The death of David Halberstam, coming as it does amid a bitter national argument over a small war overseas, is the occasion for those of a certain age to reflect on the trajectory of a generation. Halberstam, who died in an automobile accident yesterday at the age of 73, was a New Yorker who went to Harvard and then, inspired by the story of the struggle of African-Americans for their civil rights, went to work for a newspaper in Mississippi. And then, at a young age, went to Vietnam for the New York Times and wrote himself into the history of a generation whose journalists thrilled to his reporting and his craftsmanship.
He will no doubt be remembered most widely for his book about the generation of leadership that took our country into the Vietnam war. Its title, "The Best and the Brightest," has entered our lexicon as a phrase tinged with irony and even sadness. For by the time Halberstam wrote it, he, as so many others, had come to accept the narrative that America had failed in Vietnam, that if only by virtue of the failure our cause had lost whatever justness it might have had, and that there was no exit save for the bloody rout that eventually took place. He went on to a long and honorable career in book-writing.
Today, however, a new generation of historians is on the rise who are taking a look at the Vietnam story and coming in with a different conclusion than the one Halberstam reached. We think in particular of Mark Moyar, who has brought out, under the title "Triumph Forsaken," the first volume of a multivolume history of the war that makes it clear that the expedition didn't have to end with our defeat.
In 1965, Halberstam issued a prediction of which we were reminded by Gabriel Schoenfeld on the blog of Commentary magazine, and in which he warned of what would happen if America withdrew from Southeast Asia. "Vietnamese who committed themselves fully to the United States will suffer the most under a Communist government, while we lucky few with blue passports retire unharmed; it means a drab, lifeless, and controlled society for a people who deserve better," he wrote. "Withdrawal also means that the United States's prestige will be lowered throughout the world, and it means that the pressure of Communism on the rest of Southeast Asia will intensify. Lastly, withdrawal means that throughout the world the enemies of the West will be encouraged to try insurgencies like the one in Vietnam." It was his truest prediction of all, something to think about as one of the best and brightest is mourned by so many this week.