Young Man and War: David Halberstam's Empathetic Reporting during the Congo Crisis

By Seyb, Ronald P. | Journalism History, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Young Man and War: David Halberstam's Empathetic Reporting during the Congo Crisis


Seyb, Ronald P., Journalism History


The twenty-seven-year-old David Halberstam thought that he was ready to be a foreign correspondent when The New York Times dispatched him to the Congo in August 1961. While his resume was thin,1 his ambition was big and his thirst to cover combat, as he noted in a letter to Coleman Harwell, his former editor at The Nashville Tennessean, consuming:

When the fighting broke out in September and December I remember being terribly excited-there I was in Elisabethville, the only American newspaperman in the city and the biggest story of the day breaking before my eyes and feeling that this was what I had been training to do all this time. Feeling, in fact, like a coiled and tightening spring, ready to be sprung.2

Halberstam, however, would soon lose his enthusiasm for reporting on the fighting in the Congo. "When you are a reporter in the Congo," Halberstam wrote to New York Times foreign editor Emanuel Freedman on January 5, 1962, "you are that and nothing more-there is no outside life, no lighter side. . . . [T]his is pretty much a life without women, a life where making a simple phone call often becomes a terribly trying experience, and where nothing is simple."3 Even more bedeviling to Halberstam than the conditions that conspired to make covering the Congo "a punishing" or "brutal" assignment, "particularly for a single man,"4 was what he saw as the reflexive mendacity of Congolese politicians and military officials. African leaders, Halberstam concluded, did not respect "Western standards" of official truth-telling. While they were sometimes well-meaning, they not infrequently "change [their] mind[s] completely four hours [after making a statement], and . . . in the first place may be making the charge on virtually no evidence."5 This habitual duplicity prompted Halberstam to conclude that "a fact is a rare thing in the Congo."6

The Congo for Halberstam was, in short, a place that broke a man "very slowly" through the relentless pounding of a miasmic climate, demands for bribes, and warfare that was as ceaseless as it was pointless.7 After nine months in the Congo's capital, Leopoldville, Halberstam testified to Freedman, "the nature of the story, the climate, the particular frustrations, [the] loneliness, and [the] limitations of the city take an awesome toll."8 This toll led Halberstam to grab the Vietnam assignment when it was offered to him in July 1962. He left the Congo with more cynicism than regrets: "[I believe] that if we all en masse left, the whole thing would disappear. As Shakespeare said, 'all the Congo's a stage and all the Congolese players.'"9

Halberstam's journey from an excited, even ingenuous young reporter eager to experience battle and earn his reputation as a foreign correspondent to a jaded, Graham Greene-esque character happy to be released from a draining assignment in a seemingly illogical country whose conflict was propelled by forces too murky and culturally inaccessible for a Westerner to understand is certainly redolent of the classic story of youthful illusions being crushed against the jagged rocks of an unyielding reality. Halberstam's struggles to report in the Congo did not, however, diminish the quality of his reporting on that country's secession crisis in the early 1960s.10

Halberstam sought in his Congo reporting, as he noted to a skeptical Nathaniel Gerstenzang, the Times's assistant foreign editor, near the end of his tour on May 26, 1962, to allow unfamiliar readers "to see and sense what the country really looks like, what it really is."11 While this often led Halberstam to indulge in what Gerstenzang referred to as "leisurely leads"12 that "took too many words [before] getting your teeth into the subject,"13 it also allowed Halberstam's readers to view the Congo from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Halberstam tried to cultivate in his readers empathy for people fighting in a strange land for stakes that were obscure at times even to Halberstam. …

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