Then a history concentrator, Halberstam says he had difficulty focusing on his schoolwork, and graduated without honors. Finishing in the bottom half of his class, Halberstam would have been hard-pressed to believe that he could ever be a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honors society.
Yet 50 years later, the self-described “terrible student” has been nominated for an honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa to commend his impressive career as a journalist, including his coverage of the early years of the Vietnam War for the New York Times and his 19 subsequent books.
“I turned out okay,” jokes Halberstam. “For 50 years, I’ve been paid to go out and ask questions and learn things in the center of some extraordinary historical events. It has been a very rich career.”
These events have included some of the defining moments in American history—including the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the burgeoning civil rights movements in the Deep South. And he has investigated aspects of American culture more broadly, including the cultures surrounding baseball and other sports.
His work has been well-received not merely by Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa society. Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his incisive reporting on Vietnam, and his 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest” has since been deemed the definitive account of why and how the U.S. intervened in Vietnam.
BRONX TO THE BAND
Born in the Bronx, N.Y. in 1934, Halberstam says that his childhood was shaped by World War II. His father had served as a doctor in World War I, and returned to the service when Halberstam was seven or eight years old.
As a result of his father’s military assignments, Halberstam moved repeatedly during the war, spending time in Winsted, Conn. and El Paso, Texas, among other places.
After the war, Halberstam’s family returned to New York. He then attended Roosevelt High School in Westchester County.
Even at that age, Halberstam says that journalism piqued his curiosity. He worked for his high school newspaper, but says that he was unable to reach a top leadership position because “the advisor was this quite unpleasant woman” who favored female students.
In high school, Halberstam says that he found the decision to come to Harvard an easy one. His brother was already an undergraduate there, as well as an editor at The Crimson, and had given Halberstam the chance to experience the variegated life of Cambridge.
The fact that Harvard did not have a dominant fraternity culture was one big draw for Halberstam, giving him the impression that each student could pursue his individual interests.
He recalls one moment when, visiting his brother, he first encountered the Harvard band’s lack of synchrony.
“I went up for a football weekend, and there was a Harvard band marching through the Square,” he says. “Everybody was sort of out of step....I liked the fact that you didn’t have this lock-step strut.”
THE HARVARD EXPERIENCE