In the days following the death of David Halberstam on April 23, praise of his journalism appeared in just about every major newspaper and magazine in America. Adhering to the principle of de mortuis, I did not interrupt the paeans with remarks about Halberstam’s gross misdeeds in Vietnam, which I had exposed in a book last year. But now that the funeral period has ended, the media has made clear that Halberstam’s elevation to the status of national hero is intended to be permanent, so in the interest of national history it has become necessary to point out how much Halberstam harmed the United States during his career.
One of the more disturbing aspects of Halberstam’s career was the viciousness of his attacks on public servants he disliked, something that can be found all the way to his soon-to-be-published final article on President Bush (Vanity Fair, August 2007) in which he displayed all the snide malice and arrogance of his youth. When Halberstam strongly objected to someone’s policy decisions or believed that an individual was obstructing his access to information, he unleashed the fury of his typewriter on him. Through articles and bestselling books, Halberstam and his most famous colleagues in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan and Stanley Karnow, horribly tarnished the reputations of some very fine Americans, including Gen. Paul Harkins, who served as head of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and Frederick Nolting, who was U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. The relatives of the victims were deeply scarred by these false portrayals, as I learned from them after I exposed the falsehoods in my recent history, Triumph Forsaken.
Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow inadvertently caused enormous damage to the American effort in South Vietnam–making them the most harmful journalists in American history. The leading American journalists in Vietnam during 1963, they favored American involvement in Vietnam, in stark contrast to the press corps of the war’s latter years. But they had a low opinion of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and decided that he would need to be removed if the war was to be won. Brazenly attempting to influence history, Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow gave Diem’s opponents in the U.S. government negative information on Diem in print and in private. Most of the information they passed on was false or misleading, owing in part to their heavy reliance on a Reuters stringer named Pham Xuan An who was actually a secret Communist agent. The journalists convinced Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to accept their reports in place of much more accurate reports from the CIA and the U.S. military, which led Lodge to urge South Vietnamese generals to stage a coup. Press articles suggesting that Diem had lost his principal ally’s confidence made the South Vietnamese generals receptive to coup plots — the Vietnamese elites generally misinterpreted American news reporters as official spokesmen of the U.S. government.
After Diem’s assassination, the South Vietnamese fared very poorly in their war against the Communists, which was why the U.S. eventually had to send half a million troops to South Vietnam. Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow quickly realized that as advocates of Diem’s ouster they could be held responsible for wrecking the South Vietnamese government, and so they devised a masterful strategy for neutralizing the accusation. Based on a few faulty pieces of evidence, they contended that the South Vietnamese war effort had crumbled before Diem’s overthrow, not after it. No one of influence succeeded in pointing out that these men’s own articles in 1963 contradicted this claim. The journalists thus succeeded in persuading the American people that Diem, rather than his successors, had ruined the country, and therefore that the press had been right in denouncing him. Newly available American and Vietnamese Communist sources, it turns out, show that the South Vietnamese were fighting very well until the last day of Diem’s life, and that their performance plummeted immediately after the coup because the new rulers purged suspected Diem loyalists and failed to lead.
There was more damage to come, subtler in nature but still very toxic. When the American intelligentsia became disillusioned with Vietnam during the late 1960s, Halberstam and Sheehan abandoned support for the U.S. defense of South Vietnam. Like many journalists today, they avoided reporting on American military heroism in the belief that reports of American valor would increase support for the war in the United States and would put servicemen in a more favorable light than those who did not serve. We have these journalists, as well as historians, to blame for the fact that the pantheon of American military heroes is empty for the period from the end of the Korean War in 1953 onward. Of course, when one type of hero is rejected, another is usually inserted in its place. To the horror of many who served in Vietnam, Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow became heroes, as has been reflected in the obituaries for Halberstam.
If one looks at historical sources besides press reports, one will soon discover that Americans fought as heroically in Vietnam as in other wars. Among the many fine examples I unearthed in the archives is Marvin Shields. Construction Mechanic Third Class Shields was stationed at Dong Xoai, a South Vietnamese district capital, when the Viet Cong launched a multi-regiment attack on June 10, 1965. The Viet Cong quickly overran most of the defensive positions, but Shields and a handful of other Americans and South Vietnamese kept them from taking the government’s district headquarters and a nearby U.S. Special Forces compound. In fighting the far larger enemy forces, Shields repeatedly exposed himself to fire in order to deliver supplies to comrades, help the wounded, and fire back at the enemy. He continued even after he was shot twice, including one shot that tore out much of his mouth. At one point in the battle, he volunteered to run across open ground with a 3.5-inch rocket launcher to fire at a key enemy machine gun. The rocket launcher destroyed the machine-gun position, but on his way back Shields suffered a mortal wound.
Another noteworthy but unreported engagement was an attack on the provincial capital of Song Be, where again a small group of Americans and Vietnamese came under attack by a much larger Viet Cong force. Employing two battalions with eight heavy-weapons companies, the Viet Cong bombarded the defenders with continuous howitzer, mortar, recoilless-rifle, and machine-gun fire but failed to dislodge them. After four hours, the Viet Cong ran low on ammunition and had to scale back their use of the heavy weapons. A South Vietnamese regiment subsequently arrived by helicopter and drove the VC from the town.
The Vietnam-era journalists began a tradition that today’s press all too frequently upholds. We hear little from most large press outlets about American heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan–men like James Coffman Jr., Jason Dunham, Danny Dietz, and Christopher Adlesperger who have demonstrated extraordinary bravery in battle–or about our military successes there. Instead of associating the names of heroes with these wars, Americans associate the words they hear most often from the press, like Abu Ghraib and Haditha.
The media and their defenders try to counter charges of ignoring heroism by claiming that they simply report what will sell the most newspapers or attract the most viewers, and that negative stories sell better than positive ones. Yet the press does not shy away from publicizing other heroes, such as individuals who rescue people from burning buildings or donate their organs to desperately ill patients. Stories on heroism in Iraq attract great public interest because, outside of this country’s elite circles, the American public still treasures military heroism. One need only look at the size of the military-history section at a local bookstore, or the box-office figures for movies showing Americans behaving bravely under fire. Clearly, the media’s present hostility to the Bush administration and the military is such that a potential loss of subscribers or viewers will not deter them from using their power against the government.
One bright sign in this gloom is that some elements of the press are getting better. A number of top journalists who spent their college years and early careers denouncing the military have been converted to a much more favorable view of the military and America’s wars, thanks largely to their embedding with military personnel who cultivated strong relationships with them and demonstrated that military service is more noble than Hollywood or college textbooks had led them to believe. Their bosses, many of whom protested against the Vietnam War, have not been thus influenced and are suspicious of those who are becoming fonder of the military. As the younger generation advance up the editorial ranks, however, this problem should lessen in severity. Perhaps the new generation of journalists will produce national assets–like Ernie Pyle, Richard Tregaskis, and William Shirer — instead of national liabilities, of the Halberstam stripe.
– Mark Moyar is the author of Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965.