During the afternoon of June 16, 1972, Neil Sheehan of the New York Times' Washington bureau attended the funeral of John Paul Vann at Arlington National Cemetery. For Sheehan, the event seemed ripe with symbolism. Inside the red brick chapel beside the cemetery gate were a number of key dramatis personae of the Vietnam era. In an attempt to claim him as their own, the Nixon administration had insured that major Establishment personalities were present to give John Paul Vann a proper burial. In the audience were Cold Warriors such as Major General Edward Landsdale, Lieutenant General William DePuy, and journalist Joseph Alsop, all of whom had served in some way to initiate, implement, or justify America's policies in Southeast Asia. Some Vietnam heavy-hitters were pallbearers: General William C. Westmoreland, now Chief of Staff was the battlefield commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, the period of massive buildup; General Bruce Palmer, Jr., one of the Army's most brilliant professionals, had been intelligent enough to appreciate Vann, but not bureaucratically powerful enough to assure favors for Vann's ideas; Lieutenant General Richard Stilwell was one of many Establishment figures who opposed Vann initially, but eventually "realized that he had been wrong and had come to admire him"(17); William Colby of the CIA was still a Cold Warrior committed as both American and Catholic to defeating "Godless Communism."(18). Robert Komer, chief of pacification in Vietnam, seemed just the right person to be both a pallbearer and the eulogist. In July 1967, Komer was sent out to Vietnam by President Lyndon Johnson to deal directly with the problem of "hearts and minds." As a result, Komer worked with John Paul Vann whom he discovered to be both controversial and indispensable. Sheehan noticed that the pitch of Komer's voice rose as he waxed eloquently over Vann's contributions to the noble effort in Vietnam:
I've never known a more unsparingly critical and uncompromisingly honest man. He called them as he saw them--in defeat as well as victory. For this, and for his long experience, he was more respected by the press than any other official. And he told letting the chips fall where they may. After one such episode, I was told, and not in jest, to fire John Vann. I replied that I wouldn't and couldn't; that, in fact, if I could only find three more John Vanns we could shorten the war by half (20).
*Unless indicated otherwise, citations in this article are from Neil Sheehan's award-winning Vietnam biography and epic Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988); hereafter cited as BSLIE.
Komers eulogy portrayed Vann as a leader who understood the Vietnamese people and devoted his life to their cause of freedom. He closed with the reflection that "his real monument will be the free and peaceful South Vietnam for which he fought so well"(21). After the funeral President Nixon was intending to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Jane Vann for her husbands contributions, thereby presumably fixing the Establishments imprimatur on the man and his memory.
The Arlington monument was redolent with other messages for reporter Neil Sheehan, making the ceremony more than a hollow public relations event for the Nixon Administration,. The presence of Senator Edward Kennedy called attention to breadth of Vanns influence. Although a tenacious fighter on the ground and in the air over Vietnam, Vann had shared the Massachusetts Senators concern for the plight of the refugees in the war-torn country. For Sheehan, Ted Kennedy also symbolized the defection of the Kennedy family from the Vietnam crusade. In the early days, Jack Kennedy projected his vision of a "New Frontier" which would spread "an American-imposed order beyond Americas shores"(12). With some intellectual prodding from Daniel Ellsberg in 1968, Robert Kennedy defected from his dead brothers vision to run for the Democratic nomination on an anti-war platform, a campaign called to a tragic halt when, on live television, an assassins bullet cut him down. Ted now carried on Bobbys campaign against the war.
Daniel Ellsberg, "the turncoat knight of the crusade," upset the Establishment representatives at the funeral by sitting with the Vann family(12). Back in the winter of 1966, Ellsberg succeeded in communicating Vanns critique of America's strategy to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. It was an insiders success. After the Tet offensive of 1968, Ellsberg jumped ship to become a full-time peace advocate. In 1969, he began secretly duplicating the 7000-page study now known as the Pentagon Papers, deftly smuggling copies through security at the Rand Corporation. Finally, in 1971, as a dramatic act of conscience against Richard Nixons Cambodian incursion, Ellsberg turned over the government study to reporter (and now narrator) Neil Sheehan, who then edited the document for serial publication in the New York Times and a subsequent book release. (Everyone present at the funeral knew that the Pentagon Papers trial was still ongoing.)
Many reviewers have been perplexed by the amount of space A Bright Shining Lie devotes to tensions within the Vann family itself, but Neil Sheehan was fascinated. Jesse Vann, age twenty-two, left half of his draft card on his fathers coffin; he planned to present the other half to President Nixon during the Oval Office ceremony to follow. With some difficulty, the other children, Mrs. Vann, and Brent Scowcroft succeeded in convincing Jesse that the purpose of the day was to honor his father, not to embarrass the President of the United States. And while Jesse was angry about attempts by the American government to "deny him the freedom to live life as he wanted to live it" (26), Mary Jane Vann harbored her own bitterness because John Paul Vann would not receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Neil Sheehan was perfectly attuned to the many levels of tension at the Arlington cemetery. Sheehan met John Paul Vann in 1962 when, as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, Vann was serving as an advisor in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Many details of the soldier's life mirrored aspects of the reporter's experience: an upbringing on the poor side of the tracks; a quick rise in status through education and profession (Vann through the Army and Sheehan through Harvard College and the profession of journalism), an impatience with authority; and a blind obsession with work. Also, Vann's dark side fascinated Sheehan. Vann's sexual compulsion stemmed from a deprived and abused childhood, driving Vann to exploit women in ways which repelled--yet, judged by the attention devoted to them--titillated Neil Sheehan. According to his chronicler, Vann's egotistical misuse of sexual power may have tainted his thinking on the subject of political power, especially after Tet 1968 when Vann joined Establishment figures such as Walt Rostow and W.C. Westmoreland, in celebrating the Pyrrhic "victory" of Tet.' Whether or not such a connection is made convincingly, it is certainly true that Sheehan's detailed revelations about the seamy side of Vann's personal life discredit the hero of BSLIE by the time the narrative reaches Tet, 1968.
However mixed Sheehan's feelings toward John Paul Vann, the New York Times reporter could not elude the sense that Vann was a symbol of the entire American effort in Vietnam. From the day of the funeral in 1972 until the publication of BSLIE in 1989, Neil Sheehan would do apparently little else but ponder the significance of Vann as a Representative Man. Hours of interviews with family members, research trips to Norfolk, Virginia to examine the roots of the man, and months in a sterile carrel at the Library of Congress would lead to a manuscript of some 1150 pages whose sheer mass annoyed Random House editors. (With help from his wife, his editor Robert Loomis at Random House, and a brand-new word processor, Sheehan managed to whittle the text down to a mere 800 pages.) Sheehan's devotion to the project led to his being described by William Prochnau of the Washington Post as "The Last Prisoner of Vietnam," who monastically devoted "long nights on Klingle Street trying to figure out a war everyone else wanted to forget." The resulting work, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, is certainly an exploration of the details of the man and a meditation on the roots of our Vietnam tragedy. But it is more.
The novelist Henry James would have understood Neil Sheehan's response at Arlington National Cemetery. James said on many occasions that his novels took their inspiration from such intuitive "germs" (a word James used without negative connotations, it refers to the growth center in a seed). Within BSLIE, the funeral of John Paul Vann is such a germinative experience. In speaking to Publisher's Weekly in 1989, Sheehan briefly described the revelation he would explore: "You could feel in that chapel that we were burying the mindset of what Henry Luce boastfully called 'the American century" (83). A Bright Shining Lie does, indeed, attempt to expose the mindset of the Cold War era through essays on American imperialism, insider's views of the worlds of America's diplomatic and military Establishments, and expose vignettes about major historical figures such as Generals Douglas MacArthur, William C. Westmoreland, Paul Harkins, and Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. But Sheehan's book is less a narrative history and more a meditation on the pain inflicted after World War II by America's misguided military and political leaders on a trusting people. Quite a few of these same leaders were attending John Vann's funeral to appropriate him as a symbol of their crusade in Vietnam.
In writing his epic, Sheehan describes himself as "a newsman who got diverted into history and biography" (Steinberg 83). He is not forthcoming about the methodology, which guides his work as historian and biographer, but the attentive reader can discern the outlines. In the prologue already described, a disproportionate amount of attention is given to the rebellious attitude of Vann's son Jesse. Sheehan implies that the disturbed young man has the right instincts. Like many defiant youths of the 1960s, Jesse is refusing to accept the official image of the distant war. When the coffin is escorted to the gravesite, the Army band plays Vann's favorite martial tune, "The Colonel Bogie March." Sheehan stresses that the next selection played is Mary Jane's favorite tune, "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?"--which is described by the omniscient narrator (through Mary Jane's mind) as "a song of the sadness she felt as a mother for all of the young men who had died in the war; it was the song of the ravaging of her son Jesse by the structure of authority that had made the war because he had opposed that authority and the war." (24) The images and words stray perilously close to the kind of bathos which Americans would expect to find in a "pilot" for a new television soap opera series. (Surely, this will be the opening--and perhaps the closing--scene of the Jane Fonda-Warner Bros. film now in pre-production.) During the funeral, Sheehan further uses the power of an omniscient narrator to formulate some acerbic judgments--exploiting the perspective of Daniel Ellsberg. The point-of-view technique allows Sheehan, early in the narrative, to present criticism without appearing to endorse it directly.2
But little is said early in the epic about the new mindset, which will emerge from the fires of Vietnam. In some ways, John Paul Vann embodied the Henry Luce vision; his unquestioning support of the American Empire certainly put him in the Establishment camp. Yet Vann's lowly upbringing gave him sympathies for third world peoples. He serves Sheehan's BSLIE as a transitional figure who, though bound to the old politics and driven by a sexual machismo, helped younger and better educated journalists to break out of their Cold War husks. With Vann's help, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Daniel Ellsberg, along with a few rare people in the Establishment--such as Victor Krulak, Frederick Weyand, and others--emerge from the Vietnam years chastened, but wiser. A Bright Shining Lie is more than an epic tale of ineptitude and decay; it also describes the painful birth of a new mindset and the shift of public power to a new, more socially responsible elite: our press. A close reading of BSLIE reveals that Neil Sheehan was not obsessed with the research project because of his fascination with Vann. Vann is only a stepping stone to a higher message, the celebration of the rise of a new class whose calling is to report on the misuses of power by America's traditional elites--the politicians and the brass hats. That Sheehan's efforts should receive the accolades of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award Committees should come as no surprise. A Bright Shining Lie comforts American readers with the message that we emerged from the Vietnam tragedy with a new-won consciousness because the press gave the American people what it so desperately needs from its true leaders--the bright shining truth. John Paul Vann could only point his young disciples in the right direction; he could not join them in the Promised Land.
I. The Mindset of the Old Elite
At the opening of BSLIE, Sheehan argues that, during the "American Century," a Northeastern elite established the dominant "standards of taste, morality, intellectual respectability for the rest of the country"(10). Theirs was the world of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS). Joseph Alsop, Dean Acheson, both Henry Cabot Lodges, the Woodrow Wilson who rejected Ho Chi Minh at the Versailles Conference, and the New Frontier advisors who helped John F. Kennedy and later intimidated Lyndon Johnson were all representatives of this mindset. Through its cultural hegemony, the old elite was successful in attracting the brightest scions of immigrant groups, yet often the young talent they enlisted brought with them a sense of frustration for their betrayal of their ethnic cultures. Sheehan points out that even President John F. Kennedy was willingly molded by the WASP system (297). Sheehan's colleague David Halberstam was more explicit in The Best and the Brightest, where he described Kennedy as carrying in him "the immigrant family's rage to get their due, but carefully concealed behind a cool and elegant facade"(98).
According to Sheehan's interpretation, the WASP elite was traditionally willing to use military power to further American interests abroad--both economic and cultural. Henry Cabot Lodge, Sr. spoke for the WASP culture as it began the "American Century" in 1898 by launching a war with Spain. Sheehan is not unpleased with the historical ironies involved when Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. arrived at Saigon as the U.S. Ambassador to preside over the downfall of WASP hegemony (359).
WEII: The Paradox of Victory
After the war, America's ruling elite became bloated and complaisant: World War II had been such a triumph of American resources, technology, and industrial and military genius, and the prosperity that the war and the postwar dominance abroad had brought had been so satisfying after the long hunger of the Depression, that American society had become a victim of its own achievement. The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success (285).
The results of this success, Sheehan argues, were unhealthy, leading to intellectual inflexibility, a belief in force over intelligence, and--most tragically for Vietnam--an unwillingness to respond to the legitimate aspirations of third world nations.
At the diplomatic level, "the men who ran the American imperial system" looked for puppets who could "act as surrogates for American power" (130). Not interested in democracy or freedom, their goals were far simpler; they built an international network that would help American business. These "neocolonialists"--a group which Sheehan says included Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Harry Truman--saw Communism as a monolith in which "all Communist movements were pawns of a centralized superstate directed from the Kremlin" (169). Ever blind to the aspirations of emerging nations, they were unable to even consider the possibility that the spirit of nationalism might be stronger than ideology:3
If Tito and Ho and Mao Tse-tung were nationalists as well as communists, if differing cultures and histories might lead Communist nations to develop along distinct lines, then the world was far more complex than these American leaders imagined it to be. Their own inclinations were easier to follow in a simple Manichean world of Good and Evil (169).
The establishment's Manichean outlook, Sheehan asserts, would prove to be disastrous in Korea and Vietnam.
