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.

Halberstam: misrepresenting the Fifties

David Halberstam

This week we’re according long-overdue attention to the handful of sane voices that rose in dissent against the almost universal (and thoroughly nauseating and reality-challenged) reverence, in American establishment circles, for the supposed lifetime of accomplishments by journalist and historian David Halberstam, that manifested itself upon his death in 2007.

Yesterday we cited Mark Moyar, who in a well-informed necrology in National Review mad a convincing argument that outright lies by Halberstam and a couple of other influential Vietnam reporters had helped destabilize the South Vietnamese government, cripple its war effort, cause the ultimate failure of the U.S. endeavor to repel Communists from the South, and lead to the disgraceful mistreatment of GIs when they returned home from that tragically failed conflict. As we noted yesterday, while Vietnam vets were shunned and despised after the war, Halberstam, who had played as significant a role as any in causing them to be despised, himself became the postwar toast of the American cultural elite.  

Hilton Kramer

But it wasn’t all about Vietnam. Both before and after the war, Halberstam seemed determined to poison Americans’ minds, on every front, about their own country and culture. In 1993 Halberstam published a book called The Fifties. Reviewing it, the respected critic Hilton Kramer said that it “in many respects reads like an overloaded 1960s political cartoon-strip about the history of the 1950s.”

Josef Stalin

Although Stalin had still ruled the USSR during much of the 1950s, and although the Soviet invasion of Hungary – to crush an attempt at democratic reform – occurred in the middle of the decade, noted Kramer, Communism was mostly “kept safely offstage” in Halberstam’s account. No, instead of focusing on “the real presence of Communist power in the world of the 1950s,” Halberstam paid attention to what he apparently viewed as “misguided American responses to Communism.” Kramer noticed that the entry for Communism in the book’s “very detailed index” consisted entirely of the words: “see McCarthyism, McCarthy era; specific countries and conflicts.” In short, Halberstam, in a book about the 1950s, was less concerned with the massive and evil reality of Communism than with a small-scale and arguably misguided reaction to it in Washington, D.C. (Stalin himself, observed Kramer, got much less attention in the book than Marlon Brando.)

And what of Halberstam’s treatment of America in The Fifties? During that decade, the U.S. had by far the world’s strongest economy and its best schools and universities. As Kramer reminds us, America was “the unrivaled center of the international art scene,” was producing literature and works of modern dance that no other country could compete with, and enjoyed an intellectual life so rich that virtually no one in the Iron Curtain countries could even imagine it enough to envy it. (One might also mention American film, television, and popular music, which during that decade became, more than ever, the common, cherished possession of the entire world.)

But did Halberstam dwell on any of this in The Fifties? No. Instead, complained Kramer with absolute justification, he served up a “Left-liberal mythology,” a portrait of

an entire society in the grip of politically inspired paranoid fear, abject social conformism, empty-headed consumerism, and spiritual sterility….His is a mind so completely saturated with the cultural clichés of the 1960s…that no other ideas have ever been allowed to violate its shallow certainties. The sheer spaciousness that came into American life in the 1950s after the ordeals of the Depression era an the fearful trauma of the war years is a closed book to him.

Kramer is right on the money. The Fifties was an appalling book when it came out, and to page through it now is to be even more appalled than one was at the time by its lethal combination of naivete, dishonesty, and simplification, not to mention its fierce determination to embrace every last left-wing stereotype about the 1950s, however absurd. This readiness to blow with the wind and to give elite readers what they wanted was precisely what made David Halberstam a hero to so many of them.

More tomorrow.

Three stooges: Halberstam, Sheehan, Karnow

David Halberstam

Yesterday we saw how the widely feted journalist and historian David Halberstam (1934-2007) helped inspire the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, whom he viewed – incorrectly, as it turned out – as a hindrance to the South’s war effort. Halberstam, it should be underscored, had started out as an enthusiastic supporter of the cause of South Vietnam and a strong believer in the need to resist the spread of Communism. But when the murder of Diem on November 2, 1963, resulted in political and military disaster for South Vietnam, necessitating a massive introduction of U.S. troops into the region that resulted in a long-term commitment that became increasingly unpopular back home, Halberstam and two other more or less equally misguided and meddling American journalists, Neil Sheehan and Stanley Karnow, both of whom had already made a habit of steadily selling lies to the American public about the way things were going in Vietnam, set about rewriting recent history and their own catastrophic part in it.

Ngo Dinh Diem

As historian Mark Moyar explained after Halberstam’s death, the three journalists mendaciously “contended that the South Vietnamese war effort had crumbled before Diem’s overthrow, not after it. No one of influence succeeded in pointing out that these men’s own articles in 1963 contradicted this claim. The journalists thus succeeded in persuading the American people that Diem, rather than his successors, had ruined the country, and therefore that the press had been right in denouncing him.” Moyar pointed out that documents recently made public showed, on the contrary, “that the South Vietnamese were fighting very well until the last day of Diem’s life, and that their performance plummeted immediately after the coup because the new rulers purged suspected Diem loyalists and failed to lead.”

