Remembering David Halberstam

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DAVID HALBERSTAM had put the finishing touches on his final book, The Coldest Winter, in the spring of 2007, just five days before his tragic death in a car accident in California. He had essentially finished the book months earlier, but with a book there is finishing, and then a little more finishing, and then a final finishing, and after months of revising, checking and rechecking, slashing, inserting, and wrestling with endless pages of manuscript and printed proofs, he stopped by his publisher’s office on an April Wednesday and dropped off his final corrections. This was the book as he wanted it to be, and he was happy with it.

He had worked at it off and on for ten years—his first formal proposal for what came to be called “the Korea book” was drawn up in 1997—but the idea sprang from a 1962 conversation in Vietnam with an American soldier who had fought in Korea. In a sense The Coldest Winter is a companion book to The Best and the Brightest, which dealt with America’s failure in Vietnam. The Korean War had ended in stalemate while he was still in high school. He was in his twenties when he started covering Vietnam for the New York Times, and by that time the Korean War did not mean much to him, or to many other Americans except the soldiers who had fought it. Americans neither celebrate nor long remember their stalemates. Halberstam sensed that this forgetting masked some turning point in the history of America’s political development after World War II. How had we gotten from Korean stalemate to Vietnamese disaster? He set out to understand, then re-create, a time of extraordinary political bitterness that Americans had put out of mind.

Finally, on a Wednesday in April, he finished this monumental task and by the following Monday, not being a man to relax after completing a big job, he was in California to do some work on his next book. “The Game” was to be about professional football and the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, often called the greatest game ever played. It would be the twenty-second book he had written over nearly fifty years. His first, published in 1961, was The Noblest Roman, a novel about small town corruption in the Deep South. His only other novel, One Very Hot Day, had a Vietnam setting, but he was a man prone to a kind of moral outrage not readily accommodated in fiction. As a reporter in Vietnam he had discovered that the plain, astonishing, outrageous, absolute implausibility of the real world made it far more fascinating than whatever world any but the greatest fiction writer could possibly imagine. He spent the rest of his life trying to be the best of all possible journalists.

Halberstam thought journalism a high, sometimes even a noble calling and was sometimes cruelly dismissive of those who belittled it and especially of those who betrayed it. One of his earliest books, The Making of a Quagmire, dealing with the Vietnam War, put an antique word back into common use while introducing the country to the then astounding possibility of American fallibility.

With The Best and the Brightest, his sixth book, he returned to the subject of Vietnam and established himself as a singular force in what was being called “the new journalism.” This involved the use of fictional techniques to interest readers in complex matters that many might otherwise find forbiddingly tedious. The aim was to create the sense of a storyteller weaving a tale. The writer was expected to remain faithful to the facts but not to encumber the story with constant explanations of how the facts were obtained. The Best and the Brightest was a masterful illustration of the technique and, though traditionalists once fumed about its unorthodox journalistic method, it is now regarded as an essential classic of Vietnam War literature.

After that the books came in profusion: big books like The Powers That Be, The Reckoning, The Fifties,War in a Time of Peace; books about the world of sports like The Amateurs, Summer of ‘49, Playing for Keeps, and The Teammates; books both short and long, written simply because he thought they ought to be written: The Children, for example, celebrating a group of young Southern blacks who had been in the vanguard of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s; and Firehouse, a tribute to his neighborhood fire fighters. (On September 11, thirteen of them left the firehouse for the World Trade Center; twelve did not return.)

This next book, the football book that had brought him to California, demanded a great deal of interviewing. There was nothing unusual about that. Interviewing was the bedrock of his work. His books were filled with the sound of people talking, and getting the sound right required endless interviewing and patient listening. The Coldest Winter, for example, opens with the voices of American soldiers happily discussing their apparent triumph over the North Korean Army while several hundred thousand Chinese soldiers are silently closing the trap that will annihilate them.

The Teammates begins with Dominic DiMaggio’s wife, Emily, objecting to her husband’s plan to visit his dying teammate, Ted Williams: “just don’t want you driving to Florida alone,” she says in the book’s third sentence. In Ho, his character study of Ho Chi Minh, a French army officer on page one starts talking in a Vietnamese bar about the defeat at Dienbienphu: “It was all for nothing . . . I let my men die for nothing.”

Halberstam once said that after finishing Harvard he deliberately sought work on small-town Southern newspapers so he could learn how to talk to ordinary people, a skill not much cherished in the Ivy League, but indispensable to success in journalism. Getting people to talk was vital to his distinctive way of writing history, because he believed in the individual human as history’s agent. It is doubtful that he was ever much interested in a Tolstoyan view of man at the mercy of history’s tides, and for good reason. Take that road and journalism becomes absurd; Halberstam was a journalist, heart and soul.

He needed to understand the connection between the human and the event. He was constantly trying to understand why a nation with such high aspirations, led by the most excellent people, so often ended up in one quagmire or another. His work assumed a vital human agency behind historical developments. Belief in the importance of these human forces led naturally to the study of people, and they appear in astonishing variety in his books: powerful men like the Kennedys, Douglas MacArthur, Ho Chi Minh, Lyndon Johnson; great athletes like Michael Jordan and Ted Williams; important policy shapers like Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, and Madeleine Albright; but also a young man rowing a single scull in hopes of making an Olympic team that almost no one else cares about, and a bunch of black kids risking their lives for the right to vote and eat an ice cream sundae sitting down, and those thirteen firemen headed for the World Trade Center.

To bring them to life on the page he had to hear people talking. So he interviewed and interviewed. For his twenty second book, the one about football, he was on his way to interview the Hall of Fame quarterback, Y. A. Tittle.