BRIAN LAMB, HOST:Neil Sheehan, author of a new book, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and
America in Vietnam," why'd you write the book?
Mr. NEIL SHEEHAN, AUTHOR, "A BRIGHT SHINING LIE": Well, there were a number
of reasons. First of all, I, as a reporter, never could escape from Vietnam.
I went there first as a rep as a it was my first assignment in 1962 as a
wire service reporter. I spent two years there, went went back to New York,
got a job with The New York Times and s was sent back to Vietnam for a third
year, came to Washington in '66 to cover the Pentagon with all the
war anti war protests, etc. And then one day found myself in at Arlington
Cemetery at the funeral of a friend, John Vann, and realized that I wanted to
leave something behind other than another magazine article and another or
another newspaper story. And I felt that through him, I could write a book
that would really tell a story of the war.
LAMB: So how long have you been working on this book?
Mr. SHEEHAN: It took me 15 years to write it and then it spent another year
going to press. It it was I was as impetuous as Robert McNamara in
thinking, at the beginning, that I could do this work in three to four
years that is, write a biography of John Vann and a history of the war, which
is what the book is. It's the two combined. Tell his tell the story of the
war through the man, and tell the story of the man through the war. But it
turned out to be a vastly greater task than I had imagined. I also had some
setbacks; I had an auto accident in '74 that took a year out of my life. And
I had to lecture to earn a living and that sort of thing. But, basically,
most of those 15 years went into that book.
LAMB: What's the origin of the title of the book, "A Bright Shining Lie"?
Mr. SHEEHAN: It was it's from a remark by John Vann. When he came back here
in July of 1963, he said to a US Army historian, `We, too, were among had
been among the we, too, were, to all the visitors who came out there, among
the bright sh one of the bright, shining lies.' And so I I used that
because he had said it and because, also, it it, to me, reflected the
ironies the many, many ironies of the war and the many, many illusions of the
war. It was, to me, a very apt title because the the the w our war our
venture in Vietnam was fueled by by many, many illusions, and and the title
is meant to reflect those ironies. It's it's not a simple title, in other
LAMB: Who was John Paul Vann?
Mr. SHEEHAN: John Vann was the closest we came in Vietnam to an American
Lawrence of Arabia. He was an extraordinary character at least to me he was
an extraordinary figure. I met him when I first went there in in 1962 in as
a as I say, as a young reporter on my first assignment for United Press
International. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and he was the senior
adviser to the South Vietnamese infantry division n in charge of the northern
Mekong Delta. And he left the Army after that first year under controversial
circumstances; he got into an argument with a commanding general as to whether
we were losing the war or winning it. Vann said we were losing, and the
commanding general said we were winning. Vann left the Army.
And then he went back as a pacification adviser, a civilian, for AID in '65.
And he finally rose to be the first civilian to command troops in wartime as a
general to command to command in war as as a general in in a general
officer's position. And then he was killed in June of '72 after the better
part of 10 years there. And I went to his funeral at Arlington because he was
m he was a friend. And it was like and when I walked into the chapel, it
was like going to a very strange class reunion. I got there only about 10
minutes before it started, and the chapel was already full. And h ev and
this man had pulled had drawn together all everyone or almost everyone who
was of significance in that war that is, a great many of them.
I mean, here was William William Westmoreland, who was the chief pallbearer
of this former renegade lieutenant colonel who had retired from the Army in
1963. Daniel Ellsberg was over on the other side sitting next to the family.
Edward Kennedy came in a few minutes before the the the service began. And
I thought of the one Ken the Kennedy who had turned against the war, the
second Kennedy the one Kennedy who had started us into Vietnam, John; and the
second one, Bobby, who'd been murdered after he in the election, of course,
of '68 after he turned against against the war; and then Edward, who'd who'd
known John Vann.
And so I I felt that you had to feel a keen feeling in that chapel that we
were burying more than John Vann. We were burying a whole era; that era of
self confidence, that the mind set of that era Henry Luce so boastfully
called `the American century,' the self confidence and the arrogance, if you
will, that had led us to Vietnam. We weren't burying the United States of
America, obviously. We were burying a frame of mind, a mind set that
had that had marked this country. And ano and and and I the it struck
me that if I wrote a book about this man, who is an extraordinary character in
hims in his own and who had spent the better part of 10 years in Vietnam,
who'd summed up the American adventure there in his life and his work, I could
also write a book about the war that people would understand because they
would be seeing the war through a man, and they would be unders they would be
coming to grips with this experience in a human way because Vann was a was a
way to tell the story.
LAMB: Got opened to the book where the picture and and the audience just
saw the picture of the Vann family and Richard Nixon. And the story about
this particular event it's a little bit out of context with all that we're
going to talk about, but it's probably worth telling now, as we head into
this. First, who's in this photograph?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, here you have, over to the it would be, of course, my
left, so let's go left to right. You have his oldest brother, Frank; his
younger brother, Gene; his sister, Dorothy Lee; and then his son Jesse...
LAMB: With the long hair.
Mr. SHEEHAN: With the long hair then. He's since cut his hair. But Jesse
then had long hair, and he left half his draft card on his father's coffin,
and he was going to give the other half to Richard Nixon, but he and he was
stopped from doing it because he was told they were going to abort the
ceremony. They weren't they weren't going to go forward with the medal
ceremony if he insisted on giving the other half to the president. So he
agreed not to.
LAMB: This is the day of the funeral.
Mr. SHEEHAN: This is the day of the funeral. This is the ceremony at the
White House after the funeral at Arlington during which Nixon awarded
posthumously to the eldest son the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
LAMB: This is his wife or his...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Right.
LAMB: ...his divorced wife.
Mr. SHEEHAN: His former wife, right. And then the next son, Tommy; then
Peter, the youngest son, who who who's still got in his hand the flag from
the coffin; Mary Jane, his former wife; and then President Nixon. And it's
hard in that picture, because it's blown down, to see his face. But the
president's got a kind of queasy, nervous look on his face. And I think he
was still a bit nervous about what Jesse might do well, even though Jesse had
agreed not to to to hand him half of this draft card. And then you have
John Allen, the eldest son, who received the medal on behalf of the family.
Nixon posthumously awarded John Vann the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which
is the highest civilian decoration you can receive and the second highest of
our of all our awards. The highest is the pre is the Congressional Medal.
Now down here is Melvin Laird, then the secretary of defense; and William
It was, to me, a sort of it was an extraordinary picture because it it it
summed up, in some ways, the the conflicts of that era: a a a a war hero
with a son who was who was who was personally very much opposed to the war,
opposed to it to the extent that he was willing to to go to jail because
Jesse would have gone to jail, I or certainly he would have committed he had
already committed one crime in mutilating his draft card. It was a it was
against the law to mutilate your draft card. And he was about to call
atten enough attention to that by handing the other half to the president.
So it it it was, to me, an extraordinary that was when I looked into this
funeral, I didn't know that at the time. I'd gone to the chapel, obviously.
This had occurred after the chapel when the family had gone to the White
House. But later on when I interviewed them all, I realized that the funeral
was more extraordinary for other reasons as well.
LAMB: Because our audience has seen Brent Scowcroft so often, tell us
the the Brent Scowcroft story and how he played a a factor in this.
Mr. SHEEHAN: That that was a Brent Scowcroft, who's now a a retired
lieutenant general from the Air Force and who's associated with Henry
Kissinger in in in New York in Kissinger Associates, and who later became
President Ford's special assistant for national security affairs Brent
Scowcroft was then President Nixon's military aide his senior military aide.
And when they discovered that this young man had left half his draft card on
his father's coffin and the family was waiting in the Roosevelt Room to go
into the Oval Office for the ceremony, which the medal would be awarded and
the young man had the other half in his suit coat pocket, and he was going to
hand it to the president, they when this was discovered, at first there was a
furious argument within the family because the other members of the family did
not want Jesse most of them did not want Jesse to go to do this, to to to
hand the president the other half of his draft card and and they felt spoil
his father's funeral and ruin the medal award ceremony. But they couldn't
persuade him or hadn't succeeded in persuading him.
And so the eldest son, John Allen, went out and told th one of the civilian
officials and in charge what what was happening. And they called Scowcroft,
and he told Scowcroft what was happening. And Scowcroft is a very calm man.
