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If you like Neil Sheehan's story, you might also like:
Sam Donaldson,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
David Halberstam,
Nicholas Kristof,
David McCullough,
Colin Powell,
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and Bob Woodward

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Neil Sheehan
 
Neil Sheehan
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Neil Sheehan Interview

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

June 19, 2007
Washington, D.C.

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  Neil Sheehan

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?


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.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity



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.


Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
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?


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."

[ Key to Success ] Courage


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.


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This page last revised on May 16, 2008 17:04 EDT