All achievers

Neil Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist

Journalism is really a fourth branch of government.

Neil Sheehan was born Cornelius Mahoney Sheehan in Holyoke, Massachusetts and raised on his family’s dairy farm. From an early age, he worked on the farm, but he dreamed of the world beyond the pasture gate. With the encouragement of his Irish immigrant mother, he won scholarships to Mount Hermon Academy and then to Harvard, where he distinguished himself as an editor of the Harvard Advocate literary magazine.

Neil Sheehan as a young UPI correspondent in Saigon, May 1963. (©Bettmann/CORBIS)
Neil Sheehan as a young UPI correspondent in Saigon, May 1963. After his stint in the army, Sheehan spent two years covering the war in Vietnam as the UPI Saigon Bureau Chief. In 1963, during the Buddhist crisis, he and David Halberstam, debunked the claim by the Diệm Regime that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam regular forces had perpetrated the Pagoda raids, which U.S. authorities had initially accepted. They showed instead that the raiders were special Forces loyal to Diệm’s brother, Nhu, and motivated to frame the Army generals. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

On graduating from Harvard, he entered the United States Army and was assigned first to Korea, but later transferred to the 7th Infantry Division newspaper in Tokyo. While editing the weekly Bayonet, he began to moonlight in the Tokyo office of the wire service United Press International (UPI). After his discharge from the Army, he became a full-time reporter for UPI, and was soon put in charge of the Saigon bureau, covering the emerging conflict in Vietnam.

The withdrawal of French colonial forces had left the Vietnamese peninsula divided. A Communist regime in the North, led by Ho Chi Minh, received support from the Soviet Union and China. In the South, the colonial regime was succeeded by a series of weak governments, supported by the United States. Sheehan’s reporting from Vietnam won him a place with the most prestigious newspaper in the United States, The New York Times.

Neil Sheehan at work in the Saigon office of UPI, 1963. (©Bettmann/CORBIS)
Neil Sheehan at work in the Saigon office of UPI, 1963. In 1964, Sheehan joined the New York Times and worked the city desk for a while before returning to the Far East, first to Indonesia and then spent another year in Vietnam. In 1966, he became the newspaper’s Pentagon correspondent, and in 1968, began reporting on the White House. He was a correspondent on political, diplomatic and military affairs. In 1971, he obtained the Pentagon Papers for the Times. The U.S. government tried to halt publication. The exposé would earn the New York Times the Pulitzer Prize.

The Times assigned Sheehan to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he covered the events leading up to large-scale massacre of suspected leftists by the U.S.-backed Indonesian military. Soon he was back in Vietnam as the Times correspondent. By now, U.S. advisory support for the faltering South Vietnamese regime had given way to a full-scale U.S. military involvement. While the American government portrayed the Vietnam War as one front in a global conflict with a unified Communist enemy, Sheehan saw that the Vietnamese regarded their struggle as a war of national liberation from foreign occupation. As the U.S. resorted to increasingly extreme methods to suppress the Viet Cong insurgency in the South, the Vietnamese resistance hardened. Sheehan’s reporting made him deeply unpopular with the Pentagon and the State Department, but his reports were making an impact on public opinion at home.

Neil Sheehan, north of Saigon, 1962. The rifles behind him were captured from the Viet Cong.
Neil Sheehan, north of Saigon, 1962. The rifles behind him were captured from the Viet Cong. A decade later, Neil Sheehan, while as a reporter for the New York Times, obtained the classified Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. His series of articles revealed a secret U.S. Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War and led to a U.S. Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. United States, when the U.S. government attempted to halt publication. The Court rejected the government’s position and the case became a landmark First Amendment decision.

