Not Allowed to Be Boring

An Interview with David Halberstam

Journalism teaches one, presumably, how to write. This is not to say all people who come into history by dint of journalism are good writers, but several are. David McCullough is not a classically trained historian, but he came in through journalism. Robert Caro came to history through journalism. Dick Reeves and Jean Strouse did, too. We have tended to learn to write reasonably well in magazines. To get a piece published in a popular magazine, you must learn to write good literate biographical portraits. We have a certain skill. In journalism, you’re not allowed to be boring.

Classic historians sometimes get angry at us and call us “popularizers.” I often think of myself as being part journalist, part historian, and part playwright. One critical difference is that none of us is tenured, so in some ways we are more dependent on the marketplace than our colleagues in academe. I’ve been elected to the Society of American Historians, which is very flattering for someone who was a terrible student when he was young.

But I don’t know that we ever quite get accepted into the club. A Princeton professor wrote a screed about David McCullough, when McCullough’s book on John Adams came out. It was a mean-spirited and strident 5,000-word piece in The New Republic .

McCullough is such a wonderful writer, who takes a lot of Americans who would not normally be reading about the Revolutionary War and makes the figures of our founding fathers real for them. In that way, he helps connect serious lay readers to the past. If I were in a history department, I would think that’s good. This was an angry piece and quite condescending.

It was angry at people who write “big books.” It said my book, The Fifties (New York: Villard, 1993), had been defeated. So I wrote the professor a letter and asked, “How do you defeat a book?” This is a guy who has, so far as I can tell, written only one book. I found it at the New York Society Library and saw it had been taken out twice in 30 years. The Fifties was a very serious book. It got very good reviews, and it became a very good ten-part television series on the History Channel. It is used in courses all over the country. It was a Book of the Month Club selection. And I think it’s now in its 12th paperback printing. I never got an answer from the professor.

It’s important to say that a lot of traditional historians also write very well. Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers (New York: Knopf, 2000) is a beautifully written book. I would presume, in the next generation of classic historians, a good many of them will write better. They’re going to want to save history from the docudrama or from someone like Oliver Stone, who has a rather more conspiratorial view of events, shall we say. And he has access to a powerful instrument—the movies. Work such as that will present a very interesting dilemma for future classic historians.

Naval History : With the notable exceptions of works by authors such as you and David McCullough, why has history been such a hard pill to swallow for the American public?

: There’s a tendency to think history is serious and not a lot of fun; that it’s dry—which, of course, it is not. I suppose that goes back to college and the historians of another day, historians who did not compete with movies or television. If you’re writing what we do today, you’re competing with all kinds of other media that are easier to enjoy; they demand less work of the participant. That’s made us write better.

So, why has history not enjoyed great popularity? It’s probably because a lot of people weren’t ready to read history when they first had to read it. In many places, it was taught by people who didn’t make it fun. And people in their formative years, in high school and in college, weren’t interested in history. They were interested in the present and in themselves. I’ve found that as you get older, you get more interested in history. You’re more ready to accept the importance of the past. I think it’s in the eye of the beholder.

Naval History : In journalism, how important is placing events in historical context?

Halberstam : It’s very important. You need to ask why things happen. There’s a great story about John Kennedy: A young woman asked him, “How did you get to be a war hero?” And he said, “It was entirely involuntary. The Japanese sank my ship.” That’s sort of what happened to me. I went to Vietnam to cover a war that didn’t work. Not only did I cover the war, but eventually, when I came back, it haunted me, and I set out to learn why it hadn’t worked. What forces were behind it?

If you are a journalist, even with a good paper, trying to get history into your dispatches is hard. I can vouch for that. If, in about the fourth paragraph of every story I would have said, “But what happened here doesn’t matter, because we are prisoners of the French-Indochina War and prisoners of the French having gone before,” The New York Times would not have accepted it. It would have been considered editorializing, but it would have been true. When I set out to do a book, that loomed even larger.

Naval History : How has The Best and the Brightest stood the test of time?