Korea: A Precedent for Vietnam
Sheehan finds little to redeem America's role in the Korean war. Prior to the conflict, U.S. diplomats gave the Communists an impression that South Korea was not within America's strategic defensive perimeter. (Sheehan's narrative appears to justify the North's cruel invasion of the South in June 25, 1950; his logic seems to be that military adventures are justified if they can be successful.) MacArthurs invasion of North Korea after pushing the enemy out of the South was the leadership's next error; in doing so, an egocentric commander "squandered the lives of the thousands of men who had died for the victory and the thousands more who would die in a defeat they did not deserve" (452). Some historians subscribe to a few of these criticisms, but Sheehan's contempt for MacArthur is unique. Even the landing at Inchon, a masterstroke for which even MacArthur's critics bow their heads in admiration, becomes an object of Sheehan's ridicule. Rather than a bold exploitation of the element of surprise, the amphibious assault was a "sign that MacArthur's egomania had grown beyond tolerable bounds"(454).
The overall impact of the errors in Korea set a dangerous precedent in the post-war era of rising expectations:
The war in Korea was a prelude to the war in Vietnam. It was the first war in American history in which the leaders of the Army and the nation were so divorced from reality and so grossly underestimated their opponent that they brought disaster to the Army and the nation (452).
Through a frontlines narrative involving Ranger Lt. Ralph Puckett, Jr., Sheehan personalizes, in an effective microcosm, the details of suffering inflicted on ordinary men by careless leaders (453-4;462-5). Although Puckett was proud of the fighting skills of his elite Rangers, he could do nothing to hold back the human Niagara of 300,000 Chinese troops who entered the Korean war after MacArthur foolishly advanced too close to China's borders. Vietnam would recapitulate the leadership problems--and the suffering--of Korea.
Vietnam: The Sad Fulfillment
General Paul Harkins was commander of the Military Assistance Group Vietnam (MACV), during Sheehan's first Vietnam tour, 1962-4. Harkins had been a protege of General George Patton during World War II; he would later be advanced up the Army's chain of command, according to Sheehan, with patronage from Maxwell Taylor. (The "old boy" network helped WASPs to succeed rather than promoting those of merit.) Probably no figure other than Ngo Dinh Diem receives such vilification. First, Harkins is condemned as a pantywaist who shrinks from getting his shoes dirty in the field. Harkins "lacked curiosity about his war" and refused to be photographed with troops explaining to eager cameramen that "I'm not that kind of general" (284-5). For Sheehan, Harkins is the living embodiment of the Army's problems:
By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity. These are the kinds of traits that cause otherwise intelligent men like Harkins to behave stupidly (285).
The negative lesson of Korea reemerged in Vietnam as Harkins refused to recognize that guerilla warfare required special tactics. Harkins' successor, General William C. Westmoreland, would remake all of the same mistakes.
The American diplomats and generals--and, at the time, Neil Sheehan--did not understand the nature of the Communist Revolution in either half of Vietnam. The supposedly "diabolical" Ho Chi Mirth was really only a nationalist with a long paper trail of appeals to America. During the Versailles conference after World War I, Ho took the proclamation of the Fourteen Points seriously, but was rebuffed when he attempted to visit President Wilson. In 1972, the Pentagon Papers revealed for the first time that Ho Chi Minh had written to President Truman after WWII, hoping the United States would live up to its reputation as "a champion of democracy" (147). In order to prove his egalitarian faith, Ho inserted quotes from Jefferson's classic state paper in his own declaration of independence. When the United States failed to recognize Ho, Sheehan explains, the desperate peasant reformer accepted assistance from the only other sources available to him, the Communists of China and the Soviet Union.4
The American Establishment also underestimated the intensity of Communist fervor. For centuries, the Vietnamese were forced to play the role of David against a series of Goliaths: in pre-modern eras, they fought the Chinese; later, Japanese and French invaders were defeated. In a revealing passage, Sheehan celebrates the tenacity of the little men who stand up to power:
Ho Chi Mirth and his disciples became Communists through an accident of French politics. They were mandarins, Vietnamese aristocrats, the natural leaders of a people whom foreigners have repeatedly sought and failed to conquer and pacify. There are a small number of such peoples on the earth. The Irish are one. The Vietnamese are another. The violence of their resistance forms history and legend to remind the living that they must never shame the dead. (155, emphasis added)5
Sheehan compares the Communist leaders to America's bourgeois revolutionaries (168). The overall message is that Ho is a nationalist who will fight to the last drop of blood for unification of his country. More important in terms of the forthcoming American involvement, he will not be a party to "limited war."
Meanwhile, General Paul Harkins carries on in ignorance of these Sheehanite "realities." On the political plane, the American Establishment has installed Ngo Dinh Diem, a puppet invented by Major General Edward Landsdale to assure American policy is carried out (143). A Catholic, and therefore a member of "a tainted minority," Diem is compared to a Tory in the American Revolution; everyone knows he is a traitor to the true cause of his country (168). In his research, Sheehan came across evidence which give rise to what might be called "the Sheehan Thesis": the second IndoChina war began in the South in angry response to Diem's vicious "Denunciation of Communism" campaign in 1959. Leaders in the North instructed Southern cadres to remain inactive until Chairman Ho consolidated the gains of revolution, but, in defiance of Party instructions, Southerners rose up in wrath when America's puppet government (184-98) attacked their lives and property. In other words, the "Sheehan Thesis" asserts that it is really America which initiated the war in its blundering ignorance, proving conclusively that "the Americans knew neither the Vietnamese they were depending on to work their will, nor the Vietnamese enemy they faced" (198).
During the commands of Generals Harkins and Westmoreland, military strategy was based on anachronistic principles. A strategy of attrition was developed during World War II with the notion that it was better to over-expend artillery and bombs than to risk the lives of America's citizen-soldiers. In a conventional war with clear boundaries for the battlefield, such a strategy made sense, but the strategy of attrition was totally inappropriate for counterinsurgency operations. Neither Harkins nor Westmoreland ever learned this lesson, despite the frequent--albeit abortive--attempts by John Paul Vann to educate them. This kind of blindness is exemplified in General Harkins' reaction to the defeat at Ap Bac. For a young reporter named Neil Sheehan, the response produced a shock of recognition:
There was something obscene about all of this to me and the other reporters... .An American general with a swagger stick and a cigarette holder, whose four stars on his collar tabs said that he commanded the fighter-bombers and helicopters and the flow of arms and ammunition that made this battle and this war possible, but who would not deign to soil his suntans and street shoes in a rice paddy to find out what was going on, was prattling about having trapped the Viet Cong (276).
