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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,
Dan Rather,
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Michael Thornton
and Bob Woodward

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Neil Sheehan
 
Neil Sheehan
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Neil Sheehan Interview (page: 2 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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  Neil Sheehan

The New York Times' decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was a very controversial one. Was there any hesitation on the part of your editors?

I was very proud our executive editor -- A.M. Rosenthal, he was called -- Abe Rosenthal.


The staff counsel, the lawyer for the paper hadn't heard anything about this, and he was brought into the room too, and kept saying to me, "Don't tell them this." He kept whispering in my ear, "We may have committed a felony here. Don't tell them this," and I said, "But I have to tell them. It's their responsibility. They're the editors." I held nothing back. I outlined what we had and how explosive it was going to be. We were not going to compromise the national security of the United States, but it was full of political and historical secrets which were going to cause an explosion, because that's what politicians care about. You could print a formula for a nuclear weapon, and that won't really excite them, but if you print something that reflects on their reputations and says they made a mistake, why that drives them right through the wall.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity



Abe never said to me -- he called me over to his office after the main briefing, and he sat me down, and he said, "Now, look, how do we know these things weren't made up by a bunch of kids in a cellar?" This is the time of the hippies and the flower children and all the revolution. "How do you know this is authentic?" and I said, "Well first of all, I know the people who I got this from had access to the real thing, and secondly, I have read enough of this stuff as a military correspondent," because people would give me classified documents. I said, "This is real. There's nothing fake here." He didn't entirely believe me. He had the foreign editor who had been in government -- a man named James Greenfield -- read some of this stuff, and Jimmy said, "Yeah. It's for real."


And then...


This tremendous battle occurred within The New York Times between Rosenthal and the other editors, mainly the business side, and the main legal counsel for the paper. The outside counsel was a famous establishment New York lawyer named Louis Loeb, who told the publisher that if he published this material, the government would take him into court, and he would lose against the restraining order, and Loeb would not defend him! He would refuse to defend him. It was such an arrogant, incredibly arrogant thing to tell a man who's running The New York Times and whose editors are telling him, "You've got to publish this material. This belongs in the public domain. We have a duty under the First Amendment to publish it. It doesn't matter what these people say. You've got to publish it. That's it." The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, who also was called "Punch," the father of the current publisher, decided to go ahead and gave the editors their head. He fired the chief counsel afterwards. He fired Louie Loeb.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


Fortunately, the staff counsel who had been whispering in my ear in that meeting -- saying, "Why are you telling them this?" -- he was a young lawyer, and he had been put in the firm as staff counsel by Loeb, and he disagreed with Loeb. He said, "Look, you are wrong, Louie. We have a right to publish this under the First Amendment, and if we are taken into court, we will win," and he turned out to be correct, but...


They didn't have a lawyer to even go to court when they got a telegram from Mitchell saying, "Stop publishing and hand over the documents or meet me in court in the morning." Fortunately, they pulled a very good judge who believed in the First Amendment, who was very conservative. He was a Nixon appointee, and it was his first week on the bench, and it was his first case. His name was [Murray L.] Gurfein. He was a Jewish Dewey Republican, which was a rare beast in New York. Most Jewish figures who were involved in politics were Democrats, but not Judge -- what became Judge -- Gurfein, and he had been a very conservative lawyer, but he believed in the First Amendment, and he was a good lawyer. And he said to the government, "Okay. Now show me what's 'Top Secret: Sensitive,' in this." "Well," they said, "It's all." "Wait a minute. You've got 7,000 pages and a million words. It can't all be 'Top Secret: Sensitive.' What is it that's going to compromise the national security?" Because the government came in with a restraining order, with a case that if we continued to publish, it would cause immediate and irreparable harm to the national security. He said, "Okay. Now show me what's going to cause harm," and they couldn't show him anything. This man had been in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. He had been a colonel. So he wasn't an entire dummy.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
At first, he was very unfriendly to the Times lawyers, because he lived in New York, but he wasn't accustomed to what, post World War II, became known as "political classification," classifying things to keep them out of circulation. He thought if something was top secret, it really was top secret, but his eyes were opened. He opened his own eyes, and he wrote a resounding opinion, but then he was reversed. We published for three days, and then we were stopped by the restraining order. The Washington Post got hold of a set, and they started publishing, and the government took them into court, and their case moved quickly to the Appeals Court, so it was getting ripe. It was ripe for the Supreme Court. So the Times and the Post went to the Supreme Court, and they found in our favor. But yes, it was a momentous adventure to take part in.


It was like going to war. I mean, the strain, the tensions on you were tremendous. First of all, we were in the Hilton Hotel working on this thing for two months before we published, and the strains, they were horrendous. It was a huge amount of material. You had to boil it down, decide what was the most important stuff. Then you had to hand that out to four reporters, each of whom wrote three pieces approximately. And then you were up against the situation where, as soon as the executive editor got the go from the publisher, he was going to go. And then we got into this legal battle, and you had all the tension of that. I remember the day the Supreme Court decided in our favor, that night I went down to the press room to see the presses roll -- and then the presses were in The New York Times building on West 43rd Street -- and what a wonderful thing it was to see these giant presses start to roll and the paper come off! It reaffirmed your faith in America and in the freedoms we ought to enjoy, and it reaffirmed your faith in the worth of American journalism, of free journalism in a free country.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


When and why did you decide you had to write a book about Vietnam?

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
Neil Sheehan: I never got away from the war. I was sent down at the age of 25 in April of 1962 by UPI. I spent two years there. I went to Indonesia for six months, after six months in New York, but then I went back for another year for the big American war. I saw the two phases of it begin. Then they sent me to Washington to be the Defense Department correspondent. So I was covering the Washington end of the war. Then I was White House correspondent for six months, still on the Washington end of the war. The war dominated everything here. Then I didn't want to go back to the Pentagon, so I asked to be made investigative reporter for the Bureau for Political Military Affairs, and they said okay, and I was back again. Not as often, but I was still with Vietnam. And then the Pentagon Papers came in '71, in the midst of this, when I was an investigative reporter for the bureau. Again, Vietnam, in a very traumatic, emotional, exhausting, but fulfilling way.


I then began to realize I want to write a book about this. I don't want to just end this with another magazine article or another newspaper story, but I couldn't figure out how to write the book. I didn't want to write a reporter's memoir, because it's my belief that reporters themselves are not that important, not important enough to merit a book about them and their adventures. Their importance lies in what they witness and how they convey what they witnessed to the public as a whole, because a reporter is a professional witness and not a participant. He's a witness, or she's a witness.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


Then Colonel John Vann died. I had gone with him on my first helicopter operation in May of 1962 when he was the senior advisor in the northern Mekong Delta. I had gone out with him on a first assault, '62, and I stayed friends with him through the years. John had other disciples besides me, and other friends, and almost all of them turned against the war, but John stayed with the war. It's the one thing we totally disagreed on by the end, but he stayed there in Vietnam.

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
Most people went to Vietnam, they stayed one year, two years at the most, three years perhaps, and then they came home. John stayed there for the better part of ten years, from '62 until he was killed in June of '72. So by the time he died, he had become a personification of the American war in Vietnam, and I went to his funeral in Arlington, because he was a friend. By that time, John was a civilian, because he retired from the Army in '63 or '64. He had retired, but he had been on detail to the Army, and he was the equivalent of a general. In fact, he was the first -- and so far the only -- civilian in our history to hold military command in war. John had a deputy who was a brigadier general. They assigned a brigadier general to him as his deputy, so it would be legal, because the deputy could exercise court-martial authority, but John was the corps commander.

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