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David Halberstam

Interview: David Halberstam
Pulitzer Prize for Journalism

June 18, 1994
Las Vegas, Nevada

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When did you first know that you wanted to be a journalist?

David Halberstam: When my father was in the Army in World War II and I was about eight or nine years old, I started a family newspaper. You could buy something in those days -- we're really talking about the early 1940's -- there was sort of a -- like a gelatin, and you wrote something on a purple pen, and you put it on the gelatin, and then you could roll other pieces of paper on and make copies. So I guess it was an early Xerox machine, and I did a family newspaper, reporting on what my father was writing from overseas and also how many fish my brother and I caught. So I suppose that's the first early sign of it, but I think it was always there. When I grew up, it seemed to me to be -- and I suppose the kind of home you grow up in, it reinforces this -- but it seemed to be an interesting and exciting profession where you could do valuable things and be a part of history and also have some measure of social conscience. It seemed to be at the cutting edge of a free society.

I don't think 15, 16 and 17-year-old kids think of the cutting edge of a free society, but they do get a sense of excitement.

I can remember hearing my parents, who were not journalists at all, talk about men like John Gunther and Vincent Sheean and Quentin Reynolds. I mean that there was sort of a respect for what this profession was -- the elder Hodding Carter. So there a value in it. I knew bylines before I really read the paper. They would talk about Harrison Salisbury, the great New York Times reporter, and it was one of the wonderful things later in my life that I became a friend of John Gunther and Harrison Salisbury, these men who had at one time been my heroes.

What books were important to you when you were a kid?

David Halberstam: Well, my mother was a school teacher. She was a great second-grade school teacher. So she was a believer in reading. She had given up teaching for a time when my brother and I were born, although she went back to it after my father's death.

When we were young, we had books, I think, that fired the imagination. They didn't have as many then as now, but you had Mary Poppins, Dr. Doolittle, books like that which were books of the imagination. I think it teaches you that there is something more out there than the humdrum that is in front of you. The idea of books, from day one books were important. I remember when my daughter was growing up. The greatest pleasure I ever had in my life was reading to her and reading with her and picking out books, and it was a great sort of sad moment in my life when she -- probably when she was about 9 or 10 -- decided she didn't need the assistance anymore. I think it is a wonderful world. Books are the first vehicle -- particularly in an age like the one I grew up in which had no television -- which can transport you and take you from where you are and give you a sense that there is something more out there.

Obviously, as I went on to college, other books began to have greater impact.

There's a wonderful book by a writer named Cecil Woodham-Smith called The Reason Why, and it is a story of why the Light Brigade charged into the Valley of Death, the Battle of Balaclava, and every child in America in my generation knows, "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die." Well it's a great book, and instead of this heroic portrait of these poor dear young men charging off into the death, it is a portrait of the utter incompetence of the British military system, Lord Raglan and Lord Cardigan who sent them into this, into their death, and it's a brilliant book, and it's written as if it's a novel. It's breathtaking, and I thought, "God, I'd really like to write a book like that, I'd like to write a non-fiction book that is like a novel."

Then Theodore White was writing his early books, including a book called Fire in the Ashes, which was a book on the recreation and regeneration of Europe after World War II. Later there was a book that he did, The Making of the President, in 1960, which took an event that we all knew the answer to -- who had won the 1960 Presidential election -- and made it read like a detective novel. I thought, "God, I'd like to do that."

So there were always books out there that touched me. I think one of the good things about our house -- my father was a doctor, my mother was a school teacher -- but it was a house in which books were important, and we saw them reading. We heard them talking about books, and we knew that they discussed them, and we knew that they valued it. So I think both my brother and I thought this was an important thing.

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.

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.

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

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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.

Neil Sheehan called his book about the war A Bright Shining Lie. What was the big lie about, as you saw it? Do you know?

David Halberstam: I think that the big lie of war began in Washington. It began with the fear of McCarthyism, the fear of the Democratic Party that if it "lost" a country, as it was blamed in China -- "lost a country" to the Communists, it would be attacked and driven out of power. In other words, there was a historical process, the coming of a modern China that took place in the '40s, the victory of Mao over Chiang Kai-shek. Because the Democrats had been in power for so long, the Republicans, eager for an issue, seized on that, that the Democrats had been "soft on Communism." They used that issue quite unscrupulously, in a very ugly way, and it got into the bloodstream. Vietnam is the direct product of that.

