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Thursday, July 14, 2022

July 14, 2022: Investigative Journalists: David Halberstam in Vietnam

[This coming weekend we’ll celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to a special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On a moment of genuine courage that reflects a broader role of wartime journalists.

In this very early post, I wrote about a David Halberstam speech to a graduating journalism class where he told a striking story from his days as a Vietnam War reporter; the link in that post no longer works, but the speech is also quoted at length here (in a post by a journalist on whom I have soured greatly since 2011, Glenn Greenwald). I want to quote from it at length as well, as Halberstam puts the moment perfectly:

“Probably the moment I am proudest of in my career is this: By the fall of 1963, I was one of a small group of reporters in Saigon -- we had enraged Washington and Saigon by filing pessimistic dispatches on the war. In particular, my young colleague, Neil Sheehan, and I were considered the enemy. The president of the United States, JFK, had already asked the publisher to pull me.

On day that fall, there was a major battle in the Delta (the Americans were not yet in a full combat role; they were in an advising and support role). MACV -- the American military command -- tried to keep out all reporters so they could control the information. Neil and I spent the day pushing hard to get there -- calling everyone, including Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Paul Harkins. With no luck, of course.

In those days, the military had a daily late afternoon briefing given by a major or a captain, called the Five O'clock Follies, because of the generally low value of the information.

On this particular day, the briefing was different, given not by a major but by a Major General, Dick Stilwell, the smoothest young general in Saigon. It was in a different room and every general and every bird colonel in the country was there. Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.

General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.

And I stood up, my heart beating wildly -- and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.

I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.

So: Never let them intimidate you. Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.”

That striking story speaks for itself, I’m sure. But I want to add this: investigative, adversarial, and activist journalism can and should be present in every arena of society, including—indeed, especially—those like war where we might see “unity” as a more desirable goal. I understand the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge,” and would largely agree that we shouldn’t be playing politics with the lives of American servicepeople. But investigative journalism isn’t politics—it’s a vital effort to discover and share the truth, and that effort is not only still important when it comes to fraught situations like war, it’s doubly important in those moments.

Last journalist tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

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