Today's date:
Fall 1987

Of Hubris and Hondas

David Halberstam - Halberstam is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Best and the Brightest, a study of the policy makers of the Vietnam War, and The Reckoning, an account of competition between the American and Japanese auto industries. Me recently interviewed Halberstam on the themes that link these two major books. Excerpts follow.

On the Parallels of Arrogance
There are definite parallels between the American experience of confronting the Vietnamese in war and the Japanese in commercial competition. The Best and the Brightest is about the arrogance of power. The Reckoning is about the arrogance of affluence. Both books are about a nation that did not see the world was changing because it was entirely caught up in its own myths.

World War II brought America kicking and screaming onto the scene of global power. We ended the war with more power than when we entered it. We were rich in a world that was poor. During the war we had pioneered in modern managerial systems and harnessed primitive computers to the industrial system. It seemed that the gods favored us and our power and affluence would go on forever. We perceived as a permanent condition that which was an historical fluke.

What happened in Vietnam and what is happening in America's industrial core today can be traced to the hubris caused by history's favor. We did not see the changing world. We did not give credit to other nations for being talented or for working hard. We squandered resources. Our business practices became astonishingly insular. One of my favorite quotes in The Reckoning is from former Michigan governor George Romney, talking about GM in the 1950s (and he might as well have been talking about America on the eve of entry into Vietnam): "Nothing is more vulnerable than entrenched success."

On the McNamara Connection
The strategy of how to deal with Vietnamese nationalism was a product of the mentality of Ford Motor executives like Robert McNamara. He was the ultimate rational man who believed that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese would act rationally, understand the power of technology, and end the war. During his time at Ford he was the symbol of the new modem business era, the new managerial class, with its numbers and computers, its contempt for tradition and the past, its contempt for the actual product, and for the old timers who knew how to make things.

The recent film Platoon brilliantly captures the fate of this mentality in the jungles of Vietnam. If you were a planner of that war, Vietnam looked like a small country and 500,000 men seemed like a lot of troops. But that steamy land swallowed up those US troops who, for all their might, could only control the ground on which they stood. Platoon shows how the terrain and the night deflect American technology, how power gets sucked down in a rice paddy. Soon the hunter becomes the hunted in this alien land and in this endless darkness. In the end of this movie, the commanders are calling in fire on their own men.

On the Mistake of Disrespect
In Vietnam, we made the most serious mistake a power can make. We were not respectful of the enemy. By 1961, there was already considerable evidence that the enemy was very good. The Viet Cong were very tough and brave. They had a political system that provided endless recruits and they had brilliant leadership from top to bottom. They were an expression of powerful Asian nationalism and their system worked. We quite deliberately chose not to see that and defined the country's conflict in terms of communism and anticommunism.

Among Detroit auto executives, there was comparable contempt for the Japanese even as they were becoming an extraordinary new industrial player. In the mid 1970S when the Japanese built the best steel industry in the world, the joke among American automakers was, "If you scratch the door of a Japanese car, you can see the Budweiser can." That kind of foolish disrespect was right out of Vietnam.

When the Japanese first came here with autos in 1959, they made every mistake in the book. They brought small, underpowered, tank-like cars. But anyone who was paying attention could tell by 1966 they were getting very good.

They learned. They listened to the customers. They read American consumer magazines like bibles while Detroit executives thought they were edited by Ralph Nader. By 1968 Datsun brought out the 510, a very good car. Auto enthusiasts loved it. Detroit executives scoffed at it and didn't listen to the field and engineering levels where a profound respect developed for the adversary.

During the Vietnam War, Washington told the field commanders what they wanted to hear. Similarly, Detroit executives told the engineering departments what they should think and the customers what they should want. So, Detroit executives continued to ignore the engineers' mail, the complaints of customers about warranties and the reports from Hertz that the quality of Japanese cars was greater than that of GM or Ford. They had contempt for their customers as well as their foreign competitors.

As in Vietnam, the reality became obscure. What neither Detroit nor Washington could see, I think, was a form of Asian nationalism. In Vietnam, the expression of it was political, attaining dignity by driving out the foreign colonialists. In Japan, the aim was economic, attaining dignity by giving ordinary citizens, who in the past had lived under brutal conditions, a good job, a decent place to live, a good diet and a chance for their children to have a better education.

On Detroit's Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive opened our eyes in Vietnam. The auto industry's Tet came in 1979 when, in the immortal words of Lee Iacocca, "The Shah of Iran left town."

