Courtesy Reuters

America Adrift: Writing the History of the Post Cold Wars

In This Review

War in a Time of Peace

By David Halberstam
Scribner's, 2001
496 pp. $28.00
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For three decades now, David Halberstam has been, in the phrase of George Kennan, our most readable "historian of the present." Halberstam specializes in driving a big truck of a book through the gap that separates journalism from academia. He manages to transcend both on-the-scene reportage that often fails to grasp the larger picture and more professorial accounts that supply the Big Think but often bog down in soporific jargon and abstraction. At his best, Halberstam hits a narrative sweet spot between the mere chronicling of a Bob Woodward and the tendentiousness of, say, William Greider. His finest books succeed in capturing an epochal moment -- such as the Vietnam War, the rise of big media, or the economic confrontation between Japan and the United States -- almost as it happens. Leading characters, interviewed close to power, are fully fleshed out. Whether you are a journalist, a historian, or a political scientist, these are achievements equivalent to trapping lightning in a bottle.

Although he has served up mostly lighter fare in recent years (with books on baseball and Michael Jordan), Halberstam made his reputation grappling with important events still in progress, when the surrounding emotions were still raw and the official history unfinished. Even now, Halberstam writes as if he were dictating a hot story from the field. His prose is not pretty and is often annoyingly verbose, and his slicing and dicing of history is sometimes simplistic. But in his best work, he manages to combine the personal with the political in a way that makes for both great history and great reading.

In The Best and the Brightest, for example -- Halberstam's brilliant skewering of the hubris that got the United States entangled in Vietnam -- he used the story of McGeorge Bundy, a patrician Harvard dean turned national security adviser with a scintillating but shallow intellect, to demolish the wrong-headed U.S. Asia policy that dated back to the Truman Doctrine. Halberstam performed similar feats, combining personal narratives

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