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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,
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and Bob Woodward

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Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan
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Neil Sheehan Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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  Neil Sheehan

You started out at Harvard as an English major, but you changed to history midway. How did that come about?

I took an exam in a modern English course. I can't remember the course now, and there was a three-part question -- this is my sophomore year -- a three-part question. A: I read the novel of A. I had not read the novel of B, and I had read the novel in C. But I had enough of the New Criticism jargon in my head -- the criticism of that time was called New Criticism -- so that I was able to fake my way, fake my ignorance of Novel B, and I got an A in the course. I got an A in Levin's course and only went to two of his classes. I wrote my papers and handed them in, but I only went to two lectures. I decided this is no good. I'm not learning anything.

I should switch to history, because I liked history, and I always read history. In fact, before I had gone to boys' school, one of my escapes, when I was unhappy, was to read historical novels. History had always appealed to me. I had a grand uncle who was an Irishman of his generation, in the sense that the British empire was his great enemy. The Germans had not sunk the Lusitania in World War I; the British Secret Service had. He was a great history buff, and I'd go to his house for my lunches when I was a little boy in grammar school, and we'd talk history after lunch, and so I had this love of history. I said, "What form of history should I major in?"

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
I had an Iranian roommate who has since disappeared. I don't know what happened to him. He went back to Iran, and he disappeared. He was a very wealthy, very decadent character. He majored in architecture and never did any studying. He hired an Iranian graduate student to write all of his papers for him. The professors thought Reza was brilliant and always wanted to discuss his papers with him, which he never would do because he didn't know anything about what was going on in the course.

Harvard had just formed a new Middle East center. The old Aga Khan gave Harvard a lot of money to form a Middle East center, and Harvard went to Oxford University to hire the premier Arabist of his time. It was a man named Sir Hamilton Gibb, and they, in effect, bribed him out of Oxford. They said, "Look, we will make you a University Professor, which means you can do whatever you want. Here is all of this money if you found a Middle East center. Hire whoever you want to. Your decisions are entirely yours. Please come," and he did. He left Oxford and came over, and he started this Middle East center. It started the year before my freshman year.

I switched to Middle Eastern history. I thought, "Hey, this would be interesting to do," and it was wonderful. His lectures were grand. I had a very good tutor. I took the honors course. I wrote a thesis on something they called the Wafd Party, which was one of the early nationalist parties in Egypt, which was corrupted by the British. I remember one of the professors who read it said it was too generalistic, that was the criticism of the thesis. But I did get honors, regular honors, cum laude, not high honors because I was still drinking then, and it was interfering with my courses, but it was a wonderful decision to major in it. I have never been to the Middle East, except as a tourist, but I learned things. Studying Ottoman history was fascinating. I learned things about a part of the world I knew nothing about, and I've followed it ever since. I've followed it from afar ever since. I read constantly, anything about the Middle East.

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
So I got out of Harvard, graduated. We had military service then. You had to do six months and then five years of reserve, or you did two years through the draft. They were still calling up the reserves then. It's forgotten now, but Kennedy called it the "reserves over Berlin." I didn't want five years of reserve duty hanging over me. I went to the draft board in Holyoke, my hometown. I volunteered for the draft, and they said, "You'll have to wait six months." I said, "Why should I have to wait six months?" They said, "The Army is only taking two a month." There was no war on. The Army was much smaller than it is now, and so I went to the recruiting sergeant. He said if I joined for three years, I'd get a much better deal. I ended up as a pay clerk in Korea up by the Demilitarized Zone in a miserable place. It was really miserable. The windows in the old Quonset huts were broken, and we froze to death in the winter. You'd have to get in your sleeping bag to sleep at night. It was horrible.

I got word that they were looking for writers in the Division Information Office, 40 miles closer to Seoul. So I went down there, and I took the test. The Army has a test for everything. I took the test for journalism, and I passed it. The sergeant who was running it knew nothing about how to run an information office -- he couldn't write a sentence -- but he knew that you hired a PFC who could. He offered me a job, and the sergeant I was working for in this miserable place up by the DMZ let me go. So I went down there, and I ended up running the Division Information Office. My deputy was another PFC named Bernie Weinraub, who ended up as the New York Times reporter in Hollywood, and accompanied me on his last assignment in Korea. He was in Vietnam, too. I discovered I really liked this, and then...