Returning to the U.S., Sheehan was assigned to cover the Pentagon and later the White House. In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara had assigned his subordinate, Leslie Gelb, among others, to compile a history of United States-Vietnam relations. The resulting document ran to 7,000 pages in 47 volumes. In 1971, a former State Department employee, Daniel Ellsberg, obtained a copy of the confidential report and attempted to give it to members of the United States Senate. Rebuffed, Ellsberg contacted Neil Sheehan. Sheehan spent weeks studying the documents, tracing U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia from 1945, and found a disturbing pattern of deception. From early in the war, Sheehan concluded, American leaders had been skeptical of the chances for victory in Vietnam, but had led the United States into war for political considerations, using false information to mislead the public.

Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Neil Sheehan interviewing villagers in north central Vietnam near Da Nang, Vietnam, 1966.
1966: War correspondent Neil Sheehan interviewing villagers in north central Vietnam near Da Nang.

When the Times began to publish Sheehan’s reports, including excerpts from the classified documents, the Nixon administration claimed the entire document was top secret and secured a court injunction barring the Times from publishing further excerpts or descriptions of the documents. A series of trials resulted, in a battle between the Nixon administration and the Times that lasted 15 days. Overreaching, White House operatives broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, hoping to find information that would discredit Ellsberg and bring the authenticity of the documents into question. This burglary, which preceded the Watergate break-in, eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. The Supreme Court, in The New York Times Co. v. United States, ruled that publication of the documents was not injurious to national security, but was in the public interest, protected by the First Amendment. The Times‘s edition of the Pentagon Papers became a national bestseller.

In 1972, Sheehan published a book on another scandal of the Vietnam War. The Arnheiter Affair recounted an infamous case in which the dangerously eccentric commanding officer of the U.S.S. Vance was relieved of his command. Sheehan had now been reporting on the Vietnam War for the better part of a decade. He wanted to put the experience behind him, but felt that there was more that he needed to say. That year, he attended the funeral of an old friend, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, a decorated hero of the war. In Sheehan’s eyes, Vann’s story captured the entire tragedy of America’s involvement in Vietnam, with all its good intentions and all its calamitous results.

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan's magnum opus, recounted the history of American involvement in Vietnam through the experience of one extraordinary soldier.
A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan’s magnum opus, recounted the history of American involvement in Vietnam through the experience of one extraordinary soldier. Sheehan received a Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction and a National Book Award for his book about the life of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann.

Sheehan took a leave from the Times, expecting to spend two to three years writing his book. it proved a far more demanding venture than he ever expected. Midway through his work on the book, he was seriously injured in a head-on collision. With 11 bones broken, he spent three months in the hospital and was unable to work on the book for another year. When he resumed work, his finances were badly strained. He received a number of grants to continue his project; an advance from his publishers and the sale of partial serialization rights to The New Yorker enabled Neil Sheehan to finish his monumental narrative. It took another year to edit the manuscript to a reasonable size.

Neil Sheehan, with his wife Susan and daughter Maria, at the Academy of Achievement's 1999 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.
Neil Sheehan, with his wife, Susan, and their daughter, Maria, at the Academy’s 1999 Summit in Washington, D.C.

When it was finally published in 1988, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam was hailed as the greatest book ever written about the war. Sheehan was praised for combining the dramatic skills of a novelist with the investigative skills of a great reporter and the insight of a historian. A Bright Shining Lie received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Alongside The Best and the Brightest, by his friend David Halberstam, Sheehan’s book remains essential reading for any student of America’s experience in Vietnam. The same year, Sheehan returned to Vietnam for the first time since the end of the war, and toured the country, North and South, revisiting old friends and interviewing veterans of both sides of the conflict. His resulting observations appear in After the War Was Over (1992) (British edition is Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon).

Neil Sheehan addresses Academy honor delegates and members at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the 2012 International Achievement Summit, while his daughter Catherine holds a flashlight to help him read his remarks in the dimly lit surroundings adjacent to the memorial. (© Academy of Achievement)
Awards Council member Neil Sheehan addresses the Academy of Achievement delegates and members at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the 2012 International Achievement Summit, while his daughter, Catherine, holds a flashlight to help him read his inspiring remarks in the dimly lit surroundings adjacent to the memorial.

