Neil Sheehan, 1936-2021

        Neil Sheehan (right), in Vietnam, circa 1963 

Neil Sheehan, the acclaimed Vietnam War correspondent and author, died on January 7 at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 84 and succumbed to complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Sheehan covered the Vietnam War for United Press International and then The New York Times from 1962-66, starting before the big buildup of American troops. He and a small group of other young reporters including David Halberstam and Peter Arnett spent much of their time in the field with the American advisers who were working with the South Vietnamese Army. Sheehan and company gained a reputation for skipping the U.S. military’s evasive official briefings and ferreting out the truth of what was happening in the war against the Viet Cong.

After coming home from Vietnam, Sheehan worked in The Times‘ Washington Bureau. In 1971 he spearheaded the newspaper’s effort to publish The Pentagon Papers, the Department of Defense’s secret history of the Vietnam War. Sheehan, in fact, personally obtained a copy of the document, and was a crucial part of the editorial team that published its contents.

Soon thereafter, Sheehan began researching a book about the legendary U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, his role in American Vietnam War policy making, and the overall history of the Vietnam War. That powerfully and stylishly written epic, A Bright, Shining Lie, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1988, and is regarded as an unparalleled examination of the American experience in Vietnam.

Neil Sheehan came from humble beginnings. He grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Holyoke, Massachusetts, then received full scholarships to a Massachusetts prep school and to Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard in 1958, he joined the U.S. Army and served in Korea and Japan, where he moonlighted for UPI.

Neil Sheehan went to work full time for UPI after his 1962 discharge. Two weeks later he began reporting from Vietnam. The NYT hired him in 1964.

—Marc Leepson

January 9, 2020




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