They offered me a job to go over into Tokyo to put out a weekly. We put out a weekly newspaper for the division, and they offered me the job of going to Tokyo because the sergeant who was there was going home, and they offered me the job of going over there and taking it over, and I took it. I jumped at it. So here I was in Tokyo, working at Stars and Stripes, putting out a weekly newspaper. We worked in civilian clothes, except once a month we had to put a uniform on. We were living in officers quarters in what later became the Olympic Village. The Japanese had built it during the occupation. And I decided I really like this. I want to be a journalist. I want to be a reporter. This is what I want to do, and I hadn't known that when I joined the Army. I thought I'd go to work for the CIA and study Arabic or something, and go to work for the CIA or some oil company or something like that, but journalism is what really turned me on.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Part of my job was to hand out a news release to the real press in Tokyo if something happened to our division in Korea that was newsworthy. So I got to know the guys in the AP Bureau and the UPI Bureau -- UPI then was a very lively wire service -- The New York Times guy and The Wall Street Journal guy and the Newsweek guy. When I went to the AP, it was very well staffed. The Associated Press is an association of newspapers. It doesn't have to make a profit, and the UPI, which is a privately owned wire service, was understaffed, critically understaffed. They had nobody in there. They had one American reporter and one Japanese reporter on duty. Teletype machines banging, making a terrific racket -- these old World War II things that they had taken the covers off of -- which they were sending and receiving on. When I went in there with a news release, the American guy would say, "Throw it on the table, kid." He had no time to talk to me. So...

I thought, "Well, if I go to the AP, I'll never get anything to do, but if I go down to the UPI and ask them if I can work for nothing to learn the business..." because I realized you got to go to a professional to really learn this business, "...maybe they'll let me do it." So I went down, and I asked the bureau chief if I could work for nothing. He said, "You want to work for nothing, kid?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "When do you want to start?" I said, "Could I come in three days next week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday?" He said, "Sure. Come in. Come down at three o'clock," because I finished my work editing the paper by 2:00, and I could catch the train into Tokyo.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

He said, "Come in for the 3:00-to-11:00 shift." So I came in, and I was sort of an assistant to the guy who was pulling the shift, because there was only one American reporter and one Japanese reporter on each shift. Tokyo was a filing point for Asia. Everything came pouring into Tokyo in cable-ese to save money. You didn't put "the's" in. It was all shorthand. Then you rewrote it into readable English and sent it on the wire to San Francisco via Manila. In any case, I came in. I worked for two weeks, three nights a week, and then they said to me, "How would you like to pull a shift by yourself, six nights a week? We'll pay you ten dollars a night." So I called my boss in Korea, a major who was the information officer for the division, and I said, "Can I do this?" He said, "Yeah, sure. Just no bylines. There is no Army regulation against it. Just no bylines, because you'd be accused of bringing disgrace on the Army if something happened. But otherwise, go ahead." So I worked for them for about five or six months, my last five or six months in the Army, and then they offered me a job. I took my discharge in Tokyo. I went to work for them for a very simple reason. The turnover was tremendous. I knew that I'd get out of Tokyo and I'd get a bureau very quickly, because people were constantly turning over.

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
The guy in Jakarta, Indonesia, for instance. I got a message one night for the boss, whose name was Ernest Hoberecht, the vice president for Asia. It said that the guy -- I'll never forget his name, it was Dabovich -- he cabled up, and he said his draft board had notified him. He had to come back for the draft, and he'd be leaving. So I called Mr. Hoberecht at home and read him the telegram, and he said, "Fine. Take a message," and I took the message. The message said, "Okay, Dabovich. Don't worry about it. Just leave when you have to. We will replace you." So a couple of nights later, a message came in, and it said, "What about my plane fare home, Ernie?" and I called Mr. Hoberecht at his home, and I read that to him, and he said, "Take a message," and the message said, "Dabovich, if your draft board wants you, they can pay your way home. Hoberecht." His salary was partially based on the percentage of profit that the division made. So every nickel Hoberecht spent was coming out of his own pocket. Well, about three nights later, a very angry message came in from the President of UPI in New York saying, "Hoberecht, damn it, give the kid his money so he can go home." I did not call Mr. Hoberecht at home and read him that. UPI was underpaid. It was undermanned. People called it the "Marine Corps of Journalism," and there was this tremendous turnover. So I went to work for them in April of '62 when I got out of the Army.

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