He's a very calm, very precise man. And he went in and told the president
that there'd be a slight delay. There was a problem. He'd have to settle it.
And then he went into the Roosevelt Room where the family was gathering, and
he called Jesse aside took him aside, took him by the arm and said, `Look, if
you're going to do this, we're going to have to call off the ceremony, because
there's no way we can go ahead with this ceremony if you're going to do this.'
And by this time Jesse had been battered enough by the members of his family,
so I think he was willing to resist excuse me, willing to listen. And he
said, `OK, I won't do it.' And then Scowcroft turned to his oldest brother,
John Allen, and said, `Will he or won't he?' And John Allen said, `Well, if
he says he won't do it, he won't do it.' So Scowcroft decided to let the
ceremony go forward. And he told me afterwards that during the ceremony, he
had his eye he was not he is not in this picture, of course. He was
standing on the other side of the Oval Office with his eye on Jesse through
the whole ceremony, asking himself, `Well, I I wonder if he if he really
will keep his word and won't do anything,' because it was it was it was good
judgment on the part of Scowcroft to let it go forward.
But at the same time there was there was some risk. And it was probably good
judgment on the part of of President Nixon to let it go forward. He was
taking a risk, too. He could have been very embarrassed. And I think that's
why he was somewhat nervous during the whole thing.
LAMB: This funeral was in 1972.
Mr. SHEEHAN: It was in 1972. And the picture you just showed was the
ceremony at the White House after the funeral when the whole family was driven
over to the White House from Arlington Cemetery for the for the awarding of
the of the medal posthumously because President Nixon himself did not attend
LAMB: What were you doing then?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I was then a reporter for The New York Times. I had, the year
before, obtained the Pentagon Papers for The Times, and the intervening year
had been one of of of turmoil. And I was just about to settle back into
work, as a daily reporter, when I went to this funeral of a man who'd been my
friend because I I had gotten to know John, I thought, quite well. As a
young reporter in that first year, I'd gone to Vietnam and I'd seen him since
then. And I had not thought he would die in Vietnam. None of us did. He
took so many risks that after a while his friends began to think he was that
the odds, as he said, did not apply to him. And one day I picked up the paper
and he and and and there was the news that he was dead. He died on the
9th. He was killed on the 9th.
And so I went to the funeral on the 16th, along with all those other people in
that chapel. There were a lot of other faces of people involved with Vietnam
who were not famous but who were well known. I...
LAMB: Who gave...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Who...
LAMB: Who gave the eulogy that day?
Mr. SHEEHAN: The eulogy was given by a guy named Robert Komer, Ambassador
Robert Komer, who had headed the pacification program in Vietnam. And he gave
a very good, very fine eulogy. He was he he and Vann were friends. That
was another thing that was so so striking about it. Bob Komer had played a
major role in Vietnam. Another one of the pallbearers was was William Colby,
who later became head of CIA who played a major role in Vietnam.
The the the chapel was just filled with these people.
And so I had that sense then that that if I wrote a book I wanted
to he he I had spent my career involved with Vietnam, not because I was
obsessed with the war, but because I couldn't get away from the war. As I
said, I I was sent from Vietnam home in '66 to be the Pentagon correspondent
in the Washington bureau of The Times. Then they sent me to the White House
in 1968 for the last six months of Johnson's administration, when Johnson was
driven from office by the war. Then came the Pentagon Papers in 1971. I I
could never get away from this war. It had dominated my newspaper career.
And I wanted to leave behind something that would would e would endure. And
going to that funeral gave me the feeling that well, gave me the idea that if
I `If I wrote a book about this man, I could really tell the story of this
war and perhaps help this country to come to grips with the war,' with this
very painful experience that had divided us more profoundly than any war since
the Civil War. And we had, obviously, not come to grips with it at that
point, and I don't think we still have have come to grips with it. I hope
the book will help people to come to grips with it because I think we have to
somehow redeem Vietnam if we're to if we're to draw wisdom from from the
war. But that that was going to that that that chapel simply because I
was the friend of a friend of John Vann was what set me off.
Now I thought I knew him. It turned out I didn't know him. He was a lot more
complicated than I had realized. All of his friends thought that we they
knew John Vann. Turned out that no one knew John Vann.
LAMB: Let me stop you there and and ask you this because if you look at
this book and you and and we'll show the audience, in the back, you've shown
each division how e each section how you sourced it and and but but let's
stop and just go through the particulars. Three hundred and fifty interviews?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Three hundred and eighty five, almost 400.
LAMB: Individual, in person interviews?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Yeah. Some of them now were were were over the phone. Some
of them were were a a a very a small number were brief exchanges over the
phone or or in person or were letters. But many of them went on most of
them were substantial, and many of them went on for days at a time. I
think if you'll check, I think I I acquired about 670 tape cassettes.
The reason I did so much interviewing for the book was that I realized when I
began I realized before I started my research, but I my the experience of
doing the research deepened my conviction that much of the history of this war
had never been written down; that it existed only in the minds of people, in
their memories and perhaps, in some cases, notes and diaries they'd kept or
letters. But that in most cases it hadn't been written down and that one of
my tasks was to capture this history to capture the history of the war before
it disappeared, as people as people's memories faded, as they moved on, etc.
And I thought a reporter was was uniquely qualified to do that.
So that I interviewed at such length because it was absolutely necessary. If
you look at the documents of Vietnam, you find that, unlike World War II what
you find in the official documents about Vietnam is the thinking of the people
at the top they tell you what they thought, but they don't tell you the
realities of what was happening on the ground because in Vietnam the people at
the top didn't know what was happening on the ground. And so I I I I
interviewed as extensively as I did for that reason.
And it was it was very fruitful. A lot of people were terribly good to me.
For instance, Ambassador Bunker the late Ambassador Bunker, when he was
negotiating the Panama Panama Canal treaty, would give me an hour every month
or two, and I had 11 sessions with him. When I was in Vietnam on two research
trips for the book in 1972 and '73, I'd spent days with people who were
fruitful, somebody who was important, who was really telling me something that
was useful. I'd spend two, three days with a person interviewing them and
tape cassette after tape cassette. And it was it was extraordinarily
valuable. I couldn't have written the book without the interviews. I had a
lot of documentation as well. I had his papers. I had his family turned all
of his papers over to me, and the documentation was extremely valuable, too.
But the interviews were a real adjunct to it.
LAMB: What did you do with all those audiotapes? Did you keep them?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I've kept them, and they'll event eventually go to the Library
of Congress. Some of them will have to be sealed because there are some
private things in there, but they'll all go to the Library of Congress. They
were I didn't transcribe them all. I I didn't have the money to do the
funds to do that. I did get summaries made of them often with the subjects
and and and, you know, side A tape 1, side A, footage X, X subject. And so
years later, I put that tape in a machine and go back and listen to it. And
it was very laborious to sit there and listen and spend two or three days
taking the details off the tape because I you don't have secretarial help;
you've got to do this all yourself. But it was extraordinary valuable,
because I don't take shorthand. And the tape recorder catches things that you
don't even catch in shorthand. So that it they were a wonderful memory bank
For instance, there's an ex there's an extraordinary rescue of the advisers
at a place called Tam Quan in 1972 by Vann when he snatches them right out
from under the North Vietnamese tanks. I played the tapes I'd done with his
helicopter pilot and with the senior adviser there, and there were
these these and and I had made those tapes at the at a time when th when
the when the when this event was very vivid in their memories. And with
the senior adviser it was only months afterwards; and with the pilot it was a
couple of years afterwards. And the tapes were extraordinary. And
they they they they l they they helped me to to to to gather detail,
if you will, to to retain detail. The tape recorder is a wonderful memory
device. It can be a trap for you if you depend on it, but I didn't depend on
it; I used my notes primarily. But it was it was a wonderful memory device.
LAMB: When did you make your first interview, and when did you make your last
in order to get this book done?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I did my first interviews with the American family re shortly
after the funeral when I was thinking of doing the book.
LAMB: His American family.
