“To be engaged in opposing wrong affords but a slender guarantee for being right.”
—William Ewart Gladstone
A quarter century has gone by since David Halberstam, foreign correspondent for The New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize that he said should have gone to his friend and mentor in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan. In 1964’s spring of mourning, Halberstam shared the Pulitzer with Malcolm Browne of AP’s Saigon bureau and also won most other awards. Sheehan, of UPI, won a consolation prize from the Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity. Halberstam went on to wealth and influence with a series of best-sellers.
Now Sheehan has caught up. His A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam shot up the best-seller lists last winter and won the 1988 National Book Award. Sheehan says he toiled on it for 16 years.
The book received extraordinary promotion. The Washington Post magazine devoted a whole issue to Sheehan, extolling his lonely ordeal that produced “a masterpiece.” The New Yorker serialized the book. Harrison E. Salisbury was cited as saying, “I have never read such a book and never expected to.” (It was not all that tough. Sheehan received a steady stream of fellowships—$10,000 here, $30,000 there; at least five of them—and mounting advances from Random House until he owed the publisher $250,000. No wonder the promotion; the company had to get that money back.)
Most of the volume reports the fearless but ethically untidy life of Agency for International Development officer Vann, who received a hero’s burial in Arlington Cemetery after his 1972 death in a helicopter accident in Vietnam. Sheehan reports Vann’s battles and skirmishes in exhaustive detail, including 64 pages on the 1963 battle of Ap Bac, a Viet Cong victory that Sheehan had covered.
Then-Lieutenant Colonel Vann, who was stationed only 30 miles from Saigon, fed the reporters candid criticism of US military methods and became their source for negative stories on the war’s progress. Sheehan considers him “the one authentic (American) hero of this shameful period.” But Vann “lied to Halberstam and deceived him.” The reporters had worried about damaging Vann’s career, but “all the time he was deceiving us he knew he had no career to ruin.” Vann had barely escaped court-martial for statutory rape by learning to trick the lie detector. Sheehan deplores Vann’s prodigious woman-chasing (which he did sometimes in the company of Daniel Ellsberg), but worse was Vann’s continuing insistence that the war could be won, which Sheehan attributed to his “ignorance” of Vietnam’s history. Worst of all, Vann liked Richard Nixon.
Mixed into the story of John Paul Vann is Sheehan’s version of the events of 1962 and 1963, and this part is disappointing, even dismaying. In November 1963 South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu were murdered in an American-backed coup. The United States denied direct complicity. Some Washington reporters, including Marguerite Higgins, were digging into the story when three weeks later President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Shock and grief aborted any press investigation of the martyred President, and Diem’s fate was downplayed or even hailed as justice.
The reporting by the small American press corps in Saigon in 1962-1963, because it was lavishly rewarded, set the tone for adversary reporting through the next ten years of war, and still affects American journalism. The controversy continues as to whether the reporters caused Diem’s death and thereby doomed South Vietnam, since no equally qualified successor was found.
Long ago the Saigon group’s version of events became the media’s received wisdom. As the Saigon reporters had warned it must, the United States lost Vietnam. Their accounts—their defense—have been promoted by the establishment and by Halberstam’s best sellers, Stanley Kamow’s PBS television history of the war, and Walter Cronkite’s television series. Sheehan, calling those who question his judgment ignorant or criminal, does not help their cause.
Sheehan doesn’t fret over contradictions. On the one hand, he reports that he was not picking on Diem or exaggerating doom stories—stories that became “obvious” when well-known reporters arrived and agreed with his conclusions. On the other hand, “We did not realize that our dispatches had been arming Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman in their attempt to persuade Kennedy to authorize the overthrow of Diem and his family.” Sheehan and his fellows did not know that they were being taken seriously.
For Sheehan, nothing has changed since 1963. The deaths of one-quarter of all Cambodians, give or take a million; the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people who died in the China Sea; the decade of revolutionary polarization in the United States that followed Diem’s death, do not enter into his account. His heroes remain Halberstam, Vann (with reservations), Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Daniel Ellsberg, Roger Hilsman, and George W. Ball. His numerous villains and dupes include Ambassador Frederick (Fritz) Nolting, General Paul Harkins, Admiral Harry Felt, General William Westmoreland, sometimes Marine General Victor Krulak, Marguerite Higgins, and all of the Ngo Dinh family, but especially President Diem. Sheehan detests the dead Diem. When Lodge arrived as ambassador, Sheehan told him that the Ngo Dinhs were so mad and so hated that they were incapable of governing. After Lodge assigned the CIA’s Lucien Conein to work with coup generals, and Diem and Nhu were killed, Sheehan reports the ambassador did not regret it. Lodge told Halberstam, “What could we have done with them if they had lived? Every Colonel Blimp in the world would have made use of them.”
Lodge was able to go ahead with the coup only if Diem’s American defenders were sidetracked. He cut General Harkins out of cable traffic and maneuvered to get rid of. CIA station chief Richardson. Halberstam identified John Richardson in a Times dispatch, saying that Lodge wanted him out, and President Kennedy recalled him. Richardson is not mentioned in Lie.
I located Richardson in 1979. He told me he liked Sheehan personally, but he believed that he and Halberstam were “young, crusading reporters who were out to get Nhu, and quite possibly Diem and his government. I remember a cocktail party conversation once with Sheehan. I told him that we had carefully and continually canvassed alternative leadership possibilities and had found none. Did he want us to take a flying leap in the dark in the midst of a guerrilla war? His answer was, ‘Yes.'”
