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Defending The Nerds: Are The Best And Brightest Really All That Bad?

Learning the wrong lessons from David Halberstam.

Washington in the early days of a new administration is a didactic, lesson-drawing place, but even so, it has been striking to see how quickly the commentary on the death of Robert McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and architect of the Vietnam war, has turned to abstraction--as if it was not one exceptionally smart man being buried, but a certain kind of smarts itself. "What happened ... to Robert McNamara teaches a lesson to all those who talk of governments of all the talents," editorialized The Times of London. "Vietnam shattered the rationalist's faith," concluded David Ignatius in The Washington Post.

This theme looked particularly ripe for exploration because the Obama administration seems to echo the old Kennedy sensibility--ambitious, technocratic, self-consciously modern. McNamara, wrote Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal , "will go down as a cautionary tale for the ages, and perhaps none more than for the Age of Obama. ... These are people deeply impressed by their own smarts, the ones for whom the phrase 'the best and the brightest' has been scrubbed of its intended irony."

There's the nub of it--The Best and the Brightest. This skepticism about an excess of brains in government has persisted so long in large part due to the vividness of David Halberstam's study of the McNamara cohort. His book played into two of the animating political fears of the late twentieth century: liberal worry about the cold rationalism of foreign policy hawks; and conservative panic that the country's soul was being seduced away by clever young men on the coasts. And so, Halberstam's title has come to serve as political shorthand for a nervousness, on both the left and right, about governance by technocrat--a fear that braininess carries the built-in risk of failures the size of Vietnam. (For more, see our slideshow about nerds in government.)

But Halberstam's conclusions are both more complex and more elegant than that. The "whiz kids" of the Kennedy era were the book's most vivid creation, cocksure and empirical; but their pathologies were not the war's only authors, or even its primary ones. In fact, the disaster of Vietnam, in Halberstam's full telling, was the consequence not of too much faith in technocratic expertise, but, rather, of too little.

Toward the end of his career, Halberstam became dedicated to a pretty staid brand of national nostalgia (Summer of '49, The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship), so it is a little arresting to detect, in this early book, the marks of a bracingly liberal sensibility. One of the earliest episodes that Halberstam chooses to include, chronologically, has little directly to do with Vietnam: It is the McCarthy-era purging of the State Department's Far Eastern desk in the 1950s.

Red hunters believed that the bright young men of that station--who had been (rightly) skeptical of Chiang Kai-shek and certain that the communists would take China--were ideologically compromised, and they paid with their careers. During the Vietnam crisis, Halberstam finds the best of them, John Paton Davies, nearly a decade out of government and trying to run a furniture factory in Peru. Had these experts not been persecuted, Halberstam writes, they would likely have been shaping Asia policy at the State Department during the Vietnam period, and "might have been able to provide that rarest of contributions in government: real expertise at a high operational level."

The other engine of Vietnam policy was the Pentagon, which was in the grips of an ideological fury. "Anti-Communism was the textbook of their life," Halberstam writes of senior military officials. It was the generals who pushed successive escalations, and Kennedy's "own White House staff which had to fight to limit the military." None of the generals had much political feel for Asia. Early in the conflict, while briefing Kennedy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lyman Lemnitzer, gestured to a spot on a map and identified it as the Mekong Valley. Lemnitzer was pointing at the Yangtze.

Like other historians of the Vietnam War, Halberstam thinks the fundamental error of the U.S. government was not simply overconfidence, though that played a part, but an incapacity to understand the dimensions of the Vietnam crisis or the politics of the country. "The real problem," Halberstam writes, "was the failure to re-examine the assumptions of the era, particularly in Southeast Asia. There was no real attempt, when the new administration came in, to analyze Ho Chi Minh's position in terms of the Vietnamese people and in terms of the larger Communist world, to establish what Diem represented, to determine whether the domino theory was in fact valid." Lower-level analysts repeatedly emphasized nationalism over communism in describing Ho's appeal, only to see senior officials, perhaps remembering other conflicts, stress the communist threat in the country and redouble their commitment to the fight.

The Kennedyites had come to power inveighing against a missile gap that didn't exist and filled with a feeling that liberal idealism necessitated a hard line in the cold war. Some of the whiz kids came to doubt this model through Vietnam, and they became loud voices of internal dissent. As for those who clung to it in the face of evidence and helped push the escalation: Their error was an excess of ideology; they were not empirical enough.

Other than Kennedy and Johnson themselves, there were three men, more or less, who might have halted the escalation in Vietnam. Two of them--Dean Rusk and Maxwell Taylor--were members of an older generation, and their failures were not whiz-kid failures. The third was Bob McNamara.

Part of Halberstam's sketch of the defense secretary is familiar: McNamara was optimistic, witheringly logical, and, in Vietnam, fixated on finding the numbers that might neatly describe a messy conflict. He was irreducibly American. ("Every quantitative measurement we have shows that we're winning this war," he said in 1962.) For Halberstam, McNamara symbolized the idea that the Kennedy administration could "control events, in an intelligent, rational way." This description is part of what has given The Best and the Brightest its power; to many, McNamara has seemed an example of an enduring national flaw.

But there is another side to Halberstam's McNamara. The secretary was surpassingly smart and empirical, but he was, in military policy, close to an amateur, unprepared for the gig, with no experience in politics, diplomacy, or military administration. He "knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics," Halberstam writes. McNamara lacked the experience to query the sources of the military's optimism and hawkishness--so, in the words of one of his colleagues, Chester Bowles, he became "an easy target for military-CIA-paramilitary type answers," and, in the end, a conveyance for their views.

Even if you set aside all the other reasons the United States got into Vietnam--the gutting of expertise, the bullishness of the military, the miscalculation of the internal politics of the country, the anti-communist fervor, the roles of Rusk and Taylor--and focus solely on McNamara, the analogy with Obama is pretty difficult to sustain. "McNamara's ghost is hovering" over Afghanistan, Tom Hayden wrote in an obituary of the secretary. But wars aren't made by ghosts, and they don't proceed according to allegory. Kennedy chose as his defense secretary the president of a car company. Obama chose the sitting secretary of defense. Obama's brainiacs--people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag--come from a different meritocracy than Kennedy's did. They are not brilliant generalists. For better or for worse, they are experts.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributingwriter for The New York Times Magazine and a national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone.