he was indeed reading “The Best and the Brightest.”
Read the whole article, by Marc Tracy in the NYT. No, there is no indication that I had anything to do with Bannon’s choice of reading. Tracy makes this point:
If “The Best and the Brightest” is a brief against the East Coast meritocracy, though, its proposed alternative is not pure ideology. It is expertise.
Time and again, in Mr. Halberstam’s telling, lower-level government officials who understood Vietnamese politics, sentiments and even geography assessed reality accurately and offered correct policy recommendations to the major characters — who shunted them aside.
Well, in hindsight, the lower-level officials who raised doubts about the Vietnam commitment were experts. But there were other lower-level officials who argued the other way, and in hindsight they look like fools, or like toadies saying what they thought the senior policy makers wanted to hear.
I did not come away from the book thinking that the main conflict is between ideology and expertise, although I think that is a plausible reading. Instead, I came away from it thinking that the major conflict was between “can-do” overconfidence and sensible skepticism. The political process prefers the overconfident individual promising to solve problems, and so power accrues to people with “solutions,” even if those turn out to have dreadful consequences.
It did not take an expert to sense that there was something wrong with getting involved in Vietnam. On p. 181, Halberstam writes,
Thruston Morton was assigned to inform Senator [Richard] Russell of the Armed Services Committee that the President would be sending an estimated 200 men to South Vietnam as well as funding the country. Russell answered that it was a mistake, it would not stay at 200, it would eventually go to 20,000 and perhaps one day even as high as 200,000. . .
“I think this is the greatest mistake this country’s ever made,” Russell said.
That was during the Eisenhower Administration. A few years later, Russell and others advised President Kennedy against expanding the commitment, but at the same time other powerful figures argued for an even stronger U.S. buildup. This was to be the case throughout the war, and neither Kennedy nor Johnson were decisive enough to either limit the commitment on the one hand or to undertake the most aggressive military actions on the other.
As I pointed out in a previous post, Eisenhower deserves credit for staying out of a war in Vietnam. Halberstam writes (p. 178-179),
Eisenhower was in no mood for unilateral action, and in 1954 his manner of decision making contrasted sharply with that of Lyndon Johnson some eleven years later. Whereas Eisenhower genuinely consulted the Congress, Johnson paid lip service to real consultation and manipulated the Congress. Eisenhower’s chief of staff had made a tough-minded, detailed estimate of what the cost of the war would be; eleven years later an all-out effort was made by almost everyone concerned to avoid determining and forecasting what the reality of intervention meant. In 1954 the advice of allies was genuinely sought; in 1965 the United States felt itself so powerful that it did not need allies, except as a means of showing more flags and gaining moral legitimacy for the U.S. cause. Eisenhower took the projected costs of a land war to his budget people with startling results; Johnson and McNamara would carefully shield accurate troop projections not only from the press and the Congress but from their own budgetary experts. The illusion. . .that bombing could be separated from combat troops, which was allowed to exist in 1965, was demolished in 1954 by both Ridgway and Eisenhower.
The lessons that Mr. Bannon might take away from this are to consult widely on decisions, pay attention to pessimistic estimates of potential costs and adverse consequences, and above all encourage honesty from subordinates. Beware of those who tell you what they think you want to hear, and instead encourage those who give you their honest analysis.