Mr. SHEEHAN: His American family. I should say the American family, because
John Vann left two families. One was a Vietnamese family and the other an
American family. And I I I interviewed the American family at at the point
when I was trying to make up my mind whether I whether I ought to write the
book or not. And I I called them first. I spoke to his former wife, and I
asked whether she would cooperate with me. I told her that if I undertook the
book I would have to I would I would ask her to be absolutely honest with me
and be absolutely open and the other members of the family as well, and that
I would then write the book and they would have no control over it and they
would have they would not see it ahead of time. They would have no prior
censorship no censorship, no prior approval, etc. And I did not want to
un undertake the project unless everyone was willing to agree to this, and I
would also ask them to give me his papers. And I spoke to his oldest son as
well; and I spoke to the other members of the family. I c I called
them called them about this. And they all agreed, said yes; his wife or
former wife was the first that said she she'd she'd cooperate; she was she
was very open to to having a book done.
So I went out to Colorado where they most of them were, and I interviewed
first his former wife, Mary Jane Vann, who knew him better than anyone else,
because they had married when they were young and he had talked to her more
about his childhood than he had to anyone else; and he was a product, as you
know, of an extraordinarily painful childhood, of a mother who rejected him
and who was cruel to him. And she she first my interview with her my
interviews with her, first of all, lasted for days. She was absolutely honest
with me. She's a woman of a strong woman of great moral courage. And she
was very open, and I spent days talking to her. And she first let came I
first learned through her what a really complicated man he was, and he
fascinated me even more as a result of those interviews. I realized that I
was that this was much more even than a story of Vietnam, that it was an it
was a kind of that it was an American saga, if you will, the story of how he
got to Vietnam as well.
LAMB: This is his mother and his wife right here.
Mr. SHEEHAN: His that that's right. That's a picture at the wedding, and
that's his mother. And John Vann is a young man when he was an Air Corps a
lieutenant and navigator in the US Army Air Corps in World War II, and that's
his his bride to be about that that's probably that photo was probably
taken the day before the wedding. And here they are at at at the wedding,
in in Rochester, New York, on on October 6, 1945. That photograph those
photographs were from Mary Jane, his former wife. She gave me her wedding
LAMB: Has she seen this book yet?
Mr. SHEEHAN: She hasn't seen the book; she's seen The New Yorker series. But
she hasn't seen the book, but she'll be she'll be getting one soon in the
mail from me.
LAMB: Has she had any reaction?
Mr. SHEEHAN: She liked the series in The New Yorker. She she she's a as
I said, a very strong and a very honest and very forthright woman. And she
had made up her mind that she was willing to tell the tale. This was back in
'72 originally; and she's she's remained that way ever since. I mean...
LAMB: We're we're going to talk about John Vann in some detail in a later...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Sure.
LAMB: ...discussion. But she was divorced from him at the funeral...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Mm hmm.
LAMB: ...and went with the family to the Oval Office. Why?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, because I think to if you were first of all, I think if
you were to put it emotionally, she was divorced from him in fact but not but
not emotionally. I think at that point in her life she was probably still in
love with him; I think she was. She told me she was, and I believe she was.
She really the divorce had been an act of frustration. He no...
LAMB: She lived in Denver, and he lived in Vietnam.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Yeah. And and it had been a d a a a as you as the readers
will see when they read the book of an extremely troubled marriage. And she
had finally, out of frustration, asked for a divorce. But they had only been
divorced about let's see, they divorced in October of '71 and he was killed
in June of '72.
LAMB: OK, tho those are your first interviews. What were your last, and
what at what date did you finish all your interviews before you wrote this
Mr. SHEEHAN: I kept interviewing I did most of my interviews first of all,
I rushed off to Vietnam after interviewing members of the family here.
LAMB: Back in '72.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Back in '72. I rushed off to Vietnam to do six three months
of interviews there with the Americans and the Vietnamese who fought his last
battles with him, before they moved on to other things and before that very
fragile society of South Vietnam came apart, because I had a sense that it was
going to disappear, as it did in 1975. So I wanted to talk to them before
And then I I interviewed except for the year I lost with the auto
accident I interviewed until about '76 when I started writing '75, '76 I
began writing. But then I kept up the interviews. As I would get to a
section and I would need to fill in, I would go to people additional
people and I would interview for that section. And one of the reasons it
took so long was that I discovered that this canvass first of all, this man
was much more complicated than I had ever imagined. And that required a great
deal more interviewing and and a lot more research than I had ever thought.
And secondly, the war had gone on for 30 years, and it was a lot and and
they and it was a lot more complicated than I had imagined. So I kept up the
interviewing through the years, not with the intensity I did in earlier years
because I was writing, but I would as as I got to a section, as I said, I I
would do a s interviews to fill in those research holes; and sometimes they'd
be extensive. Again, I'd take two or three days out and interview someone.
So the interviews continued on through the years. As I would need something,
I would I would turn to someone and and I would do it. Although the basic
interviewing was done in the 1970s.
LAMB: Is there a particular section of this book that's your favorite?
Mr. SHEEHAN: I guess my favorite would be th the the funeral itself
which maybe one reason being that it was the easiest to write. I wrote it
back in 1976 and d didn't ever change it substantially. The difficulty was
in finding the structure of the rest of the book. I had an enormous struggle
to find to come up with a structure that worked for the rest of the book,
that is to meld biography the biography of this man and the history of the
war. My favorite sections within the book then vary. Cha the book 5 on his
childhood and youth is is is, to me, a favorite section.
LAMB: We're talking with Neil Sheehan, author of this new book by Random
House, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam."
LAMB: Neil Sheehan, author of the book, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul
Vann and America in Vietnam," when you hear the word `Vietnam,' what's the
first thing that comes to mind?
Mr. SHEEHAN: The wasted gallantry, the sacrifice, the in vain; provided, of
course, we don't draw some wisdom from it, but but the the tragedy of it all
is what comes to mind, the inevitability of it because it was a war toward
which we were headed as a nation. There was a great inevitability about it.
But all of those things come to mind to my mind,
the the the the the the the names on the wall down there at the
memorial. The the the the sadness always comes to mind. At the same time
y you have that it's it's even sadder because of all because of all
that that gallantry that went into it, all that self confidence and and
that that was wasted.
LAMB: How old were you and when was the first time you set foot in the
Mr. SHEEHAN: I was let's see, I was born in 1936, and I went there in 1962,
so I was in my mid 20s. My mathematics is so poor that I can't add it up for
you right now off the top of my head. But...
LAMB: Twenty six.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Yes, that's right, it would be. And the I was it was my first
assignment for United Press International. I'd just gotten out of the Army in
Tokyo where I took my discharge was out of the Army two weeks when my boss,
the head for Asia, left a note in my typewriter one night in Tokyo and said,
`How is your French?' And, `Come and see me in the morning.' It said, `How
is your French? Come and see me in the morning.' I was working the night
shift. So I stayed over to see him when he came in in the morning. And he
said, `How would you like to go to Saigon?' The fellow down there had
resigned. And I said, `I'd love to go to Saigon.' And he said, `Well, get
ready to go.' So about a week and a half later I was in Saigon. I spent two
years there, two years in Vietnam.
LAMB: Is this a picture of you?
Mr. SHEEHAN: That's a picture of me with a a Vietnamese a South Vietnamese
general named Zu Qui Tong. This is the during my third year in Vietnam when
I was there with The New York Ti for The New York Times. There was a minor
civil war going on in Da Nang, which is a port up in the north where the
Marines were located, between it was the civil war was between two factions
on the Saigon side. And a group of reporters got trapped in Bogota. That
picture of me, I was talking to that general trying to get the Saigon side to
stop shooting so we could get those reporters out of that Bogota. And,
actually, we were talking in French, which was the language that he knew best.
He had served in the French army, and he was the commander of the Vietnamese
LAMB: When you were first there, what was the status of our involvement in
Mr. SHEEHAN: We when I first went there it was the outset of the
Ken what what one would call the Kennedy commitment. It was John
Kennedy's John Kennedy had sent military advisers, pilots Air Force pilots
who were flying bef planes with Vietnamese markings on them. And he had sent
helicopter companies to tran to fly Vietnamese troops out in out for into
assault operations. But, essentially, the war was being fought through the
Saigon army through the Saigon forces. This...
LAMB: Who was who was the president of the company country?
Mr. SHEEHAN: D D Ngo Dinh Diem was still the president, and that was before
we decided that the United States decided, not just the news media, that he
was no longer useful; that he was helping to lose the war. And he was
overthrown in an American instigated coup in in in 1963. But he was still
the president then, still very much in charge, was still with full backing of
the United States. But the the guerrillas had had because of his own
abuses and incompetence, the communist gue revolution in the countryside had
grown to the point where he his regime was in danger of being overthrown.