Westmoreland was equally blind to the limits of the strategy of attrition Since it had worked in Europe, he thought, it should work in Asia. As a man "of limited imagination," Westmoreland played "blindly to strength, no matter what its relevance to the problem" (558). An example of the logical outcome of such misuse of force in a guerilla war was the My Lai Massacre, an event which Sheehan describes as an "inevitable" outcome of a strategy obsessed with body counts (689).6
Ever blundering, Westmoreland would be fooled by the Vietnamese during the Tet offensive of 1968. As a ruse, Communist generals attracted American forces to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in a series of bloody confrontations which played to NVA strengths while drawing allied troops away from population centers (638). Khe Sanh, where Westmoreland committed a Marine regiment plus massive supporting forces of air, artillery, and infantry, was "the biggest lure of the war" and, by Sheehan's lights, a "masterstroke of Tet" (710-11). When Vietcong attacks hit most of South Vietnam's major cities, to include Saigon and Hue, Sheehan claims that Westmoreland was totally surprised. American troops were elsewhere. The tenacity with which Westmoreland clung to his theory that Khe Sanh would be the major battle of Tet--even as the attacks on the cities continued--was a nightmarish repeat of MacArthur's rush to the Yalu in 1950, "but on a scale magnified many times by the extravagance of the failure in Vietnam" (717).
In this lumbering stupidity, Sheehan found Westmoreland to be a model of the establishment mentality:
It has been a historic characteristic of generals like Westmoreland that whatever they are given--keen soldiers, innovative weapons, timely intelligence, discerning counsel, published primers on an opponent's strategy--they will waste. They expect their enemies to behave stupidly and they perceive their own behavior as farsighted generalship (692).
Just as MacArthur wasted the efforts of Lieutenant Ralph Puckett, Jr. and his elite Ranger troops in Korea, so Westmoreland expended the lives of the men caught at the encircled combat base at Khe Sanh. The massive psychological victory of Tet in the minds of Americans was the result of Vietnam's "realities" finally hitting home--thanks to the efforts of a press, which had, at last, defined an adversarial stance for itself.7
II. The Press: A New Elite Represents the Public Interest
While BSLIE is explicit in its description of the establishment mindset, the manner in which Sheehan evokes a countervailing perspective is less direct. Prior to the traumatic Battle of Ap Bac in early January, 1963, members of the American press were New Frontier patriots who supported the policies of anti-Communist liberalism:
The reporters of the period were not accustomed to thinking of their military leaders and diplomats as deluded men, and the military leaders and diplomats were not accustomed to reporters who said that they were consistently wrong (315).
The press began to change its attitude after the allied defeat at Ap Bac. For the awakened journalists, the inept defeat of some of the South's best troops at Ap Bac dramatized the vast disparity "between what we saw and what authority saw" (316). Mindless press support of foreign policy in the Vietnam setting was no longer in the national interest after that moment of illumination; playing along with the government and military leaders only "concealed the fact that the system was no longer rational" (315).
Many reviewers of BSLIE are impatient with the descriptive detail of the Ap Bac segment of the book, even though the depiction of the battle in Book III is some of Sheehan's best writing--probably because he concentrates on telling a story in a journalistic way rather than pondering heavy matters of policy and psychology. The Ap Bac segment serves some of the same functions as the battle scenes in Henry Adams' History of the United States During the
Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889-91). In an overview of war and public policy decision making, particular battles bring home the human experience of conflict--with its pain, defeat, but also its glory and heroism. (In History, Adams celebrates the exploits of American heroes like John Paul Jones; Sheehan's most important hero at Ap Bac is a Vietcong squad leader named Dung who "accomplished the impossible" by showing that revolutionary fervor can stop American machines from destroying the Vietnamese garden .) In filmmaking, the Ap Bac segment would be described as a "breakout" section which refreshes an audience before plunging back into the claustral meditation which takes up so many pages of BSLIE.
Within BSLIE, Ap Bac also functions as an empirical laboratory for the young reporters. Up until that point, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and the press corps were tuned in to the Establishment message:
The American reporters shared the advisors' sense of commitment to this war. Our ideological prism and cultural biases were in no way different. We regarded the conflict as our war too. We believed in what our government said it was trying to accomplish in Vietnam, and we wanted our country to win this war just as passionately as Vann and his captains did (271).
Ap Bac transformed everyone involved, including the Communists. In the aftermath, John Paul Vann launched his crusade to expose the errors of America's strategy; Sheehan and Halberstam realized that they must become adversaries of America's military and political leaders. On the other side of the conflict, success at Ap Bac convinced the Vietcong to wage a more aggressive war against America and its pusillanimous ally, the Republic of South Vietnam. While Ap Bac may at first be welcomed by some readers as a refreshing diversion from the passages of the book, the chapter is absolutely pivotal rhetorically. Then young members of the press corps became, in Sheehan's hindsight, adversarial journalists based on empirical fact, not as a matter of preconceived ideology. At this initial stage of their conversion process, John Paul Vann served as an unexpected guide. His spontaneous after-action analysis, filled with denunciations of the top brass, clothed each young writer in a "mental flack jacket."
David Halberstam: Vann Educates A Reporter
David Halberstam, who served in Vietnam with Sheehan, is depicted in BSLIE as an avatar of the new consciousness. Like Sheehan and Ellsberg, Halberstam is a Harvard graduate; more importantly, he, like his fellow journalists, does not feel entirely comfortable with the Establishment. This quality of alienation brought John Paul Vann and Halberstam together:
They were both outsiders with ambivalent yearnings to serve (318). Yet just below the surface of each man was a resentment toward the status quo, an emotion which would fuel their complaints after the Battle of Ap Bac. Vann decided to give Halberstam news leaks because the New York Times reached most of the power players in the Kennedy administration and because Halberstam was famous for his mental combativeness" (319). Halberstam believed that a good reporter should have "a jugular instinct" and often salted his prose with military similes and metaphors. (In 1972, his book, entitled The Best and the Brightest, would show the depths of his contempt for the Eastern Establishment which had educated him.) In 1962, he focused on the failure of the Diem regime to win the hearts and minds of its people.8 Like Sheehan, Halberstam was frustrated and angry after the Battle of Ap Bac. But, while Vann used Halberstam, Halberstam used Vann to vent his rage at the stupidity of the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MACV).
At a French restaurant in the summer of 1963, Halberstam pounded on the dinner table and shouted, "Paul D. Harkins should be court-martialed and shot!" (351). A foreign service officer joining the correspondents for dinner worried at the time that he might be connected with the outburst. Halberstam's articles over the next year were to have a momentous influence on policy makers in Washington, but Sheehan claims that the reporters in Saigon never consciously aimed their journalistic spears in that direction. According to BSLIE, Halberstam and Sheehan were merely describing disturbing "realities" official Washington would never hear about through official channels. Ap Bac had proven to them that they must speak out. Halberstam reported that intelligence figures concerning enemy casualties were being faked, and that General Harkins was too solicitous toward the Diems and not sufficiently concerned about winning the war. After Ap Bac, Sheehan, Halberstam, and Malcolm Browne (of the Associated Press) devoted their energies to "the Buddhist Crisis" of May 1963, exploiting a series of immolations and riots to dramatize the incompetence of the Diem family. Throughout the critical days before the overthrow of Diem in the fall of 1963, Halberstam credited John Paul Vann with opening their eyes: "it is almost impossible to kid us now . . we have the mental flak jackets you gave us" (342-3). (At least at this early stage of the Vietnam war, when he agreed with Sheehan and Halberstam, Vann enjoys hero billing in BSLIE.)
The Halberstam expose did not go unchallenged. Toward the end of October, President Kennedy asked A.O. Sulzberger, publisher of the Times, if his young reporter was not "too close to the story" in Saigon. (Halberstam was twenty-nine.) A seasoned reporter, Marguerite Higgins, flew to Saigon and reported that the crisis was in no way linked to religious persecution--as Halberstam had claimed--and that a few strategically placed reporters "would like to see us lose the war to prove they're right" (347). Joseph Alsop urged that thinking Americans ignore the "reportorial crusade" (348). Even within the New York Times there were concerns that the adversarial stance might backfire as it had in Cuba where Times reporter Herbert Matthews had mistakenly praised Fidel Castro as a nationalist seeking only to better life in his country. Sheehan, perhaps for these background reasons, strives hard in his narrative to credit the downfall of the Diems to their bizarre repressive tactics and to the influence of America's patrician on the scene, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
On the other hand, Sheehan acknowledges, in retrospect, that Halberstam's articles may have been influential: "We did not realize that our dispatches had been arming Averell Harriman.. and Roger Hilsman in their attempt to persuade Kennedy to authorize the overthrow of Diem and his family" (359). (Unfortunately, Sheehan does not elaborate on the process of influence; for example, during critical moments in the Vietnam conflict, did members of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations--to include Roger Hilsman, Clark Clifford, and Harry McPhearson--rely exclusively on the Times while neglecting to check press reports against government intelligence?) Halberstam, by Sheehan's own characterization, was a "hero-villain style of journalist"; in the critical reports of 1963, Halberstam painted the Diem family and General Paul Harkins as blackguards. Sheehan's narrative, as in so many other places--follows Halberstam's lead.
The manner in which Halberstam (in 1963-5) and Sheehan (in 1988) tout the virtues of John Paul Vann reveals much about their own attitudes toward America's presence in Vietnam. In Esquire magazine, November 1964, Halberstam eulogized Vann as "a David who had stood up to the Goliath" of the Establishment (384). The article grew into a book entitled The Making of a Quagmire (1965), a work which very closely anticipates the first half of BSLIE. Halberstam's praise for Vann mirrored the stance which Sheehan and Browne had taken toward the Establishment. At one point in the longer work, Halberstam reflects on the criticism, which the young reporters were receiving:
One of the ironies of Vietnam was that at a time when elements unhappy with our reporting were claiming privately that the foreign correspondents in the country were a bunch of liberals who opposed Diem on ideological grounds, much of our information came from men like Vann (164)
In many ways, this statement by Halberstam in 1965 provided a blueprint for the persuasive strategy of the first four books of BSLIE and reaffirms Vann's importance to Sheehan's analysis. The press's reactions to developments in Vietnam were not the result of preconceptions brought to the story.
John Paul Vann: An Outsider Playing Insider
John Paul Vann, as presented by Neil Sheehan, is the quintessential outsider. He was the neglected baby of a narcissistic mother who supplemented her income with prostitution. John and the other children in the family saw no turkey at Thanksgiving and no tree at Christmas (406-7). Myrtle Vann frequently taunted her son about his illegitimacy. The combination of family and personal suffering was to leave permanent scars on Vann. He was aggressively ambitious: "He could not stand being relegated to Number Two. He had to be on the scramble to be Number One" (386). Vann's emotional drives were intensified by the sexual humiliation he experienced, leading him to become "a ferocious heterosexual" constantly involved in one or more liaisons outside his marriage. In Vietnam, where opportunities were numerous, Vann sometimes enjoyed sex with three different women in a day while maintaining a breakneck pace at his job. Both Vann's ambition and his sexuality were driven by his intense feeling of being "an outcast" (386).
Perhaps because of his sense of personal worthlessness, Paul Vann was redeemed by professional accomplishments as an Army officer: "The most important thing he had learned was that he was a different person in this uniform. When he had this uniform on he wasn't little Johnny Vann or LeGay or what's-his-name, the bastard kid of that good-timer Myrtle down at the end of the bar" (434). In Korea, he won recognition for his administrative abilities, but his aerial resupply efforts to troops at beleaguered hilltops--truly spectacular feats of personal heroism-went unnoticed by commanders in the heat of combat. Korea, his first war, taught him that he was a competent professional who could "end run" any bureaucracy. At least in memory, the airdrops became a model for what could be done by an energetic individual willing to "take on the system". In Vietnam, after the Battle of Ap Bac, Vann tried these tactics first in prolix after-action reports. Once he returned to the U.S., Vann carried on his crusade through elaborate briefings at the Pentagon to anyone who would listen. But his efforts failed in the end; the bureaucratic inertia of 1960s America won out over the feisty outsider.
David Halberstam's article and book celebrated Vann as a paladin fighting for truth. The press corps thought so highly of Vann that reporters presented him with an engraved cigarette lighter at the close of his first tour in 1963: "We decided he was deliberately sacrificing his career in order to alert the nation to the danger of defeat in this war" (323). It is difficult to stress enough the emphasis Sheehan's BSLIE places on Vann as an individual with the answer to our Vietnam challenge. He is the lonely crusader in conflict with a decadent system. It is a system administered by men such as Harkins and Westmoreland. It is a system in which truth and insight are political matters to be advanced on the basis of patronage and power rather than on their correspondence to "reality." It is the system which locked up Ho Chi Minh's letters to Harry Truman in 1945, shelved Vann's revealing after-action report on the Battle of Ap Bac, and prevented Vann, at the very last moment, from delivering his polished briefing to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (339). (Sheehan is so fascinated with the aborted JCS briefing that he reconstructs its arguments at length in a "what if..." mode [339-40].) The lesson of Vann's first attempt to take on the system would be underscored again in 1972 after the victory of Kontum: no matter what a resourceful individual might try to do to influence the action, he will be undercut, betrayed--even destroyed--by the callous leaders at the top of the ladder. That was the lesson of Ralph Puckett's tragic experience in Korea when MacArthur wasted a good man and his Rangers. Ultimately, it was the lesson of John Paul Vann: although he was exhilarated with the sense that he had helped America to turn the tide after the battle of Kontum in 1972, in truth, his efforts only delayed an inevitable debacle. Far from Vietnam, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon would sell out the entire crusade in the 1973 Paris Accords.
