WASHINGTON – Neil Sheehan, a reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning writer who broke the history of the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times and recorded the deception at the heart of the Vietnam War in his epic book on the war, died on Thursday. He was 84 years old.
His report on the Vietnam War, « A Radiant Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, » took 15 years to write. The 1988 book won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.
Sheehan served as war correspondent for United Press International and then for The Times in the early days of US involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. There he developed a fascination for what he would call « our first futile war » in which « people died for nothing ».
As a Washington-based national writer for the Times, Sheehan was the first to receive the Pentagon Papers , a massive history of US engagement in Vietnam commissioned by the Department of Defense. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department advisor who had previously given Vietnamese documents to Sheehan, copied the papers and made arrangements to get them to Sheehan.
The Times reports, which began in June 1971, revealed one widespread government deception about US prospects for victory. Soon the Washington Post also began publishing stories about the Pentagon Papers.
The Pentagon Papers went into great detail about the decisions and strategies of the war. And they told how the engagement of political leaders and high-ranking military officials, who were cocky about the US prospects and deceitful about the achievements against the North Vietnamese, steadily built.
Shortly after the first stories were published, the Nixon received – Administration issued an injunction claiming national security was at stake and has been suspended from publication. The action sparked a heated debate over the first amendment that quickly led to the Supreme Court. On June 30, 1971, the court ruled 6-3 in favor of publication, and the Times and Washington Post resumed publishing their stories.
The Times won the 1972 Pulitzer Public Service Prize for its reporting on Pentagon Papers, and the editors of the newspaper commended Sheehan for his central role.
« We are all particularly proud of Neil Sheehan for the tenacity, knowledge and professional skills that have contributed so decisively to the entire project », said AM Rosenthal, then editor-in-chief of the Times, after the Pulitzer was announced.
The Nixon administration tried to discredit Ellsberg after the documents were published. Some of President Richard Nixon’s best advisors organized the break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in Beverly Hills in September 1971, trying to find information that would discredit him. The White House called the secret unit the « plumbers » because it was their job to stop leaks.
Ellsberg has been charged with theft, conspiracy and violating the espionage law for leaking Pentagon papers. However, his case ended in legal proceedings when evidence of government-ordered wiretaps and break-ins surfaced.
After the Pentagon Papers stories were published, Sheehan became increasingly interested in trying to capture the essence of the complex and contradicting war, and set about writing a book.
« I was trying to tell the story of what happened in Vietnam and why it happened, » he said in a 1988 interview broadcast on C-SPAN. “I wanted this book to help people get this war under control. … Vietnam will only be a free war if we do not draw wisdom from it. «
Sheehan believed his book on the war could best be told through his account of an officer he met in Vietnam. John Paul Vann was a charismatic lieutenant colonel in the army who served as a senior adviser in the early 1960s South Vietnamese troops acted, withdrew from the army in frustration, then returned to Vietnam and joined the conflict as a civilian in support of direct operations in a multitude of roles.
Vann believed the US would have won the war if they had made better decisions. For Sheehan, Vann embodied the pride of the United States, the confident demeanor and the will to win the war – qualities that tarnished some people’s judgment on whether the war was winnable.
The Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, told an audience at a 2017 Vietnam documentary screening that he saw the level of anger He didn’t understand the war until he read “A Bright Shining Lie,” which showed him everything. The Path into the Chain of Command “People only entered information through tangled books, and lives were lost because of those lies and distortions,” according to one report The New York Times.
« It changed the way I think and I think the thinking of my entire generation, » Sheehan said in a 2008 interview with The Harvard Crimson. “We believed in authority figures and what they told us. And it turned out they were wrong or lying to us. “
When Sheehan started the project, the intense and dedicated writer found it dominated his life.
» I was less obsessed than I was trapped in, « he said. « I felt very trapped. »
Neil Sheehan was born on October 27, 1936 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and grew up on a dairy farm. He graduated from Harvard and worked as an army journalist before joining UPI. After leaving Vietnam, he worked for the Times in Washington as a Pentagon reporter and later in the White House before leaving the newspaper to write his Vietnam book.
At the beginning of research for “A Bright Shining Lie “Sheehan was involved in a near-frontal car accident in which several bones were broken and he was incapacitated for months. However, friends of writers urged him to continue his book project.
He and his wife Susan, a writer for The New Yorker, sometimes struggled making enough money to pay the family’s bills while he was working on the book worked. He combined scholarships with occasional advances from his publisher to get through.
Sheehan wrote several other books on Vietnam, but none with the ambitious title of « A Bright Shining Lie ». He also wrote « A Fiery Peace in a Cold War » about the men who developed the ICBM.
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Susan Sheehan, who lives in Washington, won a 1983 Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction for a book on the debilitating effects of mental illness.
The couple had two daughters, Catherine Bruno and Maria Gregory Sheehan, both from Washington; and two grandchildren, Nicholas Sheehan Bruno (13) and Andrew Phillip Bruno (11).
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