Refreshing Our Historical Memory: Is Iraq “Another Vietnam?” An Interview with David Halberstam

David HalberstamDAVID HALBERSTAM, journalist, historian, and biographer, is one of this country’s most distinguished social and political commentators. He is the author of 16 books, 14 of them bestsellers. His reporting on the early years of the Vietnam War won him the enmity of the Johnson administration and the Pulitzer Prize (1964) at the age of 30. His epic work on that war, The Best and the Brightest, first published in 1972, is now in its 20th edition (from the Modern Library, with an introduction by Senator John McCain – of which Halberstam is particularly proud, having been criticized for a lack of patriotism earlier in his career). Halberstam has also written on the role of the media in the shaping of American politics (The Powers That Be); the American economy’s relationship with the automobile industry (The Reckoning); and the Civil Rights Movement (Freedom Riders), as well as sports and other non-political topics. His 2002 study of United States foreign policy from the end of the Cold War to the beginning of the War on Terror, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer. In 2003 he edited Defining A Nation: America and the Sources of its Strength, a collection of essays by leading historians and writers seeking to understand the American experience in all of its complexity.

Halberstam will be the keynote speaker at the Foundation’s 30th Anniversary symposium and benefit dinner, “U.S. Presidents in Perspective: The Shifting Fortunes of Presidential Reputations,” on November 20, 2004 at Boston College. He was interviewed for Mass Humanities by MFH Executive Director David Tebaldi at his home on Nantucket Island.

book coverDavid Tebaldi: Let’s talk about some of the lessons of Vietnam and whether they apply to the war in Iraq. In reading your 1973 masterwork about the early years of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, I was struck by the persistence of a number of themes that you explore in the analysis and commentary surrounding the present conflict.

David Halberstam: I think Vietnam and Iraq are different and yet there are a lot of parallels. There’s enough there to make you very uncomfortable if the way you see these things is shaped by our experience in Vietnam, as it is for me and so many of the senior military people . . . .

I remember during Vietnam there was a generation of correspondents, some of the older ones, who were very tough on us younger correspondents because they had been in Korea or World War II and those wars had worked and there was a legitimacy to what we did then. And some of them were very quick to put down the younger reporters who were saying, “This doesn’t work.” I had vowed never to be one of those who says, “Guys, you just don’t know . . . I was in Vietnam and I know things you don’t know.” You know, pulling seniority and perhaps living in the past. So I was somewhat reluctant to talk too much about Iraq. But gradually, as we got nearer to it, I began to speak out.

There were four or five points I was trying to make before the invasion. One was that we were going to punch our fist into the largest hornet’s nest in the world and end up doing the recruiting for Al Qaeda. I said that I thought that we would do the race to Baghdad very well—that the sheer military part would go well because our military is just very good, marvelous people, and our technology is awesome. But then the battle would change; we would be involved in urban guerilla warfare, and things would turn against us.

I said that I thought the movie that they were all watching in the White House and the Pentagon was Patton, and the movie they should have been watching was The Battle of Algiers [the 1966 quasi-documentary film about the Algerian struggle for independence from France in the late 1950s].

There is a moment in a war—as there was in Vietnam and as there will be in this war—where your military superiority is undermined or neutralized by your political limitations. And I thought the biggest miscalculation of all was a great underestimation of the colonial factor, just as there had been in Vietnam. In Vietnam the U.S. absolutely had refused to factor in the effect of the French Indochina War. And I felt the specter of colonialism would be a problem again in a more complicated way with Islam.

The greatest miscalculation was not about the weapons of mass destruction, but the idea that we would be greeted as liberators.When the Bush people kept talking about that, alluding to what happened in France and Germany after World War II, well, anybody who had been in Vietnam would have been wary of it. There was just no way we were going to be greeted as liberators in this part of the world. The Iraqis might want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but they would not want us to do it for them. I was saying these things before they happened and not just ex post facto.

