Map of Communist positions in South Vietnam, 1964

In 1971, analyst Daniel Ellsberg gave parts of a Department of Defense study on American involvement in Vietnam to a New York Times reporter, Neil Sheehan.  This DOD study, officially known as the “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Task Force” came to be known in common parlance as the Pentagon Papers.  The Pentagon Papers revealed to the American people that they had been misled about American actions in Vietnam for nearly a decade.

The following year, Neil Sheehan and his wife Susan (also a writer) joined Studs in the studio.  They are forbidden to discuss the legal matters surrounding the Papers’ publication (there had been a Supreme Court case over the publication, which was decided in favor of the Times), but they do discuss the relationship between journalism and truth (or, as we think of it these days, “alternative facts”), the expected and assumed honesty of people in power, leaks to the media, phone tapping, and FBI investigations.

Interview Highlights

Here, Neil talks about his career as a journalist and why he writes what he does.

In this clip Neil talks about how a “dissatisfaction of conveyance of truth” has started to change journalism.  Susan picks up the thread and points out that “They’ll always cover what President Nixon says in a press conference, but it’s much harder to get into the papers why what he’s saying is untrue.”  Neil goes on to talk about government using the media to manipulate, rather than inform, the public.

As an example of this manipulation, Neil talks about how information about North Vietnamese infiltration was leaked to the press in order to influence public feeling about the war in Vietnam.  He implicates Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and General Maxwell Taylor, a diplomat in Saigon.

Finally, Neil and Susan tell Studs how their lives have changed since the Pentagon Papers were published.  They had become the subject of an FBI investigation, and as a result their bank statements were subpoenaed, friends and relatives were questioned, and investigators even tried to get photographs of the Sheehan’s children.

Neil Sheehan has continued to write.  His ebook The Battle of Ap Bac came out in 2014.  His 1986 book A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  Susan Sheehan has also continued to write, including articles for Architectural Digest through 2010 and The New Yorker through 2006.  She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1983 for Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

Photo credit: United States Military Academy (http://ehistory.osu.edu/vietnam/maps/0005.cfm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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