Hersh, Seymour M.

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HERSH, Seymour M.

(b. 8 April 1937 in Chicago, Illinois), Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter whose stories in the late 1960s uncovered the My Lai massacre by U.S. troops in South Vietnam.

Hersh, the son of Isadore Hersh and Dorothy Margolis, grew up in Chicago. After graduating from high school he enrolled at the University of Chicago, from which he received his bachelor's degree in history in 1958. Planning a career in law, Hersh enrolled in the university's law school but soon found his interest in the subject waning. Casting about for something else to do, he heard from a friend that the City News Bureau was hiring anyone with a college degree. Although he had neither experience nor any particular interest in journalism, he applied for a job and was soon working as a copyboy for the news agency that had been the model for Ben Hecht's celebrated play, The Front Page.

Before long Hersh had graduated from copyboy to police reporter. In a 1998 interview with Saul Landau of The Progressive, he recalled, "Chicago's a hell of a town to be a reporter in. For a while I worked the midnight shift, midnight to eight, at the main police headquarters." He said that he learned in ways that he did not understand until much later. From the City News Bureau, Hersh in 1960 went into the U.S. Army and after basic training found himself working on the base newspaper in Fort Riley, Kansas, and writing speeches for a general. After his release from military service in the early 1960s he took a reporting job with a suburban Chicago newspaper. He was next hired by United Press International (UPI) to cover the news from Pierre, South Dakota, where he wrote stories about taxes and the Ogalala Sioux. He returned to Chicago to work for Associated Press (AP), which in 1964 moved him into its Washington, D.C., bureau. It was in Washington that Hersh became obsessed with the growing war in Vietnam. He was eventually named AP's Pentagon correspondent, giving him access to a wide range of military personnel and broadening his understanding of the war. Hersh married Elizabeth Sarah Klein, a physician, on 31 May 1964. They had three children.

His increasingly critical articles about the war created a strain between Hersh and his editors at AP. In 1967 he left the news agency to write a book, Chemical and Biological Warfare: America's Hidden Arsenal (1968), in which he charged that the United States was spending $235 million annually on such weapons. In 1968 he went to work as press secretary and speechwriter for the antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. The experience left Hersh with a distaste for the world of politics, and he returned to journalism as a freelance reporter.

Hersh first came to national prominence in 1969 when he broke the story of the massacre of Vietnamese villagers by U.S. troops at My Lai, South Vietnam. He learned of the incident from Geoffrey Cowan, a lawyer working with military deserters, who later became director of the Voice of America early in the Clinton administration. Cowan tipped off Hersh that an army officer was about to be court-martialed for the massacre of civilians in Vietnam.

Armed with this information, Hersh sought out the U.S. soldiers alleged to have participated in the massacre of about 500 unarmed civilians, including Lieutenant William L. Calley, Jr., the officer facing charges, who shared with Hersh details of the incident. Hersh's articles were rejected by the magazines to which he offered them. However, a friend who ran a small newspaper syndicate offered to distribute the exposé. The articles, which appeared in the Boston Globe, the London Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post, revealed that in March 1968 a division of U.S. troops called Charley Company, led by Calley, had killed every man, woman, and child in the village of Son My (My Lai Four on military maps). Hersh's articles on the My Lai massacre won him the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

Hersh further explored the My Lai massacre in two books, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (1970), and Cover-Up: The Army's Secret Investigation of the Massacre of My Lai 4 (1972). Of the latter, he told Landau: "It's the most interesting book I ever wrote because it's about how the Army as an institution couldn't deal with what happened, this horrific murder of 500 people." Despite its controversial and somewhat sensational content, Cover-Up was a commercial failure. "I've never had a book sell less in my life," Hersh told Landau. "I never made a cent on it, and as far as I know not many people have read it. Nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam in 1972. We were losing the war."

Hersh worked at the Washington bureau of the New York Times from 1972 until 1975, when he transferred to New York. After three years he returned to the Washington bureau. In 1992 he became a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

Hersh's fascination with the 1960s and the early 1970s is clearly reflected in his more controversial books. Published in 1983, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House explores the relationship of Henry Kissinger and President Richard M. Nixon during the latter's administration. "Nixon had a consuming need for flattery and Kissinger a consuming need to provide it," Hersh wrote. The strange relationship between the two, Hersh suggested, may have brought the world dangerously close to nuclear war. Even more controversial was Hersh's take on the Kennedy years, The Dark Side of Camelot (1997), which covered such topics as the late president's liaisons with mistresses and prostitutes and his administration's ties to organized crime.

One of America's premier investigative reporters, Hersh's impressive legacy is headed by his breaking the story of the My Lai massacre and his insightful examinations of the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. Although he has covered current events from the 1960s into the new millennium, Hersh shows a special fascination for the 1960s and the early 1970s.

A longtime reporter for the New York Times, Hersh became the newspaper's "ace investigative reporter," according to Richard Lee, a contributor to the Washington Post. At the Times, Hersh became "virtually a world unto himself…, breaking important stories about the CIA's domestic intelligence activities, the secret bombing of North Vietnam, and Kissinger's wiretapping of his closest aides at the State Department."

For insight into Hersh's career as an investigative reporter, see his My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (1970); Cover-Up: The Army's Secret Investigation of the Massacre of My Lai 4 (1972); The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983); The Samson Option: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (1991); and The Dark Side of Camelot (1997). Further biographical information about Hersh is in W. J. Burke and Will D. Howe, American Authors and Books (1972); Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series (1985); William H. Taft, Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Journalists (1986); and Robert B. Downs and Jane B. Downs, Journalists of the United States (1991).

Don Amerman

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