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Category: David Halberstam

Slipping away

“In his attempt to keep planning for the war as closely held as possible, Lyndon Johnson would not give accurate economic projections, would not ask for a necessary tax raise, and would in fact have his own military planners be less than candid with his own economic planners . . . . The reasons for Johnson’s unwillingness to be straightforward about the financing were familiar. He was hoping that the worst would not come true, that it would remain a short war, and he feared that if the true economic cost of the war became visible to the naked eye, he would lose his Great Society programs. The result was that his economic planning was a living lie . . . the Great Society programs were passed but never funded on any large scale.” – David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (emphasis in original)

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Play balls

“Westy [General and former Eagle Scout William C. Westmoreland] at the Cercle Sportif, playing his last tennis game, at the end lining up the little Vietnamese urchins who had served as ball boys, street-tough from some of the meanest streets in the world, unlikely candidates for Eagle Scouts, learning the black-market rate before they learned arithmetic, knowing even before they reached their teens the full glory of East-West decadence. Westy lining them up as if in company formation, telling an American who had played with him to translate. ‘You have been my ball boys.’ Nods of their heads. ‘You have served well. You have been faithful.’ More nods of heads. ‘I would like to reward you.’ Nods. Expectant smiles. The tip. ‘Here is your reward. You may have all my tennis balls.’ Looks of immense disappointment.” – David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (emphasis in original)

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The whiteface follies

“For all the evidence the Vietcong gave of their combat toughness, and for all the abundant evidence of the ferocity and professionalism (and size) of the North Vietnamese army there was a certain Caucasian arrogance about the Vietnamese ability, a belief that when pitted against American troops, the Vietnamese would have to cave in, that American troops with their fire power, with their air support, their helicopters, would simply be too much . . . with technology stripped away, were the Americans that impressive? Would they be braver, more willing to die than their enemies?” – David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest

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Crusts for the little people

“If we get into this war I know what’s going to happen. Those damn conservatives are going to sit in Congress and they’re going to use this war as a way of opposing my Great Society legislation. . . . They hate this stuff, they don’t want to help the poor and the Negroes but they’re afraid to be against it at a time like this when there’s been all this prosperity. But the war, oh, they’ll like the war. They’ll take the war as their weapon. They’ll be against my programs because of the war. I know what they’ll say, they’ll say they’re not against it, not against the poor, but we have this job to do, beating the Communists. We beat the Communists first, then we can look around and maybe give something to the poor.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 (quoted by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest)

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I’ll see your destruction and raise you some death

“It is the nature of escalation that each move passes the option to the other side, while at the same time the party which seems to be losing will be tempted to keep raising the ante. To the extent that the response to a move can be controlled, that move is probably ineffective. If the move is effective it may not be possible to control or accurately anticipate the response. Once on the tiger’s back we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.” – U.S. Under Secretary of State George W. Ball, October 1964 (quoted by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest)

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To the victor go the spoils

“When you win big, you can have anything you want for a time. You come home with that big landslide and there isn’t a one of them who’ll stand in your way. No, they’ll be glad to be aboard and to have their photograph taken with you and be part of all that victory. They’ll come along and they’ll give you almost everything you want for a while and then they’ll turn on you. They always do. They’ll lay in waiting, waiting for you to make a slip and you will. They’ll give you almost everything and then they’ll make you pay for it. They’ll get tired of all those columnists writing about how smart you are and how weak they are and then the pendulum will swing back.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson (quoted by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest)

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In God’s country

“The land was hard and unfertile and taught its own lessons, stern lessons. The virtues were the old ones and the sins were the old ones, and the Bible still lived. No one ever expected life to be easy, and forgiveness was not the dominating trait. It was not a land which produced indulgence of any sort, and people who grew up there did not talk about life styles. They talked about God, about serving, about doing what He wanted. It was much admired to make use of what God had given you and to obey authority. If you didn’t, dark prophecies were offered and you were considered, at the least, wayward.” – David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest

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Snowballs

“The capacity to control a policy involving the military is greatest before the policy is initiated, but once started, no matter how small the initial step, a policy has a life and a thrust of its own, it is an organic thing. More, its thrust and its drive may not be in any way akin to the desires of the President who initiated it. There is always the drive for more, more force, more tactics, wider latitudes for force. Starting in mid-1962, this had begun to be true on Vietnam, and there was soon a split between the American military and the Administration.” – David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest

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The sting of the WASP

“McCarthyism went deeper in the American grain than most people wanted to admit: it was an odd amalgam of the traditional isolationism of the Midwest; McCarthy’s own personal recklessness and cruelty; the anxiety of a nation living in a period of new and edgy atomic tensions and no longer protected from adversaries by the buffer of its two adjoining oceans; and the fact that the Republican party had been out of power fo so long—twenty years, until Dwight Eisenhower, a kind of hired Republican, was finally elected. The Republicans’ long, arid period out of office, accentuated by Truman’s 1948 defeat of Dewey, had permitted the out-party in its desperation to accuse the leaders of the governing party of treason. . . . Long after McCarthy himself was gone, the fear of being accused of being soft on Communism lingered among the Democratic leaders. . . . The fear generated in those days lasted a long time.” – David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest

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