Halberstam : There’s not much in The Best and the Brightest I’d redo. I was very lucky. I started doing it in 1969, and the timing could not have been better. Here I was, the young reporter who everybody hated in this town—the pariah. When I came back here briefly in 1964, journalists would say, “Your name came up at dinner the other night, and you ought to know that I defended you.” [Journalist] Joe Alsop, who was then taken seriously for reasons I don’t entirely understand, would go around attacking me personally at dinner parties. It was very unpleasant.

But by 1968-69, everybody was asking how this happened in Vietnam and how we get out of it. When that happened, a kind of anguish ran through people who’d been in the government; not necessarily the five or six top people, but the people who worked for them. They had witnessed the decisions being made, and they had their own doubts at the time and had been uneasy but had been pulled along by their bosses. By 1969, those doubts had turned to anger toward their former bosses. I was dealing with a lot of conscience-stricken young men.

That made for very, very good interviewing. A lot of soul-searching was going on. I had a great advantage, because I had been in Vietnam, had taken all that heat early on, and then had been proved right.

Naval History : Vietnam obviously was a defining event of the 1960s. Korea seems to be less so for the 1950s. Why do you think that is?

: The Korean War was very important. Why did it not define the ’50s? It was a different age. Vietnam became part of a media society, and the critical part was television. That’s one of the points I made in The Fifties . The Korean War was a grinding, little, limited war that wasn’t ever going to go well, but it was going to go okay. And it wasn’t dramatic. It occurred in an age of print. Because there was no television, it didn’t get into the bloodstream the way Vietnam did. It wasn’t heroic in the eyes of the society the way World War II was, which is ironic, because the level of individual heroism in Korea was probably the highest we’ve ever had. Those guys fought under the most difficult conditions; often outnumbered, often with inadequate weaponry, especially in the first few months, and in the worst kind of weather. Someone described it as having miniature Battles of the Bulge every day. An American company would be up against a North Korean or Chinese regiment, or a battalion would be up against two divisions. It was amazing. We didn’t have the air power or the artillery or the decent automatic weapons we got later.

And so, it was a grey, grinding war that didn’t get into the bloodstream. Vietnam was a tortuous event, because it seemed like such a self-inflicted wound. I’ve since called it the second American Civil War, because in the end it seemed more us against ourselves.

Naval History : What do you cover about the Navy and Marine Corps in the book you are writing currently?

Halberstam : A little bit less about them than the Army. As I’m sure you know, the Marine breakout from the Chosin Reservoir is one of the great, great moments in American military history; not just Marine history, but military history. A great number of very good books have already been written about the Marines.

Actually, I am more interested in the politics and the miscalculations. How did we get in a collision with the Chinese there? How did it come that one day [General Douglas] MacArthur was sending kids to the Yalu River? And on the very day of the offensive, unbeknownst to him, 300,000 Chinese appeared. We suffered one of our worst defeats, certainly a giant Little Bighorn. And it was for many of the same reasons—racial arrogance. A number of units—particularly the 2d Infantry Division—were hit very hard. I’ve concentrated on that division.

But I am going to deal with the Marines. This is a great moment for them. [Major] General O. P. Smith is something of a hero of mine, because when [Army General Edward] Almond is pushing him to be too aggressive, almost reckless, Smith was very cautious; he knows something is up. And he’s building a drive north that allows an escape hatch. Unfortunately, some units of the 7th division in the same corps are pretty much wiped out. It’s a horrendous moment in miscalculation, and therefore, it’s one of the things I wanted to highlight in the book. Maybe this is about being a journalist, as opposed to a historian.

I’ve just finished writing about the first Chinese assault—in late October, early November, a month before they enter in full force in late November. The 8th Regiment of the 1st Cavalry was hit very hard at a place called Unsan. The 3d Battalion was really hammered. Then, the Chinese faded away. A wiser, less vainglorious commander would have been much more cautious from then on.

MacArthur’s headquarters was unwilling to accept the idea that the Chinese were in the country and therefore to adjust to that dramatic change in the battlefield. It was a rejection of intelligence. It’s really not an intelligence failure, it’s a command failure.

Naval History : What parallels can you draw between the miscalculations in Korea and Vietnam and where we are today in Iraq?

