Dickey: Halberstam's Lessons About Quagmires

In the early 1980s, inspired partly by "The Best and the Brightest," David Halberstam's book on how the East Coast foreign policy establishment got America into the Vietnam War, my colleague Walter Isaacson and I (back when we both worked at Time magazine) embarked on what we hoped would be a kind of prequel—a book called "The Wise Men" about the rise of the establishment after World War II. I went to visit Henry Cabot Lodge, a pillar of that old (and now defunct) order of waspy statesmen, at his grand home in Hamilton, Mass. I was curious about Lodge because, during his tenure as ambassador to South Vietnam, he had joined with one of our Wise Men, Averell Harriman, to urge the overthrow of Vietnam's President Diem in 1963.

At a rum-fueled lunch, Lodge and his high Brahmin wife, Emily, informed me that they had been influenced not by Harriman, who was at the time assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs, but by a young newspaper reporter named David Halberstam. When the Lodges arrived in Saigon in the early summer of '63, they suspected that all the diplomats and generals in the American embassy were either in denial or deceiving themselves and their masters in Washington. The only person who told the truth about what was really going on in Saigon was the 29-year-old correspondent from the New York Times.

Halberstam, who died yesterday in a car crash in California in between lecturing journalism students and reporting for a new book, had a way of cutting to the truth—and letting you know about it. Tall, angular, deep-voiced, he sucked information and sometimes, it seemed, the oxygen out of every room he entered. He would not have hesitated to tell the new ambassador that the Diem regime was corrupt and the American effort in Vietnam was weak and had stalled. He routinely accused generals of lying. He was such a thorn in the side of the Kennedy administration that President Kennedy tried to get the newspaper to transfer Halberstam from Saigon. (The Times refused, and Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage in 1964.)

Halberstam went on to write a score of books, alternating between big subjects like the collapse of the American car industry (The Reckoning) and the rise of the mainstream media (The Powers That Be) and sporting events (The Summer of '64). His books had a Shakespearean sweep; they were full of drama and hubris and passion. And they had a way of boring in to discover deeper truths.

About five years ago, I was thinking about revisiting the subject explored by "The Best and the Brightest," and looking again at how the foreign policy establishment had become drawn into the Vietnam quagmire. After all, I figured, after 30 years, new archives had opened, and the time had come for a fresh look. I went to ask Richard Holbrooke, who as a diplomat and policy maven has been a kind of heir to the Wise Men, to ask him what he thought. "Don't bother," said Holbrooke. "Halberstam said it all." I went back and re-read "The Best and the Brightest." The book was written based largely on Halberstam's reporting and not much documentary evidence, but Holbrooke was right. Halberstam was a truth teller. His judgments could be harsh and a little melodramatic, but he had a way of getting to the truth and making people listen.