David Halberstam and The Second Biggest Lie Ever Told:
A Look Back at The Best and the Brightest
Part Two: Halberstam and Johnson
|Halberstam in Vietnam|
|LBJ with Vietnam model|
As I noted in Part 1 of this retrospective review of The Best and the Brightest, one of the most surprising lacunae in this celebrated book is that David Halberstam never mentions or references National Security Action Memorandum 263. This was President Kennedy’s directive that ordered the beginning of the US military withdrawal from Vietnam. This was to begin in December of 1963 with the removal of a thousand troops, and then continue in a phased way until 1965, when it would be completed i.e. all American troops would be back home. It is quite odd that in a book that spends over 300 pages discussing Kennedy’s policy on Vietnam, Halberstam could not find the space to mention this important directive. Especially in light of the fact that it had been in the works for quite awhile. Halberstam does mention that Kennedy had told John K. Galbraith to give him a report about Vietnam. But he confines this report to the dustbin by saying that Galbraith was mere window dressing and was on the periphery of Kennedy’s administration. (Halberstam, p. 152) When in fact, as mentioned in Part 1, the opposite was true about Galbraith’s report. It was the origin point for Kennedy’s instructions to Bob McNamara to begin a withdrawal plan.
But there is something equally surprising about what Halberstam leaves out of his discussion of President Johnson’s conduct of the war. Except this lacuna comes at the beginning of his review of LBJ’s policy, not at the end. And because of that, it makes it even more significant. That is this: Halberstam never mentions or references National Security Action Memorandum 273. This is very surprising since as many writers have noted, NSAM 273 altered NSAM 263, at the same time it tried to state that it was not doing so. In his milestone book on the subject, John Newman spends over four pages discussing just how significant a change in policy Johnson’s new directive was. (JFK and Vietnam, pgs. 445-449) To name three of the most significant alterations:
- It allowed for direct US Navy involvement in OPLAN 34 patrols off the coast of North Vietnam. This would result in the Tonkin Gulf incident.
- It allowed for expanded American operations into Laos and Cambodia.
- While saying it would honor the troop reductions in NSAM 263, it did not. They were not carried out and the number of American advisers actually rose in the months after Kennedy’s murder.
For an author to write nearly 700 pages on Kennedy, Johnson and Vietnam, and to never even mention NSAM’s 263 and 273--let alone discuss them--this is so bizarre as to be inexplicable. Again, it is censorship of such an extreme degree that it distorts history.
But it is indicative of what Halberstam does to cloud the break in policy that occurred after Kennedy’s death. Take another instance: the first Vietnam meeting after Kennedy’s death. This happened just 48 hours after the assassination, on November 24th. (Newman pgs. 442-45) It is very difficult to locate this meeting in Halberstam’s book. In fact, you will not find it where you would expect to, in Chapter 16, the first one dealing with LBJ’s presidency. Where you will find a mention of it is at the end of Chapter 15, on pages 298-99. Where, ostensibly, Halberstam is wrapping up his view of Kennedy and Vietnam. By placing it there, Halberstam connotes some kind of continuity between the two men. What he does with the meeting constitutes even more censorship and distortion.
He clearly tries to imply that this meeting was between only Johnson and Saigon ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. (Halberstam, p. 298) And that Lodge had returned to Washington to give a report on deteriorating conditions in Vietnam. Not so. Kennedy brought Lodge back to Washington for the express purpose of firing him. (James Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, pgs. 374-75) Part of the reason for the termination was Lodge’s role in the demise of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu. This is a continuation of Halberstam’s misrepresentations about Lodge. For he also says that Kennedy appointed him ambassador so as to involve the GOP in what could end up as a disaster. (Halberstam, p. 260) False. Kennedy didn’t want to appoint Lodge at all. He wanted his old friend Edmund Gullion as Saigon ambassador. This was vetoed by Dean Rusk who wanted Lodge appointed. (Douglass, pgs. 150-52)
The point is that with Kennedy now dead, Lodge was not fired. He delivered his message to Johnson about how bad things were in Saigon. He then took part in a larger meeting—one that is completely absent from The Best and the Brightest. As John Newman notes, this meeting was attended by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Under Secretary of State George Ball, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and CIA Director John McCone. It was led by Johnson. (Newman, p. 442) In other words, the entire national security apparatus was on hand to hear a new tone and attitude on the subject of Vietnam. Phrases that JFK would never have uttered. LBJ said things like, “I am not going to lose in Vietnam”, “I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way that China went” , “Tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word”. (ibid) The change was so clear that McCone wrote in his notes: “I received in this meeting the first “President Johnson tone” for action as contrasted with the “Kennedy tone”. (ibid, p. 443) Demarcating a break with the past, LBJ also said that he had “never been happy with our operations in Vietnam” (ibid) In his book, In Retrospect, McNamara said that Johnson’s intent was clear at this meeting. Instead of beginning to withdraw, LBJ was going to win the war. (p. 102) This message then filtered downward into each department. Which was a reversal of the message Kennedy had been giving after the May 1963 SecDef meeting in Hawaii. Back then, the generals and everyone else understood that any proposal for overt action would invite a negative Presidential decision. (Probe Vol. 5 No. 3)
Question: Are we to believe that Halberstam, in his 500 interviews, did not interview any of these men about this meeting?