Stanley Karnow

This, according to Moyar, wasn’t the end of Halberstam’s damage-doing. Early on, he strongly supported the U.S. intervention in Vietnam; but when the war became unpopular among bien pensant Americans, he shifted his views to fit in with theirs, avoiding “reporting on American military heroism in the belief that reports of American valor would increase support for the war in the United States and would put servicemen in a more favorable light than those who did not serve.” Charming! In Moyar’s view, America has Halberstam, among others, “to blame for the fact that the pantheon of American military heroes is empty for the period from the end of the Korean War in 1953 onward.” What was especially grotesque was that while American soldiers returning from Vietnam were abominably treated by their fellow citizens, people like Halberstam himself “became heroes, as has been reflected in the obituaries.”

Moyar’s own view is that Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow, because of the enormous damage” they caused “to the American effort in South Vietnam,” can fairly be considered “the most harmful journalists in American history.”

More tomorrow.

Lies, lies, lies: David Halberstam

David Halberstam

The historian and journalist David Halberstam, who died in 2007 at the age of 73, was one of those mid to late twentieth-century figures who were held up as lustrous luminaries by mainstream American culture (another one, whom we discussed recently here, was Walter Cronkite) and who, upon their death, were publicly mourned almost without exception. Roger Kimball, noting in the New Criterion that Halberstam had over the course of his career acquired “an inviolable place in the pantheon of liberal demigods,” offered a few examples of high-profile obituaries that praised Halberstam in strikingly glowing – and strikingly similar – terms. Even the headlines were strikingly similar: Newsweek‘s obit was entitled “A Journalistic Witness to Truth,” while the New York Times‘s ran under the title “Working the Truth Beat.” (Others included “Speaking Truth To Power All His Life” and “Halberstam Spoke Truth to Power.”)

Beginning in the 1950s and for decades thereafter, Halberstam was one of those guys who were almost always at the center of the action. Raised in New York and educated at Harvard (where he was managing editor of the Crimson), he went on to report on the civil-rights movement for the Nashville Tennessean and from Vietnam and then pre-Solidarnosc Poland for the New York Times. He then wrote a series of big, fat, bestselling, and highly influential books about such topics as JFK and his cronies (The Best and the Brightest) and the mainstream news media of the day (The Powers that Be). Both his newspaper reportage and his books helped shape the way in which his educated contemporaries thought about the America of their time.

Almost universally, Halberstam’s reporting was viewed as stellar: in 1962 he won the George Polk Award, in 1964 the Pulitzer Prize. But there were dissenters who made vitally important points about his work. Upon his death, the editors of the New York Sun noted that Halberstam had played a key role in shaping the “enlightened” American view that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was morally wrong and strategically ill-advised and that U.S. actions there had had overwhelmingly negative consequences. The Sun added that more recent historians of the Vietnam War had reached drastically different conclusions than Halberstam did.

Mark Moyar

One of those historians was Mark Moyar, who own commentary upon Halberstam’s death was bluntly headlined “No Hero.” Writing in National Review, Moyar lamented that the mainstream-media obituaries for had “made clear that Halberstam’s elevation to the status of national hero is intended to be permanent.” Therefore, argued Moyar, it was crucial “to point out how much Halberstam harmed the United States during his career.” Moyar cited “the viciousness of his attacks on public servants he disliked,” among them then-President George W. Bush, whom he had recently attacked with “snide malice and arrogance.”

General Paul Harkins

In his writings on the Vietnam War, charged Moyar, Halberstam had “horribly tarnished the reputations of some very fine Americans, including Gen. Paul Harkins, who served as head of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and Frederick Nolting, who was U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.” Halberstam hadn’t just offered opinions about these men with which Moyar disagreed; he had presented “false portrayals” of them, smearing them in ways that pained their loved ones years after their deaths.

Along with fellow journalists Neil Sheehan and Stanley Karnow, Halberstam had also deliberately lied about Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam, both in print and in private conversations with Diem’s opponents in the U.S. government. They “convinced Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to accept their reports in place of much more accurate reports from the CIA and the U.S. military, which led Lodge to urge South Vietnamese generals to stage a coup.”

The coup occurred – and, three weeks before JFK’s assassination in Dallas, Diem was murdered. But it wasn’t just Diem that was killed. With his death, South Vietnam lost an effective government – and an effective independent war effort. The precipitous decline in the South’s fortunes in the struggle against Communism led the U.S. to feel compelled take up the slack by pouring its own armed forces into the country. The rest is history.

More tomorrow.