DT: I heard they were watching The Battle of Algiers in the White House. What do you think we can learn from it?

DH: Well, they finally did. About a month later they sent out a memo saying people should watch it. But whether it will have the same impact on someone who has never worked in the postcolonial world, never went to Vietnam, and has a fervent belief, post-Cold War, in American triumphalism, is another question.

It’s scary. And you can just see it happening again. Islam is aflame at this moment, and modern technology, especially television within the Arab world, is fanning the flame. The wise policy for the United States in the Middle East is to try very hard not to be a lighting rod for all the unhappiness that pervades the region. The Islamic Middle East is a place seething under modern conditions because it has lost its grandeur in the world. And we should not be a lightning rod for that resentment.

And another thing of historical importance in this war is that for the first time in history, Western troops fighting on Arab territory would be covered live and in color by Arab networks. That was bound to have a profound impact.

DT: Reading your discussion of the war in Bosnia in War in a Time of Peace, I was struck by how the Serbs’ memory of events that occurred in Kosovo four centuries ago was still fresh in their minds. They seem to have a different, a deeper historical consciousness than we do. I wonder if the same isn’t true of people in the Middle East.

DH: I’m not an expert on the Middle East. I’m aware of the limits of my legitimacy as a critic, but because of Vietnam, I have a sort of “sixth sense” of what we’re working against. They have a different sense of time. When Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times visited Hanoi in 1966, Pham Van Dong, the North Vietnamese Prime Minister asked him, “How long do you Americans want to stay? One year, two years, three years, five years, ten years, twenty years, fifty years? We will be glad to accommodate you.”

One of the important things to understand about the Vietnam War is that the other side, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, always controlled the rate of the war. If they needed to regroup, they could slow it down and go to kind of a one-cell, very small war. If they wanted to make an impact on American television in an election year, they could come with enormous forces as they did with the Tet offensive. I think the same is true in the kind of urban guerilla war we find ourselves fighting in Iraq.

DT: Another interesting parallel is the so-called domino theory. The argument in Vietnam was if we let Vietnam fall to the communists, then all of Southeast Asia would become communist. Early on in the Iraq war, defenders of U.S. policy were telling us that if we get a functioning democracy going in Iraq, then democracy will spread to the other nations in the region.

DH: I would be very dubious of such claims. If there were dominos in Vietnam, they were all different sizes and shapes and colors. For example, Thailand was very different from Vietnam because it had had no colonial experience.

patchOur almost unique historical ignorance of Vietnam had heartbreaking consequences. Every soldier in the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam wore a patch. It was red and gold, and it showed a sword—our sword—piercing the Great Wall of China. We were going to save Vietnam from the Chinese communists. But we never took into account that Vietnamese nationalism is historically, profoundly anti-Chinese. Ho Chi Minh once said, “Better to eat the French dung for 100 years than the Chinese dung for 1,000.” This patch, which so many young men wore so bravely in a country they should never have been in, is tangible evidence of how profoundly the architects of the war misunderstood Southeast Asia.

Someone who knows the Middle East better than I could give you a good briefing on why each of these countries is different,why they don’t like each other, why their histories and politics are different, and why we are more likely to trigger region-wide animosity than gain region-wide benefits by doing what we’re doing.

DT: Another persistent theme is the intelligence “failures” that characterize both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War.

DH: Inevitably, intelligence gets tailored to the desires of the people who want to pull the levers. One of the many cruel lies that Robert McNamara [Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson] tells in his book is that he and the other senior architects of the Vietnam War could never get the information they wanted. That’s a blood libel for all those thousands of young men and women who served in the military, the State Department, the intelligence agencies—implying that they were too incompetent or dishonest to report accurately. And it comes from one of the principal villains on that particular score—the man who was the primary slayer of the honest messenger.

