Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan
A Bright Shining Lie:  John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
ISBN: 0394484479
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 2)
Neil Sheehan gave five 30-minute interviews about his book, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.” The second interview was titled "America in Vietnam."
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TRANSCRIPT
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 2)
Program Air Date: October 18, 1988

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Neil Sheehan, author of "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann, and America in Vietnam." When you think of John Paul Vann, what do you remember first?
NEIL SHEEHAN, AUTHOR, "A BRIGHT SHINING LIE: JOHN PAUL VANN, AND AMERICA IN VIETNAM": I guess I remember this extraordinary lieutenant colonel down in the Mekong Delta in '62-'63, when I first met him; this bandy rooster of a man with this rasping Virginia twang, who was fearless and extremely bright -- explain the war to you in a way nobody else could -- who was always out in the field, driving roads nobody else would drive, getting involved in firefights -- this extremely colorful man to whom I was very much attracted to as a young reporter. That's the Vann I most remember, the guy who summed up the kind of qualities we admired so much in ourselves -- that physical drive, the will to win, incisive thinking. That's the Vann I remember.
LAMB: You knew him as early as '62?
SHEEHAN: Yes. I met John in '62 when I was a young reporter and first went to Vietnam and thought I knew him. I considered him a friend, because I did see a lot of him in that first year. And then I saw him later on when I came back here -- briefly, when he was in this country -- and then I saw him when I went back to Vietnam again in '65-'66 and he was back in Vietnam.

And I thought I knew John well, but after I began to research the book, after he was killed in Vietnam at the end of 10 years, in June of '72, and I decided to write a book about him and about the war, I discovered that he was an exceedingly complicated person, and that we all thought we knew John Vann and none of us knew him.
LAMB: Did he ever lie to you?
SHEEHAN: Yes, John deceived me, yes. He deceived all of us in that first year in that we thought he was throwing away a career to take on the commanding general and warn about the fact that we were losing the war in Vietnam. It turned out that he did take on the commanding general and he did have moral courage, but it turned out that he had a black spot on his record which he knew would bar him from promotion to general, and he really didn't have a career to throw away at that point.
LAMB: What was that black spot?
SHEEHAN: He'd been charged with statutory rape because of an affair with a 15-year-old girl when he was at the command at General Staff College. And he had beaten the charge, in the sense that the case had never come to trial, but in fact, he beat the lie detector. But it turned out the investigation, the record, was still in his file, and it would bar him from being promoted to general. He would have gone as far as colonel, but he would never have gotten stars. At least, he was convinced of it, and I think he was correct. A general officer board is looking for reasons to reject people, not to promote. There are many more men than there are stars to give -- many more candidates then there are stars to give, and they're looking for reasons to reject you. And even though he had a brilliant record and was an extremely brave officer, he knew that they wouldn't take the risk that a general officer would have the sexual compulsions that he had.

He was a man, as I said, of great public, professional honesty, as say in the book -- enormous professional honesty and courage, and these private, personal deceits, which would bear light -- which came out of his childhood.
LAMB: An illegitimate child?
SHEEHAN: Yes, John was illegitimate. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia. He was -- very poor family. His mother -- the problem wasn't that he was illegitimate; it was that his mother was cruel to him. She held his illegitimacy up to him. She wouldn't allow his stepfather to adopt him. When he was finally adopted when he was 18 and later on, many years later, when he was filling out a government security clearance form, he ...
LAMB: This is his mother, by the way.
SHEEHAN: This is his mother, yeah. This is a picture of his mother.
LAMB: Now how old was she here?
SHEEHAN: She was probably in her 30s then. She was a woman who tended to attack the men around her -- attack their masculinity, if you will, by cruelty, and she was very cruel to him. She hurt him deeply, and he had to overcome a great deal to escape from that world of his childhood, and it scarred him, personally.
LAMB: What did his mother do for a living?
SHEEHAN: His mother, as I said in the book, she was a part-time -- she sold herself, to put it mildly, part of the time; not always. So ...
LAMB: Prostitute.
SHEEHAN: Yeah. She sold herself, and that hurt him, but the shame of it hurt him. But I think what hurt him even more was the fact that she withheld love from him. He grew up, in effect, as a motherless child. And it's very sad when that happens to a person. I think what what one's mother does might cause one shame, but if love is withheld, if one is rejected, that hurts even more. And ...
LAMB: Who raised him?
SHEEHAN: He was raised by his stepfather, and then Frank Vann, who adopted him, and who would have adopted him early on. And then he escaped from Norfolk when he was in his late teens. He was desperate to get away from his family situation, and he encountered a minister named Garland Hopkins, local minister at at a local Methodist church, who was a progressive man and who sent him off to a Methodist boarding school in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in southwestern Virginia, a place called Ferrum -- at that time, Ferrum Training School and a junior college; it's now Ferrum College. And he broke out of that world through that; then he went into the Army Air Corps during World War II and broke out of that world and became -- here, that's a picture of John just as he's going off to Ferrum.