Now, Johnson understood that McNamara was the key to securing his desired change in policy. Since McNamara had been the point man behind the scenes and to the media about Kennedy’s intent to withdraw. So in February of 1964, LBJ made sure McNamara would be on board the new train. In a declassified tape that is transcribed in the James Blight book, Virtual JFK, LBJ told McNamara, “I always thought it was foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the president thought otherwise, and I just sat silent.” (Blight, p. 310) For those who have heard this tape, one of the most shocking things about it is McNamara’s near-silent bewilderment as to what is happening. And in another conversation two weeks later, LBJ actually wants McNamara to take back or rephrase what he said in 1963 about the initial thousand man withdrawal. (ibid)
These conversations completely vitiate another argument that Halberstam likes to make throughout the book. Namely that Johnson was somehow subservient to the advisors left over from Kennedy’s cabinet. In one of the most dubious passages in the book, Halberstam says that LBJ was in awe of these men and judged them by their labels. (Halberstam, p. 303) As he usually does, he then tops this silliness by saying that McNamara was the most forceful figure on Vietnam policy in early 1964. (p. 347) The strong implication being that somehow LBJ bowed to his advisers in making decisions on Vietnam. The evidence adduced above—avoided by Halberstam—completely undermines that thesis. Clearly, by the evidence of this first meeting, and the taped talks with McNamara, Johnson is the one commandeering them. In fact, as we shall see, LBJ often decided to proceed with steps in his escalation plan without their advice at all. And this was one thing that led to the exodus from the White House by McCone, Ball, Bundy and McNamara.
Virtually all of the above, clearly indicating a break in policy, is notably absent from The Best and the Brightest. In Halberstam’s defense, one can argue that some of these taped conversations had not yet been declassified. But on the other hand, the man said he did 500 interviews. He had to have talked to someone at that November 24th meeting besides Lodge. Did he not even talk to Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers? They had both been with Kennedy for years, from the beginning of his political career. They were in the White House for these decisions on Vietnam under both Kennedy and Johnson. They could have told Halberstam about NSAM 263, McNamara’s announcement about the thousand-troop withdrawal, and the plans for complete withdrawal by 1965. They also would have told him that Johnson changed all this within days of taking office. How do we know they would have told him so? Because they wrote about all this in their book about Kennedy, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye. Which was published in 1972, the same year that The Best and the Brightest was published. (O’Donnell and Powers, pgs. 13-18)
Halberstam covered his tracks well. By not listing the interviews he did, the author prevented anyone from checking on 1.) Whom he actually talked to, and 2.) What they told him.
As noted above, Halberstam eliminates Kennedy’s NSAM 263, the discussion and announcement about it, and NSAM 273, which LBJ used to partially subvert it. He also, for all intents and purposes, virtually discounts the November 24th first Vietnam meeting held by President Johnson--which also signaled a drastic change in policy. A change that was later noted by McGeorge Bundy: “The President has expressed his deep concern that our effort in Vietnam be stepped up to highest pitch.” (Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p. 105) As Goldstein astutely notes, the changes in tone, attitude, and emphasis were not just rhetorical. Within a little over three months, Kennedy’s withdrawal plan would be more than assigned to oblivion. A whole new plan for waging war would be put in its place.
Goldstein does a nice job summarizing the steps that Johnson took to get there. He first sent McNamara to Saigon to render a report on the conditions in country. Since McNamara got the message at the 11/24 meeting, and since the intelligence reports had now been altered to reflect true conditions, at Christmas 1963, McNamara brought back a negative report. (ibid, p. 107) One month later, after McNamara relayed this report, the Joint Chiefs sent a proposal to Johnson on how to save the day: bombing of the north and insertion of combat troops. (ibid, p. 108) As Goldstein writes, “Exactly two months after Kennedy’s death, the chiefs were proposing air strikes against Hanoi and the deployment of US troops, not just in an advisory role, but in offensive operations against the North. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were proposing…the initial steps to Americanize the Vietnam War.” (ibid, p. 108) LBJ turned down this proposal. Not for the reasons Kennedy had years before. But because he did not have congress on board as a partner. At least not yet. (ibid, p. 109) But he did order the preparation of NSAM 288.
First proposed in early March during a discussion between the Joint Chiefs and Johnson, NSAM 288 included both air and naval elements, to directly participate in the targeting of up to 94 military and industrial sites. In addition, it proposed the mining of harbors, imposition of a naval blockade, and in case China intervened, the use of nuclear weapons. (ibid, p. 108) In other words, it was a full order of battle. Thus, LBJ had achieved in a bit over three short months what Kennedy had resisted for three years.
It takes Goldstein about ten pages to proceed from Kennedy’s assassination to the construction of NSAM 288. It takes Halberstam over fifty pages to do the same. How does he delay this for so long?