Daniel Ellsberg--An Insider Forced to be an Outsider
Daniel Ellsberg was an important person in Neil Sheehan's life. During the spring of 1971, Ellsberg was impressed by a book review by Sheehan in the New York Times and decided to release to the reporter the forty-seven-volume history of American involvement in Vietnam. It was a high moment in Sheehan's career and almost led to a Pulitzer Prize. (The prize for The Pentagon Papers coup was conferred to the Times as an institution rather than to Sheehan as an individual; characteristically, Sheehan was embittered by the committee's cold bureaucratic decision.) Shortly after the Pentagon Papers project, Sheehan attended the funeral which opens BSLIE. The ceremony launched his sixteen-year obsession with John Paul Vann as a microcosm of America's failure in Vietnam. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ellsberg should be a potent force in BSLIE; in fact, he is a role model for the proper stance of a moral individual in an oppressive society. After exploring every option within the system, Ellsberg broke outside to an institution which, during the 1 960s, was forced to become the voice of the people.
From the beginning, Sheehan privileges Ellsberg. Many of the judgments of the Establishment personalities during Vann's funeral are through Ellsberg's eyes. Whereas John Paul Vann is eulogized as the great Vietnam hero, Ellsberg is described as a "turncoat knight of the crusade" (12). Staring at Vann's coffin, Ellsberg reflects on the evening he went to see Vann, but ended up talking to Sheehan all night about the xeroxed cache of secret studies in his possession, a collection to later become known as the Pentagon Papers (26). But before the desperation of 1971, Ellsberg had striven to be a loyal insider.
Daniel Ellsberg arrived at Harvard six years ahead of Sheehan. Unlike Sheehan, he distinguished himself academically, rating a highly coveted seat among the Society of Fellows after a two-year tour as an officer in the Marine Corps. In 1959, Ellsberg went to work for the Rand Corporation, where he made the discovery that the supposed Soviet "missile gap" was really "a fable" (592), a product of what he would label the "mad dog mentality" at the Pentagon. His incisiveness--not to mention the cachet of Harvard credentials within the Kennedy administration--won him a job in Washington at what Sheehan glowingly describes as "the supergrade' rank of a GS- 18" (592). In those days of the New Frontier, Ellsberg was an enthusiastic "insider" eager for power, but very distrustful of the military. During a trip to Vietnam in 1965 as part of Edward Landsdale's mission, Ellsberg met his mentor, John Paul Vann.
Vann took time to explain to Ellsberg how America was losing the war; he also argued that pacification was the key to success. Ellsberg was quickly won over and became yet another Vann disciple. In 1966, Ellsberg was able to preach the gospel to Robert McNamara and John McNaughton by ambushing the two DOD officials during a long flight to Vietnam. Ellsberg's two-hundred-page report used Vann's approach as a model. It stressed the importance of pacification and called into question Secretary McNamara's faith in Westmoreland's attrition strategy. Once started, McNamara's doubts became an avalanche; the fact that he soon thereafter commissioned the Pentagon Papers was a sign of his wavering faith in the war. McNamara would become a "haunted man" who was "ashamed of what he saw as his failure at the most important task of his life" (685). These doubts had been planted by Ellsberg, an insider who later described the 1966 flight to Vietnam aboard the "McNamara Special" as "'the height of my bureaucratic career" (681).
In May of 1967, McNamara sent President Lyndon Johnson an official memorandum in which he told the commander-in-chief that he could not win the war and that he should negotiate a peace as soon as possible. The Vietnamese were simply not going to fight a limited war and the "cross-over point" so pivotal to Westmoreland's attrition strategy--the threshold where the allies would be killing the enemy faster than replacements could be supplied--would never be reached. Unfortunately, the only demonstrable result of the memo was the "promotion" of McNamara to the World Bank in November 1967. It was a clear case of being kicked upstairs by a President who put little credence in the advice of a man he described as an "'emotional basket case"' (692). Ellsberg's bureaucratic success was thereby nullified. The war continued. Ellsberg tried every ploy within the bureaucracy to get Vann's message across, but no one was ready to listen. Westmoreland continued to stress attrition over pacification; indeed, he forced the Marine Corps in the northern provinces to reduce pacification efforts in order to log in more "battalion days in the field" (636). Even General Victor Krulak, who eventually obtained an hour of President Johnson's time, was unable to win the government over to an acceptable mix of political and military action. While it was true that Johnson sent out Robert Komer to win "hearts and minds," the administration still thought of such activities as "the other war." Westmoreland never made an effort to foster an effective partnership between the military and civilian elements of his command. In fact, the creation of Komer's agency was a relief to Westmoreland because it allowed him to "get on with his big-unit war and leave the [pacification] problem to Komer" (657). According to Sheehan, Ellsberg began to realize that the only option was to drop out of America's self-defeating Establishment.
When the Tet offensive erupted in late January, 1968, so did Ellsberg's moral outrage (725). The Pentagon Papers had convinced at least one GS-18 that "the American cause in Indochina was now and had always been wrong-headed and futile" (739). After articles, letters, and interviews proved fruitless, Ellsberg gave a copy of The Pentagon Papers to Senator William Fulbright. Finally, with Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, Ellsberg's frustration reached a breaking point; he turned the forty-seven volumes of material over to Neil Sheehan of the New York Times, hoping that the "truth that had changed me could help Americans to free themselves and other victims from a useless war" (739). His act of conscience led to painful results. Ellsberg became a lightning rod of controversy as a result of his trial: his telephone was tapped; his former psychiatrist's files were burglarized. (Curiously, amateur psychologist Sheehan never thinks to draw back the curtain obscuring Ellsberg's notorious history of sexual excess and experimentation;" if Vann's peccadillos are relevant to an understanding of his ideas, why is Ellsberg's kinkier story left uninvestigated?) Even his mentor, John Vann, betrayed him by secretly passing on information to the White House concerning defense strategies for the upcoming trial.
Not long after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg and Sheehan attended Vann's funeral. The Henry James moment was fraught with meaning. Vann was crushed by history while they survived--not only in the obvious sense of mere existence, but in terms of their invaluable collective role as guardians of American society. By publishing the Pentagon Papers, they felt that they had performed an heroic public service. Indeed, the lesson of A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam is that the intellectual, now that the American century is over, has a special role--to work outside the system in order to protect the American people from inept traditional elites. During the 1940s, public service by intellectuals made sense because America was involved in a noble cause as Stalin's ally in the fight against Fascism. Later, in the Harvard of the 1950s, service in the name of power was further enhanced by the notable successes of professors on campus: "ambitious intellectuals were beginning to see scholarship as a road to high office in the new American state" (590). The two phases of Daniel Ellsberg's career were evidence of how things had changed: Ellsberg was a member of the Society of Fellows, but he had also acquired an Expert Badge with the pistol "from both right and left hand" (59l). When he became a GS-l 8, he was very near the top of the Establishment's ladder.
