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Myths of the Fifties
On The Fifties by David Halberstam.
was right!Support The
Oh! and is all forgot? … Were we fools then, or are we dishonest now?
Almost twenty years ago, on one of my periodic assignments in Europe for The New York Times, I had a conversation over lunch one day with one of the paper’s older foreign correspondents that made a great impression on me. The war in Vietnam had recently ended—for the Americans, that is—and at lunch that day we fell to speculating about what long-term effects that conflict would have on the United States and its role in the world. The Cold War was still raging, of course. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been expelled from the Soviet Union, yet his reception in the West was anything but cordial. Washington had entered upon a period of détente in its relations with the Kremlin, and harsh criticism of the Soviet regime—especially on moral grounds—was frowned upon in high places. Reviewing the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in The New Yorker, George Steiner had lately written that “to infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism is not only a brutal oversimplification but a moral indecency.” In other words, there were still a great many willed illusions operating about Communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular. No one then in the White House would have dreamed of calling the Soviet Union and its satellites an “evil empire.” About China, too, there was a disposition to suspend criticism, if only because the Communist government was quick to expel Western correspondents who wrote otherwise, and it was important to the highly competitive Western news-gathering organizations to maintain their bureaus in Beijing.
What I was expecting that day over lunch were some sage observations about the way the policy of détente, following upon the debacle in Vietnam, was affecting the situation in Europe. But as the wine flowed and our conversation became more animated and confidential, the subject that was uppermost on the mind of my luncheon companion, who had spent many years in both Eastern and Western Europe, turned out to be something else. Rather to my surprise, I was suddenly treated to a long and acute analysis of what was happening to the Times’s foreign news coverage as a result of the Vietnam War. This was a subject that had clearly become a cause of considerable worry and professional chagrin for this writer, whose journalistic experience went back to the Second World War and who harbored few illusions about the kind of suffering and social wreckage that Communism had brought to the millions whose lives it had come to dominate.
The vehement, free-wheeling tirade to which I was treated that day touched on many particular people, editors as well as reporters, and many specific episodes, but its essential points were the following: The Vietnam War was proving to be a disaster for the Times’s foreign coverage. The paper had to send in all those reporters in relays to cover the war. Many of them were young men who had little or no experience of the world. They knew nothing about politics and even less about war. There were exceptions, of course, but very few. Some had never before had a serious foreign assignment or seen any military combat. At one point the Times had even sent in a fashion reporter from its Paris bureau. Communism was an abstraction to them. They thought the real enemy in Vietnam was the USA. They weren’t Communists themselves, but they proved to be complete suckers for the anti-anti-Communist line that was now ascendant in the Western press. History for a lot of these guys began with the election of John F. Kennedy, and most of them thought Bobby Kennedy was a saint. In Vietnam, they had three ambitions: to get out alive, to win a Pulitzer, and to see America defeated. Their whole view of the world was shaped by Vietnam. They saw the world divided into good guys and bad guys, and we were the bad guys. Then, when they had finished their stint in Vietnam, they had to be rewarded with assignments to more glamorous foreign capitals, where they were likely to understand even less than they had in Saigon, and where they seldom knew the language, the history, or the culture of the countries they were writing about. This was the kind of comic-strip coverage of foreign affairs the Times was now getting. All in all, it was probably a good thing that newspaper readers were now less interested in foreign affairs than they used to be. It was keeping the circulation of misinformation at a lower level than it would otherwise be.
I can’t say that this conversation changed my view of the world, but it certainly changed the way I read the foreign news columns of the Times, and not only the Times. It wasn’t until a little later, as I watched some of these Vietnam-era correspondents ascend to positions of power on the paper, that I realized they were bringing the same good guy-bad guy scenario, with America as the bad guy, to their coverage of the domestic scene as well.
I thought of this conversation, which I had had in Europe in the 1970s, many times as I was reading my way through David Halberstam’s mammoth new book, The Fifties. Mr. Halberstam was, of course, one of the Times reporters who achieved fame as a correspondent in Vietnam. (It was for his reporting of the war in 1962-64 that he won his Pulitzer.) Indeed, he was unusual in this regard in achieving not one but two reputations as a writer on the Vietnam War. The first was as a champion of the Kennedy intervention in Vietnam, the brutal and disastrous removal of the Diem regime in Saigon, and the view that the United States had an important stake in opposing Communism in Vietnam. This was still his view in The Making of a Quagmire (1965), his first book on the subject.
I believe that Vietnam is a legitimate part of that [American] global commitment [he wrote]. A strategic country in a key area, it is perhaps one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to U.S. interests.
And then on the question of American withdrawal from Vietnam:
This was exactly the view of the Vietnam War in the White House in the Kennedy era—the view of “the best and the brightest” that Mr. Halberstam was soon to castigate.
It was his second reputation as a writer on Vietnam, this time as an implacable foe of the American intervention, that launched Mr. Halberstam as a best-selling author. In the voluminous pages of The Best and the Brightest (1972), he was reborn as a ferocious critic of the war and those responsible for conducting it. President Kennedy was now no longer the good guy he had once been, and his associates, who had gone on to serve under President Johnson, were even worse. Only Bobby Kennedy, “who had been primarily responsible for the counterinsurgency enthusiasm,” as Mr. Halberstam acknowledged, was absolved from the consequences of his role because of what was said to be his “capacity to grow and change and admit error.” Between The Making of a Quagmire and The Best and the Brightest, Mr. Halberstam had taken time out to join the ranks of the Bobby Kennedy hagiographers by writing The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy; he also wrote Ho, an admiring little book about Ho Chi Minh. These smoothed the way for Mr. Halberstam’s own re-emergence as a politically correct anti-war liberal know-it-all in The Best and the Brightest. It is in the nature of journalism, of course, for its practitioners to be allowed to reinvent themselves as events require, and Mr. Halberstam proved to be a dab hand at negotiating the terrain separating one realm of received opinion from another. It is the one talent that has never failed him.
