David Halberstam's outsider look at the decade

June 05, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

New York -- When David Halberstam began working on his big book on America in the 1950s, one thing he did not have to do was reorient his thinking about the decade. No one had to tell him it wasn't a time of "Happy Days" and a grandfatherly president who played golf while the rest of America had cookouts in the backyards of their new suburban homes.

Then, as now, David Halberstam was on the outside, looking in. A son of Jewish immigrants, he felt an outsider while at Waspy Harvard in the mid-'50s. After graduation, he went to work for a small newspaper in Mississippi, the West Point Daily Times Leader. There he observed firsthand the state's racial caste system and oppressive social environment.

"Of all the places I reported from, the place where I felt the most fear was Mississippi in the '50s," he says today.

A few years later, he was reporting for the New York Times from Africa and then, in 1962, in Vietnam, where he did landmark journalistic work. His stint ultimately propelled him into even more important magazine- and book-writing, especially 1972's "The Best and the Brightest," which examined how the United States had become involved in Vietnam, and 1979's "The Powers That Be," a tough look at the U.S. media elite. So when, in the mid-'80s, he began working on his next big book, a social and political history of what many characterized as the Quiet Decade, he knew it simply was not so.

"I don't think I had that much illusion left of the decade," Mr. Halberstam, 59, says in the study of his spacious West Side apartment. "I had a very clear memory of Mississippi, for example. I was very aware of the racial excesses. And take my own life -- I knew from very early on that I was different from other people, and some people just didn't fit in what was considered the mainstream. So there wasn't much reassessing for me."

He began thinking about doing a book on the decade, he says, after finishing "The Reckoning," a typically Halberstamian massive work on the decline of American industry and the postwar rise of the Japanese. He wondered: How did America go from postwar prosperity to its current tenuous state? And in working on "The Reckoning," he decided also that a book on the '50s was in order, so that he could track the changes in the United States after World War II and how they affected life today.

The decade's themes

"The Fifties," clocking in at 800 pages, doesn't follow the decade chronologically but instead examines America's political, social and cultural life by theme: the Cold War, television, the rise of consumerism, McCarthyism. Some of the chapters follow obvious topics: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, the civil rights movement. Others reflect Mr. Halberstam's penchant for seizing what has been in the background and thrusting it forward: The chapter on the history of the Holiday Inn franchises, for example, ably illustrates his portrait of a restless country on the move after the war.

And if the book seems curiously dispassionate, given Mr. Halberstam's reputation as a writer of great conviction, it's understandable. First, he relies primarily on the research of others. "Usually, my books contain 70 percent of my own interviews and research, and 30 percent on the work of others. I could not have done 'The Best and the Brightest' or 'The Powers That Be' as I did this book because the resources simply weren't there," he says, his baritone coming out clearly and, when needed, forcefully. "Nobody was doing books about our involvement in Vietnam, so I did my own work.

"But with this book, many of the resources were there. There was no need to go out into the field as much, so the ratio probably is 70-30 the other way. With some chapters, it was important to do my own research, such as the one on the Little Rock desegregation crisis in 1957. I thought it was very important to talk to [television reporter] John Chancellor about his role there, because TV brought the crisis in Arkansas to the living rooms of the whole nation."

And, he says, "I had already come to terms with a lot of the issues and people I wrote about. On the chapter in Vietnam, I had written extensively about the topic."

Passions surface

Still, Mr. Halberstam's disdain for certain people in the book -- especially Richard Nixon and Sen. Joe McCarthy -- is evident. That's to be expected, given the forcefulness and passion that David Halberstam has brought to his journalism and other books.

By now, the take on Mr. Halberstam approaches mythical status: tough, opinionated, distrustful of authority. It was evident in his reporting in Vietnam, where his dispatches questioning U.S. success in the war were aggressively contested by American generals there. President John F. Kennedy quietly asked the Times in 1963 if Halberstam could be transferred out. Mr. Halberstam wasn't objective, some critics said. He was hurting the U.S. cause by his negative reporting, others said.

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