Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Halberstam, whose work for the New York Times on the Vietnam War led many to question the U.S. military presence there, died Monday in a car crash in Northern California.
Halberstam, 73, was a passenger in a vehicle involved in a three-vehicle accident at 10:35 a.m. PDT, according to the Menlo Park Police Department. "He was pronounced dead at the scene," said Kristine Gamble, senior deputy coroner for San Mateo County, south of San Francisco.
He was born April 10, 1934, in New York City to a surgeon father and teacher mother. His father was in the military and the family moved around the country during his childhood, spending time in Texas, Minnesota and Connecticut.
Halberstam attended Harvard University, where he was managing editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper.
After graduating in 1955, he launched his career at the Daily Times Leader, a small newspaper in West Point, Miss. He went on to the Tennessean, in Nashville, where he covered the civil rights struggle, and then the New York Times, which sent him to Vietnam in 1962 to cover the growing conflict there.
Wins the Pulitzer at 30
As a young man in the Southeast Asian country in the early 1960s, he was one of a small group of intrepid reporters who questioned the official Washington line that the United States was winning the war. The New York Times had to resist pressure from the Kennedy administration to take him out of the country, and he won the Pulitzer Prize at age 30.
His 1965 book "The Making of a Quagmire" described how the United States got involved in the war in 1961 and 1962 and helped link the word quagmire with the Vietnam War. In 1972 he wrote "The Best and The Brightest," which made the case the best minds in the U.S. government had engaged the country in an intractable and unwinnable war.
‘Beginning of the credibility gap’
"Now that I look back on it, it was the beginning of the credibility gap," journalist Neil Sheehan, a close friend who worked closely with Halberstam in Vietnam, said in an interview. "It was the first time when the senior people were absolutely off the beam and the facts on the ground contradicted them."
Recently, he drew parallels between the current U.S. war in Iraq and the past failure in Vietnam.
Speaking to a journalism conference last year in Tennessee, he said government criticism of news reporters in Iraq reminded him of the way he was treated while covering the war in Vietnam.
"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on anybody who doesn't salute or play the game," he said. "And then one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around and they've used up their credibility."
Halberstam wrote many non-fiction books that brought to life recent historical events, from the inner workings of Washington (including "The Powers That Be") to the civil rights movement ("The Children").
In recent years he turned often to sports, publishing books about basketball superstar Michael Jordan in 1999 and past baseball seasons, including "Summer of '49."
One of those he featured in his baseball writings was Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who praised both Halberstam's writing and manner in approaching his subjects.
"He was a very likable, compassionate type of person," Doerr, 89, told Reuters by telephone after hearing of the death. "He was not the type of person to make you think 'I'm David Halberstam.' He was just kind of like part of the family."
Halberstam, who lived in New York, spoke Saturday night to journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley on the topic "Reconstructing the past: when history and journalism meet."
The car's driver, Kevin Jones, 26, a first-year journalism student, was also injured with Halberstam in the accident.
"We were talking about sports and Vietnam and having kids," Jones said in an interview from his hospital bed. "He seemed generally interested in what I had to say, just some random student chaperoning him around."
His wife, Jean Halberstam, said she would remember him most for his "unending, bottomless generosity to young journalists."
"For someone who obviously was so competitive with himself, the generosity with other writers was incredible," she said by telephone from their New York home.
As word of Halberstam's death spread through the news industry, tributes and remembrances poured in.
‘More honest with the ... public than their ... government’
"The thing about David Halberstam was that he stayed the course and he kept the faith in the belief in the people's right to know," said George Esper, who spent 10 years as Saigon bureau chief for The Associated Press. "In the end, and I think we can all be very proud of this, he was proven right. The bottom line was that David was more honest with the American public than their own government."
Author Gay Talese, who was at the Halberstams' home Monday night, said he had known Halberstam since the early 1960s, was best man at his wedding and shared Thanksgiving dinner in Paris last year.
"He was a dear friend," Talese said.
Jean Halberstam said her husband was being driven to an interview he had scheduled with Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle. Halberstam was working on a new book, "The Game," about the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, often called the greatest game ever played, she said.