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.
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.”
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.