A War Reporter's Last Great Dispatch

It is, in a way, his final testament. When David Halberstam was killed in a car accident in California in April, he had just finished "The Coldest Winter," a compelling and engaging history of the Korean War. NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham spoke to Halberstam's widow, Jean, about the project, and what her formidable husband might be saying about America's current war.

What was the origin of the book?
It really goes back to the years when David was in Vietnam, and the stories he heard from soldiers there who had been in Korea as well. He always talked about doing it someday, and the proposal, which I just found in his papers—it was five single-spaced pages—was dated 10 years ago.

The stories of these ordinary men, what he called the nobility of ordinary people, always moved him so very much. I think his interest and admiration for soldiers on the ground has everything to do with his love for his father and having known that he was loved by his father, which is not something all children feel. His father had been a medic in World War I. He was really good at it, and they told him to go back home and go to medical school and become a doctor. And he did. Then he re-enlisted in World War II, when he was 45, and David and his brother were young. He served in France and in Germany. The stories his father told David about what he saw as a doctor had a lot to do with how David viewed war—through the eyes of the soldiers as well as the decision makers.

There are, obviously, a lot of parallels being drawn between Iraq and " The Best and the Brightest, " and now there will be more with " The Coldest Winter. "
I think David would be pointing to the similarities in both the arrogance of power in Washington and the tendency to disagree with intelligence that cuts against assumptions you have already made. He definitely saw this book as part of the tradition of "The Best and the Brightest." Iraq was, of course, very much on David's mind as he was finishing "The Coldest Winter." He wanted to wait until the Petraeus report that he knew was coming. On his desk when he went to California was a copy of Petraeus's thesis, which he was going to read. And before he died he talked about doing one more big book on politics and war, completing the generational cycle from Korea to Iraq. He wanted to call it "Our Man in Baghdad," about [Ahmad] Chalabi. The book would have been difficult, but David thought it was so important.

What lessons should readers take away from the new book?
Listen to the intelligence; keep an open mind. David could not really be interested in doing a book unless he had bad guys and good guys. It really is true of his political books, and it is interesting to look back and see how well they stand up. There is a story about Bob McNamara in "The Best and the Brightest" where an intelligence officer came in and gave McNamara bad news, and McNamara said, "I never want that young man to brief me again." This theme of cherry-picking intelligence is constant. It is all about the men at the top being willing to listen.

David could seem dour, but he struck me as essentially hopeful.
There was always, always hope. Absolutely. I think that his belief that as a country, collectively, we have to make sacrifices was crucial. It can't just be the soldiers on the ground. His profound disappointment in the last six years was that no one asked us to do anything after 9/11. It was shocking to him. In his generation, he remembered the sacrifices—his father's, and everybody else's. In the last thing he wrote, an introduction to a fishing book, he said, "When I am on the water, there is always hope." He was very optimistic, and I think certainly optimistic about [our daughter] Julia's generation. She is 27 now, and of the 80 kids who were in her class at Groton, one became a Marine, another joined the Navy, three went into the Army, two into government and several, like Julia, are teachers. It was very heartening to him.

What would you most like him to be remembered for?
The legacy of his work is: question authority. His personal legacy was his generosity to younger writers, to students. The telephone would ring and it would be somebody who had been assigned to do a paper on his work, and he would always answer. Not long before he died, a young girl at the University of Texas called about Vietnam. David said, "Have you read the section on that in 'The Best and the Brightest'?" and she hadn't, so David told her to call him back when she had. So she read it, and called again, and he spent an hour and a half on the phone with her. Some of the books will live on for as long as books live on these days.

A War Reporter's Last Great Dispatch | News