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If you like Neil Sheehan's story, you might also like:
Sam Donaldson,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
David Halberstam,
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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: 7 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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  Neil Sheehan

You were in Japan when you got out of the Army and went to work for the Associated Press. How did you end up in Vietnam?


I took my discharge in Japan. A month later, I found a note in my typewriter saying, "How is your French? Come and see me in the morning." It was from Hoberecht, the boss, and he told me that the guy who had broken me in, who had trained me for the desk and who had gone down to Saigon, had just quit and gone to work for Time magazine as their stringer. They paid him a lot more than UPI was paying. How would I like to go down there? "Oh," I said, "I'd love to go down there." I was the logical choice. I was the bachelor in the office. So down I went. I was in Vietnam a month after getting out of the Army. I never got shot at in uniform, but (I got) shot at after I got out. And that's where it started. That was my first assignment. I spent two years there for the UPI, '62 through to '64, which was the "advisory war," the Kennedy war -- the helicopters and the military advisors -- and that failed, of course. The Viet Cong kept getting stronger and stronger.


Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
I went back in '64 and got a job at The New York Times and met my wife, who was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and after my six-month probation period on the Times was over -- the Times had a probationary system for your first six months. You could get sacked without any justification. They could just say, "Thank you very much, but it won't work." But after six months, you were permanently on hire. When my six months was up, the foreign editor called me over and said he wanted me to go down to Indonesia as fast as I could, take the bureau there. So I went down there, and I was there six months. They sent me up to Vietnam for our third year in Vietnam. A friend of mine was taking over the Vietnam job, and he wanted me to work with him. So I spent two years in Vietnam for the UPI and then a year there for The New York Times, and then I came back. They sent me back to Washington to be a Pentagon correspondent. So I never got away from the war for ten years.

When you started out as a reporter, did you ever imagine that Vietnam would become so much a part of your life?

Neil Sheehan: No. It never occurred to me.


It was all -- how do you say? -- serendipitous. I took this job with the UPI because I wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to be a journalist. You got responsibility right away at the UPI because there was nobody else to do it. That's why they offered me a job, six nights a week at $10 a night. I learned how to run a desk. I mean, somebody broke me in and taught me, but I learned how to run a desk, a wire desk, a war service desk, where copy just poured in and you had to rewrite it. You also had to cover Japan by telephone if anything happened. Then they sent me down to Saigon because somebody quit, and I was thrilled to go. I mean, to go down and to cover a war, wow! That was the big story, and you weren't afraid at first, you know.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


Later on, I interviewed somebody who had barely survived the first Chinese assault in Korea. He got out of West Point and went to Korea as a second lieutenant, and they put him to work organizing this ranger company out of cooks and bakers. He couldn't take any regular infantrymen. All he could take was rejects, cooks, bakers, people like that in Japan, and they turned out to be a wonderful fighting force, although they didn't survive long with the Chinese. His company was one of the first units assaulted in 1950 in Korea when the Chinese broke loose in the north. He was badly wounded in his legs, and his men were so loyal to him, they came back up the hill after the Chinese had overrun it and pulled him out of the foxhole and dragged him off the hill. And I asked him, "Were you afraid?" He said no. He said, "I wasn't afraid to go." He said, "Hell, I thought it was like going to a football game. I was just afraid I was going to get there, and the game would be over. I'd get there too late." Well, it was that attitude I had going to Vietnam as a young reporter.


I wasn't afraid going to war. I almost got killed six months later in a so-called "friendly" artillery barrage. This incompetent Vietnamese general shelled his own troops. That put the fear of God into me. From that day forward, I was always afraid when I went out, but you had to go out. You just had to learn how to control your fear. That's all. Soldiers -- most soldiers who are sane -- are afraid, but they control. The professionals learn to control their fear, and that is what you had to do, because you had to go out.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


How do you see the journalist's role in American society?


Neil Sheehan: We have a unique law in this country called the First Amendment of the Constitution. It says that Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of speech, respecting establishment of religion, or abridging the freedom of the press. I have always believed that that places a duty on the American journalist to seek out important truths and to get those truths to the public. Now, what's important varies according to the time, but you've got to think of yourself -- you're not an ally of government. You are not a propagandist. You are not an advocate. You are a witness, and you've got to find out the truth of a given situation and then get that truth into print or on television or on the air -- however. That is what an American journalist should do, because I think, in this country, journalism is really a fourth branch of government. It always functioned as a fourth branch of government.


The most recent example of it is Watergate. We need a system of checks and balances. We are not like the Brits. We don't have a sense of restraint.


The Founding Fathers built in a sense of checks and balances with the three branches of government, and they also, I think, meant there to be a fourth branch, which is the press. That's why they enacted that law, the First Amendment. It's the First Amendment to the Constitution, not the Second, which is to carry firearms, but the First. And it's there for a reason, I think, because they saw the press as a check on government, on the power of government, and it's terribly important that journalists remember that, publishers remember it.


The most recent example is this terrible business in Iraq.


Look at how much of the news media went along with Iraq. You saw Fox News. You'd turn on Fox News, here was this headline -- this caption -- that said "Operation Iraqi Freedom," which was the Pentagon slogan for the invasion of Iraq. It was a catastrophe, that war, and you could have foreseen it was a catastrophe, and the news media should have been hammering home early on, what the possibilities were once these people were opening up, because Iraq was never a country. It was put together by the British for the oil out of three Turkish provinces, none of which had anything to do with each other. None of this got before the American public. You had press barons like Murdoch who were pushing the administration's point of view, and if you didn't broadcast what Rupert Murdoch wanted or print what he wanted, he'd sack you.


It was the same thing in the old days with Time magazine. If you didn't turn in what they wanted, they just tore it up and threw it in the wastebasket.


My friend, as I said, Charles Mohr, who worked for the Times, he quit Time magazine for that reason. They asked him to write a story on whether the commanding general and the ambassador were right, or whether the reporters were right, and this is the early period in Vietnam, when we were in the clash of whether we were winning or losing the war. Charley wrote them a story -- he was their Southeast Asia bureau chief -- the first sentence in his report, because he showed it to me, was "The war in Vietnam is being lost." They tore it up and threw it in the wastebasket and concocted out a whole clause, a story in New York, saying that we were making up our stories in the Caravel Hotel bar in Saigon, and Charley resigned over it.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


This is the opposite of what American journalism ought to be. American journalists ought to be honest, independent and adversarial journalists. Journalists don't have any friends in government. One of my editors once said to me, "If you get invited to the White House, take your notebook with you," and he meant it. It's something one has to always remember because when you stray off the path, you do a disservice to the American public.

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