That sport jacket and pants had been bought for him by a rich oysterman in Norfolk who was, in effect, the patron of this Methodist church and who paid for his scholarship at Ferrum as well, and who backed the minister there -- who, in effect, picked up the deficit of the church for the minister and had sent him off. And that was his first escape -- he escaped to Ferrum. That's the first time where he got three square meals a day. They were so desperately impoverished. He grew up, of course, in the Great Depression in Norfolk in a poor white working-class district. And they were so desperately impoverished, the Vanns, that most of the average, standard meal at the Vann house, cooked by his stepfather, would be fried potatoes and biscuits. And his youngest brother got rickets as a result of the vitamin deficiency, and his legs had to be broken to straighten them; rickets bows the legs. And ...
LAMB: Matter of fact, you have a picture, I think, in here.
SHEEHAN: That's right, of his youngest brother, who is a wonderful man.
LAMB: This his real brother?
SHEEHAN: Yes, his, well ...
LAMB: Half-brother?
SHEEHAN: Technically, half-brother; emotionally, his real brother. They were quite close. But he was his youngest brother and they were quite close. And that youngest brother also broke out and has had a very successful career, and he's a wonderful man.
LAMB: How much total education did John Paul Vann have?
SHEEHAN: He had a very fine education, actually. He broke out of Norfolk and got to Ferrum and got two years of junior college; then went into the Army Air Corps; came out, went to college at Rutgers -- spent a year there and then switched to the infantry; finally got a BS from Rutgers in the mid-50s in business administration. The Army then sent him to Syracuse on a master's program, and he ended up an extremely bright man, and he ended up with all but two courses short of a thesis for his Ph.D. in public administration, as well as a master's in business. Plus, he went through all the service schools, short of the War College. He went through command at General Staff.

The Army has a schooling system of its own, and he went up through the Army schooling system. John was a highly educated person, at least in highly educated in the sense of a technical way.

He was best -- he had that peculiar ability to understand human problems, and also to deal with them in a very hard, factual way. He was a statistician by training, among other things, as a result of this training in business administration, and it gave him a capacity to take a human situation and put it into quantitative terms very, very effectively. He could lay things out for you, the facts, etc., even statistically. For instance, he would show you how the South Vietnamese Army wasn't fighting. He'd lay out the number of actions they were involved in, the number of contacts they claimed to have with the Vietcong, and then he'd point out that they weren't actually engaging the Vietcong in any of these. Here were the number of casualties. John would do that sort of analysis. It was very clear that they were simply faking things. They would claim they were going out on patrols. They would report 500 patrols a month and they'd have 13 contacts with the enemy or two casualties. And as John said at one point, he could have generated more contacts on his own. But he had that ability to take a look at a situation and draw this hard data from it. And it was a peculiar turn of mind he had, but it also came out of his education.
LAMB: He became a great source for you in Vietnam.
SHEEHAN: Yes, he was. He really educated a whole generation of reporters there, because John's ideas -- John had a capacity to analyze the war and to show us what was wrong with the way, first, we were waging war in the Kennedy years and that it was stupid to be shelling and bombing civilian hamlets, that we were just killing women and kids and we were turning the population against us. He showed us the extent to which the ARVN, the regular South Vietnamese army, was avoiding contact with the enemy and would not fight the Vietcong -- would not take them on. He showed us the extent to which we were arming the guerrillas through these outposts. Again, John would gather the data: precisely how many American arms were going through precisely how many outposts.

