The Best and the Brightest (1972) is an account by journalist David Halberstam of the origins of the Vietnam War published by Random House. The focus of the book is on the foreign policy crafted by academics and intellectuals who were in John F. Kennedy's administration, and the consequences of those policies in Vietnam. The title referred to Kennedy's "whiz kids"—leaders of industry and academia brought into the Kennedy administration—whom Halberstam characterized as insisting on "brilliant policies that defied common sense" in Vietnam, often against the advice of career U.S. Department of State employees.
Halberstam's book offers details on how the decisions were made in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that led to the war, focusing on a period from 1960 to 1965 but also covering earlier and later years up to the publication year of the book.
Many factors are examined in the book:
The book shows that the gradual escalation initially allowed the Johnson Administration to avoid negative publicity and criticism from Congress and to avoid a direct war against the Chinese, but it also lessened the likelihood of either victory or withdrawal.
The title may have come from a line by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his work "To Jane: The Invitation" (1822):
Shelley's line may have originated from English bishop and hymn writer Reginald Heber in his 1811 work, "Hymns. Epiphany":
A still earlier, and more pertinent, use of the phrase is in the letter of Junius published February 7, 1769, in the Public Advertiser. There Junius uses it mockingly and ironically in reference to King George III's ministers, whose capacities he had disparaged in his first letter the previous month. In response to Sir William Draper's letter defending one of Junius' targets and attacking their anonymous critics, Junius wrote:
To have supported your assertion, you should have proved that the present ministry are unquestionably the best and brightest characters of the kingdom; and that, if the affections of the colonies have been alienated, if Corsica has been shamefully abandoned, if commerce languishes, if public credit is threatened with a new debt, and your own Manilla ransom most dishonourably given up, it has all been owing to the malice of political writers, who will not suffer the best and brightest characters (meaning still the present ministry) to take a single right step, for the honour or interest of the nation.
In the introduction to the 1992 edition, Halberstam states that he had used the title in an article for Harper's Magazine, and that Mary McCarthy criticized him in a book review for incorrectly referencing the line in the Shelley poem. Halberstam claims he had no knowledge of that earlier use of the term found in the Heber hymn. Halberstam also observed regarding the "best and the brightest" phrase, that "...hymn or no, it went into the language, although it is often misused, failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended." In the book's introduction and a 2001 interview, Halberstam claims that the title came from a line in an article he had written about the Kennedy Administration.
The book was highly acclaimed when it was released. Victor Saul Navasky, writing in The New York Times, said it was Halberstam's "most important and impressive book" and praised the "compelling and persuasively presented thesis." Liaquat Ahamed called it a "great novel," praising Halberstam's "storyteller's talent for capturing people" and ability to write a "compelling narrative." Steve Mariotti called it his "favorite book."
The New York Times's Marc Tracy reported that Donald Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon was reading the book in February 2017. Tracy drew a parallel between McNamara and Bannon's lack of experience in national security.