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If you like David Halberstam's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
Sam Donaldson,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Nicholas Kristof,
David McCullough,
Ralph Nader,
Colin Powell,
Dan Rather,
Norman Schwarzkopf,
Neil Sheehan,
James Stockdale,
Michael Thornton
and Bob Woodward

David Halberstam's recommended reading: The Reason Why

David Halberstam also appears in the video:
Risk-Taking: An Ingredient for Success

Related Links:
Harvard Crimson
PBS: Reporting America at War
The New Yorker

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David Halberstam
David Halberstam
Profile of David Halberstam Biography of David Halberstam Interview with David Halberstam David Halberstam Photo Gallery

David Halberstam Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Pulitzer Prize for Journalism

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  David Halberstam

Were there teachers that were particularly important to you when you were growing up?

David Halberstam: Yeah. I think there are always certain teachers who can reinforce those qualities that make you different, that make you apart. Most of the people I've met here (the Academy of Achievement) are really anti-conventional people. Their success is very idiosyncratic. They have followed a dream, even though that dream wasn't a popular or fashionable or conventional one. This is not the managerial class of the Ford Motor Company or General Motors or some large company where you figured out a career, went to Harvard Business School, stayed in line and mimicked what your superior was. It's really people with all kinds of a wild hair. They follow their own instincts.

I think that there were teachers always who, when I was different and not popular -- and I don't think this (the Achievement Summit) is a convention of people who felt they were popular when they were 14, 15, and 16 years old -- who could reinforce in you that it was okay to be different, okay to get good grades. You know, most American schools, the sad truth is that if you get very good marks and you are a young male, you are sort of a nerd. We reserve our applause to the young to those who are athletically gifted or are cosmetically gifted, and I was really sort of neither, but there are teachers who can reach down and let you know that it is okay to be different, it is okay to have these pursuits which are mildly intellectual and okay not to accept the conventional wisdom.

I think I was taught well all the way through. We traveled a lot in my boyhood. My father had been in World War I, but when I was eight years old, he went back into World War II, and we followed him to different Army posts, but I grew up -- as much as any place -- in Winsted, Connecticut, which is a small mill town. It was a factory town, a blue collar town of about 8,000 people.

David Halberstam Interview Photo
The teachers were what I guess you would call "Maine schoolmarms." They were, by and large, single women. They came from that part of Maine where the industrial revolution had never reached, and therefore, they had gone to what were then called "normal schools." Now you'd call it Maine State or something like that, some kind of state university, but in those days, they were normal schools. They prepared you to teach.

They lived rather lonely lives. They came to Winsted. I think if you were a male teacher, you got $1,200 a year, and if you were a woman, you got $800. That was the bias that existed then and in many ways still exists today. But they taught us. They were good. They knew the uses of authority. They had grown up probably pretty authoritarian.

From that little school in Winsted, a couple of us went on to rather extraordinary careers. I didn't stay there for high school, but I went on to Harvard. A young friend of mine named John Bush went on to Yale and ended up being an Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs in the State Department. A third classmate, Ralph Nader, went on to be Ralph Nader. So you really had a sense of very, very good teaching.

You have really stuck your neck out as a journalist very frequently, speaking out against the official institutional analysis of the news. Vietnam, for instance. Where did you get the guts to do that?

David Halberstam: I think it is what we're paid to do. I think we are, as grown men, probably what we were as boys. It's a product of your home, the product of your value system, being raised to speak out for what you believe in, to trust in your own instincts, not to be afraid.

My father had served in both World War I and World War II, so we grew up thinking we were pretty good Americans. We didn't feel that we were lesser Americans than families who had been here a couple hundred years. I suppose there is a sort of innocence to many children of the immigrant story in the sense that they take the Statue of Liberty very seriously. They take the First Amendment seriously. They believe that this stuff is serious, that if you go out there and you cover America, the dream is supposed to work. We're not cynics. We're skeptics, and I think that was ingrained in our home and crystallized in my education at Harvard, where I was on the Harvard Crimson, which was a very good daily paper and which was very independent of the Harvard administration. It was fiercely independent. It took no money from Harvard, and there was a culture there of great social and cultural and political independence. Then I worked in the South for five years -- on a very good paper in Nashville, Tennessee for four years, which during the early days of the civil rights movement was independent and liberal and a tension point with, I think, the community at large often on racial issues. You learn not to seek popularity.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Whatever else, when I talk to kids, I try to say, "It is not about popularity. It is about being true to yourself and doing an honest job, going out and working hard."

If you get information that is going to jar the Government of the United States and jar the people of the United States, that's what you get paid for. Don't expect to be popular. The better you do the job, the more likely you are to go against conventional wisdom, and people don't like to hear bad news. So you are not going to be popular. I think it's probably in the nature of who I am emotionally, for whatever reason. Growing up in that particular family, I was the more anti-authoritarian one. I have an intuitive sense. Some people are very hierarchical, and they have been raised up to be hierarchical, and they have an instinct to play to whoever is powerful. I have an instinct for almost the same reason to be anti-hierarchical, to listen to the voices of those who are not powerful. It is something I have had since I was a very young person, and a young reporter. It has been a considerable asset professionally. I think it makes you tougher. It makes you fair. It doesn't mean you don't give the people who are in power their fair hearing, but I think there is an assumption in this society that the people who govern have great, great access to get their side of the story out, and therefore, if there is a contradictory story, you (the reporter) are paid to listen to the alternative information.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Do you remember when you started realizing that the official, optimistic view of what was happening in Vietnam was not the real truth?

David Halberstam Interview Photo
David Halberstam: It didn't work. You could pick it up pretty early. It was never a great risk to be pessimistic, given the way I was raised, given that by the time I got there that I had been a journalist for six or seven years, and I was really a highly professional one. There was no way -- if you went out into the field and talked to the American officers in the field -- you could be anything but pessimistic. Any number of times, I would go out, and you would see the official optimism, these bogus press conferences. Then you would go out in the field and you would talk to the division advisors and battalion advisors, and they would all say, "Listen, it isn't working."

I remember we went down to My Tho, which was about 50 miles south of Saigon. The 7th ARVN Division area there was a very active area, and the first helicopters came in, and they were momentarily successful. The American support group allowed the ARVNs -- soldiers of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, our Vietnamese -- to momentarily inflict some defeats upon the VC. Then the VC learned how to deal with the helicopters. They learned how to respond to technology. At first, they'd panicked and run across the field, and they'd been mowed down. Then they learned just to stand and fight, and the helicopter edge went down.

I remember going down there, and there was an assistant division advisor, a big old country boy from McAlester, Oklahoma. I forget his name for a moment. That happens 32 years after the fact. My friend, Mark Perry, and I -- he was a stringer for Time magazine -- we were talking about how there had been a number of victories against the ARVN and 314th Battalion.

They killed 200 and killed 200 a couple of weeks before that. We said, "Well, that battalion must be almost gone. You must almost have a victory here." They said, "No, no, no. They go out and replenish. They go out and recruit, and it is up to full strength again." And that was a great epiphany, that no matter -- even when we had victories, which were relatively rare -- it was a quick epiphany. Their political advantage, their greater capacity to go out and recruit negated our military superiority, to the degree that it even existed, which was based upon superior technology. They had political superiority, and they could always go out and recruit, and that's when I think I and others began to see that this was almost a hopeless cause.

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