Seymour Hersh, now in his late 70s, began his unlikely journalism career in 1959 after earning a history degree from the University of Chicago and dropping out of law school.
It was only a poster at an antiwar rally — in Belgium of all places — yet Seymour Hersh was so taken by it that, laughing, he showed it to another reporter. The poster was simple and direct: “Protect Seymour Hersh, the last independent journalist in the USA.” Yes, the same Seymour Hersh, inquisitive, brash, all-business, 24/7 reporter who won a Pulitzer for his My Lai scoop.
But the “last independent journalist in the USA?” Well, not quite. Even so, their jobs has become much harder given the post-9/11 environment, especially the Manning, Snowden and Wikileak disclosures and the U.S. Justice Department’s subsequent crackdown relying on the repulsive Espionage Act, that 1917 law designed to prosecute spies, not dissenters and journalists. It’s become doubly difficult these days for investigative reporters. In the recent Committee to Protect Journalists study, Sanger, Shane and Priest told Leonard Downie, Jr. (he once ran the Washington Post and wrote the CPJ report) that long-time sources were now afraid to talk with them given what Sanger called “the most control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”
Seymour Hersh, whose noteworthy and original reporting told us about the My Lai massacres, Henry Kissinger’s policy-making role, Israel’s nuclear arsenal, JFK, and torture in Abu Ghraib, among other “scoops.” All were controversial and challenged the elites who run our lives.
Hersh is still at it, brushing off condemnations that he is tendentious, liberal, radical, un-American. For example, after Hersh wrote that a small band of non-conservative had captured foreign policy during Bush 2’s presidency and helped lead the country into Iraq, Max Boot denounced Hersh as “the journalistic equivalent of Oliver Stone, a hard left zealot who subscribes to the old counterculture conceit that a deep, dark conspiracy is running the U.S. government.” Not so, said Harrison Salisbury, who had broken plenty of significant stories in his lifetime. Hersh, he said, “has done more to uncover the lies of war and peace, to bring reality to the public, to shoulder the responsibilities of the First Amendment.”
A Jewish kid from Chicago who, “Front Page”-style, Hersh went to work for the Chicago News Bureau, which fed local news to the many Chicago newspapers of that era. The trick for ambitious kids on its payroll was to get there first, the better to be recognized and hired elsewhere. From there he moved on to the Associated Press where he learned detail, form and the need to seriously cultivate sources who trusted him never to reveal their identity, especially in a place like Washington where leaking, as they say, is a cottage industry. While a devoted family man, he is on the job 24/7, constantly working the phones, in regular touch with sources high and low, interviewing, traveling, recording witnesses, and reporting rather than commenting op-ed style.
He won his Pulitzer for My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath, and followed up with stories in the New York Times, the New Yorker and then a second book Cover-up: The Army’s Secret Investigation of the Massacre at My Lai 4. To find Lt. William Calley who had been hidden away, he roamed Fort Benning. Later, he flew to California to lunch with Ron Ridenhour, the heroic Vietnam veteran who learned about the massacre from eyewitnesses and then wrote dozens of letters to politicians that “something dark and bloody” had indeed occurred sometime in March 1968 in a village called Pinkville” — the name used by the Army — and called for an investigation. Ridenhour provided Hersh with the names and addresses of troops of the offending Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, all eyewitnesses and some of them executioners.
Afterwards, Ridenhour wondered why no other reporter had ever approached him. Meanwhile, Hersh began publishing his findings about the Vietnamese hamlet in the miniscule Dispatch News Service — which his friend David Obst had begun with borrowed money. When General William Westmoreland and a few senior officers heard what had happened they asked for a full-scale inquiry. General William Peers, hardly a member of the West Point “club” — he was ROTC at UCLA and Westmoreland’s friend — was named to lead the investigation. His critical conclusions were leaked to Hersh by a sympathetic source inside the Pentagon. In the end, Peers was denied a fourth star, perhaps because he had confirmed what Hersh had discovered.
Miraldi asks why Hersh chose to go beyond the early official accounts and take off after My Lai when there were plenty of other atrocities committed during the war. It was happening all the time, with slaughters committed by all sides. Even so, many Americans, furious with Hersh’s expose, rationalized that “war was war” and calamities were to be expected. But Captain Aubrey Daniel, the lead Army prosecutor at Calley’s trial, put it this way in his famous letter to Nixon protesting his easing of Calley’s sentence: “How shocking it is if so many people across the nation have failed to see the moral issue…that it is unlawful for an American soldier to summarily execute unarmed and unresisting men, women, children and babies.”
Hersh apparently believed My Lai represented the Vietnam War at its most grotesque. Much as he later did in reporting the torture of Iraqis in the U.S. military prison of Abu Ghraib, Hersh informed Americans that crimes were being committed in their name. Abu Ghraib may or may not have been an exception, as its defenders argued. The blame for the torture at Abu Ghraib stