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Reporter Who Broke Pentagon Papers Story Dies

Neil Sheehan was 84
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 8, 2021 3:14 AM CST

(Newser) – Neil Sheehan, a reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who broke the story of the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times and who chronicled the deception at the heart of the Vietnam War in his epic book about the conflict, died Thursday. He was 84. Sheehan died of complications from Parkinson's disease, said his daughter, Catherine Sheehan Bruno. His account of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, took him 15 years to write. The 1988 book won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Sheehan served as a war correspondent for United Press International and then the Times in the early days of US involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. It was there that he developed a fascination with what he would call "our first war in vain" where "people were dying for nothing," the AP reports.

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As a national writer for the Times based in Washington, Sheehan was the first to obtain the Pentagon Papers, a massive history of US involvement in Vietnam ordered up by the Pentagon. Daniel Ellsberg, a former consultant to the Defense Department who had previously leaked Vietnam-related documents to Sheehan, had allowed the reporter to see them. The Times’ reports, which began in June 1971, exposed widespread government deception about US prospects for victory. Soon, the Washington Post also began publishing stories about the Pentagon Papers. The documents looked in excruciating detail at the decisions and strategies of the war. And they told how involvement was built up steadily by political leaders and top military brass who were overconfident about US prospects and deceptive about the accomplishments against the North Vietnamese.

(Read more obituary stories.)

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