His exhaustive coverage of the Vietnam War also led to the book “A Bright Shining Lie,” which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
By Janny Scott
- Jan. 7, 2021
Neil Sheehan, the Vietnam War correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who obtained the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, leading the government for the first time in American history to get a judge to block publication of an article on grounds of national security, died on Thursday at his home in Washington. He was 84.
Susan Sheehan, his wife, said the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Sheehan, who covered the war from 1962 to 1966 for United Press International and The Times, was also the author of “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer in 1989. Reviewing it in the Times, Ronald Steel wrote, “If there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.”
Intense and driven, Mr. Sheehan arrived in Vietnam at age 25, a believer in the American mission. He left, four years later, disillusioned and anguished. He later spent what he described as a grim and monastic 16 years on “A Bright Shining Lie,” in the hope that the book would move Americans finally to come to grips with the war.
“I simply cannot help worrying that, in the process of waging this war, we are corrupting ourselves,” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1966. “I wonder, when I look at the bombed-out peasant hamlets, the orphans begging and stealing on the streets of Saigon and the women and children with napalm burns lying on the hospital cots, whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends.”
Mr. Sheehan’s readiness to entertain the notion that Americans might have committed war crimes prompted Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had turned against the war, to leak the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of American decision-making on Vietnam, to him in 1971. The papers revealed that successive administrations had expanded U.S. involvement in the war and intensified attacks on North Vietnam while obscuring their doubts about the likelihood of success.Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon PapersJan. 7, 2021
At 7,000 pages, the leak was the largest disclosure of classified documents in American history up to that point. After the third day of The Times’s coverage, the Nixon administration got a temporary injunction blocking further publication. The Supreme Court’s ruling 17 days later allowing publication to resume has been seen as a statement that prior restraint on freedom of the press is rarely justified. The Times won a Pulitzer, for public service, for its coverage by Mr. Sheehan and others.
In the days after the temporary injunction against the Times, The Washington Post and several other newspapers began publishing their own articles on the Pentagon Papers — only to be blocked themselves until the Supreme Court upheld the right of The Times and The Post to publish.
Opinion: Remembering Journalist And Friend Neil Sheehan
Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers
When I first got to know Neil Sheehan, he was going through trying times. We were war correspondents of different generations and I was in awe of the intrepid reporter of the Vietnam conflict, first for United Press International, then The New York Times. He was the first to get his hands on the leak of official documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed how U.S. government officials had lied to the American people about the Vietnam War.
When we met, Neil was working on a book that centered around John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who served and died in Vietnam. Neil Sheehan admired Vann for his abrasive honesty, especially set against so many official lies. The book took Neil 16 years to write. Susan Sheehan, the great New Yorker writer and Neil’s wife, described those years to us this week for her family simply as “[h]ell. Just hell.”
Neil told me he just found it hard to write a sentence without thinking, “Is this really good enough? … I can’t make a mistake or get something wrong. I owe it to so many to get everything right. If people can know the truth, they can learn from it.” He thought the folly of Vietnam should become a caution for the future.
The tens of thousands of American service members who died in the conflict were not just names on a wall to Neil Sheehan. He remembered the faces and stories of soldiers and Marines he’d known, killed in a war about which they weren’t told the truth; and hundred folds more Vietnamese men, women, children — whole villages destroyed because of American mistakes, arrogance and official lies.
The book Neil finally completed in 1988 titled A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It’s now considered a classic. I hope that designation doesn’t discourage a new generation from reading it today.
Neil Sheehan died Thursday of complications from Parkinson’s at the age of 84 during a week that a U.S. president’s lies to the American people have brought about tragic results.
Susan Sheehan is sure Neil wouldn’t want to be remembered just by books and awards. He cherished his family. He wrote notes to friends not just when they were riding high, but when they were low. I know this personally. His generous spirit came after a tough childhood and a struggle with drinking. All of this grace resonated in his work, but as Susan Sheehan told us, “He didn’t just want to achieve something. Neil wanted to be a good person.” His life and work may remind us — this of all weeks — of the gift we still have in America when good reporters speak eloquently and bring us the truth.
It was a story he had chosen not to tell — until 2015, when he sat for a four-hour interview, promised that this account would not be published while he was alive.
By Janny Scott
- Published Jan. 7, 2021Updated Jan. 8, 2021, 9:29 a.m. ET
There was one story Neil Sheehan chose not to tell. It was the story of how he had obtained the Pentagon Papers, the blockbuster scoop that led to a 1971 showdown between the Nixon administration and the press, and to a Supreme Court ruling that is still seen as a milepost in government-press relations.
From the moment he secured the 7,000 pages of classified government documents on the Vietnam War for The New York Times, until his death on Thursday, Mr. Sheehan, a former Vietnam War correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, declined nearly every invitation to explain precisely how he had pulled it off.
In 2015, however, at a reporter’s request, he agreed to tell his story on the condition that it not be published while he was alive. Beset by scoliosis and Parkinson’s disease, he recounted, in a four-hour interview at his home in Washington, a tale as suspenseful and cinematic as anyone in Hollywood might concoct.
The Pentagon Papers, arguably the greatest journalistic catch of a generation, were a secret history of United States decision-making on Vietnam, commissioned in 1967 by the secretary of defense. Their release revealed for the first time the extent to which successive White House administrations had intensified American involvement in the war while hiding their own doubts about the chances of success.
Recounting the steps that led to his breaking the story, Mr. Sheehan told of aliases scribbled into the guest registers of Massachusetts motels; copy-shop machines crashing under the burden of an all-night, purloined-document load; photocopied pages stashed in a bus-station locker; bundles belted into a seat on a flight from Boston; and telltale initials incinerated in a diplomat’s barbecue set.
He also revealed that he had defied the explicit instructions of his confidential source, whom others later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had been a contributor to the secret history while working for the Rand Corporation. In 1969, Mr. Ellsberg had illicitly copied the entire report, hoping that making it public would hasten an end to a war he had come passionately to oppose.
Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to The Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to The Times.
Over the next two months, he strung Mr. Ellsberg along. He told him that his editors were deliberating about how best to present the material, and he professed to have been sidetracked by other assignments. In fact, he was holed up in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan with the documents and a rapidly expanding team of Times editors and reporters working feverishly toward publication.