coverage of the Vietnam War during his years in
Saigon as bureau chief for United Press International
and later as correspondent for The New York Times,
journalist Neil Sheehan has remained obsessed with the
paradoxes of the United States' involvement in the
Vietnam War. It took 16 years for Mr. Sheehan to write
A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in
Vietnam (1988), which has been called the most important book
ever written about Vietnam.
Neil Sheehan graduated from Harvard in 1958.
Following graduation, he served in the U.S. Army for
three years, working as a newsman in Korea and Tokyo.
Upon leaving the army in 1962, he took a full-time job
with UPI in Vietnam, becoming the Saigon bureau chief
and their third, full-time American correspondent.
There he learned to develop his own sources, rather
than taking official statements at their face value, and
often accompanied troops into battle to gain first-hand
information. Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, on whom
Sheehan would later focus A Bright Shining Lie, offered
outspoken views about the established military policy;
Vann was a valuable source of information to the news
correspondents covering the war.
In 1971 Sheehan played a role in the publication by
The New York Times of the Pentagon Papers, which
elucidated the history of American involvement in
Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Although the Times received
the Pulitzer Prize, in the public service category in 1972,
for the publication of the papers, Sheehan received no
recognition for his role. In 1973 Neil Sheehan took a three-year leave of
absence from The New York Times to write A Bright
Shining Lie. He received numerous fellowships to fund
his work, including a Guggenheim fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, and a fellowship from the
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Critics were effusive in their praise of A Bright Shining
Lie, citing its immense power. For his work Sheehan
won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award in
nonfiction, and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.
Although he sees the Vietnam War as a tragic mistake,
Sheehan believes that America's involvement might
have prevented a greater tragedy later on. Unlike earlier
American soldiers, "the Vietnam veteran brought home
a different kind of wisdom. He learned that you can
fight a bad war, that you can get killed for nothing, that
it's a complicated world. This wisdom is necessary to a
country over the long run. In that sense, Vietnam can be
a very good experience for America, and to some extent
it already has been."
If you would like to join Neil Sheehan for a 5:30
reception and 6:00 dinner, please complete and return
the attached coupon to the Athenaeum. The lecture
begins at 7:00.