With a very disturbing and recurring characteristic of the book: the insertion of the mini-biography. Often, whether its apropos or not, Halberstam completely stops the narrative flow of the book to insert a biography of someone. Whether or not that person is relevant to the story at that time, or really had any influence over events is not important. Chapter 16 is where the author begins his discussion of Johnson’s presidency. But NSAM 288, even though it was proposed a bit over three months after LBJ took the oath, is not in that chapter. What does Halberstam deem as being more important than LBJ’s plan for American forces to directly attack North Vietnam? Well, for starters, how about a biography of Dean Rusk. This goes on for about fifteen pages. (Halberstam pgs. 307-322) He actually calls Rusk a liberal. (p. 309) He then praises him at Kennedy’s expense. (p. 322) This is a man who JFK was actually going to fire. But then, as he often does, Halberstam tops himself. After this, he segues into a biography of, if you can believe it, Dean Acheson! I yawned and sighed through these biographical pages. To me it was nothing but pointless filler. And it accents a real weakness in Halberstam: He loved hearing himself talk. Whether what he was saying was relevant or not. In reality, what these two mini-biographies do is slow down the impact of Johnson’s fast reversal of policy. Because what LBJ is now planning—direct US attacks on North Vietnam—is something that Kennedy never even contemplated.
Let me add two points here as to what Halberstam actually does with all this filler and obfuscation. By giving us all this irrelevant biography, he seems to be saying that knowing that Dean Rusk admired George Marshall is somehow more important than describing to the reader NSAM 273. Or showing how this directive impacted NSAM 263. In other words, when writing history, most documents do not matter. Which is the opposite of what most historians think: the documented historical record supersedes an oral recall.
For two reasons. First, memory can always be faulty. Second, depending on who is doing the remembering, memory can be selective. But by leaving out so many important documents, and by not describing key events, like LBJ’s first meeting on Vietnam, Halberstam can foster absurd tenets. One of the most absurd comes at the very end of Chapter 16, which is supposed to be about LBJ’s early handling of the war. It is not. But the author ends the chapter by saying that 1964 was a lost year, and much of the loss was the fault of Dean Rusk. (p. 346)
Both of these proclamations—that 1964 was a lost year, and it was attributable to Rusk—are just plain false. Many authors—like Fredrik Logevall-- would argue that 1964 was the key year of the war. Johnson was not just stopping Kennedy’s withdrawal, but he was mapping out plans to use American forces in theater. Which amounts to a sea change. Second, Rusk had little to do with this. It was done by Johnson in cooperation with the Pentagon. After LBJ had turned McNamara around.
As we have seen, and will see, Rusk was not even a major player in what was happening that year. The major player was Johnson. And far from being lost, LBJ was putting his plans together for the Americanization of the Vietnam War.
Another way that Halberstam camouflages the difference on Vietnam between Kennedy and Johnson is by using another preposterous proclamation. At the beginning of Chapter 16 he writes the following: “The decision in those early months was to hold the line on Vietnam. To hold it down and delay decisions.” (p. 303) Question for Mr. Halberstam: You yourself say that NSAM 288 was constructed in March of 1964. How was that holding the line on Vietnam? It completely broke with Kennedy’s previous policy. How could you not notice that?
Actually, it is worse than that. NSAM 288 is only half the story. What LBJ did with it afterwards is the other half. This is another part of the story that Halberstam both misrepresents and underplays.
After NSAM 288 was orally accepted by Johnson from the Chiefs, he then called McGeorge Bundy. (Goldstein pgs. 108-09. In itself that sequence of events tells us something.) Although he had accepted NSAM 288 in principle, he saw two impediments to utilizing it. First, he did not have a congressional resolution on his side. Therefore he had no legislative partner to go to war with. Secondly, he told Bundy, “And for nine months I’m just an inherited—I’m a trustee. I’ve got to win an election. “ (ibid, p. 109) This, of course, is what happened—in that order. Johnson got his resolution. He won his election by campaigning as a moderate peace candidate . After lying to the public about his intentions, he then went to war.
In reading The Best and the Brightest, these steps all seem haphazard, coincidental, willy-nilly. This impression is achieved because the author never makes clear one of the most important aspects of Johnson’s alterations to NSAM 273. As John Newman points out, when LBJ was presented with the rough draft of the directive, he altered it in more ways than one. Paragraph seven had originally stated that South Vietnam should begin to build a maritime war apparatus . Johnson’s alterations now allowed for the USA to plan and execute its own maritime operations against the North. (Newman, JFK and Vietnam, p. 446) This alteration, specifically requested by Johnson, now paved the way for direct American attacks via a covert action plan called OPLAN 34 A. This was submitted to the White House one month later.. (ibid) This plan included a joint CIA/Pentagon action that allowed for American destroyers to patrol the coast of North Vietnam accompanied by small attack boats piloted by South Vietnamese sailors. The idea was that the smaller boats would fire on the north and the American destroyers would then record the North Vietnamese response to figure out what capabilities the enemy had.
Clearly, the concept of the idea was a provocation to the North. It was inviting them to attack us in retaliation. As Edwin Moise points out, LBJ approved it because he had already made the decision that NSAM 288 would be carried out in the near future. This was his way of negating any attacks from hawkish GOP presidential contenders like Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon. (Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, p. 26) As Moise delineates, LBJ then further refined NSAM 288’s planning to include war campaign time intervals and the passage of a congressional resolution. (Moise, p. 27)
This was all finalized in May and June of 1964, with the finishing touches placed on it by William Bundy. In June, Johnson began to lobby certain key members of congress for its passage. (Moise, p. 26) It is important to recall, this is almost two months before the Tonkin Gulf incident. In fact, on June 10th, McNamara said, “that in the event of a dramatic event in Southeast Asia we would go promptly for a congressional resolution.” (ibid) But since LBJ had to play the moderate in order to get re-elected, Bill Bundy added that the actual decision to expand the war would not be made until after the election. (Moise p. 44) This, of course, was a lie. With the writing of NSAM 288—something unthinkable under Kennedy--the decision to expand the war was already made. But since it was classified, the lie had wings. The actual campaign to fight the war was delayed only for political reasons. As Newman pointed out, Johnson was concealing his escalation plan so as not to lose his 1964 electoral base in the Democratic Party.