The Democratic administration did not care really about Vietnam, and I don't think it, in its heart of hearts, when it really examined the information, believed this thing could be done, but what it did not want to do was lose Vietnam and therefore be attacked by the Republican center, someone like, of all people, Richard Nixon who would have attacked them. So they made this commitment. The great big lie was trying to see a war, which was an extension of Vietnamese nationalism, as if it were a cold war battle, i.e., we were the west, they were the Communists, and that didn't work. I mean, we said that, "Western forces, pro-Western, pro-democratic forces against Communists," and that would be the headlines, going back to the French Indochina war. "Western forces drive back Reds!" But that's not how the Vietnamese saw it.

They saw this as nationalism versus neocolonialism, and we were, in the words of my friend Bernard Fall, who was killed there -- a great historian of that war -- we were walking in the same footsteps as the French, although dreaming different dreams.

We did not think we were fighting a colonial war, but we thought we were fighting to be good guys and to help them out and then go home. But to the Vietnamese, we were white, we were Caucasian, we were there to stop them from their destiny. And the other side, because it had driven out the French, had title to all the nationalism, and, therefore they were the heirs of a revolution. The American government would never admit that this war was a revolution, and that therefore we were on the wrong side of a revolution. So if you want one big lie, that is the big encompassing lie. Therefore, from the start, the terminology was wrong, the "western forces," "pro-democratic forces," "Communist Reds." They were the heirs. Ho Chi Minh was seen by his people as George Washington, and he was the heroic figure, and their system worked and ours did not. When we sent our young men, these wonderful young men, 500,000 young men who fought brilliantly, beautifully, with great courage, they were doing it with great courage and personal loyalty in a hopeless cause. It's a very sad story.

A very sad story. You mentioned your fallen friend, Bernard Fall. You not only risk the ire of the government when you write about a story like Vietnam. You risk your life.

David Halberstam: I thought it was worth it. I think all of us did. I don't think you just take on the government of the United States. First off, you cover the war. You had to go out, you had to be in the field, and you had to see it. You could not get the truth in Saigon. The people in Saigon, by and large, were part of the American hierarchy, and they told you exactly what their superiors wanted. We had a bad policy, as I've just said. So we created a lying machine in which Washington told Saigon what it wanted to hear, and the American generals and ambassadors, hearing that, set up a curve of reporting. Instead of reporting flowing up -- "This is the truth, we tell the superior," and it works upward, and then they tell Washington -- it was the reverse. The circulatory system was reversed.

Washington tells Saigon at the top what it wants to hear. Thereupon, Saigon at this level, going down level by level, tells people what "You will report or you will not be promoted." The military has a great deal of power to affect promotion, and we would watch this. We would be with these guys who were captains, and a general would be coming from Washington the next day, and he'd be wanting to inspect and get a progress report. I would be with them, and they would be debating on how much truth to tell, because if they told the real truth, they might get in trouble, not from their immediate superior, but by the person from the Saigon command who came through. So you had this false reporting. You had to go out into the field to get the truth. The people in the field would tell you the truth because they were angry, and they were bitter. They were pissed. They were watching their fellow young Americans fight and die in a war where the Vietnamese, cynically or otherwise, were not fighting or were incompetent. So you could get the truth. So you had to go out there just to get the story.

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I know I felt this way particularly. I was a signature figure of that war because, in the American media in the early '60s, The New York Times was a disproportionately powerful paper, much more so than it is now. You have to understand that the Herald Tribune -- which had been its great rival, with a great team of foreign correspondents -- was dying. It was almost dead. There wasn't a Tribune reporter there. The Washington Post, which was to become a great national newspaper, was not yet one. It had one foreign correspondent and only a handful of national correspondents. Ben Bradlee had not yet made it a great paper. It didn't have a correspondent there. That was true of the Los Angeles Times. It was also true of The Wall Street Journal. The media and the networks were not yet powerful. They were still just beginning to feel their power. They were going at that time from 15 minutes to 30-minute news shows. They were going from black and white to color, and they didn't have the satellites.

