A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

4.5 46
by Neil Sheehan

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Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time

In this magisterial book, a monument of history and biography that was awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, renowned journalist Neil Sheehan tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann–"the one irreplaceable American in


Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time

In this magisterial book, a monument of history and biography that was awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, renowned journalist Neil Sheehan tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann–"the one irreplaceable American in Vietnam"–and of the tragedy that destroyed that country and the lives of so many Americans.

Outspoken and fearless, John Paul Vann arrived in Vietnam in 1962, full of confidence in America's might and right to prevail. A Bright Shining Lie reveals the truth about the war in Vietnam as it unfolded before Vann's eyes: the arrogance and professional corruption of the U.S. military system of the 1960s, the incompetence and venality of the South Vietnamese army, the nightmare of death and destruction that began with the arrival of the American forces. Witnessing the arrogance and self-deception firsthand, Vann put his life and career on the line in an attempt to convince his superiors that the war should be fought another way. But by the time he died in 1972, Vann had embraced the follies he once decried. He went to his grave believing that the war had been won.

A haunting and critically acclaimed masterpiece, A Bright Shining Lie is a timeless account of the American experience in Vietnam–a work that is epic in scope, piercing in detail, and told with the keen understanding of a journalist who was actually there. Neil Sheehan' s classic serves as a stunning revelation for all who thought they understood the war.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam in 1972, controversial Lt. Col. John Paul Vann was perhaps the most outspoken army field adviser to criticize the way the war was being waged. Appalled by the South Vietnamese troops' unwillingness to fight and their random slaughter of civilians, he flouted his supervisors and leaked his sharply pessimistic (and, as it turned out, accurate) assessments to the U.S. press corps in Saigon. Among them was Sheehan, a reporter for UPI and later the New York Times (for whom he obtained the Pentagon Papers). Sixteen years in the making, writing and re search, this compelling 768-page biography is an extraordinary feat of reportage: an eloquent, disturbing portrait of a man who in many ways personified the U.S. war effort. Blunt, idealistic, patronizing to the Vietnamese, Vann firmly believed the U.S. could win; as Sheehan limns him, he was ultimately caught up in his own illusions. The author weaves into one unified chronicle an account of the Korean War (in which Vann also fought), the story of U.S. support for French colonialism, descriptions of military battles, a critique of our foreign policy and a history of this all-American boy's secret personal liehe was illegitimate, his mother a ``white trash'' prostitutethat led him to recklessly gamble away his career. 100,000 first printing; first serial to the New Yorker; BOMC main selection ; a uthor tour. (October)
Library Journal
Vann was a figure of legends, first as a military advisor and later as a civilian official, renowned for his bravery and special insight into and openness about the developing failure in Vietnam. He appeared to sacrifice his military career in 1963, demonstrating uncommon integrity, and died in 1972 after leading the successful defense of Kontum. Sheehan, the New York Times reporter who obtained the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg, reveals a flawed herocapable of deceit in furthering his reputation and his cause and of insatiable sexual exploits that had already ended hopes of promotionbut still a remarkable man. More importantly, Vann serves as the anchor of a detailed, well-researched, very respectable, and readable attempt to explain the Vietnam experience. Excerpted in The New Yorker. Highly recommended. BMOC main selection.Kenneth W. Berger, Duke Univ. Lib., Durham, N.C.
From the Publisher
"Masterly. . . . One of the few brilliant histories of the American entanglement in Vietnam." —The New York Times

"A brilliant work of enormous substance and ambition. In telling one man's story [A Bright Shining Lie] sets out to define the fatal contradictions that lost America the war in Vietnam. It belongs to the same order of merit as Dispatches, The Best and the Brightest, and Fire in the Lake." —Robert Stone, Washington Post Book World

"A compelling, graphic, and deeply sensitive biography [and] one of the few brilliant histories of the American enthanglement in Vietnam. . . . Sheehan's skillful weaving of anecdote and history, of personal memoir and psychological profile, give the book the sense of having been written by a novelist, journalist, and scholar all rolled up into one." —David Shipler, The New York Times

"If there is one book that catpures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly, this book is it. Neil Sheehan orchestrates a great fugue evoking all the elements of the war." —Ronald Steel, The New York Times Book Review

"An unforgettable narrative, a chronicle grand enough to suit the crash and clangors of whole armies. A Bright Shining Lie is a very great piece of work; its rewards are aesthetic and . . . almost spiritual." —The New York Review of Books

"Enormous power . . . full of great accomplishments . . . Neil Sheehan has written not only the best book ever about Vietnam, but the timeliest." —Newsweek

