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Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 5)
ISBN: 0394484479
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 5)
Neil Sheehan gave five 30-minute interviews about his book, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.” The last interview was titled "Profile of the Author."
A Bright Shining Lie (Part 5)
Program Air Date: October 22, 1988

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: 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?
NEIL SHEEHAN (Author, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam"): When I was in the Army, oddly enough.

I didn't know what I wanted to do in college. I was in the - I joined the literary magazine, which was "The Harvard Advocate." And I was an editor there, and I wrote book reviews. And 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 of INFORMATION Office, 40 miles closer to Seoul, and fell into journalism. Liked it, got transferred to Tokyo to put out the division newspaper there and started working, moonlighting, for the United Press International. And then they offered me a job.

And I discovered - I decided that this is 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 actually - I was born there, but grew up outside of it, just outside of it. My grandfather had a farm on the edge of it, which he left to my father - a farming and 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 field, planting the corn and that. 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 when I went to - after 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 and 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 of ourselves, the qualities that we admired in ourselves in that period - this enormous drive, this brilliant analytical mind, this incredible energy, sleeping four hours a - only needing four hours of sleep a night, the fearlessness, et cetera. 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. 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 under-estimated the task. Writing a biography of this complicated man, and writing a history of this complicated war, was far more than - a far more - it was going to take me far 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 the help the country, I hope, come to grips with the war, that would be a book that was exciting, that would have narrative force and drive, that would - that was cast in the form in which Truman Capote wrote "In 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 the basement - 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 group of psychiatric therapists had an office, and they had 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. They - the library has - always has, it's part of their policy - given 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. And they gave me a desk. And I needed to work at the library also 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. 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, it was a - I worked most of the time there. I'd go down - 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, did research at the library. My wife is Susan Sheehan, who's 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 did 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. And 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'd 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?"

And I said, "I'm going to have to quit."

He was a friend named Peter Braestrup, who worked - who's the editor of the "Wilson Quarterly" at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. And he said, "Why?"

And I said, "Because I ran 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 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 was constantly - 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 a biography.

And also catching subtly 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 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, one, 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 post-partum depression when it's over.

Nonsense. I was saying, 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 it kept - 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 wanted to, desperately wanted to finish this book, because I knew it would work once it was done. 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 would 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 got - 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 get something.

First of all, I stayed organized. I'm a night - 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 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 I was accomplishing something.
LAMB: Everybody that knows you talks about the automobile accident as a real tough time for you. What happened?
SHEEHAN: An addle-brained hillbilly kid, who liked to drive down the wrong side of the road, hit me head-on in western Maryland. And 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 you don't, 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 me - perhaps 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 deliberately - I had views on the war, but I always try to keep those views out of my copy, unless I was writing an essay. If 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 judgments. The book has got judgments 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's a message - the desire - 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 it was - 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, et cetera. 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 tried - I discovered that the war was much more complicated than I had imagined when I began to write this book and research it. And so, I don't have any political message for Americans, no.

The desire is that people will come to grips, that 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. Whether there will be a film made, I don't know. There's been a lot of - 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. Let's take for instance the ambush, when he drives down the road and 10 Viet Cong are waiting for him. And he's in a pick-up truck, and they shoot the whole truck up. And he drives his way through the ambush by veering off the road - first accidentally, 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, et cetera. Vann's rescue of the advisors and plucking these guys right out of a compound with North Vietnamese tanks bursting.

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, to make people - in hopes that it would help people understand what happened in Vietnam.
LAMB: Do I understand that when, in the Battle of Ap Bach, 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 Viet Cong after-action report, which was very detailed.
LAMB: This is what, '62, '63?
SHEEHAN: Sixty-three. And the battle occurred in January of '63. And they captured the Viet Cong after-action report, which was very detailed, because this was a major battle. It was the first - 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 Viet Cong. 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 for 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 Vann - the operations Vann had instigated had, in fact, weakened them.

And then Vann had, because the battle had been so important to him, had compiled a much more voluminous after-action report, much more, much lengthier than would normally be done. He had each advisor write a personal account, which he'd attached to an after-action report, which was very detailed and thick.

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 it.
LAMB: Vietnamese, or 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: No - no. There were actually South Vietnamese Communist guerrillas. They were Viet Cong. They were southerners. I suspect almost all of those men are dead, because the Viet Cong was wiped out at Tet.

I would suspect that - I would like to go back to Vietnam someday.
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, et cetera, and after this knee that's been operated on heals better. I'd like to go back to Vietnam and see what's happened, 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'd 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 very exciting battle, 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 in an observation plane and these advisors with an armored personnel carrier company. The two advisors 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 in a narrative, 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 story, the full story. And I - 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 is 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 in it and could talk to them. We'd shared experiences, like these young advisors at Ap Bac. So, I didn't - I've never gotten into that.
LAMB: But you did though lead the "New York Times" team that …
SHEEHAN: Yes, 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 a lead writer on the team.

It started out with me and one 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?
SHEEHAN: 1971, 1971.
LAMB: What impact did that have on you, after you got all the publicity and the lead on a story like that that was so important?
SHEEHAN: Well, I - first of all, Richard Nixon set a grand jury. The FBI was questioning my neighbors. And a fellow named Robert Mardian, who was convicted in the Watergate business, had a grand jury going up in Boston and under the direction of Nixon, et cetera. 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. You've got to remember, now, this is a war that I'd started covering in 1962. I'd been on the ground in Vietnam three years.

But those papers were the greatest historical archive - they were the records of the war. And they have remained the best official record, that is, what 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 had 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, 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 on whom by the end he was totally - although with whom he totally differed on the war.

John was totally committed to winning it. At that point, Dan Ellsberg was totally committed to trying to stop it. Ellsberg was a force in the anti-war movement and was totally launched in that 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. Not that I left - 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. I got in what I wanted to get in. I said what I wanted to say.
LAMB: Do you feel now that you personally have come to grips with the war, yourself?
SHEEHAN: I've come to grips with it, 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 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.

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 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 newspaper man that you go from story to story. In this case, I went through 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, it 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. I think the girls are happy with what's happened. The book - Daddy's book is finally done.
LAMB: How old are the daughters?
SHEEHAN: My 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 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.