Halberstam's 'prophecies' are stuck in present

June 09, 1991|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Mr. Kusnet was a speech writer for former Democratic presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.


David Halberstam.


126 pages. $16.95. Perhaps more than any other living journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam has covered the stories that shaped our times. Sometimes he's paid the price for being right too soon.

As a young reporter covering the Vietnam War, Mr. Halberstam made enemies in high places when he refused to accept the official story that everything was going just fine. Later, he was kicked out of Poland for writing stories about the abject failure of the communist system.

For the past two decades, Mr. Halberstam has regularly produced detailed and definitive accounts of some of the most important events of our era, from how the United States got bogged down in Vietnam ("The Best and the Brightest"), to the growth of the mass media ("The Powers that Be"), to how Japan overtook America in the auto industry ("The Reckoning").

Mr. Halberstam's well-earned reputation explains how he could publish a book like "The Next Century," how it could climb up the best-seller list -- and why it may disappoint many of his most devoted readers.

While Mr. Halberstam has been criticized for being too wordy, "The Next Century" (whose length is listed as 126 pages but which actually begins on page 11) is a cross between a mini-book and a long magazine article -- indeed, it originally was commissioned by Whittle Communications as one of its series of short studies of contemporary issues.

In the limited space available in this format, Mr. Halberstam revisits the places and problems he's covered before, from the ++ collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, to America's loss of unchallenged leadership in the world economy, to the meaning of national security now that the Cold War is over.

His conclusions are familiar to his readers and, indeed, to readers of the nation's op-ed pages. Japan was the real winner of the Cold War because it took the lead in basic industries and high tech while the United States was pouring its resources into the military; America's economic future depends upon dramatic improvements in our educational system; and, because other societies are harder working, better educated and less spendthrift, the "American century" is "over," little more than four decades after it began.

All this is less a visionary view of the next century than a restatement of the conventional wisdom of last summer, when this book apparently was completed. To Mr. Halberstam's credit, it's a conventional wisdom he helped create, since he was saying these things years ago, when it was original, brave and necessary to preach and popularize these views. Now, in the aftermath of the victory in the Persian Gulf, it seems more passe than prophetic to declare that America is inexorably in decline, military power matters less than we think, and world leadership is passing to the Pacific. But while it's unlikely that Americans will soon be as pessimistic as we recently were, it is probable that our attention will turn anew to domestic challenges, from education to the economy.

That makes me wish that these 126 pages were not a finished product but rather a prospectus for a David Halberstam blockbuster about America's role in the next century. Instead of pieties about the need to understand the importance of education, Mr. Halberstam could take a look at schools and explain what works and what doesn't. Instead of bemoaning PTC Americans' failures to make long-term investments and work together cooperatively, let him report on what went wrong during the fast-buck '80s and also what business and labor are trying to do right, such as the experimental Saturn car planned jointly by General Motors and the United Auto Workers.

Nobody could write a better book about the next century than Mr. Halberstam, and it's disappointing to learn that now he's turning his attention to a history of the 1950s.

"The Next Century" is especially disappointing because it offers flashes of Mr. Halberstam's brilliance, particularly when he turns from his major themes to such topics as new technologies of communication and information. Describing how Poland's Solidarity strikers were emboldened when international news agencies offered quick coverage of their protests, Mr. Halberstam observes communism was doomed when satellite news feeds gave its victims the confidence that "the whole world was watching."

Similarly, the Soviet system was threatened when computers and photocopiers made it more difficult than ever to maintain internal secrecy. And, turning to the U.S. media, Mr. Halberstam seemingly contradicts his view that news coverage is more shallow than ever when he makes the less commonplace observation that today's television newscasts are longer and timelier than three decades ago, thanks again to satellites.

Sadly, in this short book, Mr. Halberstam's genius is most evident in his digressions.

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