Just about all of this is either absent from, or seriously discounted by Halberstam. Clearly, these events were not haphazard. They were connected in a straight line: the alterations to NSAM 273 led to OPLAN 34A; the drafting of NSAM 288 led to the lobbying for passage of a congressional resolution. All that was needed now was for the provocation strategy to succeed. That is for the “dramatic event” to take place so the resolution could be pushed through congress.
This all renders ridiculous Halberstam’s idea that “the decision in those early months” was to hold the line on Vietnam. It also renders superfluous Halberstam’s insistence on giving us biographies of Dean Acheson and John Paton Davies in lieu of what the Johnson administration was really working on in the three months after Kennedy was murdered i.e. planning for America’s entry into the war.
As noted previously, with all the above in place, what was needed was a “dramatic event”. Halberstam says that the Gulf of Tonkin incident traces back to January of 1964., when the plans for OPLAN 34A were being worked out. (p. 408) As noted above, this is false. Because those January plans would not have been contemplated under President Kennedy. They actually originated in the alterations Johnson made to the draft of NSAM 273 in November of 1963. Bundy told Newman that these alterations were directed by Johnson since LBJ “held stronger views on the war than Kennedy did.” (Newman, p. 445)
Halberstam also mischaracterizes the purpose of these covert operations. He writes that they were meant to “make Hanoi pay a little for its pressure on the South, to hit back at the enemy, to raise morale in the South….” (Halberstam p. 408) Again, this is wrong. As Edwin Moise writes, outside of the South Vietnamese sailors on the fast attack speedboats, everything about these so-called DESOTO patrols was American. An important part of the mission was to “show the flag.” (Moise, p. 55) The North Vietnamese knew that the South Vietnamese did not have destroyer ships. Further, the destroyers violated the territorial waters of North Vietnam. Thus, as many authors have written, the design and action of these missions was a provocation. It was a way for the USA to get directly involved in a civil war. (Moise,p. 68) Even people in Johnson’s administration, like John McCone and Jim Forrestal, later admitted they were such. (Goldstein, p. 125)
Halberstam then completely screws up the tandem nature of the missions. The destroyers and the speedboats worked together. The speedboats made the attacks. The destroyers were then meant to monitor the reactions in order to locate things like radar capability. Halberstam tries to separate the two from each other and he even tries to say the destroyers actually simulated attacks. (Halberstam, p. 411)
To finish off his poor representation of what happened at Tonkin, he actually tries to insinuate that Johnson wanted to wait for more accurate information about what happened. (Halberstam, p. 412-13) In fact, after taking the August 2nd incident quite lightly, Johnson ordered a second mission the next day, which included violating territorial waters. (Moise, 105) He then marched down to Bundy’s office before he even knew what happened on the second patrol. (Goldstein, p. 126) He told Bundy to take out the draft resolution prepared by his brother William. Bundy told him, “Mr. President, we ought to think about this.” Johnson replied, “I didn’t ask you what you thought, I told you what to do.” (ibid)
Now, there is another aspect of Tonkin Gulf that demonstrates just how intent Johnson was on protecting his right flank during an election year. Johnson took out the target list from NSAM 288 and picked out what he wanted to hit. It was late at night. But since he wanted to get on national television, he made the announcement on live TV anyway. This announcement alerted North Vietnam to the incoming planes, so they prepared their anti-aircraft batteries. Because of Johnson’s desire to announce the attacks on TV before they took place, two pilots were shot down. (Moise, p. 219) After the air sorties, a jubilant Johnson said, “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh, I cut his pecker off.” (Logevall, p. 205)
Johnson then lied to Sen. Bill Fulbright of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fulbright was running the hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Johnson told him that OPLAN 34A was a South Vietnam operation. (Moise, p. 227) This did the trick. The resolution sailed through both houses almost without a nay vote. Johnson’s plan to get congress on board as his war partner had worked. LBJ proudly proclaimed about his congressional resolution that it was like grandma’s nightie. It covered everything. (Logevall, p. 205)
What was the total destruction caused by the North Vietnamese attacks? One bullet through one hull. And the second attack, the one LBJ would not wait to hear about, did not occur. In other words, over one bullet in a hull, Johnson was ready to go to war. This was the man who proclaimed repeatedly that “We seek no wider war.” (Logevall, p. 199)
How dim is Halberstam on this whole scenario for war? He quotes Walt Rostow as saying that things could not have turned out better if they had been planned that way. (Halberstam, p. 414) The author does not note the irony. They had been planned that way.
Keeping all this in mind, let us recall what Halberstam wrote in introducing the Johnson administration and their attitude toward Vietnam. He wrote that they decided not to deal with Vietnam in 1964 but to keep their options open. (p. 307)
He apparently wrote that with a straight face.
