Around this time last year, Marc Tracy, a New York Times reporter, ran into Steve Bannon (then top strategy advisor for the Trump administration) in the departure lounge of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Under Bannon’s Barbour-clad arm (quite an amusing detail to us St Andreans, I would imagine), was David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, a classic opus in political decision-making circles.
The Best and the Brightest is an examination of the decision-making of the Kennedy and Johnson years vis-à-vis the situation in Indochina. In it, Halberstam attempts to understand how the brilliant advisors of both these administrations — “the best and the brightest” — could possibly lead the United States to such dramatic failure in Vietnam.
All of the men involved in taking the most crucial decisions over Vietnam were, without a doubt, brilliant. Kennedy chose his advisors carefully and, in doing so, aimed to gather a group of men on the basis of their intelligence alone, paying little attention to their lack of societal, economic, political or military expertise — let alone their lack of experience in policy-making.
Kennedy wholeheartedly believed that brilliance and determination, coupled with rational, strategic decisions, could surmount all obstacles. This resulted in a group of men who were driven, relentless, and sharper than anyone; all had near-perfect careers, all were averse to failure, and all believed that they could defeat any difficulty by an exercise of sheer will. Halberstam’s conclusion is, surprisingly, that the failures in Vietnam occurred not in spite of the personalities of these advisors, but because of them.
Indeed, the very beliefs that had led these men to success, would lead them, time and again, to ignore the evidence that suggested their worldview to be mistaken, and incite them to push on despite the mounting signs presaging their eventual failure. Having never experienced it themselves, these men in fact had little grasp of what failure actually meant.
It is interesting to consider these conclusions in today’s context. Were we to know them now, we would surely admire these individuals for similar reasons that Kennedy and Johnson admired them. In fact, their mentality pervades our professional culture; their character and their resolve has become one that we constantly strive to emulate. After all, it is this no-surrender mindset that most often guarantees success; career-development gurus from Grant Cardone to Gary Vaynerchuk tout it as being of paramount importance — and we can indeed recognise similar approaches in many of the most successful people in the world.
So why, if such a mindset is seemingly crucial to success, could it have led to such a drastic failure as Vietnam? One answer, perhaps, would be the over-confidence of decision-makers, their enduring idea that no matter what occurred in the real world, their endeavours would prevail. And yet this too, is recognisable amongst the ultra-successful.
The answer, then, perhaps lies not in the confidence of decision-makers, but in their confidence that their alignment with experts was not a necessary condition for their triumph. This is a conclusion that the Trump Administration would do well to consider as it enters its second year in office.
Of course, the geopolitical landscape is vastly different than it was in 1962; the United States, in particular, is in a different situation: its power has declined, its capacities have been reduced and its global responsibilities have diminished. And yet the central issue to Vietnam — American prestige — is one that is still at stake today, perhaps even more at stake than it was after the Second World War. For his many strengths, Obama’s foreign policy failures (especially his unwillingness to defend his Red Line in the Sand) heavily contributed to the decline of US prestige abroad — a context into which Trump has now been thrust.
Regardless of whether the Trump administration will come to consider American prestige as one of its central challenges (thus far, its policy efforts seem to have been concentrated in the domestic sphere), the conclusions drawn from The Best and the Brightest should not be forgotten: nobody, no matter how smart or how capable, is immune to failure; and nobody should let their self-confidence blind them in the face of facts.