Veteran Reporter David Halberstam Remembers
A Reporter Remembers
Four decades ago David Halberstam took his first trip abroad. In the years that followed, as a foreign correspondent, he witnessed the conflicts that shaped the last century—in the Congo, Vietnam, and South Africa. Here the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist reflects on his transformation from reporter to traveler.
Suddenly the park has turned into a killing field. Three lionesses are carefully spaced across a 150-yard front—a cat on each extended flank, with the largest in the center, at one point no more than three feet from our Land Rover. She pays no attention to us, for she is stalking more important game: a kudu, a large antelope with twisted horns, grazing innocently at the bottom of the shallow valley. The three lions move deftly forward, their colors blending perfectly into the brush.
My wife, Jean, our daughter, Julia, her college friend Katie Smith, and I have stumbled onto this part of the hunt late in the afternoon. We are at Singita, one of the best-known game reserves in South Africa. For most of the past three days we have witnessed animals at play; now we are witnessing them at work. Between the lions and the kudu is a slim tree line that not only blocks the prey's view of the approaching predator, but also offers some protection to the hunted; the tree line can act as a kind of trip wire for the kudu. Our guide, Stuart Levine, whispers that this is a very difficult bit of hunting, that it is not easy to be a lion at moments like this, that the jungle is full of natural alarm systems. Monkeys or birds may see the lions approaching and cry out.Suddenly, as the lions close to within 75 yards of the kudu, the jungle rings out. The kudu bounds away. The lions retreat. I cannot tell if we, the potential witnesses to a killing, are disappointed. Did we root for the hunters or the hunted?
It is my first time in an African game park, and I am like a kid. Some 39 years after the New York Times sent me to the Belgian Congo—and then Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and Paris—and 22 years after I reported from South Africa for the Atlantic Monthly, I am learning how to be a tourist. I have decided to return to Africa after more than two decades, though not to the Congo—that is for young reporters willing to take the risks I took so long ago. Mine is not the easiest transformation imaginable. I am at heart a journalist and a political person and am interested, first and foremost, in how political, social, and economic forces interact, or, more accurately, collide—the greater the collision, the better the story. Aesthetics—great museums, centuries-old buildings—have always been quite secondary. I am hardly alone in this. Most journalists make poor tourists. We are rewarded for getting the story, not for idle curiosity or love of the past or uncovering historic ruins. The ruins we seek are modern ones, and they are, more often than not, human ruins.
By contrast, to be a good tourist requires a certain calmness, an interest in the past, and an appreciation for the aesthetic. Journalists have little time for that; more often than not, we are expected to file within 36 hours. We are driven by the heat of our ambitions, the love of a byline, and a shrewd sense of how to get into the paper or on the air. What we want is action. When the events in our assigned country slip below the requisite level of conflagration, we are apt to ask for a transfer, as I did in early 1962, when I requested that the Times transfer me from Léopoldville to Saigon. I had a clear sense—a dark clairvoyance—that Vietnam would be a bigger, more meaningful story than the Congo.
As travelers rather than tourists, we journalists have our special strengths. Many of my colleagues were exceptionally bright, knowing, and instinctive; they made marvelous instantaneous political and social reads. As a tribe we pride ourselves on being as good in Africa as in Asia, in Moscow as in Berlin. We are outsiders; our friendships, with few exceptions, are with one another
That was certainly true of me. I was driven by an immense ambition, an instinct for finding the cutting edge. To the degree that I cared about history it was modern history; I was young and eager to hurl myself into the worst of a country's danger zones. The century that mattered to me was the one I lived in. Not surprisingly, the assignment where I did my worst work was a brief tour of France in 1966. Paris left me frustrated; by the standards of the Times in those days, there was no story. There was daily life, which was interesting and complex, an old culture engaged warily with the forces of modernity, abundant beauty, and an indomitable past, but there was no action. It was not only Paris. As a correspondent in Asia, I did not visit Angkor Wat, or any of the magnificent sites of Burma, or the ruins at Jogjakarta in Indonesia. In my defense, I had no time to do so, even if I had been interested in seeing ruins more than a thousand years old. Vietnam had exploded into a front-page story almost the day I arrived. For me, history was the rusted remains of a French armored unit that had been ambushed by the Vietminh some 10 years earlier.
Now, late in the game, I hurry to make up for lost time. I have visited Angkor Wat, not once but twice, getting up to watch the dawn break on the ruins—a sure sign of the beginning of my conversion—and Jogjakarta and the incredible Buddhist temples at Pagan in Myanmar (Burma). And, perhaps more important, in the past 10 years I have come to have a private love affair with Paris.