Now, as both Logevall and Goldstein note, Johnson had opportunities to begin negotiations throughout 1964. Goldstein concisely points out that there were other views being expressed at this time about Vietnam. Luminaries like journalist Walter Lippmann, French Premier Charles DeGaulle, and Senator Richard Russell were all pushing for a neutralization plan, something like Kennedy had done in Laos. DeGaulle specifically warned George Ball that the longer the USA stayed in Vietnam, the more painful and humiliating their exit would be. Not only did Johnson ignore their entreaties, as time went on he began to feel personal hostility towards journalists and heads of state who tried to press him on this issue. (Logevall, Choosing War, pgs. 143, 176) He even ostracized people inside the White House who advised him against escalation e.g. Vice President Hubert Humphrey. (ibid, p. 170) All this, even though the North made it clear that it was willing to talk. They actually offered a cease-fire in return for negotiations, which included the NLF—the political arm of the Viet Cong—at the table. (ibid, p. 163) Other countries, like Canada, asked to broker a meeting. Leaders like U Thant at the UN tried to get talks going. Johnson would not seriously entertain these. (Logevall, p. 211)
As Logevall makes clear in his book, Johnson was so intent on getting America directly involved in Vietnam, he seriously contemplated attacking the North in May of 1964. (ibid, p. 147) But national opinion did not favor such an attack at the time. So Johnson did something that Halberstam either does not know about, or he deliberately ignored. He ordered a propaganda campaign to change attitudes on a US war in Vietnam. Run out of the State Department, it was two pronged. One axis was aimed at domestic opinion, and the other at foreign opinion. It was actually memorialized in NSAM 308. (ibid, p. 152) In other words, the administration was now trying to psychologically indoctrinate the public, and international opinion, into accepting a war climate with Hanoi. In fact, when Halberstam’s liberal, Dean Rusk, visited Williams College in June, he called South Vietnam as important to America and the free world as West Berlin. (Logevall, p. 168) Rusk also tried to pick up international allies for the coming conflict he understood was around the corner. He was remarkably unsuccessful.
As Logevall makes clear, LBJ and Bill Bundy had already targeted a date for the direct American intervention in Vietnam. It was in January of 1964. (Logevall, p. 217) This, of course, was after the election. Yet, by the summer of 1964, Johnson had reports on his desk telling him just how difficult the war would be. And this is actually something Halberstam does a good job at. There was one report which told him that a bombing campaign would have little effect on the North since there were few industrial centers to hit. ( Halberstam, p. 356) There were two studies concerning the effect of combat troops in country. They both said it would take over 500, 000 men 5-10 years to subdue the enemy. (pgs. 370, 462) In the face of all this, Johnson still refused to contemplate negotiations or withdrawal. And he pressed forward with his propaganda campaign and his plans for war. Being advised in advance, what it would cost and that American air power would not have a deciding impact. And as Logevall acutely notes, Johnson kept all of this from the public so it would not become an election issue. Goldwater became the war candidate and LBJ the peace candidate. In the last days of his campaign Johnson said he wanted to “stay out of a shooting war” and that he was working for a peaceful solution. (Logevall, p. 250) On the campaign trail he also repeated the axiom that he was not going to “send American boys to fight a war Asian boys should fight for themselves.” (ibid, p. 253)
Of course, the opposite was the case. But Halberstam cannot bring himself to admit that LBJ lied his head off about his true intentions in Vietnam. He makes excuses for him, saying that he misremembered certain details in his book The Vantage Point. Halberstam also says that the changes that took place in 1964 took place “very subtly”. (Halberstam p. 361) There is nothing subtle about lying a country into a war. Logevall manages an honesty that Halberstam cannot match: “If an American president had ever promised anything to the American people, then Lyndon Johnson had promised to keep the United States out of the war in Vietnam.” (Logevall, p. 253)
The exact opposite happened. In another key event that Halberstam could not find with his 500 interviews, on the day of the election, Johnson’s war planning committee met to begin debating how to implement the plans for an expanded American war in Vietnam. (Logevall, p. 258) This from the candidate who had just said that he was seeking no wider war.
The truly incredible thing about this is that as late as November of 1964, LBJ could still have gotten out. He had huge Democratic majorities in both houses of congress that would have covered him on this. Many popular and influential senators did not favor American entry e.g. Mike Mansfield, Frank Church, Gaylord Nelson, Bill Fulbright, Richard Russell etc. Lippmann was still advising him from his newspaper column not to attack the North. Knowing LBJ was preparing for war, both England and France advised him not to. Only 24% of the public favored sending in combat troops, while over half favored withdrawal. Most of the major newspapers favored not going to war, including the New York Times and Washington Post. (Logevall, pgs. 277-284) Later on even Bill Bundy admitted that Johnson could have gotten out at this point without taking a huge hit in popularity. (ibid, p. 288) Again, in patching together his phony “inevitable tragedy” scenario, Halberstam ignores all this. The apparent reason being that it does not support his thesis of inevitability.
What it really tells us is that Vietnam was inevitable because Lyndon Johnson made it so.
Halberstam takes every opportunity he can to disguise and obfuscate what was really happening in 1964. In addition to the instances written about above, in a passage describing 1964 as it progressed and ended, he actually begins the paragraph with this: “In the country and in the government, however, there was no clear sense of going to war.” (p. 399) From his 500 interviews, the author still did not understand that yes, most of the country did not understand we were going to war. That’s because President Johnson understood he had to be elected in order to go to war. But Johnson, and his upper echelon, sure as heck knew we were going to war.
