last words

David Halberstam. Courtesy photo.
Modern Times
The late David Halberstam left warning signs for future American leaders in The Next Century

By: Gilbert Garcia

Of all the arguments that have ever been made for a career in journalism, the one I find the most persuasive came from David Halberstam.

Halberstam, the revered reporter who died in a car accident last week after a half-century of providing definitive accounts of the civil-rights struggle, the Vietnam War, the emergence of the modern media, and various watershed events in American sports, sized up his chosen profession this way: “It allows you to be a player in great events without being popular.”

While Halberstam often took grief from critics for his ostentatious, rococo sentences and his aura of egomania, no one could deny that Halberstam did his job without regard to personal popularity. He risked derision (and possibly much worse) in the mid-’50s at a Tennessee daily by documenting the South’s entrenched pattern of racial discrimination, and he so infuriated the Kennedy administration over his downbeat reports from the front lines of Vietnam that John Kennedy actively tried to get him fired from The New York Times.  

A self-described “child of the ’50s,” Halberstam returned again and again to stories from the period when his tastes and passions were formed: the epic battle for the 1949 American League baseball pennant (Summer of ’49); the Korean War (The Coldest Winter); and a sweeping review of an entire decade (The Fifties). It’s hardly surprising, then, that the book Halberstam was researching at the time of his death was a look back at the storied 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants.

Halberstam built his reputation with painstaking historical works such as The Best and the Brightest, but in the wake of his death I found myself gravitating to a more obscure, atypical Halberstam book. The Next Century, a thin tome published in 1991, feels dashed off by Halberstam standards, almost like an open letter that just keeps running on. But it’s fascinating for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s a rare example of this dogged reporter analyzing current events and using them to make prognostications about the future. Also, since we are now living in the century that Halberstam was pondering, it invites readers to consider whether he got things right.

Because the book was written at the historical crucible when the Soviet Empire crumbled, its obsession with the end of the Cold War Era seems a bit quaint from our perspective. One of Halberstam’s central premises in The Next Century is that the Cold War preoccupied both the Soviet Union and the United States to such a degree that it allowed them to avoid facing their deep economic problems. As he correctly notes, the United States spent much of the Cold War bragging that our economy was more vigorous than that of the Soviets. It was a bit like boasting that your stick house is sturdier than your neighbor’s straw house, but it gave Americans considerable solace for decades. Once we lost that frame of reference, Halberstam argues, we had to face the fact that Japan was kicking our butts.

Of course, the Halberstam of 1991 couldn’t foresee the way 9/11 would give us a new obsession to distract us from our wrecked educational system and economic inequities. He also couldn’t know how the computer boom (and subsequent bust) of the ’90s would alter the job market.

He did recognize, however, that we faced grave questions about the kind of society we were heading toward. In an interview with economist Lester Thurow, Halberstam considers the differences between an establishment (where the powerful are willing to make sacrifices to ensure that the rest of society succeeds) and an oligarchy (where the powerful don’t care, or notice, that the majority of people are struggling). Japan, Thurow points out, has an establishment, but the United States increasingly resembles an oligarchy. The pointed lesson is that oligarchies ultimately collapse.

 Halberstam addresses Iraq in the book’s first epilogue, a review of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He astutely points out that while the easy victory stirred instant national euphoria, the feeling didn’t last, because the cause (unlike World War II) did not engage the population at large. It was not a collective effort, but a spectator sport that most of us experienced on television.

In a fascinating aside, Halberstam reveals that he expected the Persian Gulf ground war to take at least 3,500 American lives (a figure remarkably close to the death toll from the United States’ current occupation of Iraq). He points out why Saddam Hussein’s army presented a less formidable challenge than the Vietcong (Vietnam was a political war, while the Persian Gulf War was a military campaign),and offers this chilling insight: “The Americans were careful not to occupy Iraq after their victory. If they had, the war might have become very different; every Iraqi citizen might have become a potential terrorist and once again we would have become bogged down, not unlike the French in Algeria.”

It sure is a good thing our leaders are too smart to fall into that trap, isn’t it? 


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