It is very much in evidence in The Fifties, which in many respects reads like an overloaded 1960s political cartoon-strip about the history of the 1950s. In its treatment of the Korean War, for example, there is no more talk about the importance of discouraging “overt Communist border crossings” and opposing “so-called wars of liberation.” There is certainly no talk of the “five or six nations in the world that [are] truly vital to U.S. interests.” In this account, the Korean War is very much made to resemble the Vietnam War as depicted in The Best and the Brightest. It is so thoroughly Sixties-ized into a post-Stalin-era conflict that it is barely recognizable as a pivotal event in the early history of the Cold War as it was actually conducted by Stalin.
But then, Communism itself, which was the key issue in Korea and which was still ruthlessly expanding its sphere of power and influence in the world, tends to be kept safely offstage in this account of the 1950s. Not the real presence of Communist power in the world of the 1950s, but only what Mr. Halberstam regards as misguided American responses to Communism are what he focuses on at very great length in The Fifties. Which is a little like writing a history of the 1930s without taking account of the Depression; what you are left with is a chronicle of effects separated from their causes. We are given an accurate glimpse of Mr. Halberstam’s method, if it can be called that, by consulting the entry under “Communism” in the very detailed index of The Fifties. This is the entire entry: “Communism, see McCarthyism, McCarthy era; specific countries and conflicts.” It also explains a good deal about The Fifties to know that Marlon Brando receives much more attention in its pages than Stalin, whose totalitarian legacy continued to dominate the world scene long after his death in 1953, though not as much attention as is lavished on McDonald’s, the hamburger chain, or Joe McCarthy.
Not that Mr. Halberstam has anything new or cogent to add to the history of what it pleases him to call the “McCarthy era.” Most of what he writes on the subject is a gloss on David Caute’s The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (1978), one of the standard left-wing chronicles of the period. You can be reasonably certain that if Mr. Halberstam quotes a passage from Whittaker Chambers, it is lifted from Caute; and sure enough, when you look it up in The Great Fear, you find exactly the same passage. This is the kind of “research” that has gone into the The Fifties whether the subject is J. Robert Oppenheimer, Elvis Presley (who also gets more attention than either Stalin or Khrushchev), C. Wright Mills, or the creation of Levittown housing. What is served up in chapter after chapter of The Fifties are banquet-sized portions of yesterday’s journalism, reprocessed to conform to the 1960s’ myths about the entire post-World War II period.
What dominates this Left-liberal mythology of the Fifties is the notion of an entire society in the grip of politically inspired paranoid fear, abject social conformism, empty-headed consumerism, and spiritual sterility. From a reading of The Fifties you would have no idea that the United States emerged in that decade as the unrivaled center of the international art scene, that in the ballets of George Balanchine it had produced one of the towering artistic achievements of the twentieth century, or that its system of public education still commanded standards that from the perspective of the 1990s look almost utopian in intellectual quality. You could have no idea, either, of what the ethos and freedom of the country’s civic order consisted of, and certainly no idea of what its rich intellectual life encompassed. Of that intellectual life Mr. Halberstam seems to have remained blissfully ignorant at the time, though he was graduated from Harvard in 1955, and he has apparently been too busy with his journalistic chores to catch up with it in the interim. His is a mind so completely saturated with the cultural clichés of the 1960s, the period of his first success, that no other ideas have ever been allowed to violate its shallow certainties. The sheer spaciousness that came into American life in the 1950s after the ordeals of the Depression era and the fearful trauma of the war years is a closed book to him—as, indeed, are most of the major books of the period.
What Mr. Halberstam attempts to substitute for intellectual command or independent thought in The Fifties is a reduction of every historical development to a biographical gloss of the personalities associated with it. Hence the proliferation of personality profiles that inundate this preposterously long book with a veritable Niagara of irrelevant detail. If you believed that it told you something important about the Vietnam War to know in exactly which upscale emporium McGeorge Bundy (I think it was) picked out his wedding silver—which was the kind of thing that made The Best and the Brightest a far longer book than it needed to be—then you will also probably think that it tells you something important about the 1950s to know what sort of clothes Senator Robert Taft wore when he was a student at Harvard Law School. (They were “very plain and sober.”) Journalists like Mr. Halberstam used to write bad novels filled with stuff like that, but since the Sixties and the advent of the New Journalism they have channeled their literary energies into nonfictional genres that are, in effect, a species of ideological romance. This is what The Fifties finally amounts to, and why it is likely to enjoy an immense success.
There is an honorable place for histories that attempt to summarize the salient features of life in a given decade. Frederick Lewis Allen’s book about the 1920s, Only Yesterday, and Malcolm Muggeridge’s The Thirties deservedly remain classics of the genre. They can be reread with profit even now. Mr. Halberstam’s The Fifties belongs to a quite different class of writings, however. On the jacket of the book, his publishers quote from The Boston Globe a line that describes Mr. Halberstam “as this generation’s equivalent of Theodore White and John Gunther,” and that seems to me exactly right. Try rereading the romantic twaddle that White wrote about the presidency of John F. Kennedy or the mendacious whitewash that Gunther provided for Stalin’s Russia, and you will have a fair idea of the task Mr. Halberstam has set himself—and met—in writing The Fifties.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 June 1993, on page 5
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