Born October 27, 1936
Neil Sheehan's career in journalism has been closely linked with the Vietnam War for nearly four decades. In the early and mid-1960s he provided acclaimed coverage of the conflict in Vietnam for United Press International and the New York Times. In 1971 he helped publish the so-called Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the war. And in 1988 he published A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. This book, which took Sheehan sixteen years to complete, is regarded as one of the finest nonfiction works ever written about the Vietnam War.
A promising young journalist
Cornelius Mahoney "Neil" Sheehan was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1936. His parents were Cornelius Joseph and Mary (O'Shea) Sheehan, Irish immigrants who established a farm after resettling in America.
Sheehan was a bright youth who distinguished himself in academics. He earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University, graduating from the school with a degree in Middle Eastern history in 1958. After school he entered the U.S. Army, working as a military reporter from 1959 to 1962 in Korea and Japan. He proved himself as a reporter during this period of military service, and when he left the army in 1962, the United Press International (UPI) news service promptly offered him a job.
UPI assigned Sheehan to Saigon in order to cover events in Vietnam, where America had become involved in a growing war. This war pitted the U.S.-supported nation of South Vietnam against the Communist nation of North Vietnam and its guerrilla allies (known as Viet Cong) in the South. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese wanted to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and unite the two countries under one Communist government. But the United States stepped in to defend the South. U.S. leaders worried that if South Vietnam fell, other Southeast Asian nations might also turn to Communism. They knew that such a development would strengthen the Communist empire of the Soviet Union, America's great political and military rival of the era.
At first, Sheehan struggled with his new responsibilities and Vietnam's unfamiliar culture. As the months passed, however, Sheehan settled down and developed into an excellent reporter. "He arrived [in Vietnam] as the rawest of rookies and made all the raw-rookie mistakes," wrote William Prochnau in Once Upon a Distant War. "He also became one of the best correspondents ever to set foot in Vietnam, becoming a legendary figure himself."
When Sheehan arrived in South Vietnam in April 1962, the United States had already committed great amounts of money, weaponry, and military assistance to South Vietnam. He and the handful of other American reporters stationed in Saigon during this time supported the U.S. decision to defend the South. As Sheehan recalled in A Bright Shining Lie, "we shared the [American military] advisors' sense of commitment to this war. We regarded the conflict as our war too."
Covering the war
But as time passed, Sheehan and other reporters covering the war expressed growing concern about the situation in South Vietnam. Their observations convinced them that South Vietnam's political and military leadership was very poor. In addition, the journalists discovered that American officials often tried to deceive them about the outcomes of battles and other aspects of the war.
As a result, Sheehan and other journalists made special efforts to learn about the true nature of things in Vietnam. They often risked their lives in pursuing news stories. Sheehan and other reporters often made helicopter trips into enemy territory or accompanied troops into battle. After a while, Sheehan became convinced that he was going to die in Vietnam, but he did not change his reporting methods.
The reporters also developed a network of American and Vietnamese information sources who were willing to provide honest assessments of the war. The most valuable of these secret sources was John Paul Vann, an American colonel who later became one of the most powerful U.S. officials in Vietnam. "Vann taught us the most, and one can truly say that without him our reporting would not have been the same," Sheehan wrote in A Bright Shining Lie. "He gave us an expertise we lacked. . . . He enabled us to attack the official optimism with gradual but steadily increasing detail and thoroughness."
When Sheehan and other correspondents realized that South Vietnam and its U.S. allies were actually making little progress in the war, their reports became more critical. Their coverage angered and embarrassed American military and political leaders. Some officials responded by accusing Sheehan and other journalists of exaggerating problems. A number of officials even suggested that the American reporters were betraying their country. But Sheehan dismissed such charges. In fact, he considered himself to be a patriot for telling the truth about the war to the American people.
Sheehan and the Pentagon Papers
In 1964 Sheehan left UPI to join the New York Times. He spent another year covering the war in Vietnam, then returned to the United States. In the late 1960s he served as the newspaper's chief White House and Pentagon correspondent. At the same time, he and wife Susan Sheehan, a writer, began to raise a family (they eventually had two daughters).
By 1971 Sheehan had become a strong critic of the war in Vietnam. In fact, he expressed great anger at America's military and political leadership, claiming that wartime policies were wasting tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. Sheehan's changing perspective on Vietnam caught the attention of Daniel Ellsberg (see entry), a former top-level military analyst who had turned against the war. In February 1971 Ellsberg secretly delivered a copy of the Pentagon Papers to Sheehan. This massive collection of confidential government reports and documents showed that U.S. political leaders had repeatedly deceived both the American public and themselves about the war in Vietnam over the previous two decades.