"It is difficult to believe that anyone will write a more gripping or important book on America's war in Vietnam than A Bright Shining Lie, a towering book that has been 16 years in the making. . . . Sheehan shows, perhaps more convincingly than anyone else who has written on the subject, that our intervention in Vietnam was in fact a terrible blunder, damaging to America and devastating to the Vietnamese and the other people of Indochina—a mistake as tragic as it was unnecessary." —Detroit News

"[A Bright Shining Lie] is more than a biography. It is also a compelling and clear hstiroy of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Mr. Sheehan's book . . . is the best answer to any American who asks: 'How could this have happened?'" —Wall Street Journal

"Using the life of one man as his framework, Neil Sheehan has written the best book on America's involvement in Vietnam since Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake." —Kirkus Reviews

"One of the milestones in the literature about the war. . . . In these times, a readable book about the Vietnam war, like any other clear warning, is worth its weight in life." —Christian Science Monitor

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Meet the Author

Neil Sheehan is the author of A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. He spent three years in Vietnam as a war correspondent for United Press International and The New York Times and won numerous awards for his reporting. In 1971 he obtained the Pentagon Papers, which brought the Times the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for meritorious public service. Sheehan lives in Washington, D.C. He is married to the writer Susan Sheehan.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
CraigMcK More than 1 year ago
This is simply the best Viet Nam book I've ever read. Sheehan's actual experience reporting from Viet Nam provides a perspective that few could have offered. The history melded within the story is seamless and until the last page is read, you will not realize how much you have learned during the journey. John Paul Vann is portrayed as the man and hero he was, complete with flaws and imperfections. For someone like myself, who was a child during the Viet Nam era, this book was both educational and thrilling to read. Ultimately, it's difficult to not overuse superlatives when commenting on this book.
RFertel More than 1 year ago
This was the best book I've read on the Vietnam War. It's a perfect balance between what was happening on the ground, in Washington, and in John Paul Vann's personnel life. A must read for anyone interested in the subject.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An outstanding hisory lesson on the Vietnam war - while maintaining the reader's interest as a 'story' as well. A good perspective on the futility and ineptitude of our Vietnam involvement. Also, a good perspective on how a hero cannot be a hero in every sense. Be prepared to spend a long time on this book because its incredibly long - but mostly worth the effort.
exploringNOOK More than 1 year ago
I can't say enough about the importance of this book as a symbol of quality and excellence in writing. The oustanding documentation makes the story real but never burdens the story. The personal story of John Paul Vann alone would make a book worth reading with awe and sadness for the human condition, the paths we choose that lead us to our best and our worst and no place to turn around to go back to our former lives, our former selves. And then there is the story of "America in Vietnam." Always something to learn there - again with awe and sadness. One of the best-written books in any category that I have read in over 60 years of steady reading. I have reread this book periodically since it was first published. It's rarely a "pretty" story, but it is motivating to me: to aspire just another notch higher than I already aspire, to keep believing in myself no matter how alone I stand at times, to seek protection for my sanity when I am in danger of exhausting not only my body but everything within me, to focus on what I can do in the face of odds that seem certain to defeat any ordinary efforts, to get up again after being knocked down hard, to never treat a mortal wound with a bandaid.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1967-68 I proudly served in the Navy on a heavy cruiser off the coasts of both North and South Vietnam. I did my duty as required, came home, attended college on the GI Bill, and got a job. When I first read Sheehan's book over 13 years ago my first thoughts were, 'Those Americans and allied forces who served deserve our deepest thanks but, boy, were their lives and those of so many others - including both North and South Vietnamese - so needlessly wasted.' As a park historian with the National Park Service at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia back in the mid-1970s, I was charged with the task of helping visitors understand the reasons for our Civil War, its ending, and the aftermath. Sheehan's book on Vietnam's 'civil war' offers an eye-opening analogy to that of America's 100 years before....fanatical leaders spoiling for a fight,so many of the country's youngest and brightest answering the call to arms, and all those lives and materiel so needlessly wasted.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Retrospective review of an epic event is the only clear and definitive approach to truly understanding the scope of the event. You may have some lingering political or emotional bias concerning this war, but after reading Mr. Sheehan's report you will come away with the facts.
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WallyC More than 1 year ago
A very interesting insight into the politics of war.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I cant believe that are no revues on this historical record. This starts from a young man to the end of American involvment in Nam,Van Damms death. This is must read for would be historians and anyone that was there.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have seen Sheehan's book in stores since it was published in 1988, but did not read it until last week. Although the book requires an investment in time, energy, and thought, my understanding of the Vietnam War in particular, and America in general, have been profoundly enlarged and deepened. Spending time with Mr. Sheehan and running his thoughts and analysis through your mind will leave a lasting impression, which I think is important, since Vietnam and the Vietnam era are often compared to Iraq and the 'Iraq Era.'
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