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Declaration of a Peaceful Revolution

Opinion | Neil Sheehan Forced an American Reckoning

Unconvinced, Neil began reaching out to Vietnamese military officers, young colonels, to identify the units involved. I tried some contacts that David had passed along to me. Eventually, Neil reached Mordecai, who confirmed what the Vietnamese colonels had told Neil: Units from I Corps led by Gen. Nguyen Khanh were staging a coup to overthrow the military junta led by Big Minh.

At Neil’s U.P.I. office, just off Tu Do Street in downtown Saigon, Neil and I banged out our stories on rickety old Olivetti typewriters and raced off to the PTT, the telegraph office, to send our coup reports to U.P.I. in Tokyo and The New York Times in Manhattan. But the telegraph office had just been ordered to shut off communications with the outside world, and the teletypists were finishing some messages begun before the shutdown order came in.

Ever resourceful and never daunted, Neil had arrived armed with half a dozen bottles of Johnnie Walker Scotch, which he had purchased at the U.S. military commissary, and he grandly doled them out to the two supervisors on duty and two teletypists. They quickly went to work on our stories, adding them to the last outgoing messages.

I was astonished that such a relatively small bribe worked such wonders. “Oh, no,” said Neil. “I keep these guys well supplied. They really like Scotch. I come by every week with a few bottles.” Then he said, with a toothy smile, “Good will, you know. Essential in our business.”

We had been very lucky, but Neil was a reporter who made luck work for him by being smart, prepared and very well connected. Our competitors were not so lucky that day. The PTT shut down right after our stories cleared Saigon. Neil’s A.P. rivals were stuck with an earlier, mistaken story that a coup attempt had been blocked, evidently relying on the embassy’s version.

In later years, after The Times had hired Neil, we collaborated on many more stories on the internal wars over Vietnam policy in the Johnson administration. Neil was great to work with because he savored both the camaraderie and the mission. He was doggedly loyal to and open with his friends and partners, and he was fiercely driven to get the story. No matter what the barriers, Neil never gave up.

As a reporter, Neil was unflinchingly honest, restless, daring, skeptical, troubled, relentless, probing. Perhaps because of his Irish roots, he was instinctively drawn to the underdog. He was at his best and happiest being a thorn in the side of the establishment, especially about Vietnam, where he had seen the horrific casualties of war, civilian as well as military, airily brushed off as “collateral damage” by American military and civilian leaders.

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