We corrupted intelligence in Vietnam, and we have clearly corrupted larger intelligence in Iraq. I would not be so hard on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. I would be harder on the claim that they had proof, when they clearly didn’t.

But the most egregious failure of intelligence was the belief that we would be greeted as liberators, with flowers thrown in our path. This is the greatest failure of the intelligence people, and it is shocking if people do not push on this harder than they are.

DT: So what do you think the United States should do now?

DH: That’s a really hard question. In Vietnam all we had to do was go home as the French had done. The Vietnamese didn’t want to follow us, they just wanted their own country back. This is much more explosive. These guys want to follow us home. This war is going to be a rallying point for all kinds of forces against us.

DT: I wonder what would happen if we did just go home. What would become of Iraq? Would the situation really be any worse than it is now? So much of the insurgency seems to be fueled by our presence there.

DH: I think that it would be chaotic. The mullahs would come to power. Iraq would become theocratic. Because of the power of the Iranians on the border, in the long run the pro-Iranian factions would probably rise. None of this is particularly favorable to us.

DT: One of the themes in both The Best and the Brightest and War in a Time of Peace is the extent to which foreign policy is driven by domestic politics.

DH: I think that the great weakness in most American reporting is the failure to make that case. This idea that politics stops at the water’s edge is a great illusion. When Johnson dealt with Vietnam what he was dealing with was a fear of what had happened to Democrats in Congress when China fell to the Communists. He would say things like, “The Democrats lost China; when they lost China, they lost the Congress. I’m not going to be the President of the United States who loses Vietnam, and loses the Congress and loses my Great Society.”

The politics that drove the Vietnam War were rooted in the collapse of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. Everybody knew that Chiang had gotten all the help in the world. He didn’t fall because he wasn’t given enough; he fell because he wasn’t up to the job. But it became a very convenient weapon for the Republicans, who had been out of power for a long time – they had lost five presidential elections in a row – to use against the Democrats. A lot of stuff flowed from that, including, finally, Vietnam. Johnson really was afraid of being accused of being soft on communism. And that was a powerful motivator.

And you can see that in the recent Iraq debate. I think a lot of senators who may have had doubts were fearful of being accused of being weak at a time, post 9/11, when Americans were very anxious.

DT: I know you are currently working on a book about the Korean War.Was Korea a positive experience, possibly a misleading lesson for Vietnam?

David Halberstam (second from left) in the Central Highlands of Vietnam (Dak Pek) during the fall of 1962. DH: Well, it was a more positive lesson than Vietnam. It was a traditional border crossing. It was not a guerilla war, and we were able to use our power and technology much differently than we did in Vietnam. Had MacArthur not made the great miscalculation, telling Truman the Chinese would not come in and if they do come in it will be the greatest slaughter in history, the outcome would have been much different. MacArthur was wrong. The Chinese did come in, and they inflicted some terrible defeats on us. If we had done Korea without that vainglory, and used our superior air power and artillery and technology, we would have gotten more than a tie.

As it was, it was a reasonably good outcome. They crossed the border, they thought they could drive us off the Korean Peninsula.We were ill prepared at first; we had a rather weak army at the time, but we came up to speed very quickly and did rather well. There were no border crossings after that. In fact, I think the next border crossing was Saddam Hussein in Kuwait.

DT: How did you get interested in the Korean War as a subject?

DH: I think Vietnam did it. If you were in Vietnam and you got a sense of the misjudgment, Korea interested you. And especially the moment when the Chinese came in there—the tragic miscalculation of MacArthur, his vainglory. I think that’s what has always been in the back of my mind—the sense that your country can make such bad judgments with such profound consequences, that people whom you admire and believe in, or are supposed to admire and believe in, can make major miscalculations.

DT: In closing, can you talk a little bit about the topic you will be addressing at our 30th Anniversary event on November 20th—the shifting fortunes of presidential reputations over time?

