David Halberstam, R.I.P.

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David Halberstam died Monday in a car crash in California. Characteristically, he was there to research his latest book, still completely active at age 73. Halberstam was an excellent and controversial reporter and a very fine writer. I've read several of his books and some of his journalism, including articles he wrote for the New York Times in the early 1960s from Vietnam. His brother, Michael Halberstam, was my physician in Washington in the early 1970s; he was murdered by a burglar in 1980. He was a writer, too; his novel The Wanting of Levine was terrific and very funny. It's sad to reflect that both brothers died violently and were taken away from us far too soon, when they had much more good work to do.

I cannot say that I knew David Halberstam well. I read his two quite different books about VietnamThe Making of a Quagmire, published in 1965, and The Best and the Brightest, published in 1972.

I also read The Reckoning, his account of the auto industry in the 1970s and 1980s, focusing on Ford and Nissan. For that book, as for others, he did an immense amount of research. As one who grew up in Detroit and attended schools with the sons and daughters of auto executives, I found that his account of the insular world of the Big Three auto companies rang true. I was struck particularly by his appreciation of the talents, as well as the faults, of Henry Ford II. There was plenty of material to justify sneering at Mr. Ford (as sons of Ford executives I knew always referred to him, even in adolescent gatherings), but Halberstam worked hard to get him right and, so far as I could judge, did so. Halberstam obviously had immersed himself in a milieu of which he had originally known very little. And he wrote like an angel. I hope that I told him this at one of our encounters, when I had lunch with him and Bob Woodward in the summer of 1985. Unfortunately, none of their ability to write books that sell in the hundreds of thousands rubbed off on me. I ran into Halberstam several times in the years since, and he was always friendly and pleasant, but we didn't get into much in the way of conversation.

An earlier encounter with Halberstam I remember only dimly, but it left an impression on me at the time, and I have thought about it many times in the years since. It came some time between 1963 and 1966, when I was on the Harvard Crimson. David Halberstam as well as Michael Halberstam had been on the Crimson in the 1950s, and by 1963 David Halberstam was one of the most famous reporters in the country for his coverage of Vietnam in 1962 and 1963. He had come to Cambridge a great celebrity, and he came over to the Crimson to talk to the editors (as everyone on the paper was called). I can't remember what year this was. A search of the Crimson website for mentions of Halberstam from 1963 to 1966 yields 497 results; I haven't searched through all of them, but none of the stories on the first few Web pages appear to refer to a Halberstam visit. It was probably after Halberstam won his Pulitzer Prize and perhaps while he was still working on The Making of a Quagmire.

Naturally, all of us wanted to ask him about his coverage of Vietnam. His reportage had been harshly critical of the Diem regime and of the South Vietnamese military; President Kennedy asked the publisher of the Times to take him off the beat. (His coverage has been attacked recently by historian Mark Moyar in Triumph Forsaken, a subject I'll leave for another day.) Halberstam talked a lot about Vietnam, but he also talked about China. As I remember–and perhaps memory is playing tricks on me–he talked about Theodore White's coverage for Time of the civil war in China and how White's reporting was rewritten by editor Whittaker Chambers to meet Time owner Henry Luce's pro-Chiang Kai-shek line. White eventually quit and wrote, Thunder Out of China. In that book, which I haven't read–I'm taking this from my recollections of White's autobiography–White took the view that Chiang's regime was authoritarian and corrupt, that it hadn't been willing to fight the Japanese during World War II but had selfishly hoarded its military forces so that it could fight the Chinese Communists. Mao Zedong's Communists were portrayed as more willing to engage the Japanese.

I don't think that White fully swallowed the Edgar Snow line that the Communists were benign agrarian reformers. But I think he did take the view of the diplomats often referred to as the "old China hands" and of Gen. Joseph Stilwell that the Chiang regime was no good and that it was not militarily effective in fighting the enemy up through 1945. This view was given definitive form in Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945, published in 1971. The coda to this story is that some of the old China hands were accused of being Communists and of aiding and abetting the Communist takeover of China in 1949.

"Who lost China?" was the political cry, and the issue clearly hurt President Harry Truman and the Democratic Party. Truman had refused to send military aid to the Chiang regime, a reversal of the policy of Franklin Roosevelt, who recalled Stilwell from China at Chiang's request.

I got the impression, still vivid today, that Halberstam saw Vietnam through the template of China and saw the Diem regime as something very much like the Chiang Kai-shek regime. The Making of a Quagmire, as I recall it, is not an argument that the United States shouldn't be involved in Vietnam. Rather, it saw the Vietnamese Communists, as White had seen the Japanese, as an evil enemy that ought to be defeated. And it saw Diem, as White had seen Chiang, as a corrupt and authoritarian ruler who refused to fight the enemy effectively and hoarded his forces to clamp down on his political opponents.

I think that Halberstam also saw Vietnam through the template of the civil rights movements. His first newspaper jobs after the Crimson were in Mississippi and Tennessee, where he covered the civil rights movement. In Vietnam, he gave generous coverage to the Buddhist protests against the Diem regime, and I think he saw the Buddhists as something like the southern blacks and Diem as something like the southern segregationists. Kennedy resented Halberstam's coverage, but it probably contributed to Kennedy's authorizing, or failing to prevent, the November 1963 coup in Vietnam, in which Diem and his brother were murdered. In China, Stilwell, the old China hands, and White were denied their goal of getting rid of Chiang. In Vietnam, Halberstam was successful in his apparent goal of getting rid of Diem.

The Best and the Brightest takes a different view of Vietnam from that in The Making of a Quagmire. Quagmire sees our effort as a noble fight, handicapped by a corrupt ally, against an evil enemy. Best, as I recall it, sees Vietnam as an effort the United States should never have undertaken. (I'm open to arguments that I'm misremembering these books; I haven't read either one in quite a long time.) Halberstam and his friend and fellow reporter and author Neil Sheehan had something of a conversion between 1965 and 1972: A good war with a bad ally had become a bad war with bad allies. As Stephen Rosenfeld, then deputy editorial page editor at the Washington Post, pointed out in a review of Sheehan's A Bright and Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, published in 1988, Sheehan never explains why his view on Vietnam changed. I don't believe Halberstam ever did either, though I'm open to the possibility that I simply missed it. Vann, the soldier who was the central figure in that book and a key source for both Sheehan and Halberstam when they were reporting from Vietnam, continued to regard the war as a noble effort until he died in 1972.

All this has reverberations today. Those who want us to withdraw from Iraq now or very soon often criticize the Iraqi government for its failures to take this or that action. They cast Nouri al-Maliki in the role in which Theodore White cast Chiang Kai-shek and David Halberstam cast Ngo Dinh Diem. They see Iraq through the template of Vietnam just as Halberstam saw Vietnam through the template of China. I tend to think it would be better if we would stop trying to see things through templates and try to see things as they are, but that's an argument for another day.

David Halberstam was a great writer. May he rest in peace.