Halberstam : There are a lot of parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. In the case of Korea, the intelligence was okay, and it was more about the role of a great general who had become something of a rogue. MacArthur didn’t believe he was in the command hierarchy, that the President was above him. And he certainly didn’t take the Joint Chiefs of Staff seriously. He referred to General Omar Bradley, the Chairman, as a farmboy and treated the Army Chief of Staff, “Lightning Joe” Collins, as a West Point cadet. He was going to go to the Yalu, and no amount of intelligence about the Chinese being in country was going to slow him down.

One parallel among all these conflicts is the fact that the people pulling the levers are contemptuous of their enemies. MacArthur was contemptuous of the Chinese and did not see how the revolution had changed China and how good its military was. He was still saying, “I know the mind of the Oriental.” The reason they [the Chinese communists] had won the civil war was that they’d blended politics and military. This was a modern, different China.

It was tragic in many ways for him, because it damaged his reputation completely. Oddly enough, because he despised Truman and was contemptuous of him, he bolstered Truman’s reputation. One of the things we admire about Truman is his stance on civilian control of the military. He took a firestorm of criticism at the time, but he never had any doubts that he was doing the right thing.

Vietnam and Iraq have more parallels. Vietnam came out of a sense of domestic political vulnerability, a fear on the part of the Democrats that they would be accused of being soft on communism if they did not take a stand. And they were willing, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, to see the communist world as a monolith. Iraq is different. It is more about genuine ideology on the part of its architects. The parallels lie in the failure to understand the impact of the colonial past and how it affected each specific part of the world. In both there was a tendency to overrate what your military and your military technology can do and a tendency to underestimate the political undertow that will inevitably be aligned against you. A belief that we were wanted there and would be seen as liberators eventually neutralizes your political strength.

In Vietnam, we could win every set-piece battle; we had absolute military superiority. But the enemy had absolute political superiority, which meant that when the battle was over and we went home, they’d be out recruiting or sending more young men down the trails. We reached a tipping point, at which our great military strength was going to be undone by our political weakness. That’s what I mean by the importance of the French-Indochina War. In Iraq, it seems clear that journalists and former senior military officials who had been there—whether it was [Secretary of State and retired Army General Colin] Powell or [retired Marine Corps General] Tony Zinni—sensed that there would be something comparable in Iraq and therefore a cultural-religious-political undertow. They might not like Saddam Hussein, but when a caucasian Christian country came in to liberate the country, it would not be seen as a liberator but rather as a hostile force doing for them what they should have done for themselves. The phrase I use in some of my lectures is that the movie some of the people in the White House and the Pentagon must have been watching was Patton , when they should have been watching The Battle of Algiers .

We did the race to Baghdad very well. Our military is terrific, with exceptional young men and women and great technology. But once we got there, it all began to unravel. We were left in a deficit intelligence position; the enemy would know where we were at all times, and we wouldn’t know where they were. It’s sort of reverse racial profiling.

In terms of history, the underestimation of the forces against you always proves costly. In this case, so did putting all our faith on Ahmed Challaby. We overestimated who we thought were the “good guy” Iraqis. They turned out to be not necessarily good guys. I had that same sense in Vietnam, and it seems to have become true in Iraq.

Naval History
: What would you say is your most significant contribution to history?

Halberstam : I have a couple of small notches in history. I was the first person to go to Vietnam full-time as what they used to call a “specialist,” special to The New York Times . I was the first full-time special, arriving there in mid-1962. And I devoted four years of my life to finding out why it did not work and thereupon wrote The Best and the Brightest . I feel sort of proud I did that.

The second thing I did was fairly simple. We used to go around in khakis. I was concerned that the grunts might think I was some kind of soldier. So I had “Halberstam, New York Times” printed on a piece of tape made at a local tailor shop. Anybody who talked to me knew I was a reporter. I just thought that ought to be done. It may not be much, but I’m quite proud of that. It’s my notch in history.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Wed, 2018-08-01

Maritime Security Dialogue A discussion with ADM Karl L. Schultz, USCGCommandant, U.S. Coast Guard Moderated by VADM Peter H....

The New China Challenge

View All

From the Press

14 July - Book Discussion

Sat, 2018-07-14

14 July - Book Discussion

Sat, 2018-07-14

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership