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Reporters remember Halberstam in Vietnam

‘There was tremendous pressure. David never buckled under it at all. ... He had profound moral and physical courage,’ says Neil Sheehan, who was the bureau chief for United Press International in Saigon.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 23, 1963, Associated Press photographer Horst Faas gathered his gear, left his house in Saigon and climbed aboard a U.S. Army helicopter, one of a fleet carrying hundreds of South Vietnamese troops on a combat operation in the Mekong Delta.

He didn’t bother to wake David Halberstam, the tall, rangy New York Times reporter with whom Faas shared the villa, and who was the acknowledged leader of the small foreign press corps covering the early stages of the Vietnam War. Halberstam died Monday from injuries sustained in an auto accident.

The times were tense during the war, with reporters being accused of disloyalty — and worse — for writing about corrupt Saigon officials, incompetent, self-deluding Americans, and South Vietnamese forces that couldn’t defeat the communist Viet Cong insurgents controlling the countryside.

Just three weeks earlier, Halberstam and his colleagues had covered their biggest story yet — a military coup in which President Ngo Dinh Diem had been overthrown and murdered, along with his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the much-reviled head of Saigon’s secret police.

Even before that event, acrimony ran so deep that in October, President John F. Kennedy had asked the Times to transfer Halberstam out of Vietnam. The newspaper not only refused but canceled a planned leave by Halberstam to dispel any implication that it would bow to pressure from Washington.

All was routine on this morning sortie into the Delta, Faas recalled, until the pilot of his helicopter told his passengers by intercom that the operation was being aborted. “We have just been told that President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas,” the pilot said.

The long line of choppers reversed course and headed back to Saigon.

“When I got back to the villa, David was still asleep. I woke him up and told him about Kennedy being killed. At first, he didn’t believe it. Then he cried,” Faas recalled on Tuesday, after learning that his friend had been killed in a car crash in Menlo Park, Calif.

‘He could be passionate about many things’To Faas, who had first met Halberstam while covering a civil war in the Congo in 1960, Halberstam’s tearful reaction to the Kennedy assassination was no surprise.

“He was a serious correspondent, but he could be very passionate about many things,” Faas said in an interview from his home in Munich, Germany. “As a journalist, he was quite different from the rest of us. He believed in his duty to change things.”

As Halberstam himself often recalled, he and his young colleagues in Vietnam initially regarded the U.S. effort to help South Vietnam resist the Viet Cong communist movement and its North Vietnamese sponsors as a reasonable policy, but became disillusioned by lies and corruption.

Although Halberstam left Vietnam in 1964 — a year before the massive infusion of U.S. combat forces that would turn the conflict into what the Vietnamese came to call the “American war” — he remained a much-consulted authority on the subject.

His book, “The Best and the Brightest,” became a literary landmark that traced the origins of U.S. policy and Kennedy administration figures who had formulated and carried it out.

‘He had profound moral and physical courage’Even after branching out with some 21 books on other topics ranging from “The Fifties” to sports, Halberstam remained the man who had most symbolized the aggressive press coverage that revealed the first signs of fiasco and failure in Vietnam.

“He was the institutional memory of the Vietnam War. I think he understood it better than any other journalist,” said Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize covering Vietnam for the AP in 1966, later worked for CNN and is currently a guest lecturer in journalism in China.

“We were being denounced by those on high,” said Neil Sheehan, who was the bureau chief for United Press International in Saigon. “There was tremendous pressure. David never buckled under it at all. ... He had profound moral and physical courage.”

Halberstam and Sheehan were best of friends in the Saigon press corps, and Halberstam was said to have been furious when Pulitzers were awarded in 1964 to himself and to AP chief correspondent Malcolm Browne, but not to Sheehan, for coverage of the war and the anti-Diem coup.

But when AP’s Arnett was roughed up by plainclothes police while covering a Buddhist demonstration in Saigon, it was Halberstam who went “wading in, arms swinging,” and forced the thugs to turn tail, according to an account by A. J. Langguth, in the 2000 book, “Our Vietnam.”

Browne, now retired in Vermont, said Halberstam was “one of the bright lights of our profession,” and a good friend to all.

Halberstam was not only a prolific author of books, including many best sellers, he produced many magazine articles and was much in demand to write forewords and prefaces for other writers’ books. In one foreword, in a book about photographers killed in combat, he examined why people risk their lives to cover wars, as he and his colleagues had done 40 years ago.

“It is really about doing something, for all the veneer of ego, that is larger than self,” he wrote. People “who may have thought themselves weak and fragile and unsure of themselves when young, are surprised to find that covering something so important gives them not merely purpose and focus, but courage as well.”