Neil Sheehan

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Cornelius Mahoney "Neil" Sheehan (born October 27, 1936) is an American journalist. As a reporter for The New York Times in 1971, Sheehan obtained the classified Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. His series of articles revealed a secret United States Department of Defense history of the Vietnam War and led to a US Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), when the United States government failed to halt publication.[1]

He received a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his 1988 book A Bright Shining Lie, about the life of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann and the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.

Life and career[edit]

Sheehan was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the son of Mary (O'Shea) and Cornelius Joseph Sheehan, Irish immigrants.[2] He was raised on a dairy farm near Holyoke. Sheehan graduated from Mount Hermon School (later Northfield Mount Hermon) and Harvard University with a B.A. in history (cum laude) in 1958. He served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962, when he was assigned to Korea and then transferred to Tokyo, where he did work moonlighting in the Tokyo bureau of United Press International (UPI).

Following his discharge, he spent two years covering the war in Vietnam as UPI's Saigon bureau chief. In 1963, during the Buddhist crisis, Sheehan and David Halberstam debunked the claim by the Ngô Đình Diệm regime that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam regular forces had perpetrated the Xá Lợi Pagoda raids, which U.S. authorities initially accepted. They showed instead that the raiders were Special Forces loyal to Diệm's brother, Nhu to frame the army generals. In 1964, he joined The New York Times and worked the city desk for a while before returning to the Far East, first to Indonesia and then to spend another year in Vietnam.[3] Sheehan was one of numerous US and international journalists who received valuable information from Pham Xuan An, a 20-year veteran correspondent for Time Magazine and Reuters, later revealed to also be a spy for the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam.[4]

In the fall of 1966, he became the Pentagon correspondent. Two years later, he began reporting on the White House. He was a correspondent on political, diplomatic and military affairs. He obtained the Pentagon Papers for the Times in 1971.[5] The U.S. government tried to halt publication and the case, New York Times Co. v. United States (403 U.S. 713), saw the Supreme Court reject the government's position and establish a landmark First Amendment decision. The exposé would earn The New York Times the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

In 1970, Sheehan reviewed Conversations With Americans by Mark Lane in the New York Times Book Review. He called the work a collection of Vietnam War crime stories with some obvious flaws which the author had not verified. Sheehan called for more thorough and scholarly work to be done on the war crimes being committed in Vietnam.[6]

On 28 March 1971 Sheehan published an article in the New York Times Book Review entitled "Should We have War Crime Trials?," suggesting that the conduct of the Vietnam War could be a crime against humanity and that senior US political and military leaders could be subject to trial. In response the Pentagon prepared a detailed rebuttal justifying its conduct of the war and exonerating senior commanders, however the rebuttal was never released due to the belief that it would only exacerbate the issue.[7]

In November 1974, Sheehan was badly injured in a road accident on a snowy mountain road in western Maryland caused by an uninsured motorist whose driving behavior was arguably criminal in nature. Sheehan's wife, the veteran New Yorker staff writer Susan Sheehan, chronicled details of the accident and its emotional, legal and financial impact in a 1978 article for the magazine.[8] The time and effort spent fighting three libel suits in connection with a previous book that endured until 1979 and Sheehan's lengthy recovery from his injuries, delayed work on his book, begun in 1972, about John Paul Vann, a dramatic figure among American leaders in the early stages of the war in Vietnam. After the Times ended a four-year unpaid leave in 1976, he formally resigned from the newspaper to continue work on the book.[9]

Although he received an initial advance of $67,500 (of which he was entitled to $45,000 prior to publication) from Random House in 1972, Sheehan—a "dreadfully slow" writer who "[chased after] the last fact" mainly subsisted on lecture fees and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (1973–1974), the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Studies at the University of Chicago (1973–1975), the Lehrman Institute (1975–1976), the Rockefeller Foundation (1976–1977) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1979–1980) for the remainder of the 1970s.[10] According to William Prochnau, the latter fellowship marked a significant "turning point" for the book, as Sheehan "talked about Vietnam all day long every day" with Peter Braestrup after abandoning several hundred manuscript pages called a false start by Susan Sheehan.[9][10][11] When Sheehan finished "three-fifths of the manuscript" in the summer of 1981, the initial advance was renegotiated and raised to $200,000 with a projected delivery date of 1983, while William Shawn of The New Yorker agreed to excerpt the finished manuscript and advance funds as needed.[9]

Still beset by health problems (including a pinched nerve and osteoarthritis), he eventually completed the book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, in 1986.[9] Edited by Robert Loomis and published in 1988, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prizes in Biography and History and received the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.[12] It also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.[13]


Susan Sheehan also won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction in 1983 for Is There No Place on Earth for Me?[12]

He also has two daughters, Catherine and Maria, and two grandsons.


In popular culture[edit]

Sheehan was portrayed by Jonas Chernick in The Pentagon Papers (2003) and Justin Swain in The Post (2017). He appears as himself in Ken Burns' 2017 documentary series, The Vietnam War.


  1. ^ "New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971)". Retrieved 2005-12-05.
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Neil Sheehan Biography and Interview". American Academy of Achievement.
  4. ^ The Spy of Saigon; Forbes December 11,2007
  5. ^ Author Profile Archived 2012-10-12 at the Wayback Machine; C-SPAN; October 22, 1988
  6. ^ Sheehan, Neil (December 27, 1970). "Conversations with Americans". The New York Times. Retrieved January 16, 2018.
  7. ^ Hammond, William (1996). The U.S. Army in Vietnam Public Affairs The Military and the Media 1968-1973. U.S. Army Center of Military History. p. 493-4. ISBN 978-0160486968. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  8. ^ Sheehan, Susan (25 September 1978). "The Accident". The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
  9. ^ a b c d
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b "General Nonfiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  13. ^ "National Book Awards – 1988". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-25.

External links[edit]