David Halberstam: Letter to his daughter

Historians in the News

[CommonDreams.org] Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted, coincidentally on the day of Mr. Halberstam’s untimely and unfortunate death, by Common Dreams reader Dick Atlee with the following note:

“I thought this might be of interest to you. It appeared in Parade Magazine almost exactly 25 years ago, written by David Halberstam 20 years after he arrived in Vietnam on the way to becoming one of the premier journalists of the time. It was written as a letter to his (at the time) 2-year old daughter. I stumbled on a yellowed copy in my mother’s files. I haven’t found it on the Web, and because it is so sadly relevant to today, I scanned it in and fixed all the glitches I could find in the result.

I guess we lost the generation he was hoping to reach…”

A Letter To My Daughter
David Halberstam

May 2, 1982

Two decades ago, David Halberstam went to Saigon to cover the burgeoning war in Vietnam for The New York Times — an assignment for which he received a Pulitzer Prize. In the years since, he has written a number of books, including The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be and The Breaks of the Game. But his years in Vietnam have remained very much with him — just as that now-distant war has remained very much a part of America’s national consciousness. PARADE asked Halberstam to reflect on his experiences in Vietnam. His insights have taken the form of a letter to be read someday by his daughter Julia, who is not yet 2 years old. In so doing, he fulfills every parent’s desire to transmit his most profound experience to his children. He believes it important that the rising generation gain as much insight as possible into a conflict that brought with it such bitterness and controversy. We share his belief and commend his letter not only to Julia, but to all readers, today’s no less than tomorrow’s.

Dear Julia,

It is 20 years. But I remember it as if it were yesterday, the ride in from Tan Son Nhut Airport, driving through the semi-rural outskirts of Saigon, sensing the rare combination of energy and beauty, yet aware as well of the dark shadow over the land, for there were already troops everywhere. Never as in that moment had life seemed so real to me, never had I felt so connected to a particular moment; it was as if, and I know this will sound odd and possibly arrogant to you, I had finally arrived at the place where I was always destined to go.

I believed in the cause that was at stake and in the men who were fighting it; like many in my generation, I had been touched by John Kennedy’s inaugural speech and had felt stirred by his words about the long twilight struggle ahead and the great adventure we might all be part of. And here I was, fresh from more than a year of reporting in the Congo, finally, after many requests to my foreign editor, a part of it. Sometimes in those early months, in talking about what the Americans were doing in Vietnam, I, like others there, slipped unconsciously into the pronoun “we.” That we were there to help another country against encroachment from within was the line, and I did not dissent. No one, it seemed to me, said it better than a friend of mine named Clarence Hornbuckle, a Special Forces sergeant with whom I spent a week near the Laotian border in the Central Highlands. On his beret was the Special Forces motto, “De Oppresso Liber, ” or, translated from the Latin, “To Free the Oppressed.” “I figure it means “give the little bleepers a break, ” Hornbuckle said.

Someday I hope you will understand how important those moments were for me; more, I want you to understand the importance of remembering, of holding onto and even cherishing a part of what you have been as, more and more, events are thrust upon you. For all too often in this world, and I think with increasing force, the present seeks to obliterate the past-something I hope you will not lightly accept. So let me begin.

I have odd and bittersweet memories of those days, of living in my dreams in the midst of an escalating war. Dreams are fine both for people and for nations. We need them for sustenance and for incentive, but they are dangerous as well, for they may turn into myth, diverting us from what we are and what we might be into what we think we are. If anything, in those days, I loved my assignment too much. There is, in all young reporters — and I was 28 at the time — a certain romanticism.

And in reporters of my generation in the early days of Vietnam, that was heightened into something more complicated: the journalist in search of self as the Hemingway hero. We were testing ourselves without ever really admitting that we were testing ourselves. It was a bad time in Vietnam, not as bad as it was eventually to become, but it was, in addition to all the danger and hardship, an oddly exhilarating time for me, at least in the beginning. There is in here a contradiction that every journalist should ponder; and I reflect on it still: What of us as human beings, if we are at our best in times of such misery?....
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