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Neil Sheehan, N.Y. Times reporter who obtained Pentagon Papers and chronicled ‘Bright Shining Lie’ of Vietnam, dies at 84

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 7, 2021

By Harrison Smith Washington Post

Neil Sheehan, a tireless chronicler of the Vietnam War who obtained the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times and later received the Pulitzer Prize for his book “A Bright Shining Lie,” a meticulously researched indictment of America’s role in that conflict, died Thursday at his home in Washington. He was 84.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, author Susan Sheehan.

Sheehan, the son of impoverished Irish-immigrant dairy farmers, graduated from Harvard University and served in the Army before joining the United Press International wire service. Reporting from Saigon in the early 1960s, he became known as one of the “fearless threesome” of Vietnam War correspondents.

Along with Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press and David Halberstam of the Times, he ferreted out details about battlefield casualties and war-zone dysfunction, crafting dispatches that challenged sunny reports from the daily military press briefings that some journalists ridiculed as “Five O’Clock Follies.”

Sheehan was buffeted by editors who found him too slow in churning out stories, generals who labeled him a liar, and politicians and other critics who derided his work as unpatriotic, even detrimental to national security. Rarely, if ever, was he rattled by authority.

“If you’re afraid of going to jail,” he once quipped, “you have no business being a newspaperman.”

Sheehan was recruited to the Times in 1964 and soon became a Defense Department correspondent. A dogged but difficult reporter, he pushed deadlines, endlessly reworked his stories and wrote opinion pieces that, some of his bosses said, sullied the newspaper’s reputation for dispassionate journalism.

In an 8,000-word cover story for the Times Book Review in 1971, Sheehan cited 33 recent books on Vietnam and suggested that President Richard Nixon was guilty of war crimes. It was a shocking accusation by a reporter who covered the White House and Pentagon, but, according to Halberstam’s media history “The Powers That Be,” the article helped Sheehan gain the trust of Daniel Ellsberg, his link to the Pentagon Papers.

A military analyst for the Rand Corp., Ellsberg had served on the committee that produced the papers, a 47-volume history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that was commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967 and detailed government deception across four presidential administrations.

Disillusioned by the war effort, Ellsberg sought an outlet that would publish large sections of the 7,000-page report. He chose Sheehan and the Times in part because he had previously leaked secret documents to the reporter. When they struggled to reach an agreement that would allow Sheehan to take a copy of the documents to his editors, Sheehan went out on his own.

With the help of his wife, he photocopied the papers while Ellsberg was out of town. (Ellsberg later gave Sheehan a copy of the documents, effectively granting his consent to publish.) Explaining his decision to go behind Ellsberg’s back, Sheehan later said the documents belonged not to any one man but “to the people of America and of Indochina, who had paid for them with their blood.”

The potential consequences of publishing the documents were uncertain, ranging from fines and financial ruin for the Times to charges of treason and prison sentences. Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger recalled feeling that “the entire operation smelled of 20 years to life.”

Nevertheless, he greenlighted publication of stories that Sheehan and other Times reporters worked on for weeks inside a guarded Manhattan hotel suite. The first of the stories, published above the fold on June 13, 1971, carried Sheehan’s byline alone.

The response was explosive. Attorney General John Mitchell accused the Times of violating the Espionage Act and demanded the paper stop publishing the documents. When the Times refused, the government won a court order barring further publication, setting the stage for a sequence that was dramatized in the 2017 movie “The Post.”

Obtaining its own copies of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, The Washington Post began to publish stories about the documents, defying the injunction against the Times. Other newspapers started to publish stories as well. A Supreme Court decision on June 30, 1971, upheld the right of the Times and The Post to publish, affirming the primacy of media freedoms over government attempts to impose “prior restraint” on news stories.

For Sheehan, whose bank records had been subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation into his work, the legal victory was muted by the enduring fact of the war itself, which eventually claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and at least several hundred thousand Vietnamese.

“Some would have us believe that in publishing the Pentagon Papers we committed theft and treason,” he said in 1971, receiving the Drew Pearson Prize for excellence in investigative reporting. “I believe that in publishing this history of the Vietnam War, we gave to the American people … a small accounting of a debt that can never be repaid. But if to report now be called theft, and if to publish now be called treason, then so be it. Let God give us the courage to commit more of the same.”