And we ended up, as I said in the book, we ended up arming the Vietcong in South Vietnam with American weapons, because the American generals were pouring weapons into the South Vietnamese militia and the Vietcong were collecting them from these outposts. And so you were giving a Communist guerrilla, who had a bolt-action French rifle, a fast-firing, semi-automatic M-1 Garand, which was a World War II weapon, but which was a very good weapon in the early '60s. This is prior to the fully automatic weapons, the M-16, etc. The M-1 Garand was a fine weapon. And we were arming our enemy. And John pointed those things out to us. He gave us tools with which to analyze the war that we wouldn't have had without him.
LAMB: Flew his own airplane.
SHEEHAN: He later on ended up -- he never was an officially qualified helicopter pilot, but he got his pilot to teach him how to fly. He'd wanted to fly during World War II and did get as far as flight training, and then got bounced for doing a loop-de-loop and then ...
LAMB: But moved all over Vietnam in a plane often ...
SHEEHAN: A helicopter -- yeah, helicopters or light planes. He did -- constantly on the move. He was a man who had to be on the move.
LAMB: There's massive amounts of material in your book about the battles and how he played a role, but there's one two or three-line sentence I want to read you that just pops right out of the page. And I happened to read it first in The New Yorker, and I want to ask you, before I ask you about this line: Why did The New Yorker devote so many pages over four issues to your book?
SHEEHAN: Well, I think Bob Gottlieb thought he liked it very much, and he thought that if he concentrated on excerpting the biography of Vann himself and the high points of it that he would have a very intense story that he could lay out for the reader with a lot of narrative drive -- an intense series -- a very good, intense series that would tell the story of the war through this man's experience but which would focus very narrowly on John Vann and those were the sections of the book he took.
LAMB: Unusual for The New Yorker to give all that space to one issue -- one book?
SHEEHAN: It has been for Bob Gottlieb; it wasn't for his predecessor, Shawn. William Shawn often ran long series -- would run a series of four or five articles on the same subject. But Bob Gottlieb had initially intended to reduce that. And basically, he has; he's run shorter things. But in the case of the book, he had initially planned on running three, and then he discovered that it wouldn't fit, or that he had to go to four, so he ended up running a four-part series of 88,000 words in all, which is quite long for the current New Yorker, yes.
LAMB: OK. By the way, how many words in the book?
SHEEHAN: About 360,000.
LAMB: Here's the sentence, and there's a lot behind this and I want you to tell us about it. "Vann liked to confide details of his sexual exploits to Ellsberg." The two stories here: sexual exploits and Daniel Ellsberg. And the only reason that I wanted to ask you about the sexual exploits is that you mentioned earlier, when you talked about this, he led several different lives, John Paul Vann.
SHEEHAN: Yes, he did.
LAMB: Tell us about it.
SHEEHAN: Well, John the private side of him was this man with these powerful sexual compulsions. He was an incredible womanizer.
LAMB: Did you know that when you were in Vietnam?
SHEEHAN: No. He hid it from us his first year, and he also kept it under control his first year. He'd go off with friends to Saigon or down to a beach resort, and he kept it under control. John was a man who could play roles. And he was very conscious that if you fooled around with women in the place where you worked, then the Vietnamese lost respect for you. And so he didn't do it. But he turned out to be an incredible womanizer. First of all, some of this he inherited; some of it was in his genes. His father was a womanizer, it turned out -- his real father, if you will, his natural father. But then the insecurities implanted in him by his mother, I think, fed this compulsion in him, so that he was a driven man, sexually. And he and Ellsberg and he, of course, went in totally different directions on the war, but it ...
LAMB: What was Daniel Ellsberg doing in Vietnam in the first place?
SHEEHAN: Well, in the beginning Dan Ellsberg went out there to help win the war, like everyone else; he believed in it. And then Ellsberg ended up turning against the war. But Ellsberg was a very adventurous guy and he and Vann very quickly became best friends. Ellsberg would go out in the field with Vann on these trips. And John tended -- if he thought someone would listen, he liked to boast about these sexual exploits of his. And so he told Ellsberg things right away that he often didn't tell other people. I discovered after The New Yorker series was published that some of his friends, although they knew he was an incredible womanizer, didn't know about particular things that, for instance, that statutory rape incident that had ruined his Army career.
LAMB: How did you find out all this?
SHEEHAN: First of all, from his former wife, Mary Jane. She was the ...
LAMB: How did she know?
SHEEHAN: Well, she was married to him when the statutory rape incident occurred, and she helped get him off the hook by committing perjury for him in the investigation -- in the military investigation into it. Of course, she felt threatened as well. It threatened her family. What would she do if her husband was court-martialed and had to resign from the Army? This is back in the '50s -- the end of the '50s. At that time, soldiers with dishonorable discharges were having a rough time finding good jobs. This is in the pre-Vietnam period. What would an officer who had been dismissed from the Army do? This was a felony; it was a very serious charge. And so she knew about it, obviously; she had to.

And she was, as I said, Mary Jane's a woman of great courage and honesty, and when she decided to talk to me, she told me everything she knew. And that's when I first discovered how complicated he was, that he had this private side to him, this man driven by these compulsions. And he had then this contradictory public side of rigid professional honesty, of a firm grasp on reality, at least in the beginning. He lost it after Tet, when he couldn't give up on the war and he began to rationalize things in order to stay, but prior to that, he had this very firm grasp on reality, and he fascinated me for that reason. I mean, my fascination with him deepened when I learned these things, because he had all these contradictions.
LAMB: Died in 1972 in a airplane crash in Vietnam.
SHEEHAN: Yes, a helicopter crash; he was killed.
LAMB: At the time he was killed, divorced from his wife, Mary Jane, who lived in Denver.
SHEEHAN: Right.
LAMB: Five kids.
SHEEHAN: Yes, she lived right next to Denver in Littleton. She had divorced him and he was about to marry a Vietnamese woman by whom he had had a daughter.
LAMB: And there was another woman besides this?
SHEEHAN: Another woman, yes.
LAMB: Describe that whole family.
SHEEHAN: Well, he carried on in Vietnam two fairly permanent liaisons with two Vietnamese women, both of whom remained ignorant of each other until he died and the other one until about a year before he died. By one of these women, he had a daughter, and they were going to be married. He had planned to marry her shortly before he was killed. He had taken out papers to do so. But he had also been maintaining this permanent relationship with another Vietnamese woman.

I think John was sufficiently complicated, so he probably enjoyed that captain's paradise, if you will. You probably remember that old movie. It was an incredible thing. He had his staff trained, for instance, to keep both women ignorant of each other. His helicopter pilot knew, the secretary knew you weren't supposed to ever let the one know about the other, and he pulled it off for years.

