I first read his 1972 masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, as a curious teenager trying to figure out how and why our country was stuck fighting a war that could not be won on behalf of people who plainly did not want us to do so. It’s fair to say that the book shaped my view of U.S. foreign policy, and of the need to curb our government’s predilection for fighting unnecessary wars. Halberstam’s chronicle of the arrogance of power illustrated how the confidence of Kennedy’s Harvard-trained managers meshed with the cupidity of the Cold War military-industrial complex to produce the Vietnam quagmire. The title, in other words, was ironic.
In some of his later works Halberstam allowed his reputation as a Pulitzer-garlanded star to inflate his style. But The Best and the Brightest was taut and tragic. Today it reminds us that the “Vietnam complex” was not some debilitating national illness that needed to be shucked off; it represented experience of imperial power’s limits, hard-won through an ill-begotten war. How shameful that those lessons vanished from Washington so soon, and that another generation of Americans must once more seek the answers I found in Halberstam’s book.
UPDATE: This from Clyde Haberman’s Times obit:
William Prochnau, who wrote a book on the reporting of that period, “Once Upon a Distant War,” said last night that Mr. Halberstam and other American journalists then in Vietnam were incorrectly regarded by many as antiwar.
“He was not antiwar,” Mr. Prochnau said. “They were cold war children, just like me, brought up on hiding under the desk.” It was simply a case, he said, of American commanders lying to the press about what was happening in Vietnam. “They were shut out and they were lied to,” Mr. Prochnau said. And Mr. Halberstam “didn’t say, ‘You’re not telling me the truth.’ He said, ‘You’re lying.’ He didn’t mince words.”
[tags]David Halberstam, journalism[/tags]
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