Vietnam turned out to be a faulty chord in Ellsberg's perfectly orchestrated ascent because the war exposed the limitations of the post-war mindset. The values of the Northeast, perhaps most especially of Harvard, led inexorably to a condescending and manipulative stance toward the world; success in World War II led to spiritual rot. America's corrupt leadership somehow avoided detection in spite of the military debacles in Korea, but they could not escape the results of stupidity in Vietnam. In this torpid system, truth apparently could not move through channels to decisions makers; furthermore, when it did reach the appropriate leaders, their post-war complacency or their rabid anti-Communism prevented them from responding. The career of John Paul Vann had proved that gutsy, energetic, and brave men could be used by the Establishment to serve its ends; but it also proved that, in order to save the nation, intellectuals must remain outside as adversaries of the Establishment.10
Neil Sheehan's persuasive strategy in A Bright Shining Lie hinges on his portrayal of John Paul Vann. Vann was a paradox. He represented the best of what the Establishment mind had to offer: "He manifested the faith and the optimism of post-World War II America that any challenge could be overcome by will and by the disciplined application of intellect, technology, money, and, when necessary, armed force" (5). The first half of BSLIE inflates its protagonist to heroic proportions; when Vann receives his engraved cigarette lighter in 1963, he is the admired mentor of young reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam. From Book Five to the conclusion, BSLIE punctures Vann's image--initially on the basis of his abuse of women and then, after Tet, because he misreads the obvious lesson of the debacle. Meanwhile, reporters like Sheehan turned against their country's ruling elite--not because of their contempt for American society and its values and not due to ideological factors, and certainly not because of an overwhelming hatred of an entrenched status quo. John Paul Vann, one of the best professionals produced by the Establishment, led the journalists to their perceptions. Once Vann removed the blinders, however, the press corps would never be the same: "the generation of the 1950s was the first generation of Americans to go so naively into the world. It was destined to lose its innocence in the war and be forced to grapple with the consequences of disillusionment" (320). As a sixteen-year-long attempt at historical meditation, A Bright Shining Lie explores how the Vietnam experience passed the scepter of power from the traditional elite of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to a now disabused meritocratic elite which includes David Halberstam, Daniel Ellsberg, and Neil Sheehan.
The reader who focuses on the story of John Paul Vann misses the message of BSLIE-for it is the impact of the historical experiences and the impact of Vann's story on the narrator, which matters, not the history or the biography. There are interesting parallels in this regard between the work of David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Halberstam's The Making of a Quagmire (1965) covers the same territory we find in the first four books of BSLIE. Sheehan's attack on the Northeastern intellectual establishment is more than matched by Halberstam's devastating sketches of McGeorge Bundy (Yale '40), Walt Whitman Rostow (Yale '36), and others in The Best and the Brightest (1972).12 In fact, the only element of BSLIE not to be found in Halberstam's preceding volumes is the detailed portrait of Vann, the result of Sheehan's painstaking investigative research. (Vann does appear in both Halberstam volumes, but only the heroic Vann of BSLIE's first four books.) Someone with more psychological insight than this historian will one day explain Sheehan's obsession with the lurid details of this underdog's personal life, especially his sex life. Focusing strictly at the ideological level, one realizes that Vann is an important figure for Sheehan because his story proves that the American press was led to its initial alienation and then to its defiance of the Establishment by facts--clear, irreducible facts. What Sheehan does not explore is the manifest intensity of his own hatred for all hierarchies, which do not immediately reward ambitious overachievers like John Paul Vann--and Neil Sheehan.
Always a more aggressive analyst, Sheehan's friend and colleague, David Halberstam (a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), would document in lavish detail the radical shift in power from government to the press in his book The Powers That Be (1979). The lessons about power in the media age are explicit in his description of the impact of Walter Cronkite's dramatic February 27, 1968 special television broadcast after the Tet offensive: "it was the first time in American history a war had been declared over by an anchorman" (514).
While BSLIE is a would-be meditation on history, it is also a work of denial. Neil Sheehan uses his central figure John Paul Vann as a vehicle for explaining how reluctant the American press was about turning against the post-war Establishment. Power simply had to be shifted to the press so that the true national interest could be understood and followed. Bureaucratic machines ground good men like John Paul Vann up. Fortunately, factual-minded members of the press will be on the scene to save America--especially its helpless little people-from the abuses of power by the political and military elites. A Bright Shining Lie comes to the conclusion that the American press, with the help of a few renegade intellectuals, actually saved the United States from even worse consequences of the Vietnam debacle. Chastened by the tragedy of their failed Indochina war, Americans will be more receptive to such adversarial voices in the future.
1. Vann's traumatic childhood fills Book Five in excruciating detail. Later, in Book Seven, Sheehan traces how Vann's will-to-power colored his appraisal of the Tet offensive. BSLIE takes the position--both implicit in its structure and explicitly by overt statement--that Vann is a virtuous person while he fights with Neil Sheenan and David Halberstam against a slothful Establishment; when Vann agrees with the Pentagon and the Nixon White House, he becomes a pariah.
2. A source who wishes to remain anonymous has suggested that interpreting Sheehan's symbolic "reading" the funeral may be more complicated than it at first might appear. Prior to the publication of BSLIE in 1988, Neil Sheehan was a trusted friend of the Vann family; indeed, he was one of the executors of Vann's literary estate. In this capacity of friend and confidante in 1972, Sheehan helped Mrs. Vann to plan the richly symbolic funeral. With Mary Jane, he selected the participants to be invited, the music to be played, and other important details of the Arlington ceremony. In doing so, was Sheehan designing the mising scene for the evocative opening of his history?
3. BSLIE's interpretation of post-war developments is clearly indebted to the work of William Appleton William, Walter LaFeber and others of what is known as the "Wisconsin School" of diplomatic history. LaFeber is given a grateful thanks for his help (805). In this segment of BSLIE, as in many others, journalist Sheehan comes painfully close to plagiarizing the ideas of others. For example, this chapter clearly indebted to book-length efforts by Williams and LaFeber, but only a minor article by LaFeber is cited Sheehan's writing is best when it comes to piling up a series of telling details; he clearly has trouble with the picture and falls back on historians for help. There is nothing wrong with such a strategy, but intellectual indebtedness should be clearly and accurately stated. (Criticism of the "Wisconsin School" is abundant: see articles by Unger and Schlesinger, Jr. and a book by Maddox.)
When national prize committees consider books for recognition, should they not ponder such lapses? Anyon who has spent the many hours needed to read BSLIE can identify patches of interpretation from a variety of sources. Within these parameters supplied by others, Sheehan paints memorable portraits of individuals and narrates compelling stories. Still, he is often dependent upon the work of others for the broad strokes of his interpretations. Throughout the text, a close reader of B SLIE can see Sheehan following the paper trail of his friend and colleague David Halberstam on the subjects of Vann, Vietnam, and American society. Should a powerful, but derivative, book be awarded the likes of a Pulitzer prize or a National Book Award?