On this same page, Halberstam makes one of the most dubious parallels in this entire book. He says that the planning for Vietnam was derived from the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Halberstam, p. 399. He actually says this more than once.) This makes me wonder if he ever read anything about the Missile Crisis. Because there was no planning for the Missile Crisis. It was an emergency, impromptu thirteen-day crisis situation. And it could have immediately triggered an exchange of nuclear weapons. For as we know today, if Kennedy had decided to invade, the Russians had given Castro tactical atomic weapons. And these were under the control of the Cubans, not the Russians.
On the other hand, American entry into Vietnam had been talked about by three administrations since 1954 and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. There was no compelling crisis since Vietnam posed no immediate threat to the USA. For the simple reason that it was so distant and Hanoi had no nuclear weapons. Further, during the Missile Crisis, from the beginning, Kennedy asked for the input of all his advisers about the issue. Realizing that the vast majority of them—most of all the Pentagon—wanted to attack Cuba in some way, he decided on the least provocative action, the naval blockade. He then decided to go around his Cabinet, including Johnson, and arrange a back channel to the Russians to reach a settlement. All in less than two weeks.
This is almost a negative template of what happened with LBJ and Vietnam. As seen above, from the first meeting, Johnson was not soliciting input. He was dictating what his advisers would do. He then, for thirteen months, exhibited no real desire to negotiate. Instead, he put together a battle plan. And he then tried to indoctrinate the country to it. At the first and slightest provocation, in the Tonkin Gulf, he then used American air power. And in Johnson’s case, the provocation was made by the USA. Kennedy had two opportunities during the Missile Crisis to do this: a U-2 shoot down and a Russian ship firing at an American ship. He did not. Even though the Russians had created the provocation by moving in the missiles. And, of course, there was no American attack, and it all ended peacefully. In fact, many believe it inaugurated a new attempt at détente between Russia, Cuba and the USA.
Again, Halberstam ignores all these salient points to argue something that seems contrary to the actual facts. I think he does this to imply that somehow there was continuity between Kennedy and Johnson here. In other words, LBJ had not just Kennedy’s advisers, he used his model. Even though he did not.
Now, as discussed above, the administration had already planned to begin the war in January of 1965. Yet even in January, Sen. Russell made a speech asking for a third country mediator to arrange a settlement. (Logevall, p. 300) At this time, Johnson was actually cabling Ambassador Maxwell Taylor to start getting Americans out of South Vietnam since the war was impending. (ibid) Finally realizing that LBJ was about to begin direct and sustained American offensives, several senators requested open hearings: George McGovern, Mike Mansfield, Richard Russell, Fulbright, Everett Dirksen, Albert Gore, Wayne Morse, Ernest Gruening, Gaylord Nelson etc. (Logevall, p. 305) Johnson sent Rusk to talk to Fulbright in order to stifle any open debate in the Senate. Johnson could not begin his long planned for war with open hearings attracting the attention of the national media. And it was this delay that probably made Johnson miss his January target date by a month.
Halberstam leaves the above out of his narrative and instead describes the McGeorge Bundy visit to South Vietnam and the famous attack at Pleiku in early February while Bundy was there. (Halberstam, p. 520) This attack by the Viet Cong injured and killed several American advisers, and wounded scores more. (Goldstein, p. 155) Bundy sent back a memo on this incident that recommended air strikes as retaliation. Halberstam makes this Bundy memo into a huge milestone of American involvement in the war. He actually calls it one of the most memorable and important documents on the road to American commitment in Vietnam. In a startling passage, he writes that the paper trail on Vietnam was really not all that important because Johnson liked to use the phone. He essentially discounts use of the Pentagon Papers. (Halberstam, p. 524) But he says the Bundy/Pleiku memo was an exception, and of paramount importance.
This is simply not true. For two reasons. First, as we have seen, American direct involvement in Vietnam had been decided on months before. Chester Cooper worked on the NSC staff and then under Averill Harriman under both Kennedy and Johnson. He said about this trip, “The problem was Johnson had already made up his mind. For all practical purposes, he had dismissed the option of de-escalating and getting out, but he didn’t want to say that he had, so the rationale for [Bundy’s] trip was this was going to be decisive.” Cooper then adds, but Johnson had “damn well decided already what he was going to do.” (Logevall, p. 319)
The second problem with Halberstam giving the Pleiku memo so much weight is that Bundy had been a hawk from the beginning. Back in 1961, during Kennedy’s two-week debate over sending in combat troops, Bundy had drafted his “swimming pool memo” to the president. It is called that because Bundy began with this: “But the other day at the swimming pool you asked me what I thought and here it is. We should now agree to send about one division when needed for military action inside Vietnam…I would not put in a division for morale purposes.” (Goldstein, p. 62) Bundy then went on to make an utterly astonishing statement: “Laos was never really ours after 1954. South Vietnam is and wants to be.” (ibid) He then continued by saying that most everyone else, including Johnson, wanted to insert ground troops. Therefore Kennedy’s reluctance puzzled him: “I am troubled by your most natural desire to act on other items now, without taking the troop decision. Whatever the reasons, this has now become a sort of touchstone of our will.” (ibid, p. 63)