Now this is a man who was of utmost seriousness in his professional work. And that the complications in him made him more interesting to me and it made him more representative to me, because we tend to think of ourselves as a very simple country with very simple motivations. And, in fact, we're a very complicated people with all sorts of insecurities and all sorts of fears and drives, which motivate us. And the fact that this man was such a complicated figure and the fact that his personal and private life was directly related to his public actions -- because you can't understand John Vann, unless you understand his private compulsions.
LAMB: Would you tell the story about the mistress who -- I believe her name was Julia? Julie?
SHEEHAN: It's Annie. Annie in the book. Go ahead. Annie is a pseudonym. And he called her by a nickname and I changed the nickname to another nickname, and it's Annie.
LAMB: OK, but the point here, the reason I wanted you to tell the story was, the involvement that he had with the woman's father. First of all, John Vann was something around 41 and she was, like, 17 or 18?
SHEEHAN: Yeah. She was, I think, 17 when they met. Check my memory with the book, but I think she was about 17. I don't want to seem ignorant about my own book, but I think she was. Yeah. She was very young -- 17. She had his daughter when, I believe, she was 18. She's a fine woman. She was a fine woman. She was young -- a romantically inclined young woman who encountered this American, who was far more -- obviously, far more experienced. She had had no experience. And her father tried to stop him and he tried to make her realize what she was getting involved with a man who was a womanizer, etc., but her father waited till they came back one night and he slapped Vann across the face and told him to leave his daughter alone. And it was fascinating that John didn't attempt to defend himself.
LAMB: How did you find all that out?
SHEEHAN: She told me.
LAMB: This woman told you.
SHEEHAN: She told me about the incident with her father.
LAMB: But there was another time when she was pregnant.
SHEEHAN: Yes. She got pregnant then and she refused to have an abortion. And Vann tried to get out of it by ignoring the whole thing at that point. And her father, initially, wanted her to try to have an abortion because he didn't want to bring -- he did not want to see her get involved, permanently, with an older American man and give up the possibility of marrying a Vietnamese and having a normal family life, but she was determined to keep the baby. And so he confronted Vann in his office and he told him that if he didn't arrange to provide for his daughter and for the child to come in the manner in which she was accustomed to living, that he was going to go and complain to the American ambassador. And so Vann agreed to take on this responsibility and support this young woman and the child to come. And he did; he felt he had no choice. He brought it on himself, of course.
LAMB: Did he ever marry her?
SHEEHAN: He was going to. And he called her his wife in a will he wrote in the helicopter, which is in the book. He wrote a second will one day when he thought he was going to die, toward the end, when he was rescuing some advisers. And on his way to rescue them, they were in a compound that the North Vietnamese tanks were bursting into, and that was the one day when he thought the odds were not going to apply to him. And he really thought that morning, he probably was going to get it, but at the same time, it was part of his code to go and rescue his people and he was going to go get them. And so he wrote a holographic will on a piece of notepaper and he called her his wife in that will. He intended to marry her, but he was killed before he could.
LAMB: Do I remember correctly that even after he told her he was going to marry her and she had had this child, that he still maintained a liaison with this other mistress?
SHEEHAN: Oh, yes. And I don't think he was going to give up the other one, either, even after he got married.
LAMB: I guess the reason why I want to even ask you about all of this is, how can you call him "brilliant." How can a man be brilliant and have all these liaisons going on and still keep his mind on the work at hand?
SHEEHAN: I think if you look into powerful figures in history, you often find that they have very complicated personalities and very complicated personal lives. Now one reason I laid out John Vann's personal life is not because I was trying to titillate the readers; I tried to write about it in as restrained a fashion as I could, but there are no explicit sexual scenes in this book, as you know. In fact, I managed to write a book about war without using the four-letter word once, but I wrote about it because this was a man whose personal life, and this is probably true of a lot of historical figures, but we've lost their personal lives, the detail isn't there. But this is a man whose personal life was very tied to his public actions, and he's and this is a man who affected the way the war in Vietnam turned out. The course of the war would have been different had it not been for John Vann, and John Vann would not have left the Army and gone back to Vietnam as a civilian and then done the things he did in Vietnam had it not been for his personal life.
LAMB: In effect, is he a general right here in this picture?
SHEEHAN: That's right. John was the first genuine civilian general in our history. In fact, he's the only one I know. John's the only person I know, the only figure I know, excuse me, let me back up -- John is the first case I know of in our history where a civilian official -- and he was, at the time, an official in AID, the Agency for International Development -- actually held command in war. Now he was, by profession, a soldier. He'd spent 20 years in the Army and retired, but he was technically a civilian on detail to the Army, which is a bureaucratic term for transferring a person, and he held command; he held a corps of command under General Creighton Abrams. Creighton Abrams put him in that position on the advice of a friend of Vann's, who was Abrams' deputy, Fred Wyan, and he wielded command. He's the first one I know of to do that.