Today, Neil and his wife, Susan, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, live in Washington, D.C. Neil Sheehan, an early critic of the Iraq War, continues to write and speak on American foreign policy. His latest book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, tells the story of Bernard Schriever, the Air Force general who led the development of the United States’s intercontinental ballistic missile program.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1990

When Neil Sheehan arrived in Vietnam as a young reporter in 1962, he had no idea that he was entering a conflict that would shape his entire career. As America’s military involvement escalated, he found that the war he was observing firsthand no longer resembled the contest the U.S. government was trying to present to the American people. Sheehan’s reporting brought him into intense conflict with the Pentagon and the State Department.

As a New York Times correspondent, Sheehan acquired the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s classified history of the war, which revealed a longstanding pattern of government deception about the origins of the conflict and prospects for its favorable outcome. When the Nixon administration attempted to block publication of the documents, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, in a decision that vindicated the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press.

Neil Sheehan distilled his experience and insight of the Vietnam War in his massive narrative, A Bright Shining Lie. Sixteen years in the writing, it told the story of the war through the experience of a single exceptional warrior. Sheehan’s book received the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and was hailed as the most outstanding book to emerge from the conflict. Neil Sheehan’s courage and tenacity as a reporter, and his eloquence as a writer, have made him the role model for all journalists who fight against powerful opposition to bring truth to light.

Watch full interview

At what point in the Vietnam War did you sense that things might not be going the way the government told us they were going?

Keys to success — Integrity

Neil Sheehan: Initially, we had this great conflict with the commanding general and the ambassador because we were losing the war, and they claimed we were winning the war. When we reporters went out into the field, we saw this army that wouldn’t fight, that was led by incompetent officers, who were political appointees, and who were corrupt. Many of them were corrupt. The Viet Cong were getting stronger all the time. The military advisors in the field were telling us also — confirming — what we were seeing, that we were losing the war. There was one military advisor in particular, John Paul Vann, who became the main figure of the book I wrote, who was a brilliant soldier, and John was brilliant at analyzing what was going on, and we became their conduit. The commanding general wouldn’t listen to the reports he was getting. So the reporters were the only ones who were reflecting what the advisors in the field believed. So we had this tremendous conflict. He claimed we were winning the war, and these young reporters were inexperienced and emotional, and we were politically suspect, and we ought to be fired.

The pressure was enormous, but we believed in the war.  We were not against the war.  We were products of the Cold War, all of us.  David Halberstam, who just died recently, who I worked with in Vietnam, who was my partner there, we believed it was the right thing to do.  We believed all those shibboleths of the Cold War, all of which turned out to be mirages: the “domino theory” that if South Vietnam fell, the rest of — Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia — they were all going to fall one by one.  We believed that the Vietnamese Communists were pawns of the Chinese and the Russians, they were taking their orders from Moscow and Beijing. It was rubbish.  They were independent people who had their own objectives, and they were the true nationalists in the country.  We didn’t know any of this really, but we did know we were losing the war.  That got us in a hell of a battle, and we managed to survive that as reporters.

David Halberstam of The New York Times, Malcolm Browne of Associated Press and Neil Sheehan of UPI, between helicopter lifts in the Mekong Delta in 1963. (Photo by Horst Faas)
1963: David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne and Neil Sheehan, between helicopter lifts in Mekong Delta. (Horst Faas)

Then I went back again in ’65 after Indonesia. It was the beginning of the big American war. The Kennedy war — the advisors and helicopters and fighter bombers to support the Saigon regime’s troops — had failed, and the Viet Cong had grown from a band of poorly armed guerrillas into a very powerful striking force, and they were about to take over the country. In six months or so, they would have won a military victory. They would have seized power. So Johnson sent in the Marine Corps, the regular U.S. Army, the Air Force, the Navy. So I went back to Vietnam in ’65 for the Times as the second man in the bureau, with a very experienced reporter named Charles Mohr, who resigned from Time in dispute over the war.

