Neil Sheehan Dies at 84; Creator and Occasions Reporter on the Pentagon Papers

The next year, Mr. Sheehan of The Times said goodbye to The Times after attending the funeral of John Paul Vann, a charismatic, idealistic ex-Army officer and outspoken dissident about the war that Mr. Sheehan knew in Vietnam. He set out to write the story of the war through the character of Mr. Vann, who seemed to embody Mr. Sheehan the qualities that Americans admired and to personify American corporation. He expected the book to last three to five years.

But he lost more than a year recovering from a head-on collision with a car that a young man was driving on the wrong side of the road. Mr. Sheehan repeatedly ran out of money. His subjects, humanity and war, turned out to be more complicated than even he had known.

Disciplined and active at night, he worked regularly until 4 a.m. Impressed by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, he tried to give his book – a combination of story and biography – the narrative drive of a novel. “It was a grim business,” he said. He is less obsessed than trapped.

The book was 861 pages long.

Cornelius Mahoney Sheehan was born on October 27, 1936 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, to Irish immigrants. His father, Cornelius Joseph Sheehan, was a dairy farmer and his mother, Mary (O’Shea) Sheehan, was a housewife.

Economy & Economy


Jan. 7, 2021, 12:58 p.m. ET

Neil (his nickname since birth) grew up on his family’s dairy farm outside Holyoke and attended mass every Sunday at his mother’s insistence with his two brothers. He received full scholarships to both Massachusetts’ Mount Hermon Prep School and Harvard, where he studied Middle Eastern history and graduated in 1958.

He then joined the army and became a journalist in order to quit his job as a contract worker in Korea. He was transferred to Tokyo to publish the division newspaper and worked for United Press International, which hired him in 1962 and sent him to Saigon as a reporter for two weeks outside the army for $ 75 a week.

He was one of the youngest and least experienced of a group of famous correspondents that included David Halberstam of The Times, who became his collaborator and friend. In 1964, The Times hired Mr. Sheehan and sent him back to Vietnam. He had passionately and haunted what his wife later described as a “quasi-religious series”. By 1966, he wrote, the moral superiority that the United States possessed after World War II had “given way to the amorality of great power politics.”

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