That's why those American advisers had been sent. There there were several
thousand then. But it was the beginning then. Not many Americans had been
killed. When I went there perhaps less than 20 had been killed.
LAMB: How many other reporters were there when you got there?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Very small number then.
LAMB: Do you remember any of them?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Oh, sure. Most of them have stayed friends of mine over the
years. There were less than a dozen of us then. David Hal well, David
Halberstam wasn't there when I first got there. There was a man named Homer
Bigart, who was an older reporter, who was on his last foreign assignment. He
was one of the most he was probably the most distinguished foreign
correspondent of his time.
LAMB: Was he Time magazine?
Mr. SHEEHAN: No. He was with The New York Times. He'd worked...
LAMB: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. SHEEHAN: ...before that for the Herald Tribune. He'd won two Pulitzer
LAMB: So you had two New York Times reporters in Saigon?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, no, he was he preceded David Halberstam. And then
Halb he left and David Halberstam came in September and was there for most of
the time I was for most of my subsequent time. Halberstam for The Times;
Malcolm Browne, who's now with The New York Times in as a science writer.
LAMB: He was AP then?
Mr. SHEEHAN: He was AP. Peter Arnett, who's now with CNN, was also with the
Mr. SHEEHAN: Photo no, he was a reporter. A man named Horst Faas...
Mr. SHEEHAN: ...a German born, who photographer who worked for the UPI
in in Africa, who covered the the the war the the revolution and the
turmoil in in the Belgian Congo, which is now Zaire, was the or shortly
became the photographer for the AP and won two Pulitzers in Vietnam. He's now
in London. The there's a fellow named John Sharkey, who was with NBC. And
then the some well known outsiders would come in; outsiders in the sense that
they weren't based in the country but they frequently came through: Bernie
Kalb with NBC, Peter Kalishew who's now retired with CBS, a a f a good
friend of mine named Charlie Moore, who was then the chief correspondent for
Time. But the resident correspondents were a small group, less than a dozen,
and all we though we competed with each other quite intensely, we were
LAMB: And you were UPI.
Mr. SHEEHAN: And I was UPI, right.
LAMB: How much did your editors back here in the United States at that point
care about this story?
Mr. SHEEHAN: The story really was a secondary story in during my first six
months there. The country was focused on other foreign policy crises: Cuba,
Berlin. Those were the main focuses. People hadn't really understood that
there was a that we had gone to war in Vietnam; that John Kennedy had
committed the arms of the United States and he'd begun to spill American blood
and he had planted the flag. They didn't really understand that.
Malcolm Browne of the AP, in frac fact, one day got a a letter addressed to
him of of it was Saigon French Indonesia rather than Saigon French
Indochina. It wasn't until the Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 which to
which a full section is devoted in this book and you asked me about favorite
sections sessions earlier. That's one of my favorite sections, if you will,
because it's it's a battle and it it I identify with soldiers having spent
so much time around them. It wasn't until the Battle of Ap Bac in January '63
when the Saigon forces were defeated in a very decisive way by a small group
of guerril guerrillas, humiliated, if you will. This American backed Army
with its armor and its artillery and its aircraft was was defeated by a
battalion of guerrillas in a in a battle that was a fiasco on our side.
That, in effect, illuminated the war. It caught head caught headlines in
this country and got on television, although print was much more important
than and television has than than it is now. Television was coming into
its own. And that began to I think after that, the country began January of
1963, the country began to realize that we were in involved in a war in
And then, of course, came the Buddhist crisis that is the Buddhist revolt
against Diem and burning of the Monks, the suicides by the Monks and then the
overthrow of Diem and and the war continually worsening. From about January
'63 forward, people began to understand that we were we were really involved
in a major crisis and it began to dominate the news.
LAMB: For somebody that might get your book, which is published by Random
House, what style did you use to write this story? I know that in the back
you have each div each section, the sources and the material and all that
stuff. But what kind of is it a narrative?
Mr. SHEEHAN: It I I deliberately wrote th I wrote this book for the
general reader because I wanted to try to write a book that would help people
for the general reader, the my countrymen in general to come to grips with
this war. And so this book is deliberately written with a with what I hope
is a powerful narrative, a driving narrative, that h that that retains
suspense and narrative force. I felt that that was the the way a reporter
ought to write a book; that that that is the kind of training a journalist
gets. And I was influenced in my writing very much by Truman Capote's book
"In Cold Blood." I read that when it was published first in The New Yorker
and then in book form. And he made me realize that you could write a book
about real events with the that a book that would have the narrative drive
of a novel and yet would be about real events which are often much more
interesting than those that appear in a novel. And certainly it's true, at
least, I think, in the case of Vietnam.
Now it's much more difficult to write that way and to h to retain truth and
to retain subtlety and to retain all of the complexity that you want. And I
was writing about a biography of a very complicated character and a history
of a very long war. But it's written deliberately with with with what I
hope is narrative drive because I wanted people to read this book. I didn't
want them to I did not want to write a scholarly book. It would have been
easier to do scholarly in a sense of of form, with footnotes, etc. There
are no footnotes in the book. There those notes you mentioned, of course,
are source notes source notes at the back because I wanted to give full
documentation for what I had written. But I deliberately kept it to source
notes at the back because I did not want anything to get in the reader's way.
And it ma as I said, it made it much more difficult to write. But I hope
the I hope it was worth it.
LAMB: One of the things I noticed in the bibliography when you referred to
`things to write' I think if I see if I can find it here it's no, maybe
it's not the bibliography. Someplace in here, you I saw the name Susan
Sheehan. Any relation?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Yes, of course; Susan is my wife.
LAMB: What what what was it I saw back here? Something that you...
Mr. SHEEHAN: You saw in the acknowledgements a tribute to Susan. I'm
LAMB: I saw no, I saw that, but there was some other place, where I...
Mr. SHEEHAN: There's a dedic the book is dedicated to her and to my
daughters and to my mother and mother in law. And then you probably saw in
the acknowledgments that Susan had read had read all the drafts and edited
them and and typed some of them. Susan and I Susan was a staff writer for
The New Yorker when we met in 1964 and has won Su Susan won a Pulitzer Prize
in 19 the Pulitzer in 1983 for for nonfiction for a book called, "Is There
No Place on Earth for Me?" It's a study of mental health and schizophrenia.
And she has always edited my stuff and I've always edited hers.
LAMB: Who's Kitty?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Kitty is my mother in law, who's been a wonderful person to me.
And so the book was dedicated to Susan and and our two daughters, Maria and
Catherine, and to my mother and Kitty, Susan's mother. But Sus and and
Susan and I have always worked with each other. I mean excuse me, we've
always edited each other's material, encouraged each other, and, I think,
edited each other's material honestly and critiqued each other's work
LAMB: Let me read something that I just it it I saw when I read part of
the book and I wrote down something that you wrote. A lot of it's a
phil philo philosophical statement. You said that `By the end by the
second decade after World War II...'
Mr. SHEEHAN: Mm hmm.
LAMB: `...the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the
American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination
and moral and intellectual insensitivity.'
Mr. SHEEHAN: Mm hmm.
LAMB: Let me read just a little more. `And it also touched the civilian
bureaucracies, the CIA, the State Department and the lesser civilian agencies,
that join the armed for services in managing America American overseas
interests for the president. The attitudes had spread as well to the greater
part of the political, academic and business leadership of the United States.'
Do you want to expound on that a little more?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Sure. One of the reasons we we went to Vietnam in all of our
self confidence and all of our ignorance, if you will, was that the pro the
enormous success this country had in World War II the great miracle of World
War II, the great moral crusade that it was and the economic success that
followed World War II led to a kind of moral torpor, an intellectual torpor.
Americans ceased to think imaginatively. The American generals in Vietnam
thought they'd prevail simply because they were American generals. They'd
ceased to realize that th you could lose a war.
