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Hedrick Smith: Neil Sheehan forced an American reckoning

Reporter who died last week had a profound moral fervor about the people’s right to know the truth.

(Brendan Hoffman for the New York Times) Author Neil Sheehan poses for a portrait in his home office on Thursday, September 10, 2009 in Washington, DC.

Washington — “It looks like a coup,” Neil Sheehan said. “I’ll call Mordecai. He’ll know whose tanks those are.”
It was Saigon, January 1964. I had just shared with Neil the news that I had seen tanks in the streets surrounding the home of Gen. Duong Van Minh, then the South Vietnamese leader. It was normal for tanks to be on guard to protect Big Minh, as he was known, but what caught my eye was that the tanks’ guns were pointed at the house, not away from it, menacing Minh instead of protecting him. It struck me that someone might be putting the commander in chief under house arrest.
I had recently replaced David Halberstam as The Times’s correspondent in Vietnam and had inherited the working partnership that David had established with Neil, who was then working for United Press International.
As a one-man UPI bureau competing with three Associated Press rivals, Neil usually had to stay in Saigon covering military briefings and Buddhist monks’ self-immolating in protest against the repressive U.S.-backed Catholic regime in Saigon while David went out to the Mekong Delta to cover the Vietcong raids against government posts. They covered each other’s backs and shared their reporting.
Neil died this week at 84. At 27, he resembled a combat-wise veteran from the world of John le Carré, a Cold War journalist in a battle zone of an undeclared war, exposing the corrupt regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem and the brutality of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the head of the secret police, and forever penetrating what Neil had already come to see as the veneer of official lies about supposed Vietnamese Army victories over the Vietcong.
There was nothing Neil loved more than cracking a good story, and he had the means to do it. Neil and David had pieced together a rich network of strategically placed sources, one of whom was a steel-haired C.I.A. agent named Lucien Conein, a major source of theirs on the coup d’état that overthrew the Ngo regime in November 1963.
Conein had lost two fingers during what he had described as “a dangerous secret mission” — it was in fact, according to his Times obituary, a botched repair of “a car carrying him and his best friend’s wife to an assignation, so the story had a basis in truth.” With a twist of Irish humor, Neil had nicknamed Conein “Mordecai,” after a Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher known as Mordecai “Three-Fingered” Brown.
We needed Mordecai that morning in Saigon. It was not yet 7 a.m., but Neil and I immediately went off in search of the story. When we stopped by the U.S. Embassy to ask what staff members knew about the tanks at Big Minh’s house, the overnight duty officers dismissed the tank action as some unusual but inconsequential military exercise.
Unconvinced, Neil began reaching out to Vietnamese military officers, young colonels, to identify the units involved. I tried some contacts that David had passed along to me. Eventually, Neil reached Mordecai, who confirmed what the Vietnamese colonels had told Neil: Units from I Corps led by Gen. Nguyen Khanh were staging a coup to overthrow the military junta led by Big Minh.
At Neil’s UPI office, just off Tu Do Street in downtown Saigon, Neil and I banged out our stories on rickety old Olivetti typewriters and raced off to the PTT, the telegraph office, to send our coup reports to U.P.I. in Tokyo and The New York Times in Manhattan. But the telegraph office had just been ordered to shut off communications with the outside world, and the teletypists were finishing some messages begun before the shutdown order came in.
Ever resourceful and never daunted, Neil had arrived armed with half a dozen bottles of Johnnie Walker Scotch, which he had purchased at the U.S. military commissary, and he grandly doled them out to the two supervisors on duty and two teletypists. They quickly went to work on our stories, adding them to the last outgoing messages.
I was astonished that such a relatively small bribe worked such wonders. “Oh, no,” said Neil. “I keep these guys well supplied. They really like Scotch. I come by every week with a few bottles.” Then he said, with a toothy smile, “Good will, you know. Essential in our business.”
We had been very lucky, but Neil was a reporter who made luck work for him by being smart, prepared and very well connected. Our competitors were not so lucky that day. The PTT shut down right after our stories cleared Saigon. Neil’s AP rivals were stuck with an earlier, mistaken story that a coup attempt had been blocked, evidently relying on the embassy’s version.