4. Phillip Davidson characterizes this portrait of Ho Chi Minh as one of seven popular "myths" of the Vietnam War (123-5). Davidson asserts that Ho's "denial of his Communist background and concepts were designed to win American aid when only the United States could help him. His actions, his key associates, and his experience all indicate that Ho's real desire for Indochina was not just independence from France, but a Communist bastion in Southeast Asia" (125). My documentary entitled Television's Vietnam: The Real Story (1983) addresses this issue and shares Davidson's conclusion based on testimony by diplomats and historians. Believers in the myth conveniently forget that Ho Chi Minh was one of the most vociferous critics of Tito for the Yugoslavian's betrayal of the international Communist movement. (William Stearman of Georgetown University discusses the Ho-Tito relationship in Television's Vietnam.) 5
Neil Sheehan's parents emigrated to the United States from Ireland in the early 1930s. He grew up in the working class section of Holyoke, Massachusetts and attended Harvard College on a scholarship. Interviewers report that they hear an Irish brogue when they talk with the author. Does the empathy expressed here interfere with Sheehan's ability to evaluate the conflicting claims for legitimacy in Vietnam?
6. General William C. Westmoreland has been kind enough to read this paper in two versions, offering observations about Sheehan's argument as summarized on the latter few pages under the rubric "Vietnam: the Fulfillment." From his earliest days in country, Westmoreland had advocated that pacification be placed unmilitary control rather than being farmed out piecemeal to AID, the CIA, and other agencies. For background lessons learned, Harkins and Westmoreland even flew to Malaysia where the British had conducted no pacification efforts; when they returned, Westmoreland urged Ambassador Lodge to make him the "Executive Agent for Pacification." During May of 1964, Lodge went back into domestic politics, to participate in the N Hampshire primary election, before the suggested reorganization could take place. In fact, it was not until after Guam Conference in May 1967--when Robert Komer was assigned to the task--that pacification efforts were finally coordinated in a manner suggested by Westmoreland almost three years earlier. Thus, contrary to Sheehan's account, Westmoreland remembers himself to be one of the first to be sensitive to both the "hearts and minds issue and the way to address it effectively."
Westmoreland stands firm on his campaign strategy. Then and now, he feels that the Vietcong were decimated 1966; after that time they were "merely a nuisance." Because he considered the real threat to come from regular forces--who could attack from any point of surprise along a 500-mile border with Cambodia--Westmoreland tried to keep his American troops mobile; from points of concentration, they could be flown head-to-head with conventional forces and then attrite them. Westmoreland concedes that he did not "fight for land," but prided himself on this decision given the number of troops available to him and the large area of responsibility. Westmoreland shrewdly points out that John Paul Vann was killed, in the end, by regular forces--and not guerrillas--after winning a conventional battle. This bald fact, according to Westmoreland, refutes Sheehan's thought that Vietnam was fundamentally a counterguerrilla war. Harry Summers seems to agree with Westmoreland analysis, although Summers stresses that the debate should not be between the two concepts so much a complementary balance between pacification activities and conventional operations. In BSLIE, Sheehan presses the issue in a simplistic, either/or fashion.
In 1965, when Vann returned to Vietnam to work in the area of pacification, he began to urge the government--his friends in the press--to consider some kind of Korean War-style takeover of command by the United States. Halberstam and Sheehan--at the time and later--liked the idea; BSLIE touts the wisdom of the concept. Westmoreland affirms that he opposed the idea and finally told Vann to stop talking with members of the press about it. Westmoreland felt that this French-style authoritarian leadership would be "a disaster, both practically and psychologically." The general's goal was to help the ARVN to its feet so that the final phase--America withdrawal--could take place. (As early as the fall of 1967, Westmoreland explained these goals in a speech to National Press Club.)
7. For another interpretation of the military aspects of the Tet offensive of 1968, see Phillip Davidson, Sec of the Vietnam War. In his classic study of media distortion entitled Big Story (1983), Peter Braestrup takes position that the putative "realities" reported during Tet were more often a combination of misinterpretation exaggeration. Braestrup shares Davidson's conclusion that the South Vietnamese and their U.S. ally destroyed the Vietcong during Tet to the point where it never came back as a military threat. My documentary entitled "Television's Vietnam: The Impact of Media (1985)" takes a similar position. It was one of the best books on Tet, written shortly after the event. Like the other sources described in this note, Don Oberdorfer's "Tet!" 19 concludes that the American press helped the Communists to win a massive psychological victory in the United States while, paradoxically, the Communists actually suffered a stunning military defeat on the battlefield. Recent books on the subject have attempted to deny these conclusions; see, for example. Daniel Hall "Uncensored War (1986)." Sheehan ignores the controversy, maintaining that the jig was up in 1963 after Battle of Ap Bac; the only concern thereafter was getting the message of disaster across to the American people and national policy makers. In this scheme, Tet was a wonderful "streetcar" for the story of failure and disaster in Vietnam.
8. Neither Sheehan nor Halberstam speaks Vietnamese, so it must be concluded that the young reporter relies on the talents of others to measure the feelings of the Vietnamese public. In Flashbacks (1990), Morley Safer reports that one "reliable source" in Vietnam, a Time magazine employee named Phan Xuan An, was a Colonel in the Vietcong while serving as a trusted guide for reporters: "His beat was Vietnamese politics and military affairs. He was among the best-connected journalists in the country. At Time he was considered a sage. IT was always An who would brief new correspondents; it was An, who even the competition sought when trying to unravel the hopelessly complicated threads of Vietnamese political loyalties" (239). Lacking language competence, did young reporters Halberstam and Sheehan go to the likes of An for insight?
9. Few people would notice this detail, but--as a former Marine--it gives me pause. The Marine Corps has no such qualification with the pistol and there would be no written record of a "two-handed" qualification. Anyone who has fired the Colt .45 knows that scoring high enough to deserve an Expert Badge is sufficient accomplishment for anyone's credentials as a "man of action." Why does Sheehan include such inventions as the two-handed qualification? Is this an attempt to elevate his insider to hero status? How many other inventions are there in BSLIE?
10. This historian comes away from BSLIE still curious about Sheehan's intellectual indebtedness. During his undergraduate years at Harvard, was he overly impressed by the writings of Columbia sociologist C. Wright Mills? Are these simplistic notions of a "power elite" derived from sources supplied by helpful revisionist historians like Professor LaFeber? Or is this portrait of American society part of the conventional wisdom at New York Times (where Sheehan worked until 1973) and The New Yorker (where his wife is an editor)?
11. Were they available for comment, here is a short list of Americans who would scorn the self-indulgence such an assertion: from the Seventeenth Century, John Winthrop; from the Eighteenth Century, Jonathan Edwards; from the Nineteenth Century, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, and Henry James; from the Twentieth Century, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flanner O'Connor, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow. Many wise Americans, both before and after 1950, thought that they knew quite a bit about original sin, evil, and disillusionment; many of those listed above, devoted their careers to exposing the limitations of the myth of the American Adam.
12. An observer unfamiliar with the American scene might conclude that the quarrel between elites and centralists to BSLIE is not even a national one, but centers around the competing aspirations of two generations of Ivy Leaguers. Such an observation might lead to concerns not contemplated by Sheehan. Why is such a large country so dependent on a tight circle of talent for cultural and political leadership?
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