The American civilian leadership assumed that because its generals had four
stars and said they knew what they were talking about, that they really did
know what they were talking about. Our leadership wh what had happened to
us was that we had was was was a process that's happened to European
countries, that but that had never occurred that happened to that excuse
me, that had never happened to the United States before, is that we had gone
through that historical process of becoming a great power. And as a result of
it, we had we had our our we had we had become an arrogant our leadership
had become arrogant and self satisfied and and and and unthinking. This is
a process which has happened to other countries. It happened to the Europeans
prior to World War I and led to that enormous tragedy that began in 1914. And
this same kind of thinking led us to Vietnam. And for us, Vietnam was a kind
of mini World War I. It was it was a pro an experience of of of great
pain and great disillusionment. I hope it'll be an an experience from which
we'll draw wisdom.
But prior to Vietnam, Americans the American leadership of that period, and
Americans in general, assumed that we were an exception to history; that your
leadership couldn't become so self confident that it would become filled 1ith
it, that it would be driven by illusions; that your your industries and
we're having this problem, obviously, with our industries your industrial
management could become so self satisfied that it would lose its competitive
edge. And so that those sentences you read are meant to sum up the mentality
of the leadership that took us to war in Vietnam, the mentality of generals
who thought they were going to win, as I said, simply because they were
American generals with four stars on their on their shoulders.
Our leadership in World War II was quite different than that. They were very
keenly conscious of the fact that they could lose because they were little men
going up against big men. We've forgotten that since. But we were the little
men in World War II going up against these big, professional Germans who were
the world champions. And and Eisenhower and Patton, etc., were very
conscious of the fact that they could lose, and that's one of the reasons they
were such fine, fine, fine generals. And very conscious of the fact that you
could not waste soldiers; that the soldier would would sense this right away
and he wouldn't follow you. Patton was was so effective because he was a
winner, and bu but also because he was conscious of losing. That he could
By Vietnam, our generals had ceased to be conscious of that, and so they they
lost their grip on reality. What's one of the most striking things about the
war in Vietnam is that it's fought with a total sense of of of
the the fought with a total sense of of of unreality, of illusion. And
what's ironic about it and I don't want to go on too long. But what what
you see when you read this book is that anyone who challenged this system, and
you have a series of figures who did first of all, you have John Vann, who
says, `We're losing the war in Vietnam.' This is 1962 '63.
LAMB: Who is he telling that to?
Mr. SHEEHAN: He was telling that to his superiors General Harkins, who was
the commanding general. He went back to the Pentagon and tried to tell it to
the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Maxwell Taylor canceled his briefing his
LAMB: What year was that?
Mr. SHEEHAN: '63. The reporters were reporting it. We assumed that if
LAMB: Let me just show the audience this photo and tell us who this is so...
Mr. SHEEHAN: That's General Harkins here, who is the commanding general in
Vietnam in '62 '63, and ne next to him is General Wheeler, the late General
Wheeler, who was, at that time, chief of staff of the Army when that photo was
taken in '63 and later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
LAMB: General Harkins was the top man...
Mr. SHEEHAN: He was the top man in Vietnam in '62 '63.
LAMB: Vietnam. And John Paul Vann at that time was what?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Was a lieutenant colonel and the adviser to the Vietnamese
division in the northern Mekong Delta. And Vann said we were losing the war.
And he ex he he had good reasons why, and he wasn't the only one who said we
were losing the war. Most of the advisers in the field were convinced
that that we were losing. But General Harkins wouldn't listen to them.
He he we thought, at the time that that is, the reporters thought,
we that General Harkins was was so optimistic because he felt that he ought
to put the best face on things. We thought he had some sort of a grip on it.
We had we thought that, privately, he had a grip on reality; that he he had
some understanding of what was going on.
In fact, when I got at the secret records later on, the records of the
internal discussions, the strategy conferences in Honolulu with between with
Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense and General Harkins and the rest of
the military hierarchy assembled, I realized that these men believed these
illusions. They really thought they were winning the war. I because here
was a top secret conference, which I hadn't seen before the records of
it and and they were they were they were spouting these same illusions
that that they were giving us in press conferences, which we regarded as an
insult to our intelligence, because we were we young reporters were going out
into the field, seeing what was happening, talking to advisers like Vann.
Vann happened to be the most brilliant of the advisers, and the most
outspoken. But the others were were also speaking to us. And we we thought
that these these factually optimistic remarks by General Harkins were were
simply an attempt to fob us off. It turned out that he believed these
And that and it was striking that then, after the Kennedy commit the excuse
me the advisory phase of the war that President Kennedy started, failed and
we had then they had to send the American Army and the Marine Corps to
Vietnam to prevent the Saigon regime from collapsing, Westmoreland began to
acquire the same set of illusions, despite the the the fe the bu despite
his own experience at watching Harkins. Westmoreland was then fueled by the
same illusions. And anyone who challenged the the these was was crushed.
First, you see Vann attempting to challenge it and his briefing for the joint
chiefs is canceled by Maxwell Taylor, who did not want to hear bad news. He
was convinced he was winning the war. And they...
LAMB: When let's go back to that for sure. The the John Paul Vann briefing
was to take place where?
Mr. SHEEHAN: July 1963. This is very early on.
LAMB: In Vietnam?
Mr. SHEEHAN: No, he was by this time, he was back in this country. He'd
finished his first year in Vietnam. And he had decided to carry on a crusade
at the Pentagon to convince the military leadership of the country that we
were losing the war in Vietnam and that if we did not change policy we would
lose it. And he started out first he asked to they had a program at the
Pentagon to allegedly learn lessons from Vietnam by by brief by by by
interviewing returned advisers. It's called `debriefing' in military slang.
He went to to the debriefing officer and asked to be debriefed and he was
informed that he was not going to be debriefed at the request of the
commanding general in Saigon.
So he went off and started briefing himself. And he gradually worked his way
up from his own section to where he was talking to other off to to generals
in the Pentagon; and he finally encountered a general who who thought he
really had something to say, and that was a man named Harold Johnson, who
subsequently became chief of staff of the Army. And Johnson, through
another and another senior general, had a briefing scheduled for the joint
chiefs, which Vann was going to present his case. Essentially, the briefing
said that Harkins was that we were losing the war and everything General
Harkins said was an illusion. And Maxwell Taylor, who had put Harkins into
Vietnam, persuaded Kennedy to appoint him the commanding general in Vietnam.
General Harkins was one of General Taylor's proteges. General Taylor had
enormous influence on the Army leadership of that period. And it most many
of the figures who dominated the Army were proteges of General Taylor.
Mr. SHEEHAN: And he canceled the briefing. He had the briefing canceled.
LAMB: At that time, the secretary of defense was Robert McNamara.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Right.
LAMB: Secretary of state was Dean Rusk.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Right. And the president was still John Kennedy. And...
LAMB: What did those three men feel about this effort in Vietnam at that
Mr. SHEEHAN: They thought, again, that they had the situation under control.
LAMB: Was John Paul Vann the lone voice at that point?
Mr. SHEEHAN: He was the lone if you will, he was the most outspoken
dissenter within the system at that point, but he wasn't the lone voice
because what he was saying inside you could read in print in the news columns
because the advisers were talking to us.
Let me back up for one moment. There's a considerable misimpression about the
role of the press in Vietnam all along and particularly in this early period.
The reporters who went to Vietnam early on, like myself, were not anti war
dissenters. We were very much in favor of American intervention in Vietnam.
We had the same set of illusions everyone else did. What we wanted to what
we felt was our well, was our duty excuse me we felt our duty was to report
the truth, so that the president would know what was happening in Vietnam the
president and the rest of the leadership and win the war. And the advisers
in the field, like John Vann, told us, `Look, this isn't working. The policy
isn't working. We're losing. And here's why.' And we were writing these
stories and and they were being denounced.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the statement you made earlier about John Paul
Vann. Wha you said he was brilliant.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Yes, he was a brilliant soldier.
LAMB: How did you determine who was brilliant and who wasn't?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, by comparing him with his with his contemporaries. He
stood out among the field advisers then. You've got to remember, this was a
small war effort in '62 '63. There were perhaps 3,500 advisers out in the
field. And we got to know a lot of these men because we we spent most of
our much most of our time in the field.
LAMB: You went right out in the middle of the battles.
Mr. SHEEHAN: We went out and yes and and and got on a helicopter
and and and we'd spend days walking with with with with ARVN battalions.
LAMB: Any restrictions on you at that point?
Mr. SHEEHAN: No restrictions, really. There were restrictions at the
beginning. The Kennedy administration, at first, would not let us go out in
operations, but then they lifted the restrictions and let us go.