When the Shah left Teheran in 1979 and the price of oil quadrupled, Americans were caught with big cars while the Japanese produced all the small cars. Even more important, the Japanese had by then slowly and painstakingly built up a reputation for quality among customers and auto dealers. Detroit executives didn't believe this was true until their backs were against the wall. Then, when their top people began to break down the cars and compare them, they were stunned at how much better the Japanese really were.

When they finally paid attention, Detroit understood that these unlikely challengers had come up with a very good system of production. In terms of manufacturing, the Japanese had become the true children of Henry Ford while the top people at our companies were now lawyers and business school graduates. The car men had all been replaced by financial men.

The "manufacturing men" at places like Ford, GM and Chrysler had become second class citizens. They got the smallest bonuses, the worst jobs, the smallest salaries. They had been to the wrong schools and they wore double-knit polyester jackets. The engineers lacked panache, but the people who ran the company could barely change a tire.

What Does America's Reckoning Mean?
We are talking about the end of the American Century the oil century which began with the first Model-T and ended with import quotas against Japanese subcompacts. We are talking about a more limited notion of American power, one in which we are still immensely powerful but in which our power has to be more carefully used.

We are not now, and no one else will ever be, as powerful and rich as America was from 1945-1975. We are now living in a new, unsentimental age for which we are not particularly well suited. We are entering a highly competitive world in which knowledge and human resources, not military might and natural resources, will be the dominant aspects of power. Applied brain power, as exemplified by the coming of the Japanese, is more important than God-given natural resources.

On the Shared Middle Class
It is a mistake to believe that the high-water mark of what the Japanese can do well is automobiles. There is a real hunger in Japan, a belief in the primacy of education and a lack of waste that is admirable. They are the part of the culture of adversity. From now on, America's culture of affluence is going to live in an age in which all kinds of other nations from the culture of adversity aspire to, and will attain, middle-class status.

That means America must shed a good deal of its arrogance. We must overcome the Pavlovian instinct to think that when something goes wrong it is the other guys who are somehow unfair. But the other guys aren't unfair in the way they flood engineers onto the factory floor. The other guys aren't unfair in the way they rum out twice as many engineers as we do. The other guys aren't unfair in making sure that elementary school kids can master their own language and have basic mathematical skills.

On Leadership
We haven't accepted the reckoning yet. I think people understand in a visceral sense that something terribly important has happened. They are desperate for someone who can honestly explain what has gone wrong and how it might be turned around. But I get no sense of leadership these days.

Although the problem we are dealing with here is not ideological, but societal, I must say that Ronald Reagan still sounds like one of those beer commercials aired during the 1984 Olympics about how America has come back.

But America hasn't come back. And the problem is not just in autos, but across the whole society. The average American family still does not realize that if its offspring do not study hard they are going to lose a job to someone in Korea or Japan. We're in trouble as long as the status of "nerd" is assigned to a male child of 15 in an average high school who gets good grades.

Some political leaders see the challenge. Because of cutbacks in federal programs, the governors are living most pragmatically with the new reality of America's limits. They must figure out how to make education and social services stretch further. They are trying to get jobs not just from American companies, but from the Japanese and Koreans. They see that the economy has changed. The governors are, in a sense, commanders in the field. The realities on the ground prevent them from seeing the world through mythological glasses. We hear very little soaring rhetoric from them.

One of Ronald Reagan's big problems is that he does not think the Vietnam War was a mistake. He thinks we should have won. He does not have any respect for the Vietnamese and why they won. Failing that, it is very hard for him to learn anything much from that war or from other reality checks on America's sense of itself. He is obsessed with the things that might have obsessed a president in the mid-1950s and still acts as if the greatest danger to us is the Soviet Union. But the Russians can't even truck tomatoes from Tblisi to Moscow and are being surpassed by Korea in industrial capacity! We place so much psychological energy into thinking about Nicaragua, a nation with two elevators, while the Japanese are building a supercomputer and the quintessential American car, the Mustang, may soon be made by Mazda.

That kind of leadership is a sign that America is not tempering itself, not reading its mail. We need to learn the lessons of our new challenge and not be pulled down by the ghosts of the past.

America is still a remarkably blessed nation with great regenerative strength. If we can learn from our mistakes and become true partners with an ascending Japan, something that is not easy for either country, then there will be no limit to the synergy of our mutual power.

back to index