The newspaper, not the reporter, received the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service, despite a recommendation from the prize’s five-member jury that the Times share the honor with Sheehan. Sheehan, who left the Times in 1972, won the Pulitzer, along with a National Book Award, for “A Bright Shining Lie” (1988).

Blending history, memoir and biography, the 800-page book centered on John Paul Vann, a brilliant but troubled Army lieutenant colonel whom Sheehan befriended in Vietnam. When Vann died in a helicopter crash in 1972, his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery featured a striking constellation of Vietnam War advocates and opponents: Ellsberg, Gen. William Westmoreland, future CIA chief William Colby, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and William Rogers and Melvin Laird, the secretaries of state and defense.

“We were burying that whole era of immense self-confidence that led us to Vietnam,” Sheehan later said. “I realized if I wrote a book about John, I could also write a book about the war.”

Inspired by the literary style of Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” “In Cold Blood,” Sheehan delved into the man who deemed himself “one of the bright shining lies” of the Vietnam War, a phrase that for Sheehan seemed to embody America’s delusional involvement in Southeast Asia.

When Vann resigned from the Army in 1963, Sheehan believed it was to protest a military strategy doomed to failure. In fact, he learned in his research, a statutory rape charge had stalled Vann’s career.

Vann returned to Vietnam as a civilian adviser and ended up commanding the military operations of an entire province. No longer concerned with civilian casualties, he said he yearned to bomb the countryside until it became “a moonscape.” He died having just won a major battle and, Sheehan wrote in the book’s final line, “believing he had won his war.”

Sheehan devoted 16 years to “A Bright Shining Lie.” He returned twice to Vietnam and said he “worked Saigon time” while stateside, sleeping for much of the day and writing through the night. He repeatedly ran out of money and suffered anxiety-induced stomach pain as well as injuries froma freak car accident near his family cabin in West Virginia. By the time he was finished, friends joked that he was “the last casualty of Vietnam.”

“Immensely long, enormously ambitious, told with an emotion that bursts through its pages, this is an impressive achievement,” writer and historian Ronald Steel wrote in a review for the Times. “If there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.”

Cornelius Mahoney Sheehan was born in Holyoke, Mass., on Oct. 27, 1936. He was the 1954 valedictorian of what is now Northfield Mount Hermon, a preparatory school he attended on a scholarship and with money from summer jobs at hayfields.

At Harvard, he lost his scholarship because of his out-of-control drinking and scrounged for loans to pay tuition. After graduating in 1958, he served as an Army pay clerk in Korea and landed a job as a military reporter after a concerned colonel helped him sober up. He joined UPI after being discharged in 1962.

Sheehan married Susan Margulies, a writer for the New Yorker, in 1965 after an introduction from then-Times reporter Gay Talese. She won a Pulitzer for her 1982 book “Is There No Place on Earth For Me?,” a harrowing account of a schizophrenic woman’s journey in and out of institutions.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters, Maria Gregory Sheehan and Catherine Sheehan Bruno, all of Washington; two brothers; and two grandsons.

Sheehan moved away from daily reporting after publishing his first book, “The Arnheiter Affair” (1972), which recalled Herman Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny” in its depiction of a Navy officer’s ouster during the Vietnam War. The book’s subject, Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter, unsuccessfully sued Sheehan for libel.

Sheehan ranged far beyond the Vietnam War in books such as “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War” (2009), which centered on Bernard A. Schriever, the Air Force general who oversaw the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile.

But decades after the fact, his early years in Indochina remained etched in his memory. He recalled a pivotal moment in 1963 when he was covering the aftermath of a battle near Ap Bac, a village in the Mekong Delta. Setting aside his notebook, he found himself vomiting as he helped cover the bodies of 80 dead South Vietnamese. He was soon forced to take cover in the muck, as a distant South Vietnamese commander began shelling the battlefield, killing four of his own men he had mistaken for enemy forces.

“I never saw any glory in war again,” Sheehan told the Post, “and I never again went into a battle unafraid.”

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