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.
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."
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."
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.
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 on David Halberstam
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).