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The Best and the Brightest and Accidental History

This week we learned that the Trump team didn’t realize they had to replace all the staff in the White House, that the Trump transition team has been re-organized several times, perhaps in part because his son-in-law, Jared Kushner wants to settle a personal score against Chris Christie, and that Ivanka Trump is using her dad’s election to hawk some bracelets in her line.  If you’re like me, you are little freaked out not only by the political commitments of this coming Administration, but how ill-prepared they seem.  I want to assure you–being well prepared might not be much better.

This week, as I’ve been hearing these things, I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s ironically titled historical account of the minds that together brought us the policies of the Cold War, and thus the Vietnam War and its failures–The Best and the Brightest.  What is clear in this book is that failures of personality, of individual insecurity, of a country wanting to prove itself led to decisions that were later defended as inevitable and necessary.

What is also clear is that what have now become unquestioning American ideologies–by which I mean accounts and arguments used to defend positions that did not reflect the situation of the world but were rather what a concerned nation would believe and eventually embrace–surrounding communism and interventionalism and the use of American force were formed haphazardly and instrumentally.  The men who defended these accounts and arguments did not believe them in any profound sense other than these arguments would work to further their often very personal goals or protect them from the charge of being anti-American.

I grew up in The Eighties around many Americans who thought communism was bad and American intervention abroad was the only thing between us and the abyss.  It wasn’t that we didn’t know that the CIA was intervening in South America, we firmly believed that they had to be.  So what if Reagan intervened in Nicaragua? He had to–this is why Ollie North remained a hero of the right for a long time. But if that line, like so many others we have been asked to accept as Americans, wasn’t even really believed by those who initiated it since they just kind of stumbled in both to the policy and its justification, it seems a lot less forceful.  I’m interested in understanding the precarity of these positions in their formation to think about how today’s ideologies of neoliberalism, of austerity, of law and order, and the war on terror might similarly be treated not as all-consuming and all-powerful, believed in all corners, but as precarious, supporting some people and their specific aims and therefore, what can be resisted.

So here are three ways that events that preceded the Vietnam War influenced policy not through the rational considered judgment of what was best for the country or the world, but from personal anxieties and political pressures produced from those anxieties in a way that we might say policy was formed accidentally.  The first story is about Kennedy meeting Khrushchev in Vienna.  Before he goes, Averell Harriman gets himself invited to Moscow, before he even had an appointment in the Kennedy Administration.  Khrushchev initially was loud and aggressive, telling Harriman that terrible things would happen if the Americans did not get out of Berlin.  Harriman let him talk and then reminded him that as much as the Soviets thought the Americans were vulnerable, the Americans thought the Soviets were vulnerable.  They had their fight and then proceeded to productive conversations about other things including speculation about the aims of the Chinese.  So Harriman finds a way to go to a state dinner and get in touch with Kennedy and tells him not to be shaken by Khrushchev, who Harriman said would try to rattle him.  Harriman reminded Kennedy that Khrushchev was just as scared as Kennedy and that if he could rise above it and enjoy himself then he would likely do better with Khrushchev in the long run.  But Kennedy couldn’t do it.  Kennedy has wanted to show that he viewed Khrushchev as an equal, by contrast to his predecessor Eisenhower who never knew the answer to any question Khrushchev asked.  But Khrushchev’s response was so strong and critical of the US including threatening to bomb Berlin if the US didn’t get out, that Kennedy had responded in kind thus elevating the tension.  Worried about being viewed as young and inexperienced, he responded with his inexperience.  Worried that Khrushchev really saw him as inexperienced and gutless, Kennedy felt he had to prove himself.  He told the reporter James Reston, “now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place” (76).


This problem of having to act to make the power credible was what shaped post-War views on interventionism.  Interventionism is the second almost accidental policy.  The United States, Halberstam argues, was traditionally anti-colonial, and in the 1940s, the Vietnam war was viewed as a colonial war.  But by the 1960s, the “rational” and “pragmatic” men of the Kennedy Administration thought that they understood how power worked and for it to work it needed to be put to work.  Thus people like Walt Rostow could raise concerns that the previous Administration had overlooked the possibilities of establishing American power through the underdeveloped world, where the United States could find, as Halberstam writes, “the rich potential for conflict and thus a rich potential for victory” (123).  The defense of such wars would be that we could not let one country fall for fear that all would–the domino theory, which wasn’t so much defended as valid as never questioned.

And why was it never questioned?  Because questioning might make one look soft on communism, a problem that retained its teeth even after the censure of Joe McCarthy by the senate because the American people had been convinced.  The deep anxiety that ordinary Americans would come to have for communism is the third accident. McCarthy’s Red Scare would eventually allow people to argue that not helping the colonialists of Europe would be helping the communists so not going into Vietnam was itself in the service of the enemy (82). But McCarthy himself didn’t so much care about communism as need a cause to energize his constituency.  He considered the St. Lawrence Seaway and a national pension plan, but didn’t think the first would grab attention and the second seemed too utopian (!).  Georgetown Vice-President and founder of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown Father Edmund Walsh mentioned his favorite subject, communism.  McCarthy’s Red Scare contributed to putting the China experts in the State Department in disrepute, which meant they wouldn’t be listened to from the Korean War through the entrance into Vietnam.  As Halberstam describes it, Kennedy didn’t think he could recast his Asia policy without being considered pro-communist.  Do we get this?  The people whose job it is to understand the world, who thought their elite education and supreme commitment to reason could continue to elevate the United States in the world, couldn’t address whether they were right or wrong about how another part of the world should be understood because to do so would make them seem anti-American.

So the domestic drive to defend one’s own patriotism, where communism was the ultimate challenge to that patriotism, prevented those with decision-making authority from even seeing the situation on the ground as it was, for fear that listening to those who knew would render them politically suspect. At the same time, the fear not only of a leader but of an entire country, following the lead of the Establishment, “the best and the brightest,” of appearing soft, idealist, non-rational at home and weak abroad drove American policy to intervene for decades up until today.

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