David Halberstam

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David Halberstam, (1934-2007), was an American journalist,[1] who, during the Vietnam War, was variously considered an investigator of hidden news, or a person that deliberately created opinions based on his ideology and selection of sources. His Vietnam reports for the New York Times, beginning in 1962, were recognized with a Pulitzer Prize. Later, he became an editor for Harper's Magazine, and then devoted himself to research and writing.

He was also a passionate writer about professional sports.

Early life

Born in New York City, his parents were an Army surgeon and schoolteacher. His elder brother, Michael, became a well-known cardiologist and writer, killed by a burglar in 1980.

He went to New York area schools, then to Harvard, where he became editor of its newspaper, the Crimson. Graduating in 1955, he covered the civil rights movement for several newspapers, and joined the Times in 1960, first in the Washington D.C. bureau, then in the Congo, and then in Vietnam.


In Vietnam, he was close to other controversal young reporters, including Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett and Stanley Karnow, all of whom raised similar controversies about accuracy versus objectivity. Arguments continue; they all have vehement supporters and critics.

There was immediate conflict between what the reporters wanted to know and what information that officials believed they could be safely given. "Safely", depending on the interpreter, could refer to military operational security or politically sensitive disclosures. Ambassador Frederick Nolting, for example, criticized the reporting of Central Intelligence Agency and military officer Rufus Phillips (an assistant to Edward Lansdale) and United States Information Agency officer John Macklin, "I could understand John because he had been brainwashed by his roommates, David Halberstam and--what's the other fellow's name?...Neil Sheehan . And also he was discouraged and disillusioned because his wife left him out there and so forth . But I was surprised by Ruf Phillips . I've seen him since and I've asked him, and he said, "Oh, did I go that far?" and I said, "You just ruined it."[2]

Moyar quotes a Halberstam letter to Nolting, complaining that the press was not allowed to go with a U.S. Army operation as "stupid, naive, and indeed insulting to the patriotism and intelligence of every American newspaperman and every American newspaper represnted here. Let me point out that we, as our predecessors in times of conflict have been, are fully prepared to observe the problems of security, to withhold printing classified information." There was a genuine clash here, as Moyar agrees the military did, at times, claim security to avoid disclosing unclassified information, that would be damaging, politically, to U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders, but Moyar also observed that patriotism did not seem to be a requirement for journalists. Moyar agreed that Halberstam, Sheehan and others were not deliberately trying to undermine the U.S. interest, but, as opposed to later journalists, did support the basic American cause.[3]

His coverage of the Battle of Ap Bac soon led to praise and criticism. One side believed he and other reporters had revealed a coverup of the defeat by GEN Paul Harkins, then commanding Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Others, however, believed he was in league with LTC John Paul Vann, a controversial military adviser who challenged American decisionmaking in Vietnam, and, while present at Ap Bac, distorted the situation. Vann had indeed cultivated reporters. [4]

William Prochnau, author of Once Upon a Distant War said Halberstam "...was not antiwar. 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.”" John F. Kennedy had suggested to the Times' publisher, Arthur Sulzberger that Halberstam be replaced; Sulzberger refused.[1].

An essay from the U.S. Army War College journal comments that Halberstam, and others, "...went on combat operations with the advisers they admired, made their observations, and then heard accounts of those operations from Saigon warriors whose information had been sanitized to make good news of bad news as it was passed up the chain of command. ... The message that the war was being lost did not endear the callow messengers to the responsible graybeards running the war from Saigon and Washington."[5]

In 1965, Halberstam criticized Johnson Administration policy, saying that neither neutralism nor withdrawal were viable options, and the Administration was unwilling to use adequate force. Robert McNamara said that these "hawkish" views, critical of Johnson's gradualism, were common among reporters of the time.[6]


While he wrote extensively, perhaps his best-known book is The Best and the Brightest, primarily an account of the personalities and decisionmaking in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.It opens with a vignette of Kennedy:

In just a few weeks the young man would become President of the United States, and, to the newspapermen standing outside his Georgetown house, there was an air of excitement about every small act, every gesture, every word, every visitor to his temporary headquarters. They complained less than usual; the bitter cold notwithstanding, they considered themselves part of history,;l the old was going out and the new was comig in, and the new seemed exciting, promising.[7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Haberman, Clyde (April 24, 2007), "David Halberstam, 73, Reporter and Author, Dies", New York Times
  2. Frederick Nolting (November 11, 1982), Oral History interview by Ted Gittinger, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, pp. I-25 to I-26
  3. Moyar, Mark (2006), Triumph Forsaken, Cambridge University Press, pp. 171-172
  4. Moyar, pp. 172-173
  5. Gole, Henry G. (Winter 1996), "Don't Kill the Messenger: Vietnam War Reporting in Context", Parameters: 144-47
  6. Robert S. McNamara (1995), In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books division of Random House, pp. 71-72
  7. Halberstam, David (1972), The Best and the Brightest, Random House, p. 3