Now, the personal man was very much tied to the private man. You can't understand the public man without the private man. The things he would do -- the fearlessness, for instance -- was tied to the personal man. Again, I think he was proving himself over and over again. He's extraordinary. The things -- the sense of the desire to be a really fine officer came out of the desire to get away from his childhood. All of these things were tied together. You couldn't if you wanted to understand the man and then you wanted to understand his impact on the war -- and as you have in the book, that extraordinary battle at Kontum in the end, where John Vann held things together, where the situation would have collapsed. The panic that broke out in '75 would have broken out in '72 had it not been for Vann. He was the guy who held it together, and it was his personal drives as much as anything that led him to do that.
LAMB: The book is a "A Bright Shining Lie." The author is Neil Sheehan, published by Random House, "John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam." [Announcements]
LAMB: Neil Sheehan, author of "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam." When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
SHEEHAN: When I was in the Army, oddly enough. I didn't know what I wanted to do in college. I joined the literary magazine, which was the Harvard Advocate, and I was an editor there and I wrote book reviews, but I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But then I switched to history and graduated from Harvard and really didn't -- in '58, really didn't know what I wanted to do. Went in the Army and became an Army journalist to get out of a miserable job as a pay clerk in Korea, and went down to the Division Information Office -- 40 miles closer to Seoul and fell into journalism and liked, got transferred to Tokyo to put out the division newspaper there and started moonlighting for the United Press International. And then they offered me a job and I decided that this was what I wanted to do.
LAMB: Where were you born?
SHEEHAN: I was born in a small, industrial city in western Massachusetts called Holyoke. I was born there, but grew up just outside of it. My grandfather had a farm and a dairy business, which he left to my father and my father's two brothers. And my father handled the farming end of it -- the cows and the fields, the planting of the corn -- my father loved those things. He was a genuine -- he kept horses long after he had a tractor simply because he loved horses. And so I grew up on a farm, if you will, and worked on the farm when I was a young man and had those advantages, I think, of a kid who grows up out in the country. It's wonderful to grow up out in the country.
LAMB: The book -- big book -- 860-some pages, $24.95 Random House, "A Bright Shining Lie." When did you know you had to write this book?
SHEEHAN: I decided to write the book in '72. It's when I went to John Vann's funeral. I had spent my whole career -- basically, most of my career as a reporter, covering Vietnam. I'd first gone there in '62 and I had never been able to get away from the war. Of course, it was the dominant event of my generation. And as a reporter, if you had gone there early on, you probably couldn't get away from it. But I had never succeeded in getting away, and my last big thing had been obtaining the Pentagon Papers for The Times in '71. And I wanted to leave behind something that would be more permanent than another magazine article or another newspaper story.

And when John died, I realized that if I wrote a book about this extraordinary man, I could tell the story of the war through him, because he was such a compelling figure and he summed up, in the 10 years he'd been in Vietnam, the American venture there; and he summed up the way we like to think the qualities that we admired in ourselves in that period -- this enormous drive, this brilliant analytical mind, this incredible energy -- sleeping four hours and only needing four hours of sleep a night -- the fearlessness, etc. -- he had an extraordinary metabolism -- all of these things that we really admired in ourselves as a people. And he had devoted himself to Vietnam and he had died there, and I felt that if I wrote a story, a biography of him, I could also write a history of the war. That's why I started out. And then, of course, I was trapped in the enterprise and it was too late to go back.
LAMB: You left The New York Times when?
SHEEHAN: I left The New York Times in 1972 to go off to Vietnam and do my first research trip. I thought I could write the book in three or four years and I'd go back to work for The Times; I took a leave of absence. It turned out that I grossly underestimated the task, writing a biography of this complicated man and writing a history of this complicated war was going to take me far more longer than three or four years. And I also had interruptions. I lost a year with an auto accident. I had to earn a living by lecturing, but basically, the task was to research and write a book about the war which would help the country to, I hope, come to grips with the war, that would be a book that was exciting, that would have narrative force and drive, that was cast in the form in which Truman Capote wrote "Cold Blood." But, of course, he was writing about one incident and I was writing about an awful lot more than that.
LAMB: How did you physically write it? In other words, when did you start putting words on paper, and where did you write?
SHEEHAN: I started writing about 1976, and I wrote in a number of places. First, I had a study in a basement in a house in my neighborhood that I rented from an elderly lady who was renting out space. Then I had a little office in Maryland, at one point, that I was sharing with a friend who was a therapist in psychology. She and a group of psychiatric therapists had an office and they had an extra space and they gave me one.

Then I ultimately went to the Library of Congress in 1980 and worked there in a little space. The Library always has as part of their policy, to give a place to work and write to professional writers and scholars. And they gave me a space to put my file cabinets -- I had five file cabinets, at that point, filled with John Vann's papers; they gave me a desk. And I needed to work at the Library or else -- because I needed access to its collections for research purposes. The Library of Congress is an extraordinary place with an extraordinary collection, and you have extraordinary access. I mean, within an hour and a half, you have a book if it's in stock, -- excuse me -- if it's on the shelf, and if it's not, they'll look for it for you. And so I worked most of the time there.

I'm a night person, and I believe in working in a disciplined way every day because that's the only way you get anything done. And my wife also worked at the library. She also wrote and did research at the library -- my wife, Susan. She was a staff writer for The New Yorker. So we'd go down about two in the afternoon, work until 8:30 at the Library, come home, have dinner, and then I'd work in my study until about four in the morning at home, and then back to the Library the next day. It was a grim business, but it's the way I got through it.
LAMB: You mentioned lecturing -- excuse the personal question -- but how'd you financially survive over these 15 years?
SHEEHAN: It was awfully grim. I repeatedly ran out of money. I got initially, a $45,000 advance from Random House. That was burned up. I got fellowships and gradually, they ran out. And in 1979, I had run out of money; I was going to have to stop. And it was very upsetting because I had finally gotten a grip on the structure. I'd worked my way through one manuscript that hadn't succeeded and I finally had a manuscript in which I had the structure that you see in this book. I was really getting it down on paper in a way that was working, and I had done most of my research, obviously.

