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Remembering Neil Sheehan, Vietnam War Correspondent Who Revealed The Pentagon Papers


This is FRESH AIR. Neil Sheehan, the author and Vietnam War correspondent who acquired the secret history of the war, known as the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, died last week due to complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 84.

Sheehan covered the war in the 1960s and later wrote what many regard as the definitive book about the war, "A Bright Shining Lie." It tells the story of the American experience in Vietnam through the life of John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel in the army who devoted decades to the war both as a military officer and a civilian, despite his grave doubts about the American cause and our Vietnamese allies. Sheehan spent 16 years on the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Terry spoke with Neil Sheehan in 1988 when "A Bright Shining Lie" was published.


TERRY GROSS: You arrived in Vietnam as a reporter for UPI in 1962. You were one of about 12 full-time correspondents who were there. And you describe yourself and the other reporters who were there as wanting to see America win the war as badly as the lieutenant colonels in the military did.

NEIL SHEEHAN: That's correct because, you see, we all shared the same outlook in that generation. It was the outlook - what's now called the outlook of the Cold War, all of those beliefs that - first of all, let's remember that America was at the high noon of its power then. And we were also at the high noon of our outlook in - what was really, in retrospect, a naive outlook on ourselves and on the world. We believed that, first of all, anything we wanted to do was innately right and good and, secondly, that we would succeed in it - at it.

It was that outlook that had really been brought on by World War II, the success in World War II, and then the confrontation of the Cold War so that the young reporters shared with the advisors in the field - the senior ones generally tended to be lieutenant colonels, down to captains and lieutenants - that same outlook that they did. We thought our country ought to be in Vietnam, and we thought we should win this war, and we thought we would win it if we fought it the right way.

GROSS: You found that one of your best military sources as a reporter in Vietnam in the early 1960s was John Paul Vann, the subject of your new book. And especially after the Battle of Ap Bac in 1963, he was, you thought, exceptionally honest and didn't hold back how discouraging he found the defeat there to be. The American troops lost five helicopters. They were trampled. And he didn't conceal his anger or the extent of the debacle from the reporters.

SHEEHAN: That's right because by the time Ap Bac occurred, the frustration had been building in John. He had been sent there to get this - to help the South Vietnamese army win this war. And these people didn't want to fight. The leadership didn't want to fight. And they got in this battle with a Viet Cong battalion, and he drove them to try to overcome them, and they wouldn't. And he was furious because he'd been reporting this kind of thing to his superiors in Saigon, and they wouldn't listen to him. They wouldn't - and the South Vietnamese leadership wouldn't change its habits. And he finally just exploded with rage and then really began to talk to the reporters who, by that time, knew him well because we'd been out in many operations with him and his advisers in previous months.

GROSS: When Daniel Ellsberg offered to leak the Pentagon Papers to you, did you have any doubts about having them published? Did you fear that this would be perhaps an unpatriotic act and that it would damage America's credibility? Did you have any of those fears or doubts?

SHEEHAN: Oh, no, I didn't. And this is without getting into the whole business of news sources. That's another story I've never gotten into. But I never - I had no fears that this was going to - that these papers were going to endanger the security of the United States. There were no military secrets in those papers. They were filled with political and historical secrets, which would make a lot of people angry who had been - who had held senior positions in this country. But those papers belonged to the American public, and they were the record of the war. The public had a right to those papers. I mean, the American public had paid for those papers with their lives of their sons and with the treasury of this country. And I had no qualms whatsoever. I think that was true of others at The New York Times who were involved in the whole thing. We felt those papers belonged to the public and had to be published.

GROSS: What were the consequences you feel you had to face for publication of it? Any harassment or consequences to your journalistic career?

SHEEHAN: Well, Richard Nixon was quite unhappy over the whole thing and didn't want to prosecute the publisher of The New York Times, but they thought for a while they would prosecute a reporter. And they got a grand jury going and investigated me for quite a while, for six months or so, and sent FBI agents around to question my neighbors and subpoena my checking accounts. And it kept me - it ate up my life for six months. I spent every day talking to the lawyers. And then they finally gave up. It just sort of melted away.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to be a practicing journalist after you became the man who got access to the Pentagon Papers?

SHEEHAN: No. I had trouble in the period in which they were investigating me, and I was having my time taken up talking to the lawyers about what - the latest move the Nixon administration made. But I didn't have trouble with military sources, for instance, if that's what you mean, because I had maintained - I had always maintained my credibility as a journalist by keeping whatever I wrote in the news column separate from my own opinions and had been very rigorous about that. And I think people I knew understood that, and they continued to see me and accept and talk to me.

GROSS: This is perhaps an absurd question, but if you knew then what you knew now (laughter), if you had more information when you were covering the war, how would you have covered it differently? Do you think you would have been allowed to?

SHEEHAN: I wouldn't have been allowed to. You know, quite recently someone - well, he was the deputy ambassador in Saigon; it's called deputy chief of mission in State Department officialese - came up to me and said, oh, God, why didn't we know this in 1960 or '61 or '62 or '63? And I said, Bill, if we had, you would have been fired if you had - or you'd lost your job if you had tried to make people believe it. And I certainly would have been - would not have been able to write it as a journalist. You would have been fired as a subversive.

I was awfully glad when I was a young UPI reporter in Vietnam, writing things that contradicted what the generals were saying, that I had belonged to the Republican club at Harvard. You have to remember that that was an era in which, when you questioned authority, you were immediately suspect. And if we had really known the things about Vietnam we know now and had questioned the wisdom of the United States being there at all, I don't think you could have practiced journalism. We didn't know. And our ignorance was, to some extent, a professional protection.

GROSS: There were many surprises for you along the way, writing this book. If you could sum up for us - and I know this is an impossible thing to ask - what the greatest change has been for you in your understanding of the war.

SHEEHAN: I came away with it realizing that the war - that there was a great sense of inevitability about the war, that given the political and military leadership of this country in the post-World War II period, we were destined to fight that tragic war in Vietnam and a tragedy for ourselves and for the people of Indochina. When you look at the men involved, the men who made the decisions and their view of the world, you realize that they wouldn't have done anything else other than what they did because they rejected alternative courses when they were offered to them.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you so much for your time.

SHEEHAN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Neil Sheehan speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for his book "A Bright Shining Lie." He died last week at the age of 84. Coming up, "WandaVision," a new miniseries about a suburban couple with amazing powers made in the style of classic TV shows like "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Bewitched." Our TV critic David Bianculli will explain. This is FRESH AIR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.