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Neil Sheehan

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Neil Sheehan is an American journalist, known for investigative reporting during the Vietnam War, writing for United Press International and the New York Times. He received the Pulitzer Prize for receiving and publishing the Pentagon Papers. Along with David Halberstam, Peter Arnett, and others, formed a group that variously were reviled for hurting the U.S. effort in Vietnam, as well as presenting a truthful account that had been suppressed by officials.

From his Vietnam experience, he wrote the book A Bright and Shining Lie, a biography of a controversial military, and then civilian pacification officer in Vietnam, John Paul Vann.[1]

Early career

As a student at Harvard, he started in English, intening to work in publishing. "After he was able to rely on generic literary terms to write an exam essay on a book he had not read, Sheehan said he decided it was time for something more challenging."[2]. He changed majors to Middle Eastern History, and graduated in 1958.

After finishing college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, first assigned as a pay clerk in Korea, and then as a journalist for the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Reporting appealed to him as a career, and he joined UPI in Tokyo.


Transferred to Saigon, he met and worked with fellow Harvard alumnus David Halberstam, a New York Times reporter. Sheehan said “In those years, a wire reporter and a reporter who worked for a daily newspaper could team up because they weren’t competing.” They both reported on the Battle of Ap Bac.

He returned to the U.S. in 1964, now employed by the Times. Going back to foreign reporting, he had a brief assignment in Indonesia, and then returned to Vietnam.

Pentagon Papers

While in Vietnam, he had met another Harvard alumnus, Daniel Ellsberg, who was a analyst for the RAND Corporation, a not-for-profit research center serving the U.S. government. Ellsberg was impressed by articles written by Sheehan that had suggested the possibility that war crimes had been committed, which made him think of Sheehan as the person who should receive the highly classified internal history of the war, which Ellsberg had surreptitiously copied. “I thought a journalist that had that perspective and was sticking his neck out to suggest Americans had committed war crimes would have the guts to write about the Pentagon Papers,” Ellsberg commented. [2]

A Bright and Shining Lie

Sheehan viewed the book both as a biography of Vann, and as a metaphor for the entire U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Even Vann's enemies considered him fearless, but he was not the paragon many believed. Seen as one of the few officers that would tell reporters the truth, he knew that personal problems would prevent his promotion to general, so he could afford to risk being critical.
...Practically every noble attribute of the man turns out to have its shadowy antithesis, like a towering statue's inverted reflection in a dark pool beneath. Colonel Vann thus becomes a metaphor for America - the righteous, naive, can-do America that divided the world neatly into good and evil, struggling to impose its notion of right on a broad scale while creating or ignoring more particular wrongs.[3]


  1. Sheehan, Neil. (1988), A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New Random House
  2. 2.0 2.1 Kiel, Lauren D. (6/1/2008), "Neil Sheehan: Journalist", Harvard Crimson
  3. Shipler, David K. (October 18, 1988), "Books of The Times; One Man as an American Metaphor in Vietnam", New York Times