And I encountered a friend of mine in a supermarket, right after my wife had published an article in The New Yorker on the auto accident that had set me back a year. And he said, "How's the book coming?" I said, "I'm going to have to quit." He was a friend named Peter Braystrept, who was the editor of The Wilson Quarterly at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. And he said, "Why?" And I said, "Because I've run out of money, Peter, and I've run out of fellowships and I'm just going to have to go back to work to support the family." And he suggested I apply to The Wilson Center for a fellowship. And I did, and they gave me one. Jim Billington was then the head of it, the current librarian of Congress. And it tided me over for a year, and then we ran another year with no income, but we managed to get through it. Susan brought in some income. I could not have written the book without Susan, both her help and her support and also in those years when I was not bringing in income.

And then in 1981, I renegotiated the contract with Random House. I had two-thirds of a manuscript, they could see that they were going to get a book and we renegotiated the advance, and they gave me a new advance and I was able to continue. But again, I ran out of money because it took much longer. And in 1985, Mr. Shawn of The New Yorker advanced me $40,000. I was getting quite close to the end at that point, but again, I had run out of money. I constantly ran out of money because this thing took many more years than one could have anticipated.

It was a very difficult thing to do, to both write an honest, complicated history of the war and an honest biography, twinning the two together without letting the one get out of balance; in other words, without putting more emphasis on the man than he deserved and without spending more -- giving more space to the history than it could bear if you were going to twin it with the biography. And also, catching subtlety and writing it in a form which would have this narrative drive, which I wanted, because I felt very profoundly that Vietnam is such a painful experience, that unless you presented it to the reader in a way that a reader could pick up a book and read a personal story in a narrative form that would drive forward, Americans will not come to grips with it in the abstract. And we need to come to grips with this war. We've got to somehow redeem the lives that are remembered with the names on that memorial if we're going to draw any lessons from this war. And so that was the thing that kept me going those years.
LAMB: At any point did you worry that you might have become obsessed with this project?
SHEEHAN: Well, I was less obsessed than I was trapped in it. I was very worried, of course, at the years going by; they were very grim years. I don't think I was obsessed in the sense that I wanted to go on writing it forever. I wanted it to end. People said to me, `You're going to have postpartum depression when it's over.' `Nonsense,' I would say. `No, I want this thing to end.' I felt less trapped than obsessed. I knew by '79 that I had a book that would work. The question was how soon I could get it done. And the deadlines kept going by and I kept missing them. I would set deadlines for myself, but I felt a great sense of being trapped. I desperately wanted to finish this book, because I knew it would work once it was done, but it was a question of getting it done.
LAMB: Did you ever find yourself blocked when you were writing?
SHEEHAN: Not blocked, but I found I would spend days battering away at a problem, because you're looking at a book which is long -- 360,000 words, but it covers an enormous span of years and events, and it's very telescoped, actually in its writing. And I would spend days -- excuse me -- I'd spend a day and not finish what I had started out to do that day. I would not write those pages I had wanted to write that day, because I hadn't solved the problem, let's say, of telescoping a historical section or telescoping a section on Vann's life. And I wouldn't be able to sleep that night. I might not solve the organizational problem of putting those pages together until the end of the day, let's say. And then I'd go out and take a walk and come back and write down an outline and then I'd be able to sleep, but some nights, I couldn't sleep. Unless I actually got work done of a given day, I had trouble sleeping that night. And so I desperately tried to solve a problem, to first of all, I stayed organized.

I was a night worker in those years because I have a night metabolism, but they were regular hours and they were regular days. I'd put on a coat and tie when I went to the Library of Congress because I had gone to an office, previously, and because it helped keep one organized, and I kept very regular habits. I led a monastic life and I tried to get something done every day because then I could sleep at night and I had a sense of accomplishing something.
LAMB: Everybody that knows you talks about the automobile accident as a real tough time for you. What happened?
SHEEHAN: An anal-brained hillbilly kid, who liked to drive down the wrong side of the road, hit me head-on in western Maryland. He literally liked to drive down the wrong side of the road, as he told my wife when she interviewed him afterwards.
LAMB: When?
SHEEHAN: Back in '74. And it clobbered me for at least a year, because he broke seven of my bones and even after your bones initially heal, you do not get back the physical stamina to work. At first, I could only work an hour a day and then I'd get exhausted. It took me a year before I got back the stamina, and probably a year and a half before I got back full stamina. And I got some souvenirs out of it. A knee that was operated on last fall -- it's healing now. But it was a traumatic event in terms of interrupting a work that was in mid-course. Ironically, perhaps, by setting me back, maybe it made me possible to finish this book, but it was a high price. Perhaps it forced the interruption and the lost time gave me more perspective on Vietnam than I would otherwise have acquired, but it was a high price to pay.
LAMB: Do you have a message that you want to deliver in the course of selling your book -- a political message at this point?
SHEEHAN: No. I'm not a political person. I'm a reporter. I had views on the war, but I always tried to keep those views out of my copy, unless I was writing an essay. Somebody said, "Write an essay with your personal opinions in it," I wrote them. But in my news coverage I try to keep them out. Now there are some personal viewpoints in this book, obviously, and I made judgements. The book has got judgements in it. But, essentially, I tried to tell the story of what happened in Vietnam and why it happened. The message I have, if there is a message -- let's say the desire I have is that this book will help people to come to grips with this war, that we will -- Vietnam will have been a war in vain only if we don't draw wisdom from it. Because it was our first war in vain, in the sense that the people died in it for nothing, in terms of the war itself. We lost the war. We went to war for the wrong reasons, etc. We were constantly deluded in what we did. But I think if we draw wisdom from it, if we draw lessons from it, then the war will have turned out to have been a good experience for this country -- a bitter experience, but a good one.