Sheehan and other New York Times reporters spent months reviewing the documents to verify their accuracy and importance. On June 13, 1971, the New York Times published the first excerpts from the Papers. The publication of the documents caused a tremendous uproar across the United States. Members of the antiwar movement claimed that the Pentagon Papers proved that the U.S. government could not be trusted to tell the truth about the war in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon (see entry) and his administration, meanwhile, tried to prevent the Times from publishing any more excerpts. Nixon worried that their publication would make it harder for him to carry out his own Vietnam policies. But on June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Times and other papers had the constitutional right to publish the documents. A year later, all forty-seven volumes of the Pentagon Papers were published and made available to the American people.
The fight over the Pentagon Papers took a heavy toll on Sheehan. His honesty and patriotism were questioned, his family and friends were interviewed by federal investigators, and he was threatened with a variety of criminal charges, including theft of government property and violations of the federal Espionage Act. But the threat of criminal prosecution faded after the Supreme Court issued its June 30 ruling. In the meantime, the controversy increased his reputation as one of the country's best journalists. In 1971 he received the Drew Pearson Prize for excellence in investigative reporting. One year later, the New York Times received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Writing about John Paul Vann and Vietnam
In June 1972 John Paul Vann died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. After Sheehan attended Vann's funeral, he decided to write a biography of the man. Sheehan believed that by examining Vann's life, he might also be able to shed some light on the entire war and America's role in it.
Sheehan began writing the biography of Vann in 1972. At first, he anticipated that the book would take three or four years to write. But the project ended up taking sixteen years, as the author struggled with physical ailments, financial problems, and his own disturbing memories of Vietnam. Sheehan's determination to tell Vann's story became an obsession, and as the years passed, friends and family members expressed concern about the author's physical and emotional well-being. Eventually, "the ordeal of [writing the book] became a legend that surpassed the legend of John Paul Vann," observed Prochnau.
In 1988 Sheehan's biography of Vann was finally published. The book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, received a tremendous critical and popular response. It became a national bestseller, and critics praised it as one of the finest books ever written about the Vietnam War. New Republic reviewer Richard Holbrooke—who served in the U.S. embassy in Vietnam and eventually became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—wrote that "Sheehan has produced a book of vast ambition and scope that tells the entire story of the American tragedy in Vietnam through Vann's life and death." Washington Monthly critic Taylor Branch offered similar praise. He wrote that "by capturing within the life of one small obsessive daredevil the essence of something so vast and benumbing as Vietnam, Sheehan has written by far the best single account of the war." Sheehan's book eventually received numerous prestigious awards, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, the 1988 National Book Award for nonfiction, and the Robert F. Kennedy Award.
Looking back on Vietnam
The completion of A Bright Shining Lie enabled Sheehan to put some emotional distance between himself and his memories of the Vietnam War. But he continued to express bitterness about American involvement in the conflict. "In Vietnam, our political and military leaders simply could not conceive the possibility that we could lose," Sheehan stated in a 1988 Publishers Weekly interview. "Successive administrations deluded themselves into the fantasy that we could somehow perpetuate an American presence in the country. The American soldier became a victim of his own leadership, which is a bitter lesson to face."
Since the publication of A Bright Shining Lie, Sheehan has continued to devote his energies to writing. In 1992 he published another book about Vietnam, called After the War Was Over: Hanoi and Saigon. In 1995 he began researching and writing a history of the Cold War, the decades-long political and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. He also made a number of visits to Vietnam during the 1990s, including one with his two daughters.
Galles, Walter. "Publishers Weekly Interview." Publishers Weekly, September 2, 1988.
Holbrooke, Richard. "Front Man." New Republic, October 24, 1988.
Prochnau, William. Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett—Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles. New York: Times Books, 1995.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988.
Sheehan, Neil. "Vietnam, and the Battle for Reality." U.S. News & World Report, October 24, 1988.
Wyatt, Clarence. Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
John Paul Vann (1924–1972)
John Paul Vann first served in Vietnam in 1962 as a military advisor to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). Vann was bright, brave, and devoted to the cause of defending the South from Communist forces. As time passed, however, he became very frustrated with South Vietnam's political and military leadership, which he viewed as incompetent and corrupt. Vann also emerged as an early critic of U.S. military policy in the war. But Sheehan noted in A Bright Shining Lie that "Vann . . . never ceased to believe that the war could be won if it was fought with sound tactics and strategy." By 1963 Vann was frequently offering his blunt opinions about the conflict to American journalists assigned to Vietnam.
Vann retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1963. Many observers believed that he resigned because of clashes with superior officers over his independent ways. But another factor was a statutory rape charge (a charge of having sex with a minor) that ruined his chances for career advancement in the military. In 1965, though, Vann returned to Vietnam as a high-ranking civilian (non-military person) with the Agency for International Development (AID).
Over the next five years, Vann's energy, grit, and dedication made him "one of the legendary Americans in Vietnam," observed the Washington Post. In May 1971 he was given authority over all U.S. military forces in central Vietnam, even though he was still a civilian. Some people who knew Vann claimed that he became much more ruthless and callous in his military tactics and attitudes during this time. In June 1972 Vann died in a helicopter crash in a remote valley in Vietnam.