Remembering Halberstam

By Chris Daly

The City of Cambridge (Mass.) plans to dedicate a memorial to the late, irreplacable David Halberstam on Wednesday of this week. It will be in a small public space in a traffic island in Harvard Square.

It seems like a good occasion to recall who Halberstam was, how important his work was, and how good he was at it. I am posting some excerpts here from my forthcoming book, “Covering America.” These passages are from the chapter on the 1960s, in which Halberstam plays a prominent part, as a critic of the war in Vietnam and as a journalist whose work taught an important and timeless lesson: question authority.


Chapter 11

Rocking The Establishment


Believe half of what you see

And none of what you hear

–Marvin Gaye

(“I Heard it Through the Grapevine”)

Vietnam (Part I)

In the fall of 1962, a young correspondent arrived in Vietnam to take over the Saigon bureau of the New York Times. The new man was David Halberstam, and he was succeeding a reporter who was a living legend: Homer Bigart. Having covered both World War II and Korea, Bigart had seen more combat than most of the U.S. military officers serving in Vietnam. Bigart was eager to leave, but first he sat down and typed out a three-page letter to Halberstam. It was a classic handoff from a veteran to a rookie, full of advice on everything from news sources to food.

Dear Dave:

I am very glad you’re going to Saigon . . . The Caravelle is a good hotel, and the food is better than in New York . . .

A good guy at the Embassy is Barbour, in the political section. The Ambassador [Frederick Nolting] is rather complicated; sometimes he won’t tell you anything, at other times he will drop a few clues in an offhand way. He’s no genius, but I’ve seen worse . . .

The city is full of American spooks trying to silence the few honest Americans who will level with correspondents. Never reveal your sources of information . . .

The climate is like West Africa, except for some pleasant months in mid-Winter. Take a sweater for the highlands. You can have some bush jackets made up in Saigon (the 55 Tailor) in a few days and quite cheap. I left a lot of essential gear, canteen, messkit, belt, etc. . . .


Homer Bigart

PS: I never really got to know the new Vietnamese chief of information, but I hear he is a decent fellow, not like the crummy bastard that tried to throw me out . . . [i]

In a sense, it was a handoff not just from Bigart to Halberstam but from the World War II generation to a rising group of younger reporters. Bigart, who had seen a lot of action in World War II and won a Pulitzer Prize for his Korean War reporting, was then fifty-five years old; Halberstam was just twenty-eight. Halberstam was part of an in-between generation–too young for WWII and even Korea, but too old to be among the Baby Boomers, who were born starting in 1946. Halberstam turned out to be a pioneer for many of the younger American journalists who came after him in the 1960s and 1970s–a fearless reporter who would fight for stories and fight just as hard to keep his stories from getting suppressed by the regime in Vietnam, by certain editors back home on the Times’s foreign desk, or by the president of the United States. Halberstam’s reporting from Vietnam not only set the standard for those who followed, it also proved to be the opening wedge of a cultural and political trend that would come to mark the era—the “credibility gap.” This change, in turn, opened American journalism up to an approach that was much more skeptical, often more honest, and ultimately more creative than it would have been otherwise.

Even in 1962, as he took over the Saigon job, Halberstam was already a rising star. Born in 1934 in the Bronx to a doctor father and schoolteacher mother, Halberstam grew up in the small town of Winsted in northwestern Connecticut and attended the local schools (where one of his classmates was Ralph Nader). In 1951, he entered Harvard and stepped up onto a new trajectory when he joined the reporting staff of the independent student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. After graduating in 1955 with a degree in history, Halberstam did something very unusual for a talented, connected young Harvard grad from New York: he went to Mississippi and got himself a job on the smallest daily newspaper in the state, the West Point Daily Times Leader, where he banged out as many as a dozen stories a day. The next year, he moved up to the Nashville Tennessean, a progressive paper in the thick of covering the civil rights movement. The lunch counter sit-in movement was gathering force in Nashville just as Halberstam arrived, and he was assigned to cover it. As a young Northerner in sympathy with the movement’s goals, Halberstam was trusted by the demonstrators, who granted him more access than any other reporter.[ii] In the process, he was learning the ropes of covering conflict. During these years, Halberstam also took care of his military obligation by spending six months in infantry training with the Army, picking up some more valuable experience.[1]

In 1960, he was hired by James Reston to join the New York Times in its Washington bureau. After less than a year, Halberstam shipped out to cover a big chunk of Africa for the Times from a bureau in Congo, one of many Third World flashpoints in the global conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In Congo and the surrounding countries, Halberstam got his chance to report on the standard issues of Cold War journalism in the Third World–coups, communism, and combat (usually involving guerrilla tactics).