And so I discovered that the war is much more complicated than I had imagined when I began to write this book and to research it. And so I don't have any political message for Americans, no. The desire is that people will come to grips with the book will help them to understand the war. And if they understand the war, lots of people will draw different political -- in the "narrow" sense of the word -- different political lessons out of it depending upon their political point of view. And that's fine; let them. I tried to record the war.
LAMB: Is there a movie out of this book?
SHEEHAN: I don't know. There's been considerable film interest in it, and whether there will be a film made, I don't know. We've had a lot of inquiries. And I hope there's a film made of it eventually, because, again, I think that would help people to come to grips with the war. And John Vann's a highly filmable guy and that war's a highly filmable war, and the events in Vann's life and the events in the war are highly filmable. I mean, this is, as you know, there are extraordinary scenes in there of -- let's take, for instance, the ambush when he drives down the road and 10 Vietcong are waiting for him, and he's in a pickup truck and they shoot the whole truck up. And he drives his way through the ambush by veering off the road, first accidently and then deliberately, driving right down through these guys and scattering them. The battle of Ap Bac, when this lone guerrilla battalion defeats this South Vietnamese army armed with aircraft and armor and artillery, etc., -- Vann's rescues of the advisers there and plucking these guys right out of a compound with North Vietnamese tanks bursting in. It's all extraordinarily filmable, and I hope there is a film. But I would want a film for the same reasons I wrote the book, in hopes that it would help people to understand what happened in Vietnam.
LAMB: Do I understand that the battle of Ap Bac, that you constructed that battle in a narrative by using both Vann's words in his diary and his reports and the North Vietnamese-captured documents?
SHEEHAN: Yes. That was an extraordinary situation where the Saigon side, in an unusual ambush two months after the battle, captured the Vietcong after-action report, which was very detailed.
LAMB: This was '62, '63?
SHEEHAN: Sixty-three, and the battle occurred in January '63. And they captured the Vietcong after-action report, which was very detailed because this was a major battle. It was one of the few decisive battles of the war, and it was the first decisive battle of the early phase of the war. It turned the war for the Vietcong; it turned the war for the Communists; it turned it in their favor. They won it and it turned it in their favor. And they were, of course, extremely interested in this and wrote a long and very detailed after-action report about what had occurred and why it had occurred, giving not only the narrative of the battle itself, but the events that had led up to it and what their situation had been, prior to the battle, how weak they had been, how the operations Vann had instigated had, in fact, weakened them. And then because the battle had been so important to him, had compiled a voluminous after-action report -- much lengthier than would normally be done. He'd had each adviser write a personal account, which he'd attach to an after-action report. It was a very detailed thing. So I took these two documents, plus my own memories -- I'd covered the battle, I'd reported it -- and my own dispatches, and I went back and I interviewed the people who'd participated. And some of them -- one of them, in particular, an operations officer, had diaries he'd kept with code names in them.
LAMB: A Vietnamese or an American?
SHEEHAN: No, an American, although I interviewed the Vietnamese intelligence officer who had been there, too. Yes, I interviewed a number of Vietnamese on the Saigon side who had been in the battle.
LAMB: But not the North Vietnamese.
SHEEHAN: They were actually South Vietnamese Communist guerrillas. They were Vietcong. They were southerners. I suspect almost all of those men are dead because the Vietcong was wiped out at Tet. I would suspect that I would like to go back to Vietnam someday and I would ...
LAMB: When was the last time you were there?
SHEEHAN: Seventy-three. And I would like to go back to Vietnam, after the book has been published and I've finished my tours, etc., and after this knee that's been operated on heals better. I'd like to go back to Vietnam and see what's happening. And I'd like to look up some of these people, but I suspect most of them are dead. But I interviewed Vietnamese on the Saigon side and I went to the Americans, who had been involved in the battle, and I interviewed them and I then put the action together.