There was pressure on the advisers to get us to write optimistic stories, but
once you got out on the field, that was abandoned. These men were young
captains and majors and lieutenant colonels, and they weren't about to to try
to hide the truth from they didn't try to hide the truth from us. In fact,
they discovered that we were the only people who would listen to them. The
commanding general in Saigon wouldn't listen to them when they told him things
weren't working, that the ARVN would that the South Vietnamese army wouldn't
fight, that the Diem regime was deliberately holding deliberately holding it
back from fighting, that they wouldn't take on the Communist guerrillas.
Because Diem wanted to preserve his army as a force in being to to preserve
his regime. The Americans thought of the army, the South Vietnamese army, as
a force with which to fight the Communists. Diem saw it as a force to keep
him in power. And so he had a he had a secret order out to his commanders
not to take casualties. And the advisers couldn't get them to tangle with
the with the guerrillas, and they would tell us this. And so we were
reporting this, because we thought that if we got the facts out, that someone
in authority back here would listen.
LAMB: Was anybody reading what you were writing back here?
Mr. SHEEHAN: They were reading it and they were denouncing it. I mean,
General Harkins was was and the ambassador were were were denouncing what
we were saying.
LAMB: Anybody in Congress reading it and responding?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Some of them were were were were were were were raising
LAMB: Remember who they were?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, it started out with with with people like who many of
them began to use it for their own purposes, because they turned against the
war. It would it would would at the beginning, it would I I I can't
remember the congressman in '62 '60 well, let me give you an example, yes,
Mike Mansfield, who was Senate majority leader. Mansfield came out
on on and Mansfield was one of those who had been an original backer of
Diem. And Mike Mansfield came out and he's hardly a radical...
LAMB: Current ambassador to Japan.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Right. And he was then Senate majority leader. And he came out
on a trip and he decided that the ad that the reporters were reflecting what
the advisers in the field were saying, and that what the American ambassador
and the commanding general was saying were not correct. And he handed in a
report to President Kennedy to this effect and it didn't change things.
LAMB: When you sat down to write this book, some 15 years ago, and you said
it has taken you 15 years to complete it, who did you have in mind to read it?
Who what would make you the most happy if what kind of person read this
Mr. SHEEHAN: I would be most happiest, I guess, if people read this book
who who whose sons and first of all, that I I would hope I would I
would be most pleased if the veterans read it because it was their war. But
also it was the war of a lot of other people in this country: the mothers who
sent their sons off and the mothers and fathers who sent their sons off, the
sisters and and wives and and others who who knew them. I would I would
be I I I would hope that the cadets would read it. I would hope that
y that also I would be most pleased if young people, like my daughters, for
whom Vietnam is history, would read it. And and and that it would it would
bring a wisdom to them that an earlier generation didn't have.
LAMB: We're talking with Neil Sheehan, author of "A Bright Shining Lie:
John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam," published by Random House.
LAMB: Neil Sheehan, author of "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and
America in Vietnam." What role did the press play in the war?
Mr. SHEEHAN: At the beginning, I suspect the press helped us to go to war in
Vietnam. The the press was in gen the the the the news media of this
country, in my opinion, tend to be quite conventional. They reflect
conventional ideas. They are not the cabal of liberal plotters that the right
wing would have us believe, at least, that thus that thesis doesn't stand up
to reality in my experience.
In the beginning, you you have first of all, a let's take my own myself
and and the small group of reporters in Saigon. We were objecting to the way
they were the war was being fought, because the advisers in the field, the
military advisers in the field, were telling us that it was being lost. But
our objective was to to help the country win the war. We thought it our duty
to report the truth so that we could win. If you take the press back here,
they were, by and large, accepting what the Kennedy administration was saying,
and then, later on, what President Johnson was saying.
I'll give you a very good example of it: the Tonkin Gulf incident of August
1964. That was a wonderful case of news management, where the administration
had inadvertently provoked a clash between the North Vietnamese between North
Vietnamese torpedo boats and our destroyers. They announced that the attack
had been unprovoked, even though they knew at that point they had
inadvertently provoked it. No one in the news media questioned their version
of events. And the the Tonkin Gulf resolution sailed right through the
Senate. In fact, it was sponsored by Senator Fulbright, who also didn't
question it at that point.
And if you watch Walter Cronkite if you watched the recordings of "CBS
Evening News," Walter Cronkite sounds like a Pentagon spokesman in 1965 and
1966 and hope I'm not making Mr. Cronkite angry by saying this. But he's
essentially repeating in an enthusiastic way what what what qui what he's
being told. It is only after 1968, after Tet '68 the Communist Tet offensive
of '68, which disillusioned the general public that you find an anti war bias
coming into the news media in general. You find figures like Cronkite really
questioning the war. And that was crushed again by Agnew and Nixon in '69 and
'70 with their attacks on the press. And you don't find it really asserting
itself again until '72 when the country begins to absolutely get fed up with
the whole thing and there's another crisis in Vietnam.
So the the the role of the media initially was, I think, to help us get in
and that they reinforced what the what the the the administration was
trying to do. And then, you do, I think, find the media reinforcing
the the the course of getting out of Vietnam, which was inevitable in any
case, because we had lost the war by Tet by Tet '68. And the television
reporting and news reporting reinforces that impression by reflecting. But it
was reflective of reality. I do not think the media got us out of Vietnam a
lot sooner. In fact, Nixon was able to persist in the face of an unpopular
war. I think they did help finally to get us out, yeah, but they were not a
controlling factor. The news media were a contributing factor. I don't think
they ever are a controlling factor.
LAMB: Fellow that I knew who is now deceased worked for a major network, used
to tell the story that in order for him to get his film at that time on the
evening news, he would leak a story to a print reporter in Vietnam so that by
the time the film got back on an airplane, his editors in New York would feel
like they could put it on because it had already been news. Did you ever find
people, when you were with The New York Times or even UPI, using that as a
legitimate reason to continue publishing any any story of any kind?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I did with the print media, we did not we we with the
print media, we we tended to fuel each other only by competition. If
somebody got a story that somebody else didn't have, of course, then your boss
wanted to know why you didn't have it. But I found that, in that period of
time, and that's early, when print was still was still much more powerful
than it is now I did find, often, that television was driven by print, yes.
Television editors, the senior people in New York, would open up the
new would look at the front page of The New York Times and if The New York
Times was running the story prominently, they wanted it. Yes, television
people told me that. I was frequently told that.
That and, of course, the wire services played a a major role then, too,
with with because a lot of papers did not have foreign corespondents.
And and and wa if the wire services were running a story in a strong way,
yes, then it it certainly did affect television coverage. Because I I think
it gave the television it's the television reporters told me it gave their
editors confidence that this is what we ought to be running on our on our
evening news show, etc., and our morning news show. I think print did affect
television much more than it then than it probably does now.
But, again, I do want to say that let's take the converse of the myth that
the media lost the war for us in Vietnam, that if it weren't for
these for for all of this bad report this bad news reporting, we would have
won. Let's take the converse of that. Let's say that the re print reporters
had written nothing but optimistic stories. The sort of thing that would come
out that that would please the Pentagon as a press release. Let's say that
television suppressed all of those ugly pictures of bodies, of burning houses.
Let's say they even suppressed gaffs like General Westmoreland giving a press
conference at the American embassy in Saigon with the bodies of the Viet Cong
sappers who had penetrated the compound littering the place right after they'd
announced that 67 percent of the population was living under American
I think the result would have been that the American public would have ceased
to believe its own media. Because this is what's happened in other countries.
This is what we would have ended up with provida prior to Mikhail Gorbachev
and and Glasnost. People in the Soviet Union don't didn't believe what they
read in their own newspapers or saw on their own television. And this has
happened before. In World War I, the British and French and German press
almost universally lied about was happening what was happening in the
trenches. And their own public, and particularly, their own soldiers, ceased
to believe what they were reading, because they knew it was lies. The word
gets back. And so I think the the the war in Vietnam would have ended as it
did without the news media. The news media hastened us in and hastened us
out, but they didn't effect the they didn't determine excuse me they didn't
determine the outcome.
