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Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 4)
ISBN: 0394484479
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 4)
Neil Sheehan gave five 30-minute interviews about his book, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.” The fourth interview was titled "The Story of John Paul Vann."
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 4)
Program Air Date: October 20, 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 banty 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, just extremely colorful man to whom I was very much attracted as a young reporter. That's the Vann I most remember, a guy who summed up the kind of qualities we admired so much in ourselves then - 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 and briefly when he was in this country. Then, I saw him when I went back to Vietnam again '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 died, after he was killed in Vietnam at the end of ten 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 was taking on - 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 commanding 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 lie detector. But, it turned out that - but, 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 because a general officer board - 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 than 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 he simply wouldn't - they wouldn't take the risk that a general officer would have the sexual compulsions that he had.
LAMB: I read …
SHEEHAN: He was a man of, as I said, of great public professional honesty, as I say in the book, enormous professional honest and courage, and these private personal deceits, which would bear light, which came out of his childhood.
LAMB: An illegitimate child?
SHEEHAN: John - 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 - he was finally adopted when he was 18. And later on, many years later, when he was filling out a government security clearance form …
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, was a - she was a part time - she sold herself, to put it mildly, part of the time, not always.
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 as, in effect, as a motherless child. And it's very sad when that happens to a person. I think what one's mother does might cause one shame. But, if one is - if love is withheld, if one is rejected, that hurts even more.
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, a local minister at a - at the 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 Junior College. It's now Ferrum College.

And he broke out of that world through that, and then he went into the army during - army air corp. 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. He - 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 would - and who wrote a - who paid for his scholarship at Ferrum, as well, and who would - 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 Vann's, that most of the average - the 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.
SHEEHAN: That's right, of his youngest brother, who's a wonderful man.
LAMB: Is this is his real brother?
SHEEHAN: Yes, his - well …
LAMB: Half brother?
SHEEHAN: Technically half brother - emotionally, his real brother. They were quite close. But, it was his youngest brother, and they were quite close. And he - that youngest brother also broke out and has had a very successful career and is 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 corp., 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 masters program, and he ended up with - he was an extremely bright man, and he ended up with all but two courses short of a thesis for his Ph.D. - for a Ph.D. in public administration as well as a masters in business, plus he went through all the service schools short of the war college. He went through command and general staff and - 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 - highly educated in the sense of - in 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 his 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, et cetera, even statistically.

For instance, the - he would show you why the - how the South Vietnamese army wasn't fighting. He'd lay out the number of actions they were involved in, the number they claimed - the number of contacts they claimed to have with the Viet Cong, and then he'd point out that they weren't actually engaging the Viet Cong in any of these. Here were the number of casualties. John would do that sort of analysis.

Well, 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, 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 kind of mind he had, but it also came out of his education.
LAMB: 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 the capacity to analyze the war and to show us what was wrong with the way first we were waging war in the Kennedy years, 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 Viet Cong, would not take them on. He showed us the extent to which we were arming the guerillas through these outposts. Again, John would gather the data, precisely how many American arms were going to precisely how many outposts and we ended up - as I said in the book, we ended up arming the Viet Cong in South Vietnam with American weapons because the American generals were pouring weapons into the South Vietnamese Militia and the Viet Cong were collecting them from these outposts. And so, you were giving a communist guerilla who had a bolt action French rifle a fast firing semiautomatic M1 Garand, which was a World War II weapon, but which was a very good weapon in the mid - in the early 60s. This was prior to the fully automatic weapons, the M16, et cetera. The 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 - yes, John ended up as a - 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 loop the loop.
LAMB: He moved all over Vietnam in a plane or helicopter.
SHEEHAN: Yes, 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 it - he liked it very much and he thought that if he excerpted - 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 much space to one issue, one book?
SHEEHAN: It has been for Bob Gottlieb, but it wasn't for his predecessor Sean Williams. Sean often ran long series that is four - would run four and five - excuse me - 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 he - that it wouldn't fit, that he simply - 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 - sexual exploits and Daniel Ellsberg, and the only reason I wanted to ask you about the sexual exploits is that you mentioned earlier when we 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 this - 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. He - 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, his - if you will - his natural father. And - but then, the insecurities implanted in by his mother I think fed this compulsion in him so that he was a driven man sexually. And he - Ellsberg and he, of course, went in totally different directions on the world, but …
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 …
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 to it. Of course, she felt threatened, as well. It threatened her family. What would she do if her husband was court marshaled and had to resign from the army? This was 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 was in the pre-Vietnam period. What would an officer who'd 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, a - she was - Mary Jane was 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 (Tech) 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 an 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.
LAMB: Five kids.
SHEEHAN: He lived - yes, she lived right next to Denver in Littleton, right, yes. 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, yes.
LAMB: Describe that whole thing. I mean …
SHEEHAN: Well, he carried on in Vietnam two fairly permanent liaisons with two Vietnamese women, both of whom remained ignorant of each other until about - until - one until he died and the other one until about a year before he died. The - by one of these women, he had a daughter. And he was going to - 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 part of him, 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 - John Vann unless you understand his private compulsions.
LAMB: Would you tell the story about the mistress who I believe her name was (Julia)?
SHEEHAN: It's (Annie) in the book. Go ahead.
LAMB: The one where …
SHEEHAN: (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 why I wanted you to tell the story was the involvement that he had with the woman's father. First of all, John Vann was, what, something around 41 and she was like 17 or 18.
SHEEHAN: Yes, 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. Her father tried to - she was a fine - she's a fine woman. She was a fine woman. She was a young - a romantically inclined young woman who encountered this American who was far more - obviously far more experienced. She had no experience. And her father tried to stop him and he tried to make her realize what she was getting involved in, a man who was a womanizer, et cetera. But, her father was totally - 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 the - 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 he was to be - 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 had no - well, 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 his last will, in the 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 advisors. And on his way to rescue them - they were in a compound. The North Vietnamese tanks were bursting into them. And that was the one day when he thought the odds were not going to - might apply to him and he really thought that morning he probably was going to - he was going to get it.

And - 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 note paper, and he called her his wife in that will. He intended to marry her, but he was killed before he could.
LAMB: If 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 had gotten married.
LAMB: That's the reason why I wanted to even ask you about this is how can you - 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 was not because I was trying to titillate the reader. I tried to write about it in as restrained a fashion as I could. But, there's no - there are no explicit sexual scenes in this book, as you know. In fact, I managed to write a book about war without using a four letter word.

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 data - 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: And in fact, is he a general right here in this picture?
SHEEHAN: That's right. John was the first civilian, 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 military - excuse me - bureaucratic term for transferring a person. And he held command. He held a corp. 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 Weyand, 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 his - the personal man. Again, he - 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 I - 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 said - who held it together. And it was his personal drive as much as anything that led him to do that.
LAMB: The book is A Bright Shining Lie. The author is Neil Sheehan, published by Random House, John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1988. 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.