And the two basic documents, plus the interviews, enabled me to put together an account that takes you from the beginning right through this extraordinary battle. Because Vann's after-action report confirmed a lot of what the two reports confirmed each other as well as adding to each other. And then the interviews added more. That's why you have this extraordinary dialogue, for instance, between Vann and and a observation plane, and these advisers with an armored personnel carrier company. The two advisers remembered very vividly what Vann had said to them, and there was corroboration of what he said to them in the operations officer's notes and in the after-action report. But, of course, they remembered -- they were young men -- they were my age -- a little bit older, and when things happen to you that are very exciting at a young age, they are really engraved on your memory. And they had remembered with great clarity their exchanges with Vann in that spotter plane. And so I was able to put that battle together into a narrative, which is the way I think you have to tell battles if they're to be understood.
LAMB: Did Daniel Ellsberg bring the Pentagon Papers to you?
SHEEHAN: That's a really complicated story and I don't want to get into it. But Daniel Ellsberg copied the Pentagon Papers and he was prosecuted for it. But that is another story that I don't want to really get into because it's a complicated tale.
LAMB: Did you ever tell the story?
SHEEHAN: No, I've never told the full story. And that would have been a reporter's memoir, and I set out to write a book about the war in Vietnam. I had first thought of writing a reporter's memoir, but then I decided that -- this was before I went to Vann's funeral -- I decided a reporter's value is in what he witnesses. And I had been a witness to this war, which was another reason I wanted to write this book. I thought I could bring to the war an understanding that a person who had not been a witness to the war would not be able to bring to it. And I also knew people who had been involved and could talk to them. And we'd shared experiences, like these young advisers at Ap Bac. So I've never gotten into that, no.
LAMB: But you did, though, lead The New York Times' team that ...
SHEEHAN: Yeah, I got the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times and I was the lead writer on the team. I obtained the papers for The Times and I was the lead writer on the team -- it started out with me a deputy foreign editor here in the Jefferson Hotel -- going through them and deciding what to do, and we then moved the operation to New York and we ended up with 50 people in the New York Hilton by the end.
LAMB: What year was that, '72?
SHEEHAN: It was 1971.
LAMB: What impact did that have on you after you got all the publicity and the lead on the story like that, that was so important?
SHEEHAN: Well, first of all, Richard Nixon set a grand jury. The FBI were questioning my neighbors, and a fellow named Robert Martian, who was convicted in the Watergate business, had a grand jury going up in Boston under the direction of Nixon, etc., and that took up a lot of my time. But after that, I was going to go back to reporting. But the Pentagon Papers gave me further insights into the war that I never would have had without them. They gave me insights that added to my experience. Got to remember now, this is a war I started covering in 1962; I'd been on the ground in Vietnam three years. But those papers were the greatest historical art -- they were the records of the war, and they have remained the best official record well, I would say, the best archive on the war that we've ever obtained. And they gave me a depth of understanding I never had before. And then when Vann was killed, I realized that perhaps it prepared me for the task of writing the book.
LAMB: But you and Daniel Ellsberg and John Paul Vann were all in Vietnam at the same time.
SHEEHAN: Yes, we all knew each other.
LAMB: What, at the end, did John ...
SHEEHAN: He was at his funeral. Dan Ellsberg and John Vann went in totally different directions by the end of the war, but they remained best friends. That was another capacity Vann had -- another part of the complicated character -- that he could keep a friendship with somebody with whom, by the end, he totally differed on the war. John was totally committed to winning it. At that point, Dan Ellsberg was totally committed trying to stop it, because Ellsberg was a force in the anti-war movement and was totally -- he had launched an anti-war crusade. There were a lot of people involved in it, but Ellsberg was totally committed to it. But they remained friends. But in those earlier years, yes, everyone went to Vietnam to win the war.
LAMB: Are you glad this project's over?
SHEEHAN: It's wonderful to finally have this book done and to see it in print, and to then hope that my hopes will be fulfilled and that it will help people to understand why we went to Vietnam and what we did there, because I don't think, up to now, we have really taken a look at what we did there and why we did it. It's very important to understand why.
LAMB: Is there anything you left out of the book?
SHEEHAN: Not really. There are lots of things you leave out of a book like this, in the sense that this book is a distillation of a much greater body of research. I had five file cabinets, plus all of these interviews, but I didn't leave anything out important, no. This is very selectively written, this book. It's long, but it's very selectively written, which I got in what I wanted to get in. I said what I wanted to say.
LAMB: Do you feel now that you have personally come to grips with the war yourself?
SHEEHAN: I've come to grips with, yes, I think I've come to understand the war myself. And I have worked it out. I'm satisfied with that. And if my 15 years that I've put into writing it -- another year putting it to press -- my 15 years won't have been wasted if the book is read with the attention I hope it's read. Because a book lasts; a book acquires a life of its own. That's one of the greatest satisfactions -- to see a book and to see something that has a life of its own now. I feel a kind of separateness from it in a way. It's got its own life now. And open it up and look at the maps and look at the words; they're there. And books hang around on shelves, and I hope my grandkids will read this book and it'll help them to understand Vietnam.
LAMB: What do you want to do next?
SHEEHAN: I don't really know. I want to help promote the book because that's a necessity. And then the only specific thing I have in mind that I would like to do, is to go back to Vietnam to see what's happened to the country and to write about it. Then what I will do, I don't know. I'm not worried about it. I might go back to daily journalism. I don't really know. I've stayed busy all my life. And the one thing that I've been taught is, is that if you want to work, you'll find plenty to do. And so I'm sure that I'll find something to do. And you learn as a newspaperman that you go from story to story. In this case, I went to a book that trapped me for 15 years, but it's finally done now and I'll move on. I'll do something else.
LAMB: Any impact on your family?
SHEEHAN: Well, the book was a very difficult time for the family, all those years, although, actually, we made us closer as a family. I was around to help raise my children, whereas I might have been on the road.
LAMB: Two kids?
SHEEHAN: Two kids -- two daughters. And I think the girls are happy with what's happened. The book -- Daddy's book is finally done.
LAMB: How old are your daughters?
SHEEHAN: Our youngest is 19, and throughout most of her life, it was Daddy's book. And the family word was, "When Daddy's book is done." Well, Daddy's book is finally done and I think they're happy.
LAMB: Neil Sheehan, author of "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam," published by Random House.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2001. 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.