In later years, after The Times had hired Neil, we collaborated on many more stories on the internal wars over Vietnam policy in the Johnson administration. Neil was great to work with because he savored both the camaraderie and the mission. He was doggedly loyal to and open with his friends and partners, and he was fiercely driven to get the story. No matter what the barriers, Neil never gave up.
As a reporter, Neil was unflinchingly honest, restless, daring, skeptical, troubled, relentless, probing. Perhaps because of his Irish roots, he was instinctively drawn to the underdog. He was at his best and happiest being a thorn in the side of the establishment, especially about Vietnam, where he had seen the horrific casualties of war, civilian as well as military, airily brushed off as “collateral damage” by American military and civilian leaders.
Until the Pentagon Papers, our most explosive story was the revelation in March 1968 that the request from Gen. William Westmoreland, the United States commander in Saigon, for 206,000 troops, on top of the more than 500,000 already in the war zone, had set off volcanic opposition within the senior policy ranks of the Johnson administration.
By combining Neil’s reporting in the Pentagon with my reporting at the State Department and the White House national security apparatus, we were able to document the growing dissent within the government with a blockbuster story that hit the Sunday New York Times two days before the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary. President Lyndon Johnson suffered a moral defeat in that election and very quickly rejected Westmoreland’s request for more troops, ordered a cutback in American bombing of North Vietnam and ended his campaign for re-election.
In 1971, working on the Pentagon Papers story, when Neil and I were holed up together for three months in a suite of the New York Hilton hotel on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, I saw Neil go into his John le Carré conspiratorial mode — understandable, given the 7,000 pages of “top secret eyes only” documents we were hiding.
Neil had our room registered in the name of Gerald Gold, The Times’s deputy foreign editor. We were afraid that if we used our own names, the FBI would find and arrest us before we could get the Pentagon Papers into print. Neil was sure the FBI was tapping our phone. I was skeptical.
Naïvely, I told Neil that I didn’t think the American government would stoop to tapping the phones of American reporters unless they suspected us of espionage — only to learn two years later that the F.B.I. had tapped my home telephone in 1969 because of President Richard Nixon’s anger over leaks leading to stories I’d reported on Vietnam. And those stories were mere hand grenades compared with the kilotonnage that Neil and I now confronted.
So we took precautions. When we ordered room service, we were always “Mr. Gold.” And that is also how we answered the phone. Neil made sure I followed protocol on that.
By this time, Neil and I had each written many stories about the dissembling, distortions, sham reports and outright lies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations over Vietnam, only to have them knocked down and denied over and over again by government spokesmen. So it was immensely rewarding to see proof in the government’s most highly classified documents that our reporting had been accurate and that our inside sources had been honest and on the mark.
But it was also a shock, a palpable body blow to open up documents day after day after day and see how often, how easily, how callously high government officials, civilian as well as military, had lied to or grievously deceived Congress, the media and the American public, and how, even as reporters wary of governmental deception, we had often understated reality.
With a sense of vindication, his sharp brown eyes bursting in anger and amazement, Neil would almost lunge at me as he charged bitterly: “Rick, these bastards in government have been lying to the American people for years and years and years, lying about a war and policies that they knew weren’t working and that they knew the American people would never stomach if they were told the truth. And now we’ve got the goods on them, in their own words, in their own documents. They can’t deny the truth any longer. The American people have a right to know the truth now. They have paid for this truth with blood and treasure, tens of thousands of lives lost and all that the money wasted when it could have been doing good in our own country.”
It was that powerful passion, that profound moral fervor about the people’s right to know the truth, however ugly, however awful, that marked Neil Sheehan as a unique reporter — and that made him uniquely able and morally empowered to tell the most compelling and important story of the Vietnam era.
Hedrick Smith is a journalist and documentary film producer for PBS. He was a reporter for The New York Times from 1962 to 1988. He was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team, along with Neil Sheehan, that produced the Pentagon Papers series for The Times.
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