I ponder now why I was so poor a tourist early in life. Some of it is, I think, the nature of the beast. A certain kind of person—quick and restless—is not only drawn to journalism but tends to do well in it. In my transition from foreign correspondent to contented traveler, I am aware that the process is not just an intellectual one but also a metabolic one.
My first trip overseas, when I was 27, was to Léopoldville in the Belgian Congo, a trip paid for by the New York Times. If I was very keen then, I was equally innocent. I knew nothing about foreign travel. The first bidet I ever saw was in my room at Léopoldville's Stanley Hotel. I asked my colleague Henry Tanner if I was meant to wash my socks in it.
Tanner was delighted by my innocence. A Swiss-born U.S. citizen, he was infinitely more worldly than I, and he enjoyed breaking me in. One thing I learned very quickly was that if you were going to work this hard (and in a place like the Congo or Vietnam there was no downtime; you got up in the morning and worked all day long), then you ought to enjoy yourself as best you could.
Amazingly enough, in those days, even during the worst of what were called the événements, Léopoldville had some remarkable restaurants, which catered to the Belgians who lived there. During the most dangerous days some of the Belgians returned to Brussels, but the restaurants remained open and we correspondents were the primary customers. Eating well was our one entitlement. We always ate at what are now called "destination restaurants" and not the hotel restaurants, because it was a good idea to stay out of the hotel rut.
For me, so newly arrived from Nashville, which was still dry, it was all quite thrilling. La Devinière, in a beautiful villa outside town, served a wonderful grilled fish called Le Capitaine. There were a number of other very good restaurants in town (or at least I think of them as very good now). Not many planes flew into Léopoldville from Europe, but there were regular Air France flights from Paris into Brazzaville, just across the river, in what was then the less-troubled French Congo. Léopoldville's restaurateurs would cross the river to pick up smoked salmon and fillets and the fresh sole that had left Paris that morning.
If anything, Saigon was even more wonderful. In the heat of covering that story during the early days of the war, there was a sense of joy in the pleasure and collegiality of going out together at night. There was one place that we savored, and to which we would take only our most trusted friends and sources. It was in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, and it was called the Diamond. We would go there in groups of five or six, and we did not need to order; we would simply sit down and wait for huge platters of cracked crabs to miraculously arrive. When the crabs were finally gone, giant platters of tiny roasted pigeon would take their place. Now, 40 years later, I like to think of those evenings at the Diamond, the warmth of friendship in the midst of difficult times; I believe that I was experiencing for the first time, without entirely understanding it, the joy of tourism, of being pulled into the delights of a world completely different from my own.
My rawness—my lack of sophistication—was, I understand now, very American. It made me different from a number of the British journalists with whom I worked, who had a kind of eccentric travel in their bones. They were upper-class, they had been to the best schools, as had their parents and grandparents before them, and unusual travel was part of their birthright. Their ancestors had traversed the Indian subcontinent and Africa and Asia, had served in distant colonial wars. Going off to these same places for serendipitous journalistic travel was a natural thing for them to do. They might have done it even without an assignment from the foreign editor.
When I first arrived in the Congo, one of my role models was a distinguished British reporter named Gavin Young, who worked for the Observer. Not content with the idiosyncrasies of covering the Congo, he would periodically embark on outlandish trips—with the Angolan rebels or the Naga tribesmen of the Indian subcontinent. This penchant for going off the map perhaps accounts for why the British do a certain kind of travel writing far better than Americans: they are more comfortable with strange environments, more likely to seek them out.
With the help of my wife, I am working to retool myself.We both like to travel, and slowly, incrementally, I am becoming a better and more thoughtful tourist. Jean is a brilliant traveler—careful, always well-prepared, very appreciative of the wonders around her, as only someone who grew up on a ranch in eastern North Dakota, surrounded by wheat fields, can be. I am a step behind her, trying to do my share of the reading, trying to adjust my own metabolism to the slower pace of the leisurely tourist, who doesn't have to file 1,000 words on his first day in country.
If anything represents the difference in my two selves, it is the contrast between the trip we recently made to South Africa and the first one 22 years earlier, for the Atlantic Monthly. In 1979, I went to South Africa for three months, accompanied by my wife. It was all work. This latest trip was pure tourism, prompted by the fact that our daughter was studying at the University of Cape Town.
That first trip took place at the height of apartheid. Steve Biko had recently been murdered in his cell by South African security forces, the Soweto riots had taken place just three years before, and the weight of Afrikaner police controls fell heavily over the entire country. If there was a common thread in the harsh politics of the time, it was the love of country on the part of people who could agree on nothing else. But there was a constant awareness that anything good—any pleasure, any privilege—had been produced by the cruelest kind of political and economic repression. For American reporters, police states are always odious, and racist police states are almost uniquely odious.
