American Homer: An Ode to David Halberstam

People can, and do, quibble about the dates, but no nation in history has been as rich, free, and powerful as the United States in the post-war years from 1945 – 1975. The pen that best chronicled these American decades belonged to David Halberstam.

A Harvard man (he edited the Crimson), Halberstam went in the 1950s to the deep south to cover the budding Civil Rights Movement. However, it would be from Vietnam in the early 1960s that Halberstam would establish his place in the canon.

Writing for the New York Times, Halberstam covered the war and provided reporting that eventually, even commonly, contradicted official military statements. It came to be said that President Kennedy would receive more accurate intelligence briefs by reading Halberstam in the Times than from his own security advisors.

The war proceeded while the Kennedy administration gave way to the Johnson administration, which gave way to the Nixon administration. Halberstam, back in the United States, published The Best and the Brightest in 1972. Seldom have folly and hubris been more comprehensively established.

Intrigued by American power in general, and wielding influence in particular, he next examined the media in The Powers That Be at a time when the power of the press was concentrated in very few hands. Though Halberstam focuses on media empires CBS, Time magazine, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. It may seem quaint in today’s socially networked, blogged up world, but at the time these organs were the voices of the Establishment except, as during Watergate, when they weren’t.

Over the years, even when Halberstam addressed sports (The Breaks of the Game, The Summer of ’49, October 1964) they were never merely books about sports, but serious examinations of American themes like race and money.

The topics of 1986’s The Reckoning remain surprisingly fresh: the history of Ford and Nissan, corporate America, and how Japan became the industrial leader of the world. The Reckoning is much more than a company history of the sort that is commonly overtaken by events and swiftly becomes irrelevant. (See The Big Store about Sears or Lee Iacocca’s biography. Or don’t.; Iacocca, by the way, was initially a Ford man and plays a role in Halberstam’s book for outsourcing manufacturing jobs.)

American power, and competition at the highest levels for the greatest stakes, remained Halberstam’s themes over the course of his career.

The Fifties, published in 1998, successfully drew connections between the vast areas of Halberstam’s research and experiences. The monochromatic decade was anything but, and it established the ferment that would explode in the Technicolor 60s. His final book, The Coldest Winter, returned to the 50s and the Korean War. He was researching the 1958 NFL championship game at the time of his untimely death in 2007.

Halberstam was America’s Homer, the one who depicted the great power at its apex.