To Sheehan, Diem’s popularity was contrived by General Edward Lansdale, a legendary CIA operative, and therefore fraudulent. According to Sheehan, Diem was “willfully ignorant” of his country’s social conditions, “almost as ignorant as Lansdale was.” Diem “did not care” if civilians died. Sheehan writes that Diem condoned rape and torture of arrested Communist suspects, whereas the Communist General Vo Nguyen Giap, described as a man of candor and character, apologized publicly for torture excesses during the North’s land-reform campaign. The Vietcong were “forbidden to execute the accused savagely,” and “dispensed terror with relative discrimination.” Sheehan held Diem responsible for corruption and for the cowardice and incompetence of the South Vietnamese army, ARVN, because he intimidated officers like the “bootlicking” Colonel Huynh Van Cao.
Halberstam, in his 1965 book The Making of a Quagmire (Random House), credited Sheehan with the best information on the Buddhist crisis of 1963, including the pagoda raids that turned US opinion against Diem. The pagoda raids put Vietnam on the front burner in Washington and triggered the coup decision, so it is disturbing that Sheehan’s account of the main pagoda raid differs from Halberstam’s account in Quagmire. Halberstam said he saw little, as he was held back by police, but he endorsed Sheehan’s graphic description of military brutality, since Sheehan watched from a building next to the Xa Loi Pagoda. In Lie Sheehan reports that he and Halberstam watched the raid up close from a Renault taxi. I asked Sheehan about this, and he said he did stop in the building to telephone and saw some action from the sixth floor. Unfortunately, the way he has described the scene in Lie, readers will assume that he and Halberstam both saw brutality. Halberstam reported that the true death toll might never be known, implying that it was great. Sheehan reports, too vaguely after 16 years of research, that seven monks “apparently were killed and their bodies burned secretly.”
The raid reports caused an international furor, and the United Nations sent a commission to investigate. It reported no deaths. The CIA’s Richardson told me he did not believe there were deaths or even serious injuries. Marguerite Higgins, in her 1965 book Our Vietnam Nightmare (Harper & Row), wrote that she searched out witnesses in Vietnam and could find no evidence of anyone missing. Raised in the Orient, she had known Vietnam since childhood.
Sheehan reports that Higgins, a Pulitzer winner for her reporting in Korea, was “sent to Vietnam at the Pentagon’s request,” an echo of the Saigon group’s charge that she was an apologist for the American military. She is not alive to refute his charge, having died of a liver fluke contracted in Vietnam’s provinces. Her Nightmare, which first nailed down Washington’s role in the coup, is the best of the Vietnam books. It never was reviewed by the Times, and Sheehan does not include it in his lengthy bibliography.
Sheehan initially had problems at The New York Times. His first book, attacking a former Navy officer who had lost his Vietnam command, was not a success. The officer sued for libel. Sheehan finally won dismissal of the suit, but the Times editors were discomfited. In 1968 Sheehan, by then at the Times Washington bureau, shared with Hedrick Smith a bombshell scoop that contributed to President Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection. The report, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to Senator Robert Kennedy and from the Senator’s staff to the reporters, cited a Westmoreland proposal to send 206,000 more men to Vietnam.
In 1971 Sheehan got a unique opportunity. He was given the entire Times Sunday Book Review to summarize 33 antiwar books from such leftist authors as Mark Lane, Seymour Hersh, Noam Chomsky, and David Dellinger. His thesis was, “Should We Have War Crimes Trials?” The Book Review editor, John Leonard, had been’a Berkeley antiwar activist, and he sent out 100 advance copies to columnists and television commentators. Sheehan’s long polemic attracted the attention of Marcus Raskin and Richard Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies, hub of the antiwar movement. They already had received the stolen Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg, and they advised Ellsberg to offer the 43-volume secret archive to Sheehan.
Sheehan was the driving force behind the Times‘ publication of its house-written version of the Pentagon Papers, which made US agencies look duplicitous and the war unwinnable. In the first installment Sheehan accused Lyndon Johnson—as the actual documents did not—of plotting to exploit the attack on US destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf to widen the war. But all of this pales next to Sheehan’s greatest flaw in Lie—his inability or unwillingness to address the question of Pham Xuan An. Halberstam, in Quagmire, wrote that “Sheehan, Perry, Turner, Rao, An and myself had created a small but firstclass intelligence network.” He did not give a full name for An, but said he had “the best military contacts in the country.”
In 1985, former National Liberation Front Justice Minister Truong Nhu Tang identified An as North Vietnamese intelligence Colonel Pham Xuan An, who “manipulated important American journalists for years.” Tang told Al Santoli, for his book To Bear Any Burden (E.P. Dutton), that after the war, An became a high-ranking intelligence officer in Hanoi.
Sheehan includes Pham Xuan An’s name in the list of 485 persons he interviewed for his book but does not mention him in the text. I asked Sheehan if the man in his and Halberstam’s intelligence network was Pham Xuan An. Sheehan confirmed that it was. An had been named as a Communist intelligence agent who manipulated American reporters for years, I said.
“Oh, I would doubt that,” Sheehan said. “He didn’t manipulate us. I don’t think he manipulated anybody. Any agent who would try that would risk his credibility.” Sheehan said that An in 1963 was the chief Vietnamese correspondent for Renter, and he later ended up chief Vietnamese correspondent for Time. When the magazine evacuated its staff as Saigon fell in 1975, An chose to stay behind.
Sheehan said that does not prove he had been an intelligence agent. “I regard him as a friend,” Sheehan said. “I hope to go to Vietnam, and I hope to see him there.”
One of Sheehan’s dupes. Ambassador Nolting, friend and protector of Diem, published a 160-page memoir last winter, too: From Trust to Tragedy (Praeger). It defends Diem, and it condemns Harriman, Hilsman, and Washington’s practice of deserting allies. It did not spur the media claque to rave reviews as Sheehan’s book did, and unfortunately fewer people will read it.
[A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan (New York: Random House) 861 pp., $24.95]