DH: What’s interesting is how much they change. As they leave the White House, presidents are often viewed in the short range, and their personal qualities—their warmth, charisma, affinity with the American people—tend to dominate. Later their reputations will go down or up.

Roosevelt left with a kind of Herculean, Rushmorean reputation, and I think it has stayed up there.He brought the country through both the Depression and World War II.Truman obviously left at a low point in his reputation but has gained in stature almost constantly since.

Reagan’s reputation is going to be very interesting to watch. He was enormously likeable, obviously. A lot of people felt that the country was stronger because he was president. That’s not necessarily true. But I think there were a lot of people who had a jarred sensibility because of Vietnam and confused failure there with weakness as a nation. I never really got Reagan. Part of the reason was I never thought we were weak because of Vietnam or weak because of the Iranian hostage thing. I thought Vietnam was an aberration, a miscalculation of applying force where it wasn’t applicable. I always thought the communists in Moscow were weaker, that their system didn’t work and ours did, and that therefore we were stronger. I didn’t have that sense of the vulnerability of America. But Reagan made a lot of people feel more confident, better about their country, and that’s important.What’s going to be interesting is what historians have to say about him 30 years from now when there’s almost nobody around who was affected by the sunniness of his smile.

I expect historians will have a very hard time with Reagan because his charm and the mood he created in the country will seem less important. Against that they’ll mark the fact that he systematically undermined the government of the United States in the eyes of ordinary people.That’s a very troubling thing. There are things there that he’s going to be judged on once the impressions of his charm are gone.

Will they look at Jimmy Carter 30 years from now and think that, in spite of the hostage crisis, what he did on the Panama Canal, the Camp David accords, and the attempt to change the nation’s energy policies, make him a better president than he is generally thought to have been?

The great 64 billion dollar question will be the complexity of Richard Nixon. We’ll have revisionism, and revision of revisionism, and revision of revision of revisionism. He certainly had talents, but there was also that unhappy psychic quality of his that was so damaging and so alienating. If he were judged just on his policies, he would be a pretty admirable president. But the anger just under the surface in him,which, in time, jarred the nerves of so many Americans, is going to be a very hard thing to figure in.

With Lyndon Johnson, they’ll go back and forth. In the wake of the Vietnam War, when he left office, Johnson’s reputation was unacceptably low for someone who was such a large figure. When they take his measure in 50 years, it will be much more mixed because of the civil rights act and the war on poverty. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be perceived, I think, as a major American achievement. And an achievement for Johnson, who knew that even as he was doing it, he was doing irrevocable damage to his own party. The night he signed the legislation, he turned to Bill Moyers [a speechwriter in the Johnson White House at the time] and said, “I’ve just turned the South over to the Republicans for your lifetime and mine.” But he knew he had no choice.It’s hard to measure Kennedy because his presidency was so brief, a thousand days. But, his modernity, the attempt to see the world the way it was, the fatalism, the shrewdness, the good historical sense. All these things matter. You’d be glad to see him in there today maybe—a good, skilled, pragmatic, professional politician.

I’ll tell you one thing about Clinton.He could take any issue and make it accessible to ordinary people. He’s the quickest guy we’ve ever had in reading any political situation. And about the time he might have gotten the full benefit of his second term, he did his stupid Lewinsky thing. He shot his own toes off. So there’s always going to be that sense of what might have been with Clinton.

But Nixon is going to be the great debate. I can just see it: It’ll be the year 2030 and some bright young historian fresh out of Harvard or Yale or Princeton, who was not even born when Richard Nixon was president, is going to do a brilliant book on how much more benign Nixon was than any of us ever understood.The debate between the programmatic Nixon and the real Nixon is going to be a hell of a debate. It’ll be a great thing for historians.

That’s why I think you’ve chosen such an interesting topic for the symposium on the November 20th. I’m really eager to hear what such a remarkable group of presidential biographers, historians, and commentators has to say. And a number of these folks are old friends of mine.


©2004 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2004