LAMB: Yeah. In your 860 page book, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann
and America in Vietnam," obviously, John Paul Vann plays a major role. The
purpose of our discussion right now I want to talk about how John Paul Vann
used you or how you used him or better put, maybe, the interaction of the two.
How did you all come to get so close to one another? And not just you, but
the rest of the press?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, in the beginning, as the press corps was very small;
there was less than a dozen of us. And the and the main action was occurring
in the northern Mekong Delta, south of right south of Saigon. Because that
area had not yet fallen to the Communist guerrillas. And Vann was the senior
adviser to the Vietnamese division that was assigned responsibility for the
whole of the northern Delta. So it was and reporters follow a story. It was
natural that we would go down and cover events that were occurring in the 7th
Division area. And when we discovered that this senior adviser to the
division there was an extremely bright lieutenant colonel...
LAMB: This fellow right here in the middle.
Mr. SHEEHAN: That's right.
LAMB: I want to just and that's Daniel Ellsberg standing on his left.
Mr. SHEEHAN: That's right. That's Daniel Ellsberg over on on John Vann's
left holding a carbine. That's the fall of 1965 when Vann had gone back to
Vietnam as a civilian in the Pacification program and was Pacification adviser
in a very insecure province outs west, just west of Saigon where that
picture's being taken.
That was a a a ja Dan Ellsberg had just come over there as a member of
General Edward Lansdale's team. And he'd gone out to Hoai Nhon to travel
around the province with John Vann. And that's when the beginning of their
LAMB: OK. I didn't mean to interrupt, but I wanted the audience to see what
John Paul Vann looked like and you were starting to talk about how you got to
know John Paul Vann.
Mr. SHEEHAN: But the the reporters went down to to his area to cover the
war because that's where the a the real action was occurring. As I said,
reporters cover a story or follow a story, and that's where the action was.
And we dis we we discovered that this man, who was the senior adviser, this
lieutenant colonel who was the senior advisor to this division, was an
extremely bright man who very quickly came to understand the realities of the
war to the extent an American could understand it in that period of time. He
could analyze it with much wi with much more precision than anyone else, and
he began to to teach us an awful lot about what was happening in Vietnam.
And it made sense because let me give you an example.
The ordinary adviser would say to you, `We're losing a lot of weapons through
the outpost.' We're supplying the South Vietnamese militia in the outposts,
the guerrillas come along and they overrun the outpost and capture the
American weapons. John Vann had gone around and made a study of exactly how
many outposts there were in his area and exactly how many weapons were flowing
through them. And he would sit you down and say, `Now look, if we continue to
supply the the South Vietnamese militia at this rate, with 700 plus outposts
in my area, we're going to sta start pumping an enormous number of weapons,
thousands of weapons into the Communist guerrillas. And we're going to end up
with an enemy who's far more powerful, that's far more better armed than
the than the guerrillas we face now who are using these old French weapons
from the French Indo China War. This country that is the United States we,
the United States of America, are arming our enemy and giving them far better
weapons than with than they already have and we're going to change the
whole the whole kind of wa we're going to change the war we're fighting.
We're we're creating a a monster here.'
John could do that sort of thing. He had those insights. And so we were
drawn to him. And also he was a very he was a very he was a fearless man,
physically fearless man. He was always out in the field. And he had great
charisma to him. And and you're drawn to a person like that.
LAMB: What was the attitude of the of General Harkins at that point? Could
you go see him? And would he explain to you what was going on?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, at first, John John Vann was managing to kill so many
Viet Cong that he was General Harkins' favorite adviser, as I say in the book.
Because General Harkins General Harkins, initially, ignored the the things
that displeased him.
LAMB: General in charge in Vietnam ...(unintelligible).
Mr. SHEEHAN: In Vietnam, right. The commanding general. He's he passed
away he died a number of years ago, but but he was then the commanding
general of Vietnam. He'd been senior staff aide to George Patton during World
War II, but he was quite different than General Patton. He he at first,
Vann was his favorite adviser because Vann was getting was killing so many
guerrillas until the Battle of Ap Bac occurred in January '63 and the Saigon
side suffered a really stunning defeat. And all the warnings Vann had been
sending General Harkins in his after action reports came true. Vann kept
saying that this army is not fighting, won't fight and disaster lies ahead.
Then Vann went then Vann started really opening up to us and telling us what
he really that is, he he began to open up to us about about he began to
leak to us.
LAMB: Leak stories.
Mr. SHEEHAN: Le he began to leak his reports to General Harkins. He would
sit you down and he would he would lay out for you what he was telling
LAMB: A lieutenant colonel...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Taking on the commanding general.
LAMB: ...taking on the commanding general by leaking reports to you.
Mr. SHEEHAN: We was willing right. And he was willing to do it.
LAMB: Well, how would you publish those? What would you say in your story?
Mr. SHEEHAN: We would attribute them to an American adviser or American
advisers. We tried to disguise it as much as we could.
LAMB: Did they know right away who was doing it?
Mr. SHEEHAN: They began general i it became pretty obvious very quickly
who was the source of a lot of the reporting coming out of the northern Mekong
Delta. Because Vann didn't try to hide it. In fact, we tried to we we
cautioned him. We'd say, `John, don't be so bold about this thing.
We'll we'll disguise it more. You're getting yourself in deep trouble
professionally.' Because when a lieutenant colonel takes on a a four star
general, even if he protects himself to some extent by denying he's leaking
things, and even with the reporters protecting him, there are private ways,
unofficial ways, in which revenge can be taken. And we kept saying to John,
`Look,' but he he insisted on on on he was quite bold about it. He he
said, `No, no, no, no.' He wanted to `You're not you're not hurting me
anymore than I want to be hurt.' It turned out, as I explained in the book,
there were personal reasons why he no longer felt he had a career in the Army
and he was willing to throw it away. But he also did have moral courage. He
was willing to take on the commanding general because he thought the
commanding general was losing the war.
LAMB: Who else was John Paul Vann leaking to besides you?
Mr. SHEEHAN: David Halberstam.
LAMB: New York Times.
Mr. SHEEHAN: New York Times. In fact, Halberstam was the was the reporter
whom Vann focused, as I say in the book Halberstam was the van the reporter
whom Vann focused on most to whom with whom he became closest. Because
John's first of all, John was an enormous source to us. He was ed he
educated us. He was a source of information. But John very quickly sensed
that what David Halberstam wrote was the most had the most impact. Because
ha because The New York Times was was the most powerful paper in the world,
particularly in that period of time. The president of the United States read
what David Halberstam wrote. And if you if you talk to David Halberstam and
he he reported it, it was going to get to the attention of the senior
leadership of this country right away.
LAMB: Where is this picture...
Mr. SHEEHAN: That is a picture of David Halberstam up in the central
highlands, actually, and not down in Vann's area up in the central highlands
of Vietnam fording a stream with a backpack on his he was doing a trip up to
the highlands. A co he's out in the field with a group of South Vietnamese
soldiers who were right beyond him crossing the stream and the picture was
taken by a a rep a photographer for the AP named Horst Faas who won two
Pulitzers in Vietnam. David and Horst had been friends in the Belgian Congo
when they both covered that and they were both out in on on an operation
with the with the Vietnamese when Horst took that picture. As David said,
`knee deep in the big muddy,' later on.
LAMB: Before we leave that, Mr. Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize winner, a book he
wrote right around this time?
Mr. SHEEHAN: David won a Pulitzer David and Malcolm Browne shared a Pulitzer
for their reporting in Vietnam. And then David went on to write a number of
books, the most fam first of which was an account of his experiences in
Vietnam in '62 '63 called "The Making of a Quagmire." And then a book
published in 1972 which was in indictment of the American leadership that had
led us to Vietnam called "The Best and the Brightest."
LAMB: Now did you replace him as a New York Times reporter in Vietnam?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, I went back to Vietnam no, I didn't really replace him.
There were a couple of people in between. But the time I I David when
David and I first knew each other, I was working for the UPI. Then I went to
work for The Times and David left Vietnam at the end of '63, December of '63.
I went to work for The New York Times in '64 and then The Times sent me back
to Vietnam in the middle of '65, August of 1965. At the time, the American
mili when the US Army and the Marine Corps were coming to take over the war
that had had failed the advisory war had failed, as Vann had said it
would and they and the regime was in danger of falling, and they sent the US
Army and the Marine Corps in. I went back there to be reporter for The Times.
