David Halberstam spoke truth to power
He was the stuff of legend, and it is nothing less than a national tragedy that so great a voice was silenced by a car crash this week, just when it's needed more than ever.
David Halberstam's work and influence as reporter and author spanned half a century. He covered the most important stories of our time, from the civil rights struggle in the South during the 1950s to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and into a new century and a new war, one that eerily reminded him of the mistakes of the one of his youth.
Along the way, he wrote hard-hitting stories that sounded an early warning against a rush to war in Vietnam. Those stories earned him the enmity of two American presidents and a Pulitzer Prize when he was 30 years old.
Halberstam left daily journalism before he was 40 and wrote more than 20 books, wonderfully researched and written histories of the times in which he and we lived. He shined a bright light on topics large and small, from war to sports.
His Vietnam books, "The Making of a Quagmire" and "The Best and the Brightest," a landmark study of the politicians and academics who led us blindly into that quagmire, should have been read and remembered by those who led us into the newest quagmire in Iraq.
A friend of mine asked Halberstam recently if he'd been afraid when he went on combat operations with the troops. "Oh no," he answered. "I could always sleep at night out with soldiers. Fear is being a 27-year-old Jew working for The New York Times covering the civil rights struggle in Mississippi."
He went to Vietnam in the very early days, and he went believing in what America hoped to achieve in that remote country. He was, after all, an Army brat, the son of an Army doctor. Halberstam had heard John F. Kennedy's inaugural promise that we would go anywhere, pay any price, to defend freedom, and he believed in it.
But he and UPI's Neil Sheehan and AP's Malcolm Browne traveled South Vietnam talking to the U.S. military advisers, and what they heard from officers such as John Paul Vann and Ivan Slavich didn't match up with what they heard at the official briefings in Saigon.
A bloody debacle at a tiny hamlet in the Mekong Delta called Ap Bac in 1962 was a turning point. What should have been a South Vietnamese army victory, with the help of American helicopters, became a stunning defeat when the South Vietnamese forces deliberately let a trapped Viet Cong unit escape.
For writing the truth in the face of official lies, Halberstam and the others would be denounced as defeatists, cowards, traitors. In Washington, President Kennedy made calls to The New York Times asking that Halberstam be transferred elsewhere. The Times stood behind its man.
Years later, in an open letter to his baby daughter, Julia, in Parade Magazine, Halberstam wrote: "I lost my innocence in Vietnam. Ideals of egalitarianism, I decided, were not easily exported and often the people in Washington most eager to export them were in fact those who most clearly failed to live up to them at home."
When American Army brass pressured the reporters to "get on the team" or else, Halberstam fought back. He wrote of a 1963 briefing: "And I stood up, my heart beating wildly - and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense."
As America marched toward the invasion of Iraq late in 2002, David Halberstam, like some others who'd spent their youth in Vietnam, was questioning the Bush administration's beating of the war drums.
"I just never thought it was going to work at all," he said during a talk last January. "I thought that in both Vietnam and Iraq, we were going against history. My view - and I think it was because of Vietnam - was that the forces against us were going to be hostile, that we would not be viewed as liberators. We were going to punch our fist into the largest hornet's nest in the world."
For thousands of would-be journalists, Halberstam was extremely generous of his time and advice. He spent a lot of time lecturing at journalism schools urging his audiences to learn to speak truth to power - and when they met official lies and obstruction to work even harder to get to the truth and expose it.
He was an elegant thinker, writer and speaker. For his old colleagues, he was a one-man cheering squad always ready to provide a book blurb or a foreword or a word of encouragement.
Halberstam kept on his desk a small quote that Albert Camus wrote during France's war in Algeria:
"I should like to be able to love my country and love justice."
David Halberstam loved both and served both well all the days of his life.