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.

Orwell’s stooges

We here at Useful Stooges would not presume to compare ourselves with George Orwell, the great English man of letters and enemy of tyranny in all its forms, but we have at least one thing in common with him. Our website could be described as a catalogue of people – some past, most present – who, as we put it on our “About” page, are “pawns of tyrants in our own time” who “either admire despotism or have figured out ways…to profit from their cynical support for it.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Orwell made a list, too. In 1949, the year he published his classic novel 1984 and not long before he died, he provided the Information Research Department, a newly established propaganda unit of the British Foreign Office, with the names of “journalists and writers who in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way, and should not be trusted.” In other words: people who, if hired or used in any way by British intelligence, would be likely to become double agents.

In 1996, when the existence of Orwell’s list became widely known, and again in 2003, when the list itself became public, many of his fellow men of the left condemned him as a McCarthyite, a blacklister, a rogue. Communist historian Christopher Hill called him a traitor to his side. (It is worth noting that Hill also despised Animal Farm for attacking Communism.)

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Christopher Hill

But Orwell’s friend David Astor, the longtime editor of the Observer, had a clearer view of things: “Orwell wasn’t betraying the left – the pro-communists were betraying us.” For Britain’s misguided left, Orwell’s crime was simple: he recognized that totalitarianism in the name of Communism was no better than totalitarianism in the name of Nazism. In short, he hated Stalin every bit as much as he hated Hitler. And that was inexcusable.

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Christopher Hitchens

But Orwell requires no defense from us; anyone who wants one need only consult the splendid essay on the subject that was published in 2002 by the estimable Christopher Hitchens. (It appears in Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters,  in his posthumous collection, And Yet…,  which appeared last year, and is also behind a firewall at the New York Review of Books website.)

To this day, Orwell’s list is worth perusing. Because he was right. The people he named – journalists, historians, scientists, professors, even a couple of actors, a Member of Parliament, and a noted clergymen – deserved their places on that list. Orwell knew them for what they were. The problem is that we don’t. Most of the names on his list mean nothing to most people in the English-speaking world nowadays. That’s a shame. Because their stories illustrate that, then as now, it’s far from uncommon to find fans of totalitarianism in positions of power and influence in free countries.

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Walter Duranty

One of the names on Orwell’s list is that of Walter Duranty, our archetypal useful stooge. Duranty was the New York Times‘s man in Moscow from 1922 to 1936; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. At the time Orwell included Duranty’s name on his list, Duranty was still a highly respected journalist. Not until years later would his dispatches from Russia come under serious scrutiny. Robert Conquest, in his 1968 book The Great Terror, condemned Duranty for systematically whitewashing the evils of Stalinism and trying to cover up the Ukrainian famine. The publication in 1990 of Sally J. Taylor’s biography of Duranty, which was appropriately entitled Stalin’s Apologist, helped trigger a serious effort to have Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize revoked. In 2003, however, the head of the Pulitzer board declined to withdraw the prize. He still didn’t get it; Orwell had gotten it more than a half-century earlier.

Another useful stooge whose number Orwell had early on was a Daily Express editor named Peter Smollett, who years later would be identified as a Soviet spy. We’ll look at Smollett tomorrow.

Chris Hedges, legend in his own mind

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Chris Hedges

He was a New York Times reporter for 15 years, and for four of those years he was the paper’s Middle East bureau chief. But he couldn’t pose as an objective journalist forever, and eventually, in 2005, he left the Gray Lady to write opinion pieces for The Nation, for the Truthdig website, and for other left-wing outlets. Soon the former Timesman became known for his extreme anti-American views – as well as for his self-righteous posturing and over-the-top rhetoric. As Christopher Ketcham noted last year in the New Republic, Chris Hedges “has secured a place as a firebrand revered among progressive readers.” 

Here, from 2007, is a sample of the kind of stuff he churned out after leaving the Times: 

I will not pay my income tax if we go to war with Iran. I realize this is a desperate and perhaps futile gesture. But an attack on Iran – which appears increasingly likely before the coming presidential election – will unleash a regional conflict of catastrophic proportions. This war, and especially Iranian retaliatory strikes on American targets, will be used to silence domestic dissent and abolish what is left of our civil liberties. It will solidify the slow-motion coup d’êtat that has been under way since the 9/11 attacks. It could mean the death of the Republic.

In a 2011 interview on a program broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the host, Kevin O’Leary, called Hedges a “left-wing nutbar.” And last December, in an article entitled “ISIS – the New Israel,” Hedges provided a fine example of the kind of writing that has led people like O’Leary to view him as a nutbar: 

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is our Frankenstein. The United States after a decade of war in Iraq pieced together its body parts. We jolted it into life. We bathed it in blood and trauma. And we gave it its intelligence. Its dark and vicious heart of vengeance and war is our heart. It kills as we kill. It tortures as we torture. It carries out conquest as we carry out conquest. It is building a state driven by hatred for American occupation, a product of the death, horror and destruction we visited on the Middle East.

hedges5It’s easy to sum up the thrust of Hedges’s work these days. It is, quite simply, this: that pretty much every bad thing that happens on this planet it ultimately the fault of the U.S. – which, he insists, is, in its own way, as much of a totalitarian power as Nazi Germany or Stalin’s USSR ever were. Specifically, Hedges subscribes to the proposition, advanced by political scientist Sheldon Wolin, that the U.S. is developing a form of government that Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” And if the U.S. is a totalitarian tyranny, what does that make Hedges? Why, of course, it makes him a courageous soul who dares to utter the dark truth about America while the rest of the nation’s journalistic community, as he depicts it, meekly echoes the U.S. government’s lies about itself and promulgates the pretense that American society is free.

hedges6Of course, to call the present-day U.S. a totalitarian state is to dismiss or trivialize the brutal day-to-day reality of despotism in countries like North Korea, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, China, Eritrea, and Cuba; and to pose as a gutsy hero who risks untold danger to speak truth to power is to insult the genuinely brave men and women who stand up to the Kims and Castros. Hedges’s demonization of the U.S. government has led to teaching gigs at Princeton and Columbia universities and won him the Pulitzer Prize and other awards; for him to present himself as the moral equivalent of human-rights activists in genuinely totalitarian or authoritarian countries – where many of them end up being arrested, tortured, imprisoned, or murdered – is the height of arrogance.

But this is just the beginning of the case against Chris Hedges. More tomorrow.