When he arrived in Vietnam in 1962, Halberstam, who later became famous as a critic of U.S. policy, was very much a creature of the Cold War and therefore wanted the U.S. mission in Vietnam to succeed.[iii] By training and perhaps by temperament, he was a skeptic, but he was no rebel. He was not an anti-imperialist, and he was certainly not anti-American. In an early dispatch from Vietnam, Halberstam wrote the following (in its original cable form):

young american officers have been highly impressive here comma and are admired not only for their conduct in the field but their conduct as unofficial diplomatic representatives of their country stop they and their younger vietnamese counterparts generally enjoy good personal relationships . . . [iv]

He was, by his own account, “probably a Democrat” and, to that extent, inclined to want to see Kennedy succeed in Vietnam. His gripes were about tactics, not strategy–about how to succeed, not about how to define success. But presidents and their aides rarely make such nice distinctions. They tend to see reporters as for them or againstthem. In Halberstam’s case, it appears that the American mission in Vietnam took a reporter who wanted to be for them and left him nowhere to go but into the opposition.

Almost from the beginning, something about Vietnam wasn’t quite right. Normally, a foreign correspondent for a prestigious newspaper like the New York Times would immediately be welcomed by the American elites abroad and become a fixture in the American establishment in that country. The correspondent would know the U.S. ambassador, the CIA station chief, and everyone else who mattered. In fact, it was routine practice for American journalists in the years after World War II to coordinate with the CIA when heading abroad or returning home. At a minimum, reporters could count on a briefing by the CIA about the country or region they would be covering; when they got back, it was expected that the journalists would return the favor by meeting with CIA officers to divulge anything of interest that was not already made public in their stories or columns.[2] Not surprisingly, then, soon after Halberstam arrived in Saigon in 1962, one of his first stops was lunch with John Richardson, the CIA chief for Vietnam.

The real friction arose between Halberstam and the two most visible officials responsible for U.S. policy in Vietnam: the ambassador, Frederick Nolting, and the ranking military officer, Gen. Paul Harkins. Halberstam expressed his views of both men in a memo he wrote to a reporter from Esquire magazine who was preparing a profile of Halberstam, titled “Our Man in Saigon.” Halberstam referred to Nolting as “a fool, mind you, but worth talking to” and observed that he was “never invited to Nolting’s house for any meal.” As for the general, Halberstam wrote that “Harkins hated our guts and tried to have our sources investigated.” Halberstam came to loathe both men, but there was far more involved than personal pique. Long before most Americans came to understand, Halberstam pointed to deeper sources of friction between the American mission and the press corps:

Some of it was an allout attempt to keep a nice easy unruffled relationship with the [ruling] Ngo family–our stories traditionally ruffle that relationship–and part of it was that they themselves were reporting this optimistic crap [to Washington] and they didn’t want any other stuff getting out.[v]

[1] Later, while reporting from Saigon, Halberstam got in trouble with his draft board in a mix-up over his obligation to keep the board informed about his movements after he was assigned overseas. With help from the Times, he managed to placate the draft officials. He had joined the Army under the Reserve Forces Act, which attempted to allow the Pentagon to shrink the size of the active military while keeping a large reserve force on hand that could be mobilized rapidly. (See William Prochnau, Once Upon a Distant War, pgs. 197-8.)

[2] Sometimes, these would be at quite high levels. When Walter Lippmann made his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1958, he was briefed by no less a figure than CIA Director Allen Dulles at the agency’s headquarters. (See Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, pg. 510.) Many other revelations about press-CIA cooperation tumbled out in 1975 when the Senate’s Church Committee released its findings about U.S. intelligence agencies and their methods. Also see a lengthy article by Carl Bernstein, “The CIA and the Media,” Rolling Stone, Oct. 20, 1977. These arrangements are partly to blame for the persistent belief in some parts of the world that all American journalists are spies.

[i] Homer Bigart to David Halberstam, Aug. 6, 1962. David Halberstam Collection, Gotlieb Archives, Boston University.

[ii] See Roberts and Klibanoff, The Race Beat, 226.

[iii] See, for example, Halberstam’s own oral history in Reporting America at War.

[iv] Cable from David Halberstam Collection, Box 2, Gottlieb Archive, Boston University.

[v] Quotes are from a two-page, single-spaced memo Halberstam wrote as guidance for the Esquire writer, George Goodman, better known by his pen name, Adam Smith. Memo is in the Halberstam Collection, Box 3, Boston University.


