Halberstam, David

views updated May 29 2018

David Halberstam

Born April 10, 1934
New York, New York

American journalist and author

David Halberstam was one of the best-known journalists of the Vietnam War. He spent fifteen months covering the war for the New York Times in late 1962 and 1963. During this time, he became known for his hard-hitting stories, which often contradicted official accounts provided by the U.S. government and military. Although Halberstam came under intense criticism for his war reporting in some circles, it also earned him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1964. After returning to the United States, Halberstam published several books about the Vietnam era, including The Best and the Brightest. He is also the author of numerous other books on American history and sports.

A brilliant young reporter

David Halberstam was born on April 10, 1934, in New York City. He was the second of two sons born to Charles and Blanche Halberstam. His father was a surgeon in the U.S. military, so the family moved around a lot when David was young. After living in Texas, Minnesota, and Connecticut, they ended up in Yonkers, New York. At Yonkers High School, Halberstam wrote for the school newspaper and ran track. His grades were good enough to earn him admission to Harvard University, where he became the managing editor of the daily student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Harvard in 1955.

After graduating from college, Halberstam surprised many of his Harvard classmates by accepting a job as a reporter at a small-town Mississippi newspaper called the Daily Times Leader. At that time, African Americans in the South were just beginning to protest against segregation (the forced separation of people by race) and other forms of discrimination. Halberstam hoped to use his position to influence the growing debate about civil rights. But he became frustrated and left the paper when it became clear that his editor and many local white citizens were not interested in his antisegregation perspective. He then took a job with the Nashville Tennessean, where he did get an opportunity to report on the civil rights movement.

In 1960 Halberstam became a staff writer in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, one of the largest and most respected newspapers in the country. A year later, he was sent to the Congo (which became Zaire and is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in Africa, where United Nations forces were trying to stop a bloody tribal war. The young reporter jumped into his new position as a foreign correspondent with enthusiasm. He put himself in dangerous situations many times, and several of his vivid stories made it to the front page of the New York Times. Before long, Halberstam had earned a reputation as a daring and talented journalist.

Covers the Vietnam War

In September 1962 the New York Times sent Halberstam to Southeast Asia to report on an ongoing conflict in Vietnam. A longtime colony of France, Vietnam had won its freedom in 1954 after an eight-year war with the French. But the country had been divided into two sections by the 1954 Geneva Peace Accords. North Vietnam was headed by a Communist government under revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (see entry). Leadership of South Vietnam was given to Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry), who promised to build a democracy.

The Geneva Accords provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956 so that the two sections of Vietnam could be united under one government. But South Vietnamese officials refused to hold the elections because they believed that the results would give the Communists control over the entire country. This stand was supported by the United States. American leaders believed that if South Vietnam fell to communism, Communist movements might sweep through all of Southeast Asia and increase the international influence and prestige of China and the Soviet Union.

When South Vietnam refused to hold elections, North Vietnam joined with Viet Cong guerrillas in the South to overthrow the South Vietnamese government by force. The United States responded by sending money, weapons, and advisors to aid in South Vietnam's defense. In the early 1960s this assistance increased at a very rapid rate. But despite growing U.S. involvement, South Vietnam continued to teeter on the brink of collapse. During this period, the U.S. government provided optimistic accounts of events in Vietnam in order to maintain public support for their efforts there. They wanted the American people to believe that the Diem government was popular and strong, and that the extent of U.S. military assistance was limited. Many reporters filed stories that reflected the U.S. government's description of events. But some members of the American and international press corps based in South Vietnam suggested that the country was in serious trouble.

When Halberstam first arrived in Vietnam, he supported American involvement in the conflict. He believed that the U.S. government had a responsibility to help other countries stand firm against communism. "We were there to help another country against encroachment [invasion] from within, and I did not dissent [disagree]," he told Christopher Anderson in People. "I believed in the cause that was at stake and in the men who were fighting it." But within a short time, Halberstam began to realize that the official version of events did not always match reality. "It was all lies and lies and lies," he told William Prochnau in Once Upon a Distant War. Halberstam began to question the word of official sources and instead tried to obtain firsthand information.