So we were the one paper with 40 or 50 foreign correspondents. We had power. People in Washington read The New York Times at breakfast. So my dispatches, which were not necessarily any different or better than Neil Sheehan's or Peter Arnett's, had an impact. Because of that, I became the point man, disproportionately, for what I was writing, because of the impact in Washington.

As this tension built and I became the enemy of the government, and my stories went under more and more criticism from Washington and Saigon, there was an additional moral, ethical burden on me, if I was taking on the government of the United States, just to be out in the field more than anybody else. To be there, to see battle, to put myself on the line. The one thing I could not afford, it seemed to me, given the way I had been raised up, and the kind of values that I had had imposed upon me in my childhood and in my professional apprenticeship -- I could not be an armchair person sitting in Saigon doing it theoretically. I had to be out in the field, seeing more battles, if possible, than anybody else at that time. Later, Peter Arnett saw more combat than anybody else, but I had to be there. It was implicit in my role. It was very deliberate on my part.

If young people reading this interview want to be journalists, what would you tell them are the most important characteristics for success in this field?

David Halberstam: I think, in any profession, you start out with character, critically. Which translates to being an honorable person, an ethical person.

I remember very early on in Vietnam, it's a small thing, but we all wore fatigues. Therefore, we would get on a helicopter and go out, and I wanted it very clear, if someone saw me on a helicopter in fatigues, I wanted them to know damn well that I was a reporter. I didn't want someone talking to me -- "My God, I didn't know I was talking to a reporter!" So I went and had made up a strip of names -- and all the others finally followed -- that said "Halberstam, New York Times." They knew they were talking to a reporter.

David Halberstam Interview Photo
So I think you start out with a sense of ethics. I think you have to be curious about what is going on around you. I think you have to have an analytical mind. I think you have to hunger for things. You have to be willing to pay a price. I had been managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. When I graduated from college, the conventional thing for me to do -- it would have been easy -- would have been to get a job on The New York Times or The Washington Post, but as a copy boy or a menial job. And I said I want to really do it. I knew I needed to be better. I didn't want to just be a reporter. I wanted to be a great reporter. I knew I could be better. I needed to learn how to talk to people, to interview people, to get a feel of the story. I knew that I could write quickly, and I knew I could define a story, and I knew I had other qualities, but I knew I had to expand my ability to work a story, to talk to people. So...

Instead of going to New York or Washington or something like that, the gilded path -- and I was credentialed -- I went and worked on the smallest daily in Mississippi. It's a year after Brown v. Board of Education. I thought if you are going to do an apprenticeship, do it in the South, that's where the story is. And I worked with great reporters on a very important story, and I learned how to cover it, how to put yourself at risk, what the ethics were. I sat there, and I absorbed. If I had been a young reporter going to New York, I would have been one of 30 guys out of an Ivy League school going to a paper where all the senior reporters didn't have time to talk to you. By being the one guy like me going to Mississippi and then to Nashville, that was a great graduate school! I was working on a paper in Nashville that had more good reporters, more tough-minded people, and I was the only guy who, every night at dinner, when we would go out to dinner, just inhaled everything, made them go through what they'd done each day. It was a great, great graduate school for me.

But in doing that, I gave up my life for four or five years. In other words, I didn't go where my friends went. I didn't go on a fellowship. I didn't go to New York or Washington or Boston.

I went where I knew no one, and I put myself at risk in that sense. I gave up the pleasures of my life for four or five years, knowing that I wanted to have this apprenticeship. And it worked very well for me, because in 1960, November, when I joined The New York Times -- five and a half years after graduation from college -- when I joined the Times, I was really a good reporter. I not only was a good reporter. I had utter confidence in my ability. I had done it. I had been in the toughest story in America, the civil rights story. I had been out in dangerous things, and I'd covered it, and I had an inner toughness of mind that I knew worked for me. So I was absolutely sure of my abilities, and when the Times very quickly sent me overseas, first to the Congo and Vietnam, I did not doubt my ability. I was really trained. I was young, but I was a very professional, skilled, experienced young reporter.