A later excerpt:

Stories revealing the conflict between the military and the press abound.[1] But there is no better example than the Battle of Ap Bac.[i] In February of 1963, American “advisers” finally got their wish–they got to fight regular enemy forces, in the daytime, using armor and air support. From the beginning, U.S. military experts had been frustrated by the guerilla tactics used by the communists: ambushes, hit-and-runs, booby traps, night raids. Vietcong forces usually picked their spots, assembled quickly, then broke off and melted back into the jungle or the rural villages. The Americans, with their technological edge and their legacy of victory through massed forces, were spoiling for what they considered a fair fight.

When the moment arrived at Ap Bac, there was one serious problem: the army doing the fighting was not America’s own. Instead, the Americans were mere advisers, limited to supporting, cheering, and even cursing out the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN, pronounced like “Arvin”), the military force of the Diem government in Saigon. ARVN was supposed to be taking the lead role in defeating the Viet Cong, the communist guerilla movement (usually referred to as the V.C.). No one tried harder to get ARVN to fight than Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, then a rising star among the hundreds of U.S. military advisers in Vietnam. In the Battle of Ap Bac, the ARVN forces eventually had a V.C. regiment hemmed in on three sides and needed only to call in reinforcements to seal the enemy forces in and wipe them out. In the end, the Vietnamese commander, fearing casualties, dropped his men on the wrong side and left the Vietcong an escape route, which they took as soon as darkness fell. ARVN did inflict some casualties that day, but it was hardly the great victory that the Diem government claimed. In fact, as Vann explained to Halberstam and Sheehan and anyone else who would listen, it was a wasted opportunity. As the reporters told the story, it was hard to miss the point that America was trying to fight a war with an ally that did not want to fight. It was like pushing on a chain.

[1] To take one notorious case: In December 1961, the U.S. aircraft carrier Core docked at the foot of Tu Do Street in Saigon, towering over the nearby buildings. Plainly visible on the deck were dozens of olive-drab Sikorsky H-21 helicopters. Mal Browne was among a half-dozen reporters who wanted to know what was going on, since the U.S. was officially only advising South Vietnam, not arming it. The reporters went to the U.S. Information Service office and asked the director about the massive ship.

“Aircraft carrier?” he asked. “What aircraft carrier? I don’t see any aircraft carrier.”

V.C. spies, of course, managed to see the ship and even record the serial numbers of the aircraft as they were unloaded. (See Browne, Muddy Boots and Red Socks, pgs. 107-8.)

[i] This story is told in detail in Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, as well as in Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, and in Prochnau, Once Upon a Distant War.


And one more…

While Kennedy pondered his relations with Diem and the Buddhists expanded their campaign against the government, Browne and Halberstam and the rest of the reporters in Saigon pressed on. Soon, they began coming under attack from an unlikely quarter: the journalism Establishment. Leading the criticism were a number of older columnists, reporters, and editors who made only occasional forays to Vietnam yet considered themselves more informed–based on their chats with their high-ranking sources in the White House and the Pentagon–than the reporters who were there on the ground. In what became known as the “press crisis” of 1963, the Saigon-based reporters found their reporting challenged, their motives questioned, and their patriotism attacked.

One of the most prominent of the critics was the veteran of reporting World War II and Korea, Maggie Higgins. Now married to an Air Force general, Higgins saw Vietnam in the same frame as her two earlier wars–a straight-up military confrontation in which the U.S. should prevail. In late August 1963, she began a series in the New York Herald Tribune that ran under the logo: VIETNAM – FACT AND FICTION. In a thinly veiled attack on Halberstam, she relied on the top U.S. military officer as her chief informant. Not surprisingly, she concluded that all was well in Vietnam.  “Contrary to recent published reports that the situation in the rich Mekong River delta has ‘deteriorated,’ Gen. Paul Harkins insists that the opposite is true.” She lamented that Vietnam’s image was being tarnished “at a period when the war is going better than ever.” Still, she wasn’t finished with the young correspondents in Saigon and slipped one in below the belt: “Reporters here would like to see us lose the war to prove they are right.” Her series in the Trib was read closely by Times editors back in New York, especially by the night foreign editor, Nathaniel Gerstenzang, one of Halberstam’s bosses. Gertsenzang fired off a series of critical cables (known as “rockets”) that required Halberstam to justify his reporting. Eventually, Halberstam blew his stack:


One reason Halberstam may have felt so bold in pushing back against his editor is revealed in his personal papers from the period. Even while he was fielding rockets from the Foreign Desk, Halberstam was also drawing a lot of support from the highest echelons of the Times–including raises, bonuses, and private messages of support and praise. In August 1963, for example, the publisher himself, “Punch” Sulzberger, cabled Halberstam:


So, while Halberstam may have been under fire, he was never in any serious professional danger.

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Filed under David Halberstam, history, Journalism, journalism history, New York Times

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