Born: October 27, 1936

Died: January 7, 2021.

IT was the early spring of 1971, and there was deep unease within the offices of the Washington Post. The paper’s senior editors had learned that the New York Times was working on an exclusive that would blow the Post out of the water. They began to fear the worst.

On Sunday, June 13, as the Post devoted much of its front page to the wedding of Tricia Nixon, President Nixon’s daughter, the New York Times finally revealed its scoop: several pages devoted to a top-secret, 47-volume study of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

A team of reporters and editors had spent several weeks reading the documents, but on that Sunday only one name appeared at top of the story: that of Neil Sheehan, the paper’s brilliant Vietnam War correspondent.

He wrote that the study "suggests that the predominant American interest [in Vietnam] was at first containment of Communism and later the defense of the power, influence and prestige of the United States in both stages irrespective of conditions in Vietnam".

The Pentagon Papers revealed for the first time how the American public had been misled by successive US administrations about the war in south-east Asia.

Sheehan had obtained them after prolonged contact with Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had contributed to the studywhile working for the RAND Corporation.

Ellsberg had secretly copied the entire report, hoping that, if it could be published, it would help end a conflict he had come to oppose.

The government reacted with shock to the Times exclusive; General Alexander Haig, Nixon’s deputy national security advisor, described it as “a devastating security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I’ve ever seen”.

“The Post did not have a copy of the study, and we found ourselves in the humiliating position of having to rewrite the competition”, Post editor Ben Bradlee later reflected in his memoirs. “Every other paragraph of the Post story had to include some form of the words ‘according to the New York Times’, blood – visible only to us – on every word”.

Sheehan’s Pentagon Papers exclusives continued for another two days – “We were going out of our minds”, wrote Bradlee – until the US Justice Department got an temporary injunction blocking further publication.

The Post, meantime, got hold of some 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, and began digesting them with remarkable speed and publishing its own stories until it was enjoined. But the cause was taken up by other US newspapers and, on June 30, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the right of the Times and Post to publish.

The story is told in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film, The Post.

Sheehan’s work on the Pentagon Papers earned the Times a Pulitzer Prize gold medal for meritorious public service.

His expertise at covering the war in Vietnam for the United Press International (UPI) and the New York Times had long been recognised by his peers; Bradlee himself wrote that Sheehan was one of a handful of correspondents who had written “with perception and bravery and energy about the new realities of the war”.

In 1988 he published a book, A Bright Shining Lie, an epic, dazzling, meticulously researched look at America’s role in the Vietnam War through the experience of John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who had served and died in Vietnam. The book took Sheehan fully 16 years to write. It won him the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

He was born Cornelius Mahoney Sheehan, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the son of Irish immigrants Cornelius and Mary. He was raised on his family’s dairy farm. He studied at a prep school in Massachusetts and then at Harvard, where he studied Middle Eastern history, graduating in 1958.

He joined the army, working as a military reporter, and then got a job with UPI, which despatched him to Saigon in 1962. Together with David Halberstam of the New York Times and Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, he became renowned for reports that contradicted the usual upbeat military briefings from Vietnam.

In 1964 he was taken on by the New York Times, which employed him as a Defense Department correspondent. In 1965, he was sent back to Vietnam.

Later, he wrote lengthy articles about Vietnam and America’s role. A lengthy article in 1971, in which he suggested that Nixon was guilty of war crimes, helped him earn the trust of Ellsberg, who had been seeking news organisations that would publish parts of the study.

It was only in 2015 that Sheehan, who by now was suffering from scoliosis and Parkinson’s disease, related how he had obtained the Pentagon Papers. The interview he gave then to the New York Times had one condition: that it would only be published after his death.

Sheehan said Ellsberg had told him that he could take notes from the pages but not make copies. Sheehan, however, eventually concluded that Ellsberg was “totally conflicted” about what would happen if the Times published the documents.

One night, when Ellsberg was away on a brief vacation, Sheehan and his wife Susan seized control of the situation; they smuggled all 7,000 pages from the Cambridge, Mass., apartment in which they were stored, and painstakingly made their own photocopies. Ellsberg did not learn of the deception until shortly before publication.

Just before Christmas 1971, the two men met in Manhattan. “So you stole it, just like I did”, Sheehan, speaking in 2015, recalled Ellsberg telling him.

“No, Dan, I didn’t steal it”, he replied. “And neither did you. Those papers are the property of the people of the United States. They paid for them with their national treasure and the blood of their sons, and they have a right to it”.

Neil Sheehan died on January 7, aged 84, of complications of Parkinson's disease.