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Journalist and Vietnam author Neil Sheehan dies aged 84

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Sheehan was the first to obtain the Pentagon Papers, a massive history of US involvement in Vietnam

Neil Sheehan, a US reporter who wrote an award-winning book about the Vietnam War, has died aged 84.

Sheehan died on Thursday morning of complications from Parkinson’s disease, his daughter, Catherine Sheehan Bruno said. His account of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann And America In Vietnam, took him 15 years to write. The 1988 book won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

Sheehan served as a war correspondent for United Press International and then the New York Times in the early days of US involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. It was there that he developed a fascination with what he would call “our first war in vain” where “people were dying for nothing”.

As a national writer for the New York Times based in Washington, Sheehan was the first to obtain the Pentagon Papers, a massive history of US involvement in Vietnam ordered up by the Defence Department. Daniel Ellsberg, a former consultant to the Defence Department who had previously leaked Vietnam-related documents to Sheehan, had copied the papers and made arrangements to get them to Sheehan.

The New York Times reports, which began in June 1971, exposed widespread government deception about US prospects for victory. Soon, The Washington Post also began publishing stories about the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers looked in excruciating detail at the decisions and strategies of the war. And they told how involvement was built up steadily by political leaders and top military brass who were overconfident about US prospects and deceptive about the accomplishments against the North Vietnamese.

Injunction Soon after the initial stories were published, the Nixon administration got an injunction arguing national security was at stake, and publication was stopped. The action started a heated debate about the First Amendment that quickly moved up to the Supreme Court. On June 30th, 1971, the court ruled 6-3 in favour of allowing publication, and the New York Times and the Washington Post resumed publishing their stories.

The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1972 for its Pentagon Papers coverage, and the paper’s editors praised Sheehan for his central role. “We are all particularly proud of Neil Sheehan for the tenacity, knowledge and professional ability that contributed so pivotally to the whole project,” said AM Rosenthal, then the managing editor of the New York Times, after the Pulitzer was announced.

After the publication of the Pentagon Papers stories, Sheehan became increasingly interested in trying to capture the essence of the complex and contradictory war, so he set out to write a book.

“I tried to tell the story of what happened in Vietnam, and why it happened,” he said in a 1988 interview that aired on C-SPAN. “The desire I had is that this book will help people come to grips with this war. … Vietnam will be a war in vain only if we don’t draw wisdom from it.”

Sheehan thought his book about the war could be best told through his account of an officer he had met in Vietnam. John Paul Vann was a charismatic lieutenant colonel in the army who served as a senior adviser to South Vietnamese troops in the early 1960s, retired from the army in frustration, then came back to Vietnam and rejoined the conflict as a civilian helping direct operations in a variety of roles. Vann was convinced the US could have won the war if it had made better decisions.

To Sheehan, Vann personified the US pride, the confident attitude and the fierce will to win the war – qualities that clouded the judgment of some on whether the war was winnable.

The Associated Press – January 7, 2021

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