There is little doubt that this memo convinced Kennedy that he had to go around Bundy to accomplish his goal of withdrawing from Vietnam. Which he did. I could not locate this memo in Halberstam’s book. Neither could I find the fact that Bundy had sent a rough draft to Johnson of the February 1964 Pleiku Memo on the second day of his trip. Yet, the attack on Pleiku occurred on the fourth and last day. (Logevall, p. 320) Finally, when Bundy got back to Washington, Johnson had his memo recommending retaliation in his hand. He looked up from his bed at his National Security Advisor and said, ”Well, isn’t that all decided?” (Goldstein, p. 158)
Goldstein then adds something important that Halberstam completely misses. Johnson recalled all copies of Bundy’s Pleiku report. He in fact told Bundy to lie about its existence. (ibid) Why? Because what Bundy was actually proposing was an air campaign. Johnson did not believe in a war that was based from the sky. As Goldstein writes, Johnson used to say that “Ol’ Ho isn’t gonna give in to any airplanes.” (Goldstein, p. 159) But Saigon Ambassador Maxwell Taylor was opposed to ground troops. (ibid)
The way Johnson finessed this was to go ahead and begin the bombing campaign in February. He knew two things would follow. First, the air campaign would not be effective. Second, that theater commander Gen. Westmoreland would then request ground troops for air base security. And this is what happened. Therefore, amid great fanfare, the first American ground troops arrived at Da Nang air base in March. Incredibly, as late as February 7th, the day before he approved Flaming Dart, the air retaliation for Pleiku, and a week before he approved the massive air barrage called Rolling Thunder, Johnson said in a speech that he was still not seeking a wider war. (Logevall, p. 346)
It therefore took just eight months from the Tonkin Gulf incident to begin a full-scale war against North Vietnam. And the only reason it took that long is because Johnson had to lie around the election campaign. How does Halberstam slow this incredible galloping pace into slow motion? His usual technique. The insertion of the biography. Between Tonkin and Flaming Dart come two long biographies. The first is of Lyndon Johnson and takes up almost all of Chapter 20, or nearly thirty pages. The second biography is of Max Taylor and it subsumes almost all of Chapter 21, or nearly 15 pages. (If you can believe it, the biography of Taylor is just about twice as long as Halberstam’s discussion of the key Gulf of Tonkin incident.) With 45 pages of mostly filler, you can sure slow down things. Everything necessary to the narrative about these men could have been told in about five pages.
After Da Nang the insertion of more combat troops came with amazing speed. Three weeks later Westmoreland requested 20,000 more men. And the mission was altered from base protection to offensive operations. Westmoreland then asked for 82,000 more men. By the end of 1965, less than one year after LBJ’s election, there were 175,000 combat troops in country. Under Kennedy there were none. Incredibly, Halberstam never notes the difference.
There is another key part of Johnson’s escalation that Halberstam leaves out. It is this: Eisenhower backed him. (Goldstein p. 161) Ike informed Johnson that “he would use any weapons required, adding that if we were to use tactical nuclear weapons, such use would not in itself add to the chance of escalation.” (ibid) As McGeorge Bundy later said, because Johnson was a Cold Warrior and believer in the Domino Theory, he genuinely thought it was crucial to guard South Vietnam for the greater security purposes of Southeast Asia. The two people from whom he gained the most ballast and support from for this mission were Eisenhower and Dean Rusk. (Bundy referred to Rusk as Johnson’s “totally discreet and loyal cultural cousin”. Ibid) But Eisenhower was even more important than Rusk. Johnson felt that with Ike behind him, the dissidents were harmless. And further, Eisenhower stood by Westmoreland’s recommendations from the field. Because Eisenhower was also a believer in the Domino Theory LBJ considered him his most important single political ally. (ibid, p. 162) This is an important part of Johnson’s psychology as he went to war. I think Halberstam leaves it out in order to make it more of a purely Democratic Party affair.
And there is another key point that Halberstam leaves out. See, 1965 was only the beginning. Because Johnson believed in a land war, he granted the Pentagon each troop request. And as the number began to soar way beyond 175,000 the exodus of former Kennedy staffers began: McCone, Bundy, Ball, and McNamara. This is a phenomenon that Halberstam barely notes. Because it completely undermines one of his theses: That LBJ was in awe of these men and listened to them. (Halberstam, p. 435) This is simply not the case. For instance, even in February of 1964, McNamara questioned a further commitment. (Logevall, p. 127) This is why he had to be talked around by LBJ. As Logevall writes, contrary to what Halberstam postulates, Johnson was not at all intimidated by Bundy, McNamara, and certainly not his pal Rusk. He either overrode them or simply ignored them. For example, Bundy wanted Johnson to be more candid with the public about the true circumstances of the war. Johnson refused. But further, after 1965, when LBJ continued to commit tens of thousands of combat troops, it became clear that Johnson was not listening to his Cabinet. The meetings were pro forma. Because Westmoreland had a secret telegram channel to LBJ. (Goldstein, pgs 214-15) It was through this channel that Westmoreland would make a request, Johnson would grant it, and then he would call a meeting on it. It was all designed to give his advisors the illusion of being heard when they really were not. And this is a main reason why they left one by one.
