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If you like Neil Sheehan's story, you might also like:
Sam Donaldson,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
David Halberstam,
Nicholas Kristof,
David McCullough,
Colin Powell,
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and Bob Woodward

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Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan
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Neil Sheehan Biography

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

Neil Sheehan Date of birth: October 27, 1936

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  Neil Sheehan

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Neil Sheehan was born Cornelius Mahoney Sheehan in Holyoke, Massachusetts and raised on his family's dairy farm. From an early age, he worked on the farm, but he dreamed of the world beyond the pasture gate. With the encouragement of his Irish immigrant mother, he won scholarships to Mount Hermon Academy and then to Harvard, where he distinguished himself as an editor of the Harvard Advocate literary magazine.

On graduating from Harvard, he entered the United States Army and was assigned first to Korea, but later transferred to the 7th Infantry Division newspaper in Tokyo. While editing the weekly Bayonet, he began to moonlight in the Tokyo office of the wire service United Press International (UPI). After his discharge from the army, he became a full-time reporter for UPI, and was soon put in charge of the Saigon bureau, covering the emerging conflict in Vietnam.

The withdrawal of French colonial forces had left the Vietnamese peninsula divided. A Communist regime in the North, led by Ho Chi Minh, received support from the Soviet Union and China. In the South, the colonial regime was succeeded by a series of weak governments, supported by the United States. Sheehan's reporting from Vietnam won him a place with the most prestigious newspaper in the United States, The New York Times.

Neil Sheehan Biography Photo
The Times assigned Sheehan to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he covered the events leading up to large-scale massacre of suspected leftists by the U.S.-backed Indonesian military. Soon he was back in Vietnam as the Times correspondent. By now, U.S. advisory support for the faltering South Vietnamese regime had given way to a full-scale U.S. military involvement. While the American government portrayed the Vietnam War as one front in a global conflict with a unified Communist enemy, Sheehan saw that the Vietnamese regarded their struggle as a war of national liberation from foreign occupation. As the U.S. resorted to increasingly extreme methods to suppress the Viet Cong insurgency in the South, the Vietnamese resistance hardened. Sheehan's reporting made him deeply unpopular with the Pentagon and the State Department, but his reports were making an impact on public opinion at home.

Returning to the U.S., Sheehan was assigned to cover the Pentagon and later the White House. In 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara had assigned his subordinate, Leslie Gelb, among others, to compile a history of United States-Vietnam relations. The resulting document ran to 7,000 pages in 47 volumes. In 1971, a former State Department employee, Daniel Ellsberg, obtained a copy of the confidential report and attempted to give it to members of the United States Senate. Rebuffed, Ellsberg contacted Neil Sheehan. Sheehan spent weeks studying the documents, tracing U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia from 1945, and found a disturbing pattern of deception. From early in the war, Sheehan concluded, American leaders had been skeptical of the chances for victory in Vietnam, but had led the United States into war for political considerations, using false information to mislead the public.

Neil Sheehan Biography Photo
When the Times began to publish Sheehan's reports, including excerpts from the classified documents, the Nixon administration claimed the entire document was top secret and secured a court injunction barring the Times from publishing further excerpts or descriptions of the documents. A series of trials resulted, in a battle between the Nixon administration and the Times that lasted 15 days. Overreaching, White House operatives broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, hoping to find information that would discredit Ellsberg and bring the authenticity of the documents into question. This burglary, which preceded the Watergate break-in, eventually led to Nixon's resignation. The Supreme Court, in The New York Times Co. v. United States, ruled that publication of the documents was not injurious to national security, but was in the public interest, protected by the First Amendment. The Times's edition of the Pentagon Papers became a national best-seller.

Neil Sheehan Biography Photo
In 1972, Sheehan published a book on another scandal of the Vietnam War. The Arnheiter Affair recounted an infamous case in which the dangerously eccentric commanding officer of the U.S.S. Vance was relieved of his command. Sheehan had now been reporting on the Vietnam War for the better part of a decade. He wanted to put the experience behind him, but felt that there was more that he needed to say. That year, he attended the funeral of an old friend, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, a decorated hero of the war. In Sheehan's eyes, Vann's story captured the entire tragedy of America's involvement in Vietnam, with all its good intentions and all its calamitous results.

Sheehan took a leave from the Times, expecting to spend two to three years writing his book. it proved a far more demanding venture than he ever expected. Midway through his work on the book, he was seriously injured in a head-on collision. With eleven bones broken, he spent three months in the hospital and was unable to work on the book for another year. When he resumed work, his finances were badly strained. He received a number of grants to continue his project; an advance from his publishers and the sale of partial serialization rights to The New Yorker enabled Neil Sheehan to finish his monumental narrative. It took another year to edit the manuscript to a reasonable size.

Neil Sheehan Biography Photo
When it was finally published in 1988, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam was hailed as the greatest book ever written about the war. Sheehan was praised for combining the dramatic skills of a novelist with the investigative skills of a great reporter and the insight of a historian. A Bright Shining Lie received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. Alongside The Best and the Brightest, by his friend David Halberstam, Sheehan's book remains essential reading for any student of America's experience in Vietnam. The same year, Sheehan returned to Vietnam for the first time since the end of the war, and toured the country, North and South, revisiting old friends and interviewing veterans of both sides of the conflict. His resulting observations appear in After the War Was Over (1992) (British edition Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon).

Today, Neil and his wife Susan, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, live in Washington, D.C. Neil Sheehan, an early critic of the Iraq War, continues to write and speak on American foreign policy. His latest book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, tells the story of Bernard Schriever, the Air Force general who led the development of the United States' intercontinental ballistic missile program.

This page last revised on Nov 28, 2012 13:17 EDT
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