Against the wishes of the U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam, Halberstam began filing reports that contradicted the official version of events. For example, he wrote that Diem's government was corrupt and unpopular. He noted that significant sections of the country were controlled by the Viet Cong. He also reported that the South Vietnamese army—known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN—was weak and dependent on U.S. military equipment and intelligence. Even though these reports were mostly accurate, they angered American government and military leaders. The officials wanted the press to repeat their reassuring public statements that the Diem government was prospering and the Viet Cong threat was fading away. But Halberstam continued to submit stories that gave his own impressions of the situation in South Vietnam throughout his time there.

Turns Vietnam experience into best-selling books

During his fifteen months in Vietnam, Halberstam gained a reputation for using the real experiences of soldiers in the field to expose the true story behind the U.S. government's statements. In January 1963, for example, he reported on the Battle of Ap Bac. In this operation, South Vietnamese troops and their U.S. military advisors set out to destroy a Viet Cong radio transmitter in the village of Ap Bac. They believed it was guarded by only a hundred Viet Cong guerillas. But the Communist forces intercepted radio messages about the plan and were able to prepare a strong defense. During the battle that followed, the South Vietnamese forces fought poorly and made a series of strategic errors. In the end, eighty ARVN soldiers were killed and a hundred wounded, while the Viet Cong guerillas slipped away without suffering many casualties.

Afterward, some American and South Vietnamese officials claimed that they had won the Battle of Ap Bac. But Halberstam and several other journalists uncovered the truth about the Viet Cong's strength and the ARVN's poor performance. These reports became front-page news in the United States and greatly raised public awareness of the real situation in Vietnam. In 1964 Halberstam received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war. At the same time, however, he became the subject of criticism from many U.S. government and military officials. These officials blamed the media for increasing opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam among the American people. They claimed that journalists like Halberstam inspired the Communists to continue fighting and made it impossible for U.S. forces to win the war.

After returning from Vietnam in December 1963, Halberstam continued to write about his experiences in a series of books and magazine articles. In 1965 he published The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. This influential book, which traces the history of U.S. involvement in the conflict, helped establish Halberstam as an expert on the war. With its success, Halberstam left the New York Times in 1967 in order to concentrate on building a career as an author. He looked at the Vietnam War from a different perspective in his 1971 book Ho, which is a biography of North Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Halberstam's best-known book about the Vietnam era is The Best and the Brightest, published in 1972. In this book he looks at early American involvement in the war through the actions of key decision makers in the U.S. government. Halberstam draws highly critical profiles of several important figures in the John F. Kennedy (see entry) and Lyndon B. Johnson (see entry) administrations, including National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (see entry), Secretary of State Dean Rusk (see entry), and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (see entry). Halberstam explained that he wrote the book in order to find out how these men—who "had been praised as the best and the brightest men of a generation"—could have become "the architects of a war which I and many others thought the worst tragedy to befall this country since the Civil War." The Best and the Brightest became a best-seller and remains a classic in Vietnam War literature.

Continues writing about American history and sports

In the years since he became a full-time author, Halberstam produced a number of well-regarded books on American history and culture. In 1979 he published The Powers That Be, which examines how the American news media helped shape politics and society. In 1986 he wrote The Reckoning, which contrasts the history and business approach of the U.S. automaker Ford Motor Company with that of the Japanese automaker Nissan. These two books, along with The Best and the Brightest, are often considered to be Halberstam's three-part series about power in America.

In 1997 Halberstam returned to his early work on the civil rights movement in his book The Children. He contacted several of the young African American protestors he had interviewed in 1960, when he was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, and followed their life stories to the present day. In between his more serious projects, Halberstam has often turned his reporter's eye to the world of sports. He has published several books about baseball and its links to American culture, including The Summer of '49 and October 1964. One of his favorites among his own books is The Amateurs, which follows an American crew team as they train for the Olympics. In 1999 Halberstam published Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, a biography of the Chicago Bulls star.


Anderson, Christopher. "David Halberstam." People Weekly, November 4, 1985.

Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 45. Detroit: Gale, 1995.

Downie, Leonard, Jr. The New Muckrakers: An Inside Look at America's Investigative Reporters. New York: New Republic Books, 1976.

Dygert, James H. The Investigative Journalist: Folk Heroes of a New Era. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Prochnau, William W. Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett—Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles. New York: Times Books, 1995.

David Halberstam

views updated May 18 2018

David Halberstam

American journalist and author David Halberstam (born 1934) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his international reporting of the Vietnam War.

David Halberstam is a versatile author who has published more than 16 books on diverse subjects such as civil rights, the world economy, the auto industry, and the war in Vietnam. He also writes about sports topics, such as basketball, baseball, and amateur rowing. Halberstam's best-selling books are characterized by voluminous research and an anecdotal, novelistic narrative style. His work has been reproduced for television and has been used as reference material and as text in the classroom.

David Halberstam was born April 10, 1934, to Charles A. and Blanche (Levy) Halberstam. His father was a surgeon and his mother worked as a teacher. The family moved around frequently when Halberstam was a child, following Charles Halberstam's military career. David Halberstam spent his youth in such cities as El Paso, Texas, Rochester, Minnesota, and Winsted, Connecticut. After his father's return from service in Europe during World War II, the family again relocated, this time to Westchester County in New York. Halberstam attended Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, New York, participating in track and writing for the school newspaper. He graduated in 1951 and was accepted at Harvard University as an undergraduate.

Halberstam did not have the best grades as a student at Harvard, but he did achieve the prestigious assignment of managing editor of the Harvard Crimson, the school's daily newspaper. The paper was published on a demanding deadline six days a week for an intellectual readership; it was a good beginning for the student journalist. When he graduated from college in 1955, Halberstam admitted he wanted to improve his interviewing skills. He told Brian Lamb, the host of C-Span's Booknotes, "I had to learn how to go out and interview ordinary people." He did that working at the West Point, Mississippi, Daily Times Leader.His modest beginning at the smallest daily in Mississippi taught Halberstam how to "deal with ordinary people, to listen to them, to see the value in people who didn't agree with the same things I agreed and how they worked, what their lives were, " he recounted to Lamb.

Within a year Halberstam moved to the Nashville Tennessean where he continued to hone his skills by modeling himself upon the best reporters. He covered civil rights issues and was enthralled by a sense of violence. Halberstam told People Weekly writer Christopher P. Andersen, "Trucks would try and run us off the road, we'd be threatened with guns." In general he felt his experience in Tennessee was worth it "because it validated all the reasons anybody becomes a reporter in the first place."

Halberstam left the Nashville Tennessean in 1960 as a confident reporter. He accepted a position with the New York Times. In his first months with the well-known paper he covered Washington and within his first year there he was transferred to cover the war in the Congo. By 1962, Halberstam was in Vietnam.

Foreign Correspondent

Initially, Halberstam supported the United States' involvement in Vietnam. As told to People Weekly writer Andersen, "We were there to help another country against encroachment from within, and I did not dissent. I believed in the cause that was at stake and in the men who were fighting it." But when the Vietnam policy became more controversial, when Washington ignored assessments reported by their advisers, Halberstam started to question and criticize. Journalist William Prochnau covered the Vietnam War for The Seattle Times. He met Halberstam in Vietnam and described him to Lamb of Booknotes as "a brilliant brat" who was working for "the dominant and most prestigious newspaper in the world." Prochnau further explained to Lamb, "He was twenty-eight years old. He was a man of great passions, great angers. He felt the government was deluding itself as much as deluding the American people. It drove him to fits." Halberstam's courage enabled him to report both sides of the Vietnam experience. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1964.


About this time Halberstam began his career as a nonfiction author. He published The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era in 1965. This is his first nonfiction attempt to analyze American involvement in Vietnam. In 1967, Halberstam left the New York Times. He pursued a position as contributing editor of Harper's magazine. Then he published The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy in 1969. By the time he published Ho in 1971, Halberstam knew the Vietnam war was lost. He returned to the subject that was an essential part of his life for several years and published The Best and the Brightest in 1972. Halberstam asked how the gifted leaders assembled by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations could have allowed such a tragic involvement in Vietnam. The book is his first best-seller.

The Powers That Be

In 1974, Halberstam had been a journalist for 20 years. The Watergate scandal was widely reported and Halberstam perceived, "that in both Vietnam and Watergate the principal antagonists were not the president and the Congress, or the president and the opposition party but the president and the media." Sharing his opinion with BOMC Today he added, "How that had happened seemed to me a rich question in its possibilities." Halberstam's speculation grew into another best seller, The Powers That Be, published in 1979. The book concentrates on four news reporting giants: CBS, Time, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Halberstam contends that the media helped shape opinion and recent politics. He pointed out to People Weekly writer Andersen, why he chose those four reporting companies. "CBS was, and probably still is, the best network. Time is the most important opinion-shaping magazine. The Washington Post uncovered Watergate. And the Los Angeles Times invented Richard Nixon."

The Amateurs

Halberstam is a talented writer who can work on more than one project at a time. While conducting research for a major work in progress he will take a break and direct his strong investigative reporting skills to another passion: sports. Halberstam has been described as the ultimate fan. In 1981 he published The Breaks of the Game, a book about professional basketball and followed that in 1985 with a book about non-professional rowing called The Amateurs. Halberstam got his inspiration for the book while watching a pre-Olympic event on television. Amazed by the hype surrounding the athletes, Halberstam wondered if amateur athletics meant only money, endorsements, or fame. He set out to find athletes that were involved in sports for the love of the sport and not on a quest for fame or fortune. He found what he wanted in a group of amateur rowers. Sculling is an obscure sport and the success of the book surprised and pleased Halberstam who confided to Lamb on Booknotes, "I have a small book that I did about four young men rowing for an Olympic medal that I really love." He said The Amateurs "is my inner, secret favorite."

The Reckoning

While delivering The Breaks of the Game and The Amateurs, Halberstam researched and wrote The Reckoning. Published in 1986, The Reckoning was "by far the hardest book I have ever done, " Halberstam told BOMC Today. "I wanted to do a comparative study of an American and a Japanese auto company." The book also includes the economic and cultural differences between the two countries. True to his style, Halberstam interviewed everyone in the auto industry. "I came to like the auto men of Detroit. I found these men interesting, reflective and generous with their time." He spent eight months in Tokyo, a country that, in his opinion, is receptive to receiving information but is reluctant to disclose it. "The burden was not one of language but of culture. At first I found the Nissan officials unreceptive and only superficially cooperative to what I was doing."

The Summer of '49

In 1989 Halberstam took a look at the last radio era in baseball and published The Summer of '49. The book chronicles the 1949 pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in a time before television and before the superstar contracts. "When you hear a game on the radio and you form a mythic vision of a DiMaggio or a Williams, " Halberstam recalled to Lamb on Booknotes, "They live larger because you create the myth for them in the fantasy of your mind."

The Next Century

Working with material he researched for The Reckoning Halberstam delivered an essay in 1991 called The Next Century. This essay is about Americans' complacent attitude toward declining education and economic productivity. Critics consider the title a misnomer because, the essay concentrates on America since Vietnam and makes no predictions for the coming century.

Social Historian: The Fifties

Having told the story of America under pressure, Halberstam moved to a time when America was rich and everything seemed to work. The Fifties, published in 1993 includes sections on politics, civil rights, and the McCarthy period. Also covered is the impact television made on society. "There was an innocence about television, " Halberstam explained to Lamb on Booknotes. "It really changed everything." As television developed, the pace of life suddenly sped up. There were commercials and politicians and the ideals of someone's vision of the American family coming into peoples homes. Of the time frame, Wall Street Journal writer Dorothy Rabinowitz recalls, "We are speaking here of a decade whose creative ferment, and level of art and culture, has never since been equaled."

Halberstam discussed with Lamb on Booknotes the phenomenon that "When people talk about America in the '50s … they talk about it as an innocent time….Yet the '50s were not that innocent." The Wall Street Journal writer Rabinowitz contends, "This is the era now routinely described as the age of conformity, the time of hula hoops and tail fins, and sterile obedience."

