Neil Sheehan Wins Pulitzer for History of Vietnam War

Times Staff Writer

Neil Sheehan, the journalist who uncovered the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Thursday for his powerful history of the Vietnam War--a book that took him 16 difficult years to complete.

For Sheehan, the nonfiction prize for his book, “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,” was particularly sweet. It came on his 24th wedding anniversary. And his wife, Susan, had won a Pulitzer in the same category in 1983 for her book on the crippling effects of mental illness.

In the journalism category, the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished public service was given to the Anchorage Daily News for its coverage of the high incidence of alcoholism and suicide among native Alaskans--a series that focused attention on their despair and brought about reforms.

The prize for specialized reporting was given to Edward Humes of the Orange County Register for his in-depth reporting on the military establishment in Southern California.


The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Tribune each won two Pulitzers.

Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele of the Inquirer received the national reporting award for their 15-month investigation of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The judges said the Inquirer’s series aroused such widespread indignation that Congress rejected proposals giving special tax breaks to many politically connected individuals and businesses.

Barlett and Steele won in the same category in 1975 for reporting on the Internal Revenue Service.

David Zucchino of the Inquirer won the feature writing prize for a “richly compelling series” about being a black in South Africa.


Clarence Page of the Tribune won in the commentary category for his columns on local and national affairs, while Lois Wille of the same newspaper won for editorial writing. Jack Higgins of the Chicago Sun-Times was given the prize for his editorial cartoons.

Prize for Drama

Among other arts awards, the prize for drama was given to playwright Wendy Wasserstein for her play about baby boomers, “The Heidi Chronicles,” which appeared off-Broadway and will open on Broadway later this month. Novelist Anne Tyler won the fiction award for “Breathing Lessons,” the sad, funny story of a couple married 28 years who are traveling to the funeral of an old friend.

The prize for music went to UC San Diego composer Roger Reynolds for his work, “Whispers Out of Time” for string orchestra.


Reynolds was putting the final touches on a new composition for solo cello when he learned of the award.

“The work’s title was taken from a line of poetry by John Ashbery, a New York poet who also won a Pulitzer Prize (1976),” said Reynolds, reached at his Del Mar residence. “Like the poem, the composition contemplates the artist and his time.”

Reynolds’ Pulitzer Prize for music marks the second such award given a UCSD music faculty member. In 1984, Bernard Rands won the prize for “Canti del Soli.”

“These two awards place UCSD in the forefront of contemporary music--a real feather in our cap,” said John Lauer, administrative director for UCSD’s Center for Music Experiment. Reynolds founded the unique center for theoretical music research in 1972.


In Washington, the Sheehans were opening their anniversary cards when a reporter phoned to announce that Neil Sheehan had won the Pulitzer.

“It feels absolutely marvelous,” he said. " . . . If you have been a reporter, it has a special meaning to you because it is a kind of judgment of your peers. I still consider myself a journalist.”

Sheehan, who as a reporter for the New York Times had incurred the wrath of the Richard M. Nixon Administration for uncovering the Pentagon Papers--a secret Defense Department history of Vietnam--chose as the central figure of his prize-winning book Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, who died in Vietnam in 1972 and was a critic of the manner in which the Pentagon conducted the early stages of the war.

Sees Symbol of War


When Sheehan attended Vann’s funeral and looked at the other mourners--people from government, the military and civilian life--he realized that Vann had been the symbol of America’s involvement in the war. In the years that followed, Sheehan suffered a crippling auto accident and, according to friends, agonized over his topic.

Sheehan said Thursday that the opinion of other critics--Vietnam veterans--also was enormously rewarding.

“I get letters. I get phone calls. I get telegrams,” he said. “ ‘You told it like it was. You put me back there. But now for the first time I know what it was all about.’ The veterans are your real reviewers. They are your reviewers of last resort.”

The 73rd annual Pulitzer Prizes in journalism, letters, drama and music were announced by Columbia University.


The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., won the general news reporting prize for its coverage of a bus crash that claimed 27 lives and its subsequent thorough examination of the causes and implications of the tragedy.

Bill Dedman of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution won the investigative reporting prize for his scrutiny of racial discrimination practices by lending institutions in Atlanta.

Reporter David Hanners, photographer William Snyder and artist Karen Blessen of the Dallas Morning News won the explanatory journalism prize for their special report on a 1986 plane crash. The team’s follow-up investigation showed wide ramifications for air safety. The Washington Post and the New York Times shared the prize for international reporting. Glenn Frankel of the Post was cited for his “sensitive and balanced reports” from Israel and the Middle East. Bill Keller of the New York Times was honored for what the judges labeled “resourceful and detailed coverage of events in the U.S.S.R.”

Raleigh Critic Wins


The criticism prize was given to Michael Skube, book editor of the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer for his articles about books and other literary topics.

In the photography categories, Ron Olshwanger, a free-lance photographer whose work appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, won the spot news prize. Olshwanger is the co-owner of a wholesale furniture showroom in St. Louis. His picture showed a firefighter giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a child pulled from a burning building.

Manny Crisostomo of the Detroit Free Press won the feature photography prize for his series of photographs depicting student life at a Detroit high school.

Other prizes included an award to the late Richard Ellmann for his biography of Oscar Wilde and the poetry award to Richard Wilbur for his “New and Collected Poems.”


The history prize was shared by Taylor Branch for “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” Branch’s probing historical look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The co-winner was James M. McPherson for his book, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.”

All the prizes carry an award of $3,000 except in the public service category, where a gold medal is given.