The Times sent me there. A a reporter named Charlie Moore, who was then the
bureau chief, who had also gone out there, whom I'd known earlier when he was
chief correspondent for Time Charlie asked me to come and report the war with
him, cover the war with him. I was first sent down to Indonesia after I went
to work for The Times and Charlie wanted me to come back to Vietnam and cover
the war with him; and so I did. And then a a a reporter who's now chief
political corres who chief Washington correspondent, R.W. Apple, Johnnie
Apple, came out and joined us over there. There was three of us in 1965, the
year of the buildup Charlie Moore, Johnnie Apple and I.
LAMB: Why you said The New York Times was the most powerful newspaper in the
Mr. SHEEHAN: Because the United States was the most powerful country in the
world. And The Times was was in the position of The Times of London when a
quarter of the world was pink was red, if you will, with the scarlet tunics
of a British soldier at the high noon of the British empire. In 1963,
ni the the American the United States of America was at the high noon of
its power. And Adolph Ochs, who founded The New York Times he bought a
bankrupt paper had in mind when he bought it, or shortly afterwards,
developed the idea that he would create an establishment if you will, an
establishment paper; a paper that would be respectable, that would print the
truth and not not not the sort of s s sc scandal, if if you will,
that that the the the American press so often did print at the time. The
so called yellow journalism he he wasn't interested in that. He wanted a
solid, respectable paper that would would would become reliable that would
be relied on for for its for its news coverage. And The Times grew
and obviously, and became the most respected paper in this country and then
when this country was the most powerful country in the world, I think The
Times became the most respected paper in the world.
LAMB: Why not The Washington Post, for instance?
Mr. SHEEHAN: The Post had not, at that point, grown to the stature it has
now. The Post was then beginning to to grow but it did ha did not have the
stature it had the it has now. The Times was what dominated the print field.
And it was read in Washington. It wasn't read by a large number of people in
Washington, but it was read by the people who counted in Washington. It was
read by by by people who counted abroad. That is, The Times had a news
service. So that if you reported something in The New York Times, the the
president was going to read it. And Vann knew that, and he cultivated
Halberstam for that reason. So...
LAMB: What do you think of...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Cultivated the rest of us too, but he cultivated Halberstam
LAMB: Wha you know, you obviously have seen more of this kind of journalism
than just this particular incident, but what do you think of I just noticed a
sentence or two here that you wrote. `Harkins and Knowlton never ceased
complaining about us, hoping that our editors would fire us and replace us
with more cooperative types.' Frustrating for military to have their
subordinates leaking to major publications and undercutting what they're
Mr. SHEEHAN: Frustrating for a military leader, yeah. And frustrating for an
ambassador who has who has shared the same illusions as the commanding
general. Oh, of course, they wanted and they were you've got to remember
that prior to Vietnam, there hadn't been any disagreements, serious
disagreements between the news media of the country and the political and
military leadership of the country. We had pretty well marched in step
through the Cold War. Because there hadn't been any occasion in which
reality reality on the ground was conflicting with what the political and
military leadership was saying.
The problem the reporters had in Vietnam was that what we saw in the field and
what we were told by the advisers in the field, the men who counted like John
Vann and other advisers, and by the captains who worked for Vann, was in
direct conflict with what we were being told by the commanding general in
Saigon. And so this was a unique at that time, a unique event in American
politics and journalism. And these generals weren't used to report excuse
me generals like Harkins and ambassadors like Knowlty, were not accustomed to
American reporters who's who were saying that they were consistently wrong.
We we weren't accustomed to generals who were consistently wrong either.
LAMB: Had this been a declared war...
Mr. SHEEHAN: Well, it became...
LAMB: ...could this have happened?
Mr. SHEEHAN: No. Ye yes, the same thing could have happened, of course.
LAMB: And would John Paul Vann have survived in a declared war with se maybe
even censorship applied?
Mr. SHEEHAN: We had censorship in Vietnam throughout the war.
LAMB: Legal censorship or just...
Mr. SHEEHAN: It it was it was effective censorship. It was tactical
censorship. They didn't read your dispatches. But there were ground rules.
If you could not report on operations prior to them occurring we had military
censorship. You could not report on an operation prior to its occurring. You
could not, at one point, report the precise number of casualties. You could
say there were moderate, light or heavy, but you couldn't give the precise
number of killed or wounded. There are a lot of rules that if you did not
follow, your your accreditation was removed and you couldn't get on military
aircraft, you couldn't attend military briefings. They enforced censorship,
military censorship, throughout the war.
What they could not enforce was the cen was was was the view of the war
that we were conveying. And and that's what frustrated them. You what they
couldn't enforce was was to sit down and turn an account of a battle into a
press release, which didn't reflect the re General Harkins was sending back,
to Washington, his reports did simply didn't reflect what was happening in
the field. And he was furious that our reporting contradicted what he was
saying. And, of course, his own officers in the field co were contradicting
what he was saying. And he wouldn't listen to them. And they would tell him,
`General, we have lost this battle for X reasons.' He simply wouldn't listen.
LAMB: Were there reporters that you worked with in Vietnam other
publications that were reporting a different view of the war than you were?
Mr. SHEEHAN: Most of the re of the resident correspondents in Vietnam, at
that time, were reporting basically the same thing excuse me their reporting
had the same flavor they were reporting the same events.
LAMB: Were they all getting their information from John Paul Vann?
Mr. SHEEHAN: No, they were getting it from other advisers, as well, but but
we were going out into the field and were seeing what was happening and we
were reporting it. And the advisers, as they grew more frustrated I'm
talking about the men in the field now from lieutenant colonel on down as
they grew more frustrated, they turned more and more to the reporters.
Because we were the only people who would listen to them.
Now you would get and then you'd begin to get reporters from outside like
Bernie Kalb of CBS, Charlie Moore, who was then chief correspondent for Time.
They came in and they began to see that that what the lo what the resident
correspondents were reporting was true. And their reporting reflected it as
well. You did get people who would come out, like the late Marguerite
Higgins, for instance, who had been very critical when she was in Korea of the
way the war was being fought. But when she got to Vietnam and she
had she she like so many well, like the political leadership of the
country, she assumed these generals knew what they were talking about.
And she wrote a series of articles, I remember, in in August of '63 saying we
were a bunch of of young cub reporters who who didn't know what we were
talking about and we wanted to see the United States lose the war. That sort
of thing would hurt you, because you wanted to see the United States win the
war, you were simply trying to get the truth about it out. Yes, there were
some but us who would come in and and who would say that we were all wrong.
That we used to laugh about it, because it was it it it made no sense at
all. I think there were people who they were people in in her case, who
genuinely who were acting on faith. Because they had never dealt with
generals who really didn't know what they were talking about before.
LAMB: Given your experience, and this book and other books, could a Vietnam
ever happen again to the United States?
Mr. SHEEHAN: No. Well, not in the foreseeable future. I think Vietnam has
changed this country, for the foreseeable future, at least. I an event like
Vietnam is unique in the history of a country. Vietnam was our first bad war.
Previously, when you went off to war as an American you came you you came
home having proved your manhood and you were slapped on the back and your
cause was honored. Even the confederate side lost its war and I happen to
think they had a bad cause but in their home communities, they were honored
and they ran for office on their war records.
But Vietnam, for whatever reason you you wish to to say, that the war was
fought the wrong way, or that the cause was unjust, it was a bad war. And it
was the first it was the first war in which Americans could get could and
did get killed for nothing. Now the Europeans had learned that you could go
to war and get killed for nothing, that you could go to war and and your in
which you could get involved in a war in which your le leadership
was was was driven by illusions rather than reality. We had never learned
that as a nation. That had never been driven home to us. War had always been
a good experience in the American historical conscience consciousness.
And so I think the impact of that on us has been so profound, because the war
was so divisive that it remains with us today and you ca the president of the
United States cannot so blithely send Americans off to war as he does not
have the power to do it that Kennedy and Johnson had, because the public
doesn't give him the credibility that it gave them those presidents.
LAMB: We're talking with Neil Sheehan. This is the book published by Random
House, about 860 some pages. "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and
America in Vietnam." Included in this, some 385 interviews, some 630 hours of
audiotape and lots of other background information on Mr. Sheehan's reporting
from Vietnam from the year 1962 onward.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.