October 1964: Baseball History

Moving ahead to the 1960s Halberstam returned to baseball in October 1964, published in 1994. Here he covers the World Series competition between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees. The story relates the rise of the St. Louis team and the decline of the Yankee dynasty. Some historians concur that the history of baseball offers insight into labor law, race relations, urban history, and the development of a leisure industry. October 1964, among other books, is required reading for a history class at the University of South Florida.

The Children

While the 1960s was a decade of rich sports anecdotes it is also the decade of real social revolutions. His book titled The Children, published in 1998, chronicles the lives of some of the kids who challenged social order. Halberstam was a witness to the first sit-in in his early years as journalist for the Nashville Tennessean and regularly covered the civil rights movement for the paper. Speaking to Lamb on Booknotes, Halberstam said, "The first sit-ins started there, and it was a very interesting group of young black kids." Halberstam was close to the kids in age and earned their trust. He tracked their lives and tells of their experiences then and now. In a Booklist review, Mary Carroll noted, "The Children is both a survey of five central years of the civil rights movement (1960-65) and a sterling example of the genre with which Halberstam is most closely identified: collective biography."

Halberstam's typically long books are always well-researched and maintain a narrative flair that holds a reader's interest. His book topics develop from within himself. Halberstam said to BOMC Today, "My books have always been the result of my own curiosity: the questions I answer for other people are the questions I seek to answer for myself."

Further Reading

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 45, Gale, 1995.

Lamb, Brian, Booknotes, Times Books, 1997.

Booklist, January 1, 1998.

People Weekly, November 4, 1985.

Wall Street Journal, November 24, 1997.

"Booknotes Transcript, " C-Span, July 11, 1993, http://www.booknotes.org/transcripts/10198.htm (April 1998).

Halberstam, David, "David Halberstam Talks about The Reckoning, " BOMC Today, 1987, http://www.bomc.com/ows-bin/owa/rrauthorsintheirownwordssub?intid=12&uid= (April 1998).

Halberstam, David

views updated May 23 2018


(b. 10 April 1934 in New York City), respected journalist and historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1964 for his coverage of the Vietnam War and went on to write an impressive string of best-selling books on Vietnam, civil rights, politics, the U.S. media, and sports.

Halberstam was the son of Charles A. Halberstam, a surgeon, and Blanche Levy, a teacher. The family moved frequently as Charles Halberstam's military assignments dictated, and his son grew up in cities such as El Paso, Texas; Rochester, Minnesota; and Winsted, Connecticut. The Halberstams settled in Westchester County, New York, where Halberstam attended high school, after his father's return from Europe at the end of World War II. Halberstam wrote for his Yonkers high school newspaper and ran track before graduating in 1951 and entering Harvard University. Though he did not excel as an undergraduate, he was named managing editor of the prestigious Harvard Crimson, the school's daily newspaper. The assignment was both a challenge and a high-profile proving ground for the journalism student.

After graduating from Harvard in 1955, Halberstam took a job reporting for the West Point, Mississippi, Daily Times Leader. He soon moved on to the Nashville Tennes-sean, covering civil rights issues during increasingly tense times. The threats and violence he faced as a reporter failed to faze Halberstam, and the controversy of the issues he covered only attracted him to journalism that much more. When he left the Tennessean in 1960, he was a solid reporter with well-honed writing and interviewing skills. He then took a job with the prestigious New York Times, first on assignment to cover Washington, D.C., and shortly thereafter to cover the war in the Congo. When he accepted an assignment to South Vietnam in 1962, Halberstam supported U.S. involvement there. But as he saw more of the chaos, misinformation, misjudgment, and resulting loss of life, his position shifted. He won his first journalism honor that year, the Page One award from the Newspaper Guild of New York.

