A Bright Shining Lie is a masterfully written history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Written by Neil Sheehan, a former Southeast Asian correspondent for United Press International (UPI) and later the New York Times, this superb book combines a brilliant and detailed biography of John Paul Vann, considered by some to be “. . . the one irreplaceable American in Vietnam,” with a spellbinding narrative of the miscalculations, blunders, and self-deceptions that marked America’s decade-plus involvement in Vietnam. A Bright Shining Lie won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1989.
As Sheehan points out in A Bright Shining Lie, John Paul Vann’s career in Vietnam spanned a decade. It began in 1962 with Vann as U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and advisor to the South Vietnamese, and ended tragically with his death in 1972 in a helicopter crash, Vann by then having become a civilian with the rank equivalent to that of a two-star general.
During his decade of service in Vietnam, John Paul Vann was consistently frustrated and angry with the pusillanimous and corrupt performance of South Vietnamese forces and the frequent incompetence of American senior political and military leaders. He repeatedly urged his superiors, through normal channels and in the press, that the U.S. government could not defeat the Communist forces in South Vietnam with its military might alone. According to Vann, the war could only be won by the South Vietnamese with American assistance. That help, Vann recommended, should take the form of facilitating social change and providing military equipment and advice. By the time of his death, however, Vann’s views had changed. After the near destruction of the Vietcong during the 1968 Tet offensive, he came to believe that America could indeed achieve a military victory in Vietnam.
Sheehan explores every aspect of John Paul Vann’s life with the keen eye of the best biographers. Vann is seen at his best: possessed with a first-rate intellect and a singleness of purpose that led him to rise above a childhood filled with poverty and neglect; highly patriotic and courageous; and imbued with a strong sense of professional integrity that gave him tremendous credibility at the most senior levels of the U.S. government. Also seen is Vann’s darker side: his ability to manipulate others to his ends; his dark sexual compulsions (which ultimately led him to ruin his marriage and endanger his career); his callousness toward his friends and family; and his all-consuming self-centeredness.
Throughout A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan interweaves John Paul Vann’s biography with a brilliant survey of the Vietnam conflict from the time of the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954 to Vann’s death in 1972. Three areas of this book were especially interesting to me: first, the author’s account of the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, where American advisors were first seriously bloodied by the Vietcong, and Vann’s attitudes about the overall conduct of the war took shape; second, Vann’s efforts, after his retirement from the Army, to get the U.S. government to change its Vietnam policy – and the political machinations within the government at work against him; and third, John Paul Vann’s last months in Vietnam as the “civilian general” in charge of the mountains of the highlands and the rice deltas of the central coast, and the critical role he played in several key battles as America’s involvement in Southeast Asia approached its tragic coda.
A Bright Shining Lie is a brilliant combination of biography and history, and is certainly one of the two best single-volume histories (along with Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow) of America’s involvement in Vietnam that I’ve read. Despite its somewhat liberal interpretations of the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam, this wonderfully written book is essential for anyone wanting to learn more about America’s most regrettable war. Highly recommended!