How did Neil Sheehan die? A look at Pentagon Papers reporter's historic work before death at 84: 'Rest in power'

As a national writer for the Times, Sheehan was the first to obtain the Pentagon Papers, a massive history of US involvement in Vietnam


                            How did Neil Sheehan die? A look at Pentagon Papers reporter's historic work before death at 84: 'Rest in power'
Neil Sheehan (achievement.org)

Neil Sheehan, the Vietnam War correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, died on Thursday, December 7, in his house in Washington of complications from Parkinson's disease.

Sheehan, who was 84 years old, made his name when he obtained the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, leading the government for the first time in American history to get a judge to block publication of an article on grounds of national security. 

Sheehan was 25 when he went to cover the Vietnam war. At the age of 29, he left the war, anguished. He later spent what he described as a severe and pious 16 years on 'A Bright Shining Lie', in the hope that the book would move the citizens of America to come to grips with the war. “I simply cannot help worrying that, in the process of waging this war, we are corrupting ourselves,” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1966. “I wonder, when I look at the bombed-out peasant hamlets, the orphans begging and stealing on the streets of Saigon and the women and children with napalm burns lying on the hospital cots, whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends."

Sheehan covered the war from 1962 to 1966 for United Press International and The Times. He also authored the book 'A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam', which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer in 1989. Reviewing it in The Times, Ronald Steel wrote, “If there is one book that captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it.”

As a national writer for the Times, Sheehan was the first to obtain the Pentagon Papers, a massive history of US involvement in Vietnam established by the Defense Department. Daniel Ellsberg, a former adviser to the Defense Department who had previously leaked Vietnam-related documents to Sheehan, had copied the papers and made arrangements to get them to Sheehan. Pentagon Papers, the 7000-page document was the largest disclosure of classified documents in the history of America. After the third day of The Times’s coverage, the Nixon administration got a temporary order blocking further publication. The Supreme Court’s ruling 17 days later allowing the publication to resume has been seen as a statement that prior restriction on freedom of the press is rarely justified. The Times won a Pulitzer for public service for Sheehan's coverage.

“We are all particularly proud of Neil Sheehan for the tenacity, knowledge and professional ability that contributed so pivotally to the whole project,” said AM Rosenthal, then the managing editor of the Times, after the Pulitzer was announced.

As soon as the news of his death made its way to social media, people started talking about it. One internet user said, "We should always value and cherish freedom of the press journalists like Neil Sheehan are true American patriots that are willing to hold our government accountable never forget heroes like him rest in power Neil." While one said, "This is wild. Neil Sheehan, the NYT reporter who died today, actually stole the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg."



 



 

One wrote, "Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers. It was a story he had chosen not to tell — until 2015, when he sat for a four-hour interview, promised that this account would not be published while he was alive." While another one wrote, "Neil Sheehan was from a different time, a time of journalism had a profound impact to shine truth. Telling a story was a good read and not limited in character space or a tweet. No video blurb to go viral. Neil is the last of a breed of writers that we are blessed to have had, RIP."



 



 

While some wanted his life story to be turned into a movie, as one said, "I want to see this movie. Now It Can Be Told: How Neil Sheehan Got the Pentagon Papers." And one said, "The riveting story of how Neil Sheehan got the Pentagon papers should be optioned for a(n inevitably critically acclaimed) film:"



 



 

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