I walked through most of the Mekong Delta in my first two years.  I liked the Vietnamese as a people.  I had a lot of Vietnamese friends, and here came in the regular U.S. Army and the Marine Corps and the Air Force and the Navy, and they proceeded to blow up and burn down this country we were supposed to be saving. I mean, if there was a sniper in the village, they didn’t go in and get him.  They called for an artillery barrage or an air strike and blew the whole village away, and General Westmoreland was deliberately bombing and shelling villages in Viet Cong-held areas to drive the population out.  He was deliberately doing it, and he was killing and maiming tens of thousands of women and kids.  All of this began to really turn me off, but the justification was we’ve got to put up with this because we’ve got to stop the Communists, et cetera, and everybody still believed that, but it began to really turn me off.

When I came back to the States in ’66, I was very disillusioned with what was going on. It was really disturbing to me. I still believed we should stick it out. We had to, because of the Cold War. But then…

Within one year of becoming a Pentagon correspondent — now in ’66 — and reflecting back on it, I realized, first of all, we were not going to win the war in Vietnam.  We weren’t going to muddle through.  The Vietnamese were going to resist us, just as long as it took.  They were going to sacrifice as many men, as many people, as long as it took, because of their national cause, and number two, it was a mistake.  We had no business being there.  These people were not a threat to us.

I knew this Cold War shibboleth stuff was nonsense because…

I had been in Indonesia when the Indonesian Communist Party pulled a coup in ’65 to try to take over.  The army massacred them.  It was one of the great massacres.  It killed everybody.  If you had a Communist uncle, they killed the whole family.  They killed about 500 to 600,000 people. This stuff was local.  It had nothing to do with any sort of international — the motivations were not international, and the Vietnamese were fighting for the independence of their country.  I realized that, but it took me until ’67 to really turn against the war. It was the violence that started me thinking, and the corruption that went on, that continued.  I mean, the corruption became enormous, because when the American Army came in, all this money was flowing in, and here are all these people who were supposedly — the President of Vietnam, he was up to his elbows in graft. How are these people going to run a country?  So it was a terribly disillusioning experience, but a healthy one.

You were involved with events in 1971 which were a critical moment for American journalism and its relation to the government.

Neil Sheehan: That’s right. It was the first time since the Revolutionary War that the government sought prior restraint. Lincoln shut down newspapers during the Civil War and arrested editors under military law, but there was no precedent for what was being done now and theoretically in peacetime.

What was your role in the Pentagon Papers case?

Keys to success — Courage

Neil Sheehan: I got the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times. I got them and brought them to the Times. I was very proud of the paper because the executive editor — first of all, I briefed all the editors. I spent two weeks hidden down here in the Jefferson Hotel, which was a dump at the time, with one of the assistant foreign editors, and the two of us went through all of this stuff, and I was astonished at how much they had been able to hide. It was astonishing, because I knew, obviously, Vietnam. I had lived through these events. And also, what was astonishing was here were their documents, their telegrams sending the armies in the field, the airplanes in the air, their memoranda. It wasn’t some unidentified source in the Pentagon in a news story. It was their stuff, the real thing. It was the archive of the war. So we spent two weeks reading, and then we went up to New York, and I briefed the editors in New York, and I was very proud of their reaction. No one in the room said, “Should we print this stuff?” It was all classified “Top Secret: Sensitive.” Unjustly, I mean. They had in there a 1945 telegram from Ho Chi Ming appealing to President Truman to help him get rid of the French, and they had these classified “Top Secret: Sensitive.”

There wasn’t anything in there of any real military security value. The most recent material was from 1968. But…

It was the central archive of the war, because the historians from the Pentagon who had done this had appended the actual documents to their narratives, and they had had access to all the documents in the State Department, all the documents in the Pentagon, and a lot of the White House stuff went through both places.  So you had a lot of the White House memos there as well: Johnson telling them to keep this secret, how they bamboozled the country over the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and had gotten a blank-check declaration of war in 1964, which the President could cash whenever he wanted.  There it was in black and white.