David Halberstam: His talent and generosity

Historians in the News

... He trusted what he saw. He trusted what he heard. He trusted what he felt. He sniffed out incompetence and hypocrisy, and called people on it. When American generals manipulated body counts and stood by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's corrupt regime, Halberstam did the only thing he knew how to do: tell the truth.

There's a moment recounted in William Prochnau's book "Once Upon a Distant War," a riveting account of the young war correspondents in the early days of the Vietnam War, when Halberstam ran into Gen. Joseph Stilwell. Halberstam had just written a front-page story for the Times suggesting that the Viet Cong were making extraordinary gains in the Delta. Stilwell told Halberstam, "I took apart [your story] line by line and you got it dead wrong." To which Halberstam replied, "General, you're a liar." Would that, could that, happen today?

Halberstam went on to write "The Best and the Brightest," a scathing indictment of those who led us into Vietnam. It has become the bible among a generation of journalists. George Packer, who has covered the Iraq war for The New Yorker, wrote of how during his first summer there, "among reporters in Baghdad, 'The Best and the Brightest' kept coming up in conversation, making it clear that any historical account that may be written about the origins of this new war will have only one model."

Halberstam was the antidote to the world of blogging and to the proliferation of pundits. Halberstam, for sure, had fixed opinions, which in his deep, voluminous voice sometimes seemed as if they were emanating from God himself. When in 1979 he heard that the University of Chicago had chosen to honor McNamara with an award, he remarked:

"What are they giving him the award for? Increasing international understanding with the North Vietnamese from 35,000 feet?"...
Read entire article at Alex Kotlowitz in the Chicago Tribune

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