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An Interview With David Halberstam '55

By Edward B. Colby, Crimson Staff Writer

David Halberstam ’55, a former Crimson managing editor, covered the early civil rights movement, the Congo and Vietnam in a reporting career which included stints with yhe Nashville Tennessean and the New York Times. Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Vietnam for the New York Times in 1964, left daily journalism in 1967 and began writing books full-time two years later. The author of 17 books, Halberstam talked with The Crimson about his latest, War in a Time of Peace, from his New York office last week.

The Harvard Crimson: How do you go about researching a book like this? How long did it take to write it?

David Halberstam: It took about two years. I’m really old-fashioned. I just go out and interview a lot of people. Because of previous works I’d done, I had something of a pretty good bridgehead in that world. I hadn’t written about it in a long time, but in an odd way there were people I knew going back any number of years. I had known Colin Powell in previous incarnations, and I had known Tony Lake and Dick Holbrooke when they were young foreign service officers.

I really operate in a very old-fashioned way, which is just to go out and keep interviewing people and interviewing and every time I see someone I say, “Who else should I see?” That’s the way I’ve always worked, and that’s worked well for me.

THC: Do you see this book as a sequel to The Best and the Brightest?

DH: I think of it as a younger sibling to The Best and the Brightest. I hadn’t gone into that venue in 29 years, publication date to publication date. It’s going back into the same territory, but it’s different. That was more a portrait of the architects. This is more a portrait of a nation, of a society at a historic moment at the end of the Cold War and how it behaves. There’s something larger at stake, which is the change in a society when transformative events take place, like the end of the Cold War. What do we do when the Cold War ends? The question I was always wrestling with was an interesting one: were we a monopoly superpower that was, in the events before Sept. 11, a de facto isolationist country? In finance and business we weren’t, but were we in other areas? And I thought that the political system and the media, most particularly television, showed that we were. That’s what I was really trying to get at. That was the question I was really wrestling with, and I thought it was a very germane question.

It seems to me that there were three outgrowths of the end of the Cold War. One was the economic boom fueled by our high-technology industries. This, along with the opening up of vast parts of the world that had been closed, including Eastern Europe, led to this huge, unparalleled jump in the Dow, 6,000 points in six years.

The second thing was the rise in nationalism in areas which had been frozen, such as the southern tier of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia is another example, but it happened everywhere. You can see in some ways a world that is dangerous in a different way.

But the least predictable thing, the thing that surprised me most, was that society started binging on self-absorption. We’ve had the trivialization of the political, and the media heralded the rise of all these trivial things, with its absolute obsession with gossip, celebrity and scandal. The networks were pulling back their foreign correspondents.

THC: Taking the events of Sept. 11 into consideration, have they changed your view of your book?

DH: Not of my book, no, not really. The general feeling is that the book has been validated. The three principal reviews its had so far have all sort of said that the events support it more than ever, and I’m inclined to agree. Rather to my surprise I’ve been something of a talking head in the last two and a half weeks. Much to my surprise, on a lot of shows that don’t normally have been calling in and asking for me.

THC: Which people in your book were you most fascinated by?

DH: I think one of the most interesting people, and he’s very easy to underestimate, is John Shalikashvili [former Secretary of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]. He’s an uncommon man, a decent man, and he has a certain nobility. He’s surprisingly erudite. I think he was a man not a lot of people paid attention to and never had much of a public relations machinery, but I think he’s a very superior man; I like him. There are a lot of fascinating people there....but when you ask that who’s the surprise, Shali pops to mind.

THC: In terms of U.S. foreign policy, do you think we should play a more interventionist role?

DH: Well, I think we ought to pay attention to the rest of the world. The world has come to us, however involuntarily. When I was a young man, 40 years ago, I was sent to the Congo as a foreign correspondent for the Times, and then to Vietnam. I had to go very, very far away to find the tensions between different cultures and civilizations, between the Third World and the First World. And now, late in my life, it’s coming to our doorstep. Do I think we should be more interventionist right now? I think we’re utterly absorbed with the issue of security and I think that’s how it should be. Because, in effect, if we do not meet this threat, then not only are we vulnerable, but the rest of the world is vulnerable. This is an assault, among other things, on established order.

THC: In terms of the future of journalism, are you pessimistic?

DH: I think it’s a great profession; I’ve had a great run. I think the question is, what is the private sector going to do? In the networks, if they keep having to drive the stock up quarterly and achieve an increase of 10 to 15 percent a year, it’s going to drive all the juice out of it. It’s just going to be terrible. You can see it in the networks, you can see it in a lot of papers that are part of a larger chain. It’s a wonderful profession, and the talent is out there. A lot of bright young people want to be journalists, but the number of places where they do serious reporting has gone down in my lifetime. I think that’s particularly true of the networks, where I think there’s a right to be angry, if you’re a journalist, about how they’ve trivialized their agendas in so many ways.

There’s a real test for what a great editor is. A great editor is someone who balances what people want to know with what they need to know. And I think the top people, particularly the owners, of these networks, the managers at the top, have set up norms of profit that make it damn near impossible to do the kind of thing they should be doing.

THC: What about your time at Harvard?

DH: I was a terrible student. I was an editor at The Crimson. I was good at The Crimson, and it was the one thing I was good at, so I have this fondness for it going back a long time. I was part of a terrific group at The Crimson that went on to be journalists when there was a sort of change. Tony Lukas, who was a close friend, whose death was really very tragic, was on the board with me; Dick Ullman, who’s a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School; and Jack Langguth, who was later a foreign correspondent for the New York Times as well and has written a very good book on Vietnam, was the president. Dick Burgheim later ended up with Time and People. We had a wonderful time, we had a great run.

THC: What’s next for you?

DH: Well, I’ve got a book I’m already working on, on a battle in the Korean War. I’ve been working on that, but whether that’s going to be moved aside by these events, I just don’t know. I’d like to stay with that book, but I just don’t know how I’m going to be feeling in a couple of months, and whether there’s going to be something that jumps up in front of me.

Halberstam Interviews Colby

DH: What class are you?

THC: 2002.

DH: So you’re a senior?

THC: Right, I’m a senior.

DH: And where are you from originally?

THC: I’m actually from Cambridge.

DH: And your name is Colby?

C-O-L-B-Y?

THC: Right.

DH: Where did you go to school before?

THC: I went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

DH: Is that Patrick Ewing’s old school?

THC: Right.

DH: And how do you like The Crimson?

THC: I love it.

DH: Is it fun? Are you going to be a journalist when you graduate?

THC: Yes.

DH: Good, good.

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