It was a strange and compelling period in South Africa's history. I met the Reverend Beyers Naude, then under house arrest for his dissident political views. An Afrikaner, his family had deep roots in the ruling faction—one brother was a leader in the Broederbund, the most powerful Afrikaner group. I marveled at his dignity and honesty, his clear vision of the future of his country—and to whom it really belonged. I remember having lunch with Zelakhe Sisulu, a formidable figure among the emerging black leadership. Both his parents were on Robben Island, in the country's principal prison. His father, Walter Sisulu, was a close associate of Nelson Mandela's, and almost as revered. There was no doubt in my mind when young Sisulu arrived at lunch that I was dealing with a prince among the new nationalists, and he treated me accordingly, with the most gracious kind of condescension. "And what kind of company is America?" he asked me that day. "Is it a big company?Do tell me about it, please." There was no possible pleasure on that trip. We did not go to any game parks. My wife has a particular preference for great hotels, and in those days the best hotel in Cape Town was the Mount Nelson, a classic, old-fashioned colonial place, but due to my own puritanism I vetoed it. It was the only serious argument we had on the trip and I won it. Much to her irritation, we stayed at a dinky, ersatz-modern motel. That was the kind of trip it was.
Now I watch the conflicts of the underdeveloped world from the sidelines. It is someone else's turn to cover them. I am more interested in the past. South Africa is different now, though still struggling, caught between a harsh past and an uncertain future. It is a nation that is both First and Third World, battling difficult demographics, but filled with extraordinary people on all sides who desperately want this most difficult human experiment to work. South Africa strikes me as being in some ways our sister country, for it struggles with race as we do, though its problems are more intractable, its history more brutal.
Much has changed, of course. Nelson Mandela was freed from Robben Island to become the most revered leader in the world. Robben Island itself is no longer a prison but a major tourist site, with guides who are all former prisoners. Zelakhe Sisulu for a time headed the South African Broadcasting Corporation and is now an entrepreneur.Our trip reflected the contradictions of my new life, as a tourist yet still a journalist, wanting to learn politically, but also wanting to savor my surroundings. We did the game parks, first Singita, which was wonderful; it was a thrill to sidle up to all those animals I had dreamed of as a child, to see the lions and cheetahs and giraffes, and the hippos in their ponds. We also spent three days at Tswalu, a game park in the Kalahari, where the authorities have been trying to bring wildlife back to what was recently ranchland and where the animals are not so used to humans.This time we stayed at the Ellerman House in Cape Town, the most elegant hotel I've ever been in. We went out to the wine country and visited old friends, among them Peter Younghusband, a wonderful companion from my Congo days, who late in life became the manager of a successful vineyard. There was a special sweetness in being together with him, and in retelling stories of our old days in the Congo. Peter is a giant of a man— six foot six—and his sheer physical size was always a source of strength to me in the Congo, when I was young and, it seemed, always scared.We went to Robben Island, which has become a kind of modern shrine, and one night a South African friend told us a great Mandela story. It was about the day that Mandela and a large number of other black prisoners first arrived on Robben Island after their trial in 1962. As the boat landed, the Afrikaner security officers, wanting to get the prisoners into the jail and to let them know who was in charge, started shouting, "Run! Run! Run!" Then Mandela called out, "Walk!" and they walked. From that moment on, everyone knew who was really in charge. What made the story especially moving was the setting in which it was told. We were in a beautiful restaurant run by an old Afrikaner family in the wine country just outside Cape Town, and the person who told it was Franklin Sonn, an elegant man who, in the old days, belonged to a racial category known here as Cape Colored, that is, he was of both black and white descent. Back then, our group would not have been welcome at this restaurant; now he is an honored guest, having already served as his country's ambassador to the United States.
Before leaving Africa, my wife and I went on an air safari above Namibia's Skeleton Coast with our friends Michael and Alice Arlen. From the five-seater plane, we could see oryx and rhino and the occasional elephant, living on what is seemingly one of the planet's great wastelands. We flew over harsh geologic formations, working our way north toward Namibia's border with Angola, where, for the first time, there was a touch of green. And I realized that I had finally made the shift from journalist to traveler, because I had no desire to cross the river and explore the formerly volatile, conflicted soil of Angola, which had once seemed like the most logical next venue for a reporter in the Third World.
David Halberstam's latest book is War in a Time of Peace.