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David Halberstam, 1934-2007

Author Uncloaked Vietnam Blunders

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By Martin Weil and Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstam, a dogged reporter who was regarded as among the leading journalists of his era and whose Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the war in Vietnam was credited with helping change the nation's view of that conflict, died yesterday in California. He was 73.

A family spokesman said he died in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco, in a crash while being driven to an interview with Y.A. Tittle, a retired New York Giants quarterback, for a forthcoming book.

Persistent, inquisitive and prolific, Halberstam subjected the institutions, myths and legends of American society to intense scrutiny, publishing almost two dozen nonfiction books that gave his readers a vivid behind-the-scenes portrayal of the history of their times.

Placed under his reportorial microscope were the nation's great media empires, its policymaking apparatus, its automobile industry, its sports stars and their teams, and the New York firefighters who showed their heroism on Sept. 11, 2001.

Attention first came his way after the New York Times sent him to cover the fighting in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s, when opposition to the Vietnam War was relatively low key.

Often describing himself as one who began as a supporter of his nation's involvement in the war, Halberstam grew skeptical of official accounts. He placed a premium on seeing for himself and went, he said, "to the boondocks, to isolated posts, to strategic hamlets."

With a handful of other American reporters, he became known for sending back dispatches that often varied sharply from the government's optimistic versions. His accounts troubled many readers and proved a severe irritant to the White House.

His work ultimately prompted a suggestion that he be recalled. He was not, and he shared the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1964.

Later, Halberstam wrote a best-selling book about the war and how it was conceived and directed. "The Best and the Brightest," which appeared in 1972, is often regarded as a landmark in turning many against the war.

In the book, with its overriding mood of folly and tragedy, Halberstam offered vivid descriptions of personality and incident in the account of how good intentions went astray.

"Every nonfiction book should be written to answer a question," he once told an interviewer. Calling President Lyndon B. Johnson's advisers, who had originally counseled President John F. Kennedy, "ostensibly the ablest group ever to serve in American government," he said that Vietnam "was the greatest American tragedy since the Civil War."

"How," he asked, "could this happen?"

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