So I think one of the things you have to ask yourself is, "How badly do you want it? What price are you willing to pay? How do you complete your education?" All of these. My career is a very nice one, because it is a stair step: Harvard Crimson, small paper in Mississippi for a year, four years on a good paper in Nashville, then The New York Times, and then overseas. And at every increment, I am very well prepared and very confident and very independent. If someone tries to bully me either from within the paper or a news source, I am immune to bullying.

Is that important?

David Halberstam: I think so.

I went out and I tried to have this career where I would learn how to do the apprenticeship, to be better, to figure out what my weaknesses as a journalist were, doing legwork or whatever, make myself better, bring that up to speed. I did that very deliberately, and then once I had done that, I really was confident, and I was always willing to bet on myself. I had an inner confidence which I would want anybody young going in to have. Don't go out there soft. Don't go out there unsure. Before you take on a really good assignment, go out and do a real apprenticeship and know that this is what you want. I mean, it is not for everyone. It is a very tough profession. It's demanding. You have to give up a normality of existence. I mean, you work weird hours, but it's very rewarding because you're paid to learn. I have been out of college almost 40 years, and even now when I do a book, each book is a university. I end up, intellectually, being able to grow constantly.

It must also give you a great satisfaction, knowing that you can help make a difference in the world.

David Halberstam: I think you have to be very careful thinking about that. I think it is nice to want to do that.

I think you want to be part of a public arena where you believe, as I do, that an informed society is a better society, can make better judgments, and I think that helped in Vietnam and later with a book I did on the competition from Japan. I think you do it for those reasons. You do it, but there are so many other values. Doing something that you like, something that you value, something that -- even though it is not as, say, sexy as being a television reporter or makes as much money -- remains with a resonance within the society, allows you to feel good about yourself, pride in your craftsmanship that you're serious and that you can still learn. It is a very, very satisfying life. I can't imagine anything more satisfying. I can imagine careers that would make more money, but I can't imagine anything that would make me feel better about myself.

We ask many of our honorees about the meaning of the American Dream. You spoke earlier of being a "child of the immigrant story."

David Halberstam: I'm the second generation born in this country. My grandfather and grandmother on both sides came over, and my parents were the children of immigrants, and each was virtually the only member of a large family that went to college. That is not entirely true, but it is perilously close to true. I think my father really got to go to college and medical school because he was a medic in World War I. So...

The immigrant dream is very powerful in our family. America gave you a chance to be who you wanted to be. I think a lot of people take this for granted in America. They assume every other country is like this, and America, there's a couple of things that I think are critical to the American Dream. One is that one generation comes here and doesn't have the skill or the language and therefore has to sacrifice, but critical to their reason for sacrificing is the idea that the next generation will live better than they did in the old country and will rise above them. It's a great, great powerful thing, the ability to rise in one generation above what your parents were. The other thing -- and I think people really do take this for granted -- is the idea that in America you can invent yourself and be who you want. You don't have to be a prisoner of the past. To an astonishing degree in Europe, in the Old World or other parts, if your father was a peasant, you're a peasant. If he worked on the railroad, you're supposed to work on the railroad. If he was a tailor, you're a tailor. If he went to the École Polytechnique and was a high-level engineer, you can go to the École Polytechnique. But in America, that's not true. We really can be whatever we want, and it's just built into this country. Because of the great university system, because of the open education, there really is a sense that whatever it is you want to be, you can be, and I think that is more powerful now than ever.

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Some people think the country has changed, because we have certain tensions in the city. It's not true. We used to be a beacon to Europe, and there was an emigration from northern and southern Europe to the United States, from east to west. Now we are a beacon to the whole world, because of greater communication with CNN and because of the 747. The whole world sees the American Dream and comes here.

There isn't a cab driver in New York that isn't from the Indian subcontinent I sometimes think, and if you ask them why they are here, it is because of their children. They could bear the life in the old country, but they want something better for their children. That dream is more powerful I think than ever. It is just amazing.

I see it every day in New York. It used to be, when you talked about "America, the melting pot," you had Italians, Jews, Poles, some blacks coming up. Now it is the third world, with all the burdens of that and all the excitement of it. So I think that dream is very powerful. I have been a beneficiary of it, and I would love to see others continue to have the possibilities that I have had.

Thank you so much. That was most eloquent.

David Halberstam: Thank you.

This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 13:55 EDT