ready to attack the manhood of those who govern if they are not eager for death. There is the temptation by the governing class to mask the war, to hide its costs, to pretend it is not even occurring, lest the people turn against it once they realize the burden this will be for them in blood and taxes. And here, why should we not be pessimistic? That generation of Liberals killed liberalism in America. It has still not recovered. We might question what this means for our own time, as the new “Best and Brightest” with our own prodigal son prove so underwhelming, so banal, so typical of the American State.


Perhaps it is normal. Doves and Good Men do not tend to fare well. They become militarists or are destroyed. Mahatma Gandhi was murdered, as were Anwar Sadat and Jean Jaurès. Léon Blum was tried by Philippe Pétain for treason. The German Social Democrats voted for war credits in 1914. The American Democrats voted for war in 1964 and in 2002. The British "Left," of all things, joined them in the latter year. Nationalism is at fault, an inordinate sense of one’s importance, one’s perspective, one’s abilities in the world. And, make no mistake, the idea of America is infinitely greater than the United States of America could ever be – indeed – greater than anything that could exist on this Earth. So all our Good Men, our Liberals, our Democrats, our Socialists, our Doves govern and they sin. The power destroys and disfigures them, makes the rotten from the inside out. In their later years they might look in the mirror but they can scarcely recognize themselves. Dan Ellsberg had been in the U.S. government during the 1960s escalation but went on to oppose the war and leak the Pentagon Papers. He later bumped into an old acquaintance and was asked: “Are you the Dan Ellsberg I knew in College?” He replied, “I haven’t been for a long time, but I am again.”

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