One of the main motifs of The Best and the Brightest is the idea that the collapse of China in 1949 stigmatized the Cold War to such a degree that the USA could not risk losing another Far Eastern country. And the fact that this occurred under President Truman made it a special problem for the Democratic Party. There is little doubt that this is the case for President Johnson. (See Logevall pgs. 76-77) But try and find a quote like this from President Kennedy. Having read several books on the specific subject, that is Kennedy and Vietnam, I cannot recall one by JFK that relates Vietnam to the fall of China. But you can find a slew of quotes that show that Johnson was a dyed in the wool Cold Warrior. For example: “Lyndon Johnson is not going to go down as the president who lost in Vietnam. Don’t you forget that.” (Logevall, p. 77) On February 3, 1964, before Pleiku and Flaming Dart, Johnson told a newspaper reporter that if he chose to withdraw the dominoes would start falling over. “And God Almighty, what they said about us leaving China would just be warming up compared to what they’d say now.” (James Blight, Virtual JFK, p. 211)
But the great quote on this is what Johnson said in the book Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. (by Doris Kearns, p. 264) He compared withdrawal in Vietnam to what Neville Chamberlain did at Munich. In other words it would have been appeasement. He then said that, “And I knew that if we let Communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country a national debate…that would shatter my presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy.” This quite naturally led to a comparison with China and the rise of McCarthyism. And after comparing them LBJ said the loss of Vietnam would have been worse. Kennedy would never have said any such thing. And this is the main reason that Johnson did what he did in Vietnam. But if you discount Kennedy’s early foreign policy views on Algeria, the Congo and Third World nationalism (which I showed Halberstam did in Part 1), and you downplay just what a Cold Warrior LBJ was, then you can further disguise the split in policy.
In fact, Halberstam glides over an example of this without commenting on it. In 1965, Johnson sent troops to the Dominican Republic to thwart a leftist rebellion against a military junta that had displaced the liberal Juan Bosch. He threatened the rebel leader thusly, “Tell that son of a bitch that unlike the young man who came before me, I am not afraid to use what’s on my hip.” (Halberstam, p. 531) The author makes no comparison comment on this quote. Yet it tells us something about both LBJ and Halberstam. For Kennedy did intercede in the Dominican Republic. It was through diplomatic means and economic sanctions. But it was for Juan Bosch. And it was Kennedy’s actions which, in part, started the rebellion. (Donald Gibson, Battling Wall Street, pgs. 78-79) Johnson sent troops in to back the military junta that Kennedy was against, thereby reversing his policy. Can Halberstam really be ignorant of this? Or does he understand that it undermines his thesis, and this is why he makes no note of it?
At the end of the book Halberstam tells us that after narrowly beating Gene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary in 1968, Johnson got the news that he would do even worse in Wisconsin. He then decided to withdraw his candidacy. (Halberstam p. 654) The author then ends the main text of the book by summing up what happened to Max Taylor, Bob McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy. That is, how Vietnam scarred their careers. What he does not say is that none of it would have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated. In fact, that is what all three said later, that Kennedy would not have committed combat troops to Vietnam.
So as expressed by Mary McCarthy in her January 1973 New York Review of Books critique, the thesis of the book is simply wrong. That is that somehow the Eastern Elitism of the Bundy brothers, combined with the whiz kid can-do mentality of McNamara produced the debacle of Vietnam. The declassified record shows something else. That Kennedy understood that McGeorge Bundy was too hawkish on Vietnam and he decided to go around him. And he had given McNamara the assignment of implementing his withdrawal plan. After he was killed, Johnson then stopped all this and brought in hawks like Walt Rostow and Bill Bundy. By eliminating the primacy of Kennedy and Johnson, what Halberstam is proposing here is sort of like saying that Oliver North ran the Iran/Contra enterprise.
That was a cover story of course. And what Halberstam does here is essentially a cover story. But it’s a dual cover story. In his book, Halberstam describes a public debate over Vietnam that McGeorge Bundy participated in against LBJ’s wishes. Bundy, the man who Halberstam praises as being so brilliant and perceptive, did not do very well. (Halberstam, p. 620) That is because he really did not understand what was going on in Vietnam. In fact, from the Eisenhower to Nixon administrations, very few men in the whole saga did understand it. There were other people out there who understood what was really happening in Vietnam at a much earlier date. But they were not heard from.
This fact would have told us something quite telling about the power structure in America and how the Eastern Establishment controlled it. Namely, that many of these men were not nearly as wise, insightful, or perceptive as their sales image said they were. And in fact, they could not be even if they wanted to since this would not advance their careers. In a real way, the Eastern Establishment wanted the Cold War to persist. Even if it produced something as monstrous as Vietnam. And they wanted Vietnam to persist. After all, there were billions to be made.
President Kennedy, since he had been there as early as 1951, understood what was really happening. Which is why he wanted to get out. Halberstam’s book covers up both these truths: that the cabal entrusted to lead is entirely overrated, and that Kennedy was not one of them. He does so because it’s a truth too radical for someone like Halberstam. Who was never the kind of writer who pushed the envelope. What makes it worse is this: He never tried to amend it. Even after the declassified documents showed that Kennedy was going to withdraw and Johnson stopped it. This, I think, speaks to his intent.
Michael Morrissey once wrote an essay on this subject which he titled, “The Second Biggest Lie Ever Told”. He explained this as the idea that what Johnson did in Vietnam was a continuation of what Kennedy had done. Morrissey then explained that the biggest lie ever told was that Oswald shot Kennedy. Clearly, the two are inextricably linked.
The Best and the Brightest played a large role in cementing that second biggest lie. And in my view, as I showed in Part One, the deception was purposeful. Therefore this is not just an obsolete book. It is an intentionally misleading one.