Halberstam: Ho’s happy hagiographer

David Halberstam

One last foray into the career of writer and journalist David Halberstam (1934-2007), who on his death, as we’ve noted, was the subject of breathtaking paeans throughout America’s mainstream media. The thrust of most of these glowing obits was that he’d been that rara avis, a brilliant investigative reporter who was, at the same time, one of the most incisive analysts of the events of the day.

On the contrary. Halberstam was celebrated in the usual places for one reason and one reason alone: because he provided a certain demographic (i.e. the kind of people who read the New York Times religiously and believe every statement they encounter there) with texts designed to confirm their lockstep prejudices and received opinions. Originally a cheerleader for the Vietnam War, for instance, Halberstam changed his mind about the subject exactly when all the right people in the U.S. changed their minds, and in The Best and the Brightest he told them exactly what they wanted to hear about the not-so-wise men who had led America into what he now professed to view as a quagmire.

The Best and the Brightest, published in 1972, was a huge hit and made Halberstam famous, as we’ve discussed. Another book of his, issued the year before, is less well known and deserves some attention here. It’s entitled, quite simply, Ho. Michael Lind, in his own 1999 book about Vietnam, described Ho as “perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of a Stalinist dictator ever penned by a reputable American journalist identified with the liberal rather than the radical left.” Bingo. For instance, the book “omits any mention of the repression or atrocities of Ho Chi Minh’s regime.” Lind reminded us that in 1945-46 Ho oversaw “a reign of terror in which thousands of the leading noncommunist nationalists in territory controlled by Ho’s regime were assassinated, executed, imprisoned, or exiled.” While Halberstam, in Ho, condemned South Vietnamese President Diem’s “massive arrests [of] all his political opponents,” he breathes “not a word” about “the far more severe repression in North Vietnam.” Some examples:

Ho Chi Minh

The Maoist-inspired terror of collectivization in the mid-fifties, in which at least ten-thousand North Vietnamese were summarily executed because they belonged to the wrong “class,” is not mentioned. Nor is the anticommunist peasant rebellion that followed; nor the deployment of the North Vietnamese military to crush the peasants; nor the succeeding purge of North Vietnamese intellectuals; nor the fact that almost ten times as many Vietnamese, during the brief period of resettlement, fled from communist rule as left South Vietnam for the North. The equivalent of Halberstam’s book would be a flattering biography of Stalin that praised his leadership during World War II while omitting any mention of the gulag, the purges, and the Ukrainian famine, or an admiring biography of Mao that failed to mention the Cultural Revolution or the starvation of tens of millions during the Great Leap Forward.

Michael Lind

As if all that weren’t bad enough, Halberstam omitted “mention of Soviet or Chinese support for North Vietnam after 1949”; failed to note that “Ho’s dictatorship modeled its structure and policies on Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union”; was silent about the fact that members of the Chinese and Soviet military actually “took part in the Vietnam War”; and so on. Lind examined the sources cited in Ho and noticed something very interesting: Halberstam systematically avoided citing “everything critical written about Ho Chi Minh” by those sources. In short, this writer who after his death was eulogized throughout the American media for “speaking truth to power” was, in fact, a happy hagiographer of a totalitarian tyrant.

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