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Sheehan, Cornelius Mahoney ("Neil")

SHEEHAN, Cornelius Mahoney ("Neil")

(b. 27 October 1936 in Holyoke, Massachusetts), journalist, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and one of the first war correspondents to report that the Vietnam War was going badly; his 1988 book, A Bright Shining Lie, is often called the best book about America's involvement in Vietnam.

Sheehan's parents were Cornelius Joseph Sheehan and Mary (O'Shea) Sheehan, farmers and Irish immigrants to America. Sheehan graduated from Northfield Mount Hermon High School in Northfield, Massachusetts, in 1954. He then attended Harvard University, majoring in Middle Eastern history, and received his bachelor's degree in 1958. During the summers of his college years Sheehan worked on highway construction crews. From 1959 to 1962 he served in the U.S. Army as a military journalist and was assigned to cover Korea and Japan, receiving the Army Commendation Medal for his service. In Korea he moonlighted for United Press International (UPI), then one of America's two major wire-service news companies. He credited the army with teaching him a lesson that he applied to his work as a journalist: "It may be raining, it may be snowing, the sun may be shining, but you get up and YOU MARCH."

After Sheehan left the army in 1962, UPI hired him as bureau chief for Saigon, South Vietnam. He then believed that the war in Vietnam was "a glorious adventure." At that time the United States had approximately 3,200 military advisers in South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese had long sought independence from North Vietnam, finally achieving it in the early 1950s, only to have France yoke them into a colony, Indochina. The American advisers found the South Vietnamese Army unprepared for war. At first Sheehan glamorized going into combat with South Vietnamese troops, with bullets zinging past him. His reports for UPI were enthusiastic about America's participation in the war.

This enthusiasm began to wane when he was fooled into reporting a decisive South Vietnamese victory in which two hundred enemy troops were killed. It turned out to be a lie, and he had to submit a retraction to UPI. He expected to be fired but was not; he did, however, learn to verify everything the military told him. Later he surveyed the gory aftermath of the 2 January 1963 battle at Ap Bac, which left corpses scattered in rice paddies, and he lost his belief in the glory of battle.

In 1962 he met Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, an adviser to the South Vietnamese government. Vann was critical of how the war was being conducted. He believed that indiscriminate bombing with B-52s was killing civilians; he argued that the war had to be fought and won on the ground, with rifles and knives. Sheehan and other journalists found Vann's views refreshingly honest, and they admired his courage in battle. Vann retired in 1963. By then Sheehan's reports for UPI were focusing on the weak leadership of the South Vietnamese Army, the corrupt nature of the South Vietnamese government, and the lack of popular support among South Vietnamese civilians for their government. UPI censored Sheehan's reports on the grounds that they were too emotional.

In June 1964 Sheehan left UPI to work for the New York Times. That year he was awarded the Louis M. Lyons Award for integrity in journalism. In January 1965 the New York Times transferred Sheehan to Indonesia. On 30 March 1965 Sheehan married Susan M. Margulies, a journalist for the New Yorker magazine, who later published several books under the name Susan Sheehan, including Ten Vietnamese (1967). They had two daughters. In June 1965 Sheehan was sent back to Vietnam at the request of the New York Times bureau chief for Saigon, Charles Mohr. The United States was escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War, and Mohr wanted Sheehan to help him report the changes.

In 1966 the New York Times called Sheehan back to Washington, D.C., to cover the Pentagon. In 1968 he was made the newspaper's White House correspondent, but in 1969 he focused on investigative reporting. By this time he was an opponent of America's involvement in the war, but he earned a reputation for fairness. Sheehan wrote an exhaustive review of thirty-three books on Vietnam for the New York Times, and a government official named Daniel Ellsberg read it. Ellsberg was a Defense Department analyst who, among others, had been commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to write a history of Vietnam covering the years 1945–1967. The resulting history comprised forty-seven volumes. Ellsberg smuggled an archive of documents out of the Pentagon and gave it to Sheehan. When Sheehan reported what he had to A. M. Rosenthal, the editor of the New York Times, Rosenthal unhesitatingly decided to publish it.

In April 1972 Sheehan and eleven other New York Times staff members, calling themselves Project X, took seven weeks to organize what became the notorious Pentagon Papers. On 13 June 1971 the first installment of the Pentagon Papers was published on the front page of the New York Times. After two more installments were printed, the U.S. government obtained an injunction, on 15 June 1971, against the Times forbidding further publication of the Pentagon Papers, but other newspapers, such as the Boston Globe, continued to publish fragments. The New YorkTimes and the Washington Post sued the government for the right to publish the material. On 30 June 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers.

The New York Times received a 1972 Pulitzer Gold Medal for public service for publishing the Pentagon Papers. In December 1971 Sheehan received the Drew Pearson Prize for excellence in investigative reporting. In 1972 he was given the Page One Award from the Newspaper Guild of New York, the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award, and the Columbia Journalism Award. At that time Sheehan began writing a biography of Vann, who in 1964 had returned to South Vietnam as a civilian adviser but ended up directing the military operations of an entire province as if he were a general, moving from concern about civilian casualties to wanting to turn Vietnam into a moonscape of desolation. Vann died in Vietnam in a helicopter crash in 1972. It took Sheehan sixteen years to write A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988); it was hailed as the best book ever published about the Vietnam War. The length of the writing project prompted Sheehan's friends to joke that Sheehan was "the last casualty of Vietnam." For the biography Sheehan received the 1988 National Book Award, the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, and the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

Sheehan, an outstanding journalist, possessed formidable physical courage, and his reports from the field have become significant historical documents. His Vietnam reporting helped inform Americans about their country's successes and failures in Southeast Asia. Likewise, his editing of the Pentagon Papers helped reveal the hidden history of America's involvement in Vietnam. Through dogged determination Sheehan conducted almost four hundred interviews for a classic study of Vietnam, A Bright Shining Lie.

Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988) offers insights into his own activities, as does After the War Was Over: Hanoi and Saigon (1992). Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959–1969, vol. 1 (1998) presents some of Sheehan's Vietnam journalism. Biographical informationisalso in William Prochau, Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett—Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles (1996), which examines how Sheehan's views evolved in the early 1960s; and Fred Inglis, People's Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics (2002), which discusses how Sheehan's journalism helped shape history. Articles on Sheehan include "Literary Lights: Branch, Sheehan, Caro," U.S. News and World Report (9 July 1990); and "A Bright Shining Lie," Variety (25 May 1998).

Kirk H. Beetz

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