Why Halberstam Should Be Required Reading

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
You no doubt know by now that David Halberstam, one of the best American journalists of this or any other era, died yesterdayin a car accident in California. He was 73 and still a vibrant force in the landscape of our culture—when he died he was on his way to interview the former football star Y.A. Tittle for another sports book he was in the process of writing.

I met Halberstam once when I was a student in Boston—he was friends with one of my journalism professors and came to talk to our class—and nearly 20 years later I still remember the way he challenged and inspired us to become good, honest tribunes of the news. He himself was more than that. He was an icon and the story of his life in journalism reads almost like a reporter's fairy-tale—boy goes to cover exotic, controversial war, bucks establishment, takes heat, is protected by courageous bosses, is ultimately proven right, goes on to win Pulitzer and journalism immortality.

Now that he is gone, I hope people will rediscover two of his most vital books, both of which are crucially relevant today. In 1965, he wrote "The Making of A Quagmire," which was subtitled "An Uncompromising Account of Our Precarious Commitment in South Vietnam." The other book, for which he was perhaps most famous, is "The Best and the Brightest," his 1972 account of the Washington establishment's decisions to take us to war in Vietnam. In the first book, Halberstam offered us a bottom-up look at the conflict; in the second he offered us a top-down review. In both cases his work was masterful.

Here is what Halberstam wrote in "Quagmire" (this was in 1965, mind you, a full decade before we finally left Vietnam for good): "The American mission in Vietnam started out with the highest hopes and idealism. It failed for a number of reasons; not for lack of its own good intentions; not for lack of long working hours and patience (too much patience on occasion), but because the legacy of mistakes was too large, because the die had been case long, long ago, because the United States was unable to face reality in Indochina, and because we responded with cliches to desperately complicated and serious challenges."

Sound familiar? It should. In fact, "Quagmire" should be required reading today for every member of Congress and every high-ranking Bush administration official who play any role whatsoever in determining out policy in Iraq. And so, for that matter, should all of our leaders today read "Best and the Brightest" for the story it tells about how even the most able and deft public servants can collectively come to disastrous decisions about history, politics, war and peace. The lessons that Halberstam learned and bravely wrote about—early in Vietnam and then later in Washington—still resonate.