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Philip Geyelin, 80; Led Washington Post Editorial Page to Oppose Vietnam War

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Philip L. Geyelin, who is credited with turning the Washington Post editorial page against the Vietnam War and who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his antiwar editorials, has died at his home in Washington. He was 80.

Geyelin died Friday night, apparently of a heart attack, after suffering from flu-like symptoms in recent weeks.

Hired early in 1967 as deputy editorial page editor of the Post, Geyelin began advocating a gradual shift in its editorial stance on Vietnam. The paper had been an enthusiastic booster of the war under editorial page editor J. Russell Wiggins, but support was beginning to wane.

At the same time Geyelin was engaging Wiggins in heated discussions about Vietnam, then-publisher Katharine Graham’s influential friends, including journalist Walter Lippmann and Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), were urging her to oppose the war.

In late 1968, Wiggins left the paper to become ambassador to the United Nations, a post that some saw as a reward for his having backed President Johnson’s war policies. Geyelin, succeeding Wiggins as editorial page editor, began talking with Graham about how, rather than whether, to switch from supporting the war to opposing it.

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In her memoir “Personal History,” Graham, who died in 2001, wrote about one of those conversations:

“We agreed that the Post ought to work its way out of the very supportive editorial position it had taken, but that we couldn’t be precipitous. He used the image that changing our policy was like turning a great vessel around -- you first had to slow down before you could start to turn.”

Geyelin, who had traveled to Vietnam in 1965 and again in 1966 as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, had decided that the war was wrong and the U.S. should leave.

“When he got there, he could see for himself that things were not as they were reported” in the media back home, his wife, Sherry, told Associated Press on Saturday.

The veteran journalist won the Pulitzer in 1970 for his antiwar editorials published in 1969. He left the Post in 1979.

Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and a longtime friend of Geyelin’s, recently interviewed him for a Library of Congress oral history project on World War II veterans.

Nelson said Geyelin had volunteered for the Marine Corps soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and had served as a lieutenant during the fighting on Iwo Jima, yet had always minimized his combat service. Nelson said Geyelin came to see war as “a ghastly business” and was so moved by the combat deaths of friends that he established a scholarship in their honor at his alma mater, Yale.

Geyelin worked for AP in the 1940s, and then spent 20 years as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

He was a past president of the Gridiron Club, a group of journalists who roast politicians at an annual Washington dinner. Nelson said Geyelin had just completed the lyrics of a song to lampoon Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) at this year’s event, scheduled for March 6.

Information on survivors, other than Geyelin’s wife of 54 years, was incomplete.


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