Like many front-line reporters in Vietnam, Halberstam foraged constantly for the contacts and leads that furnished the material for his daily stories for the Times. His Vietnam experience was very unlike that of many big-name journalists, who avoided chilling exposure to the realities of the war—they had their interviews lined up for them, were given four-star treatment, and did their reporting from the air-conditioned comfort of the Caravelle Hotel. Halberstam's coverage of the Vietnam War and the 1963 overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem earned him the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for reporting of international affairs, which he shared with Malcolm W. Browne of the Associated Press. The two also received the first Louis M. Lyons award the same year for conscience and integrity in journalism for reporting "the truth as they saw it [in the Vietnam conflict] … without yielding to unrelenting pressures," according to the Pulitzer advisory board.

When his assignment in Vietnam ended in 1963, Halberstam went on to Warsaw and Paris for the New York Times. He is noted for his books written after this period, which all are the result of exhaustive research and reporting. Journalists and authors alike marvel at his ability to produce such extensive works while they are still current and topical. His 1965 book, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, explored what had gone wrong in South Vietnam since 1961. Halberstam focused on accurate reporting and presentation of his facts—without offering a solution—while evoking a sense of regret at the blood needlessly shed in the war as a result of missed opportunities and misjudged events. Halberstam left the Times in 1967 to devote more time to writing books. He worked as a contributing editor to Harper's magazine until 1971. Halberstam had married actress Elzbieta Tchizevska in 1965; they divorced in 1977. In 1979 he married Jean Sandness Butler; they had one daughter.

One Very Hot Day, Halberstam's 1968 novel, was described as "the right kind of book about Vietnam." Unlike many war novels, it evoked not a sense of grandeur but one of irony and absurdity. Halberstam studied the intricacies of small incidents—many of which he had to leave out of his daily copy for the Times— that were as telling as any study of the war as a whole. Anecdotes and fascinating tidbits pepper the book, such as the observation that the Vietcong were poor snipers because of poor vision resulting from a protein deficiency. The war was still escalating when One Very Hot Day was published, and the book served an immediate educational function—it encapsulated the texture of an incredibly complex conflict.

Halberstam's final book published in the 1960s, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (1969), further explored the profiles of Robert F. Kennedy and New York Democratic senator Allard Lowenstein that Halberstam wrote for Harper's. The book was ambitious and experimental compared to other Kennedy studies of the era. Halberstam abandoned the common chronological approach for a story line that roughly follows Kennedy's final campaign trail, but jumps back and forth to his life before his presidential candidacy. The book ends abruptly, as did Kennedy's life. The final sentence reads: "Then he descended to acknowledge his victory, to talk about the violence and the divisiveness, and to let a nation discover in his death what it had never understood or believed about him during his life." The ending was so abrupt that New York Times reviewer Victor Navasky initially thought his copy of the book was printed without a final chapter.

After the 1960s, Halberstam continued to explore the Vietnam War. He wrote The Best and The Brightest (1972), a best-seller that remains one of the foremost chronicles of the Vietnam War era. He also pursued his love for sports in the books The Breaks of the Game (1981), The Amateurs (1985), The Summer of '49 (1989), October 1964 (1994), and Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (1999). His other works include The Powers That Be (1979), The Reckoning (1986), and War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (2001). His eighteenth book, Firehouse, about Engine 40 Ladder 35 of the New York City Fire Department (which lost twelve men in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks), was published in 2002.

Books on Halberstam include Leonard Downie, Jr., The New Muckrakers: An Inside Look at America's Investigative Reporters (1976), and William W. Prochnau, Once Upon a Distant War (1995). Reviews of his work include Peter Kihss, "Pulitzer Prizes Omitted in Drama, Fiction, Music," New York Times (5 May 1964); Bernard B. Fall, "Errors Escalated Too," New York Times (16 May 1965); Wilfrid Sheed, "En Route to Nowhere," New York Times (7 Jan. 1968); Victor S. Navasky, "The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy," New York Times (2 Feb. 1969); and Victor S. Navasky, "How We Got Into the Messiest War in Our History," New York Times (12 Nov. 1972).

Brenna Sanchez

Halberstam, David

views updated May 18 2018

Halberstam, David

Born April 4, 1934, in New York, NY; died of injuries received in an automobile accident, April 23, 2007, in Menlo Park, CA. Journalist. Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist David Halberstam was, characteristically, on his way to conduct an interview when the former New York Times reporter died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The author of more than 20 books on topics ranging from American foreign policy to major-league sports, Halberstam earned a reputation early in his career for his reporting from the trenches of Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. “The world has lost one of our greatest journalists,” said Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., chair and publisher of the New York Times, told CNN.com upon hearing news of Halberstam’s death.

The son of a surgeon, Halberstam was born in 1934 in New York City and went on to Harvard University, where he served as managing editor of the school newspaper, the Crimson. Interested in the growing civil rights movement in the South, he landed his first post-college job as a reporter at a small paper in West Point, Mississippi, in 1955, but his bosses there found him too liberal on the question of desegregation. He moved on to the Tennes-sean in Nashville, where he spent the next several years covering the civil rights dramas unfolding in several Southern states. “I couldn’t wait to go to work,” the Times of London quoted him as saying about his reporting. “Even though it was often fairly dangerous. I had an intuitive sense that I was watching history.”

In 1964 Halberstam was hired by the New York Times and sent to cover the war in Southeast Asia. Communist North Vietnamese were fighting a ground war for control of the Vietnamese nation, with anti-Communist South Vietnamese militias aided by the U.S. military. Halberstam’s coverage of the conflict won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize for journalism that year, and his writing was so frank that reportedly President John F. Kennedy asked the publisher of the newspaper to bring him back home, but Arthur O. Sulzberger Sr. refused. The dispatches later became the basis for a Halberstam’s first non-fiction book, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era, published in 1965.

Halberstam quit the Times in 1967 to become a full-time writer. His list of nonfiction books include The Best and the Brightest (1972), an examination of how the administrations of both President Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, became so intractably mired in the Vietnam conflict; The Powers That Be, a 1979 look at the new media moguls; and The Reckoning, a 1986 account that traced the decline of U.S. automobile manufacturing industry. Halber-stam was also an avid sports fan, and penned sev- eral works on momentous contests, including Summer of ’49, which chronicled the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox American League pennant race that year. At the time of his death, Halberstam was writing a book about the 1958 National Football League playoffs. One of its match-ups pitted the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants, and is considered one of the most important games in the history of the sport, for it was the first playoff game to be televised nationwide, and the first one to end after new sudden-death overtime rules were implemented. When he died on April 23, 2007, Hal-berstam was being driven by a University of California graduate student to interview retired quarterback Y.A. Tittle. Two days earlier, Halberstam had given a speech at the school’s Berkeley campus about journalism and its role in shaping history.

Halberstam was 73 years old, and is survived by his wife, Jean, and their daughter, Julia. Because of his stellar reporting during the Vietnam era, Halber-stam was often asked his thoughts on the U.S. war in Iraq that began in 2003. This war, like Vietnam, appeared to be a situation with no possible positive outcome. Journalists’ access to the theater of war were now carefully controlled by the U.S. Department of Defense—unlike in Halberstam’s era—and even commentators back home were challenged as unpatriotic for questioning the administration. “The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn’t salute or play the game,” Hal-berstam told a 2006 conference of journalists, according to Washington Post reporter Yvonne Shin-hoster Lamb. “And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around, and they’ve used up their credibility.” Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 24, 2007, sec. 1, p. 3; CNN.com, http://edition.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/books/04/24/obit.halberstam/index.html (April 24, 2007); Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2007, p. A1, p. A15; New York Times, April 24, 2007, p. C13; Times (London), April 25 , 2007, p. 68; Washington Post, April 24, 2007, p. A1, p. A19.

—Carol Brennan

Halberstam, David

views updated Jun 11 2018


HALBERSTAM, DAVID (1934– ), U.S. writer. Halberstam was the younger of two sons born in the Bronx to Charles, a military surgeon whose parents had immigrated from Poland, and Blanche (Levy), a schoolteacher whose parents had come from Lithuania. His father's work took him to Winsted, Connecticut, El Paso and Austin, Texas, and Rochester, Minn. In 1951 Halberstam graduated from Roosevelt High School in Yonkers, n.y., where he wrote for the school newspaper, and he then attended Harvard College, where he became managing editor of the Crimson. Upon graduation in 1955, Halberstam chose to work in the South, his first job coming at The Daily Times Leader in West Point, Mississippi, the state's smallest daily newspaper, and seven months later he moved to The Tennessean in Nashville, where he covered the early Civil Rights movement. Halberstam joined the New York Times in 1960, working first in Washington before being assigned to the Congo, and then in September 1962 to the paper's bureau in Saigon. It was there that Halberstam became a legend as one of a small group of reporters who began to question and speak out against the official administration version of the war in Vietnam, which led U.S. president John F. Kennedy to request that Halberstam be transferred to another bureau. Halberstam's reporting earned him the George Polk Award in 1963 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for international reporting. In January 1965 he was sent to Poland, where his reporting on the repressive and antisemitic policies of the Communist regime led to his being ordered to leave the country. Halberstam then reported from Paris, and in 1967 he left the Times to become a contributing editor for Harper's. He started writing books, including The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era (1965), The Unfinished Odysseyof Robert Kennedy (1969); and Ho (1971), a biography of Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. But it was his bestselling book, The Best and the Brightest (1972), a critical history of America's involvement in the Vietnamese conflict, which established Halberstam as an important commentator on American politics and power.

The enormous success of The Best and the Brightest led to a career in writing on a wide range of topics filled with anecdotes, metaphors, and a narrative tone usually seen in fiction. It included The Powers That Be (1979), which examined the influence of the news media on American society; The Reckoning: The Challenge to America's Greatness (1986), a comparative history of the Japanese and U.S. automobile industry; The Next Century (1991), on the diminishing educational standards and decline in economic productivity in the U.S.; The Fifties (1993), a look at the decade, embracing social change, politics, and technology and their impact on each other and the world, which was made into an eight-part television series; The Children (1998), about the youth who were part of the Civil Rights movement; War in the Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals (2001), a look at how U.S. domestic politics came to dictate foreign policy, which was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize; and Firehouse (2002), the story of the firefighters who sacrificed their lives on September 11, 2001. Halberstam also wrote fiction: The Noblest Roman (1961) and One Very Hot Day (1968).

Halberstam is also a leading sportswriter, beginning with The Breaks of the Game (1981), an account of his year spent with the Portland Trailblazers, considered among the best books ever written on professional basketball. He also wrote The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal (1985), a study of the world of sculling; Summer of '49 (1989), a look at the drama of the 1949 pennant race; October 1964 (1994), chronicling the season and World Series that was to become the last year of the New York Yankees dynasty; Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World That He Made (1999), documenting the making of a legend; The Teammates: A Portrait of Friendship (2003), about the 60-year friendships of baseball players Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr; and The Education of a Coach (2005), an in-depth look at the life and career of nfl coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. Halberstam also edited the anthology Best American Sports Writing of the Century (1999).

[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]

Halberstam, David

views updated May 23 2018


HALBERSTAM, David. American, b. 1934. Genres: International relations/Current affairs, Politics/Government, Biography. Career: Member of staff, Daily Times Leader, West Point, MS, 1955-56, and Nashville Tennessean, 1956-60; New York Times, NYC, foreign correspondent in Congo, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe, 1960-67; Harper's Magazine, NYC, contributing editor, 1967-71. Recipient, Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, 1964. Publications: The Noblest Roman, 1961; The Making of a Quagmire, 1965, 2nd ed. as The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era, 1987; One Very Hot Day, 1968; The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, 1969; Ho, 1971; The Best and Brightest, 1972; The Powers That Be, 1979; The Breaks of the Game, 1981; The Amateurs, 1985; The Reckoning, 1986; The Summer of '49, 1989; The Next Century, 1991; The Fifties, 1993; October 1964, 1994; Kansas City: 100 Years of Championship Jay-hawk Basketball, 1997; The Children, 1998; Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World That Made Him, 1999; (ed.) Best American Sports Writing of the Century, 1999; War in a Time of Peace, 2001; New York September 11, 2001; Firehouse, 2002; The Teammates, 2003. Address: c/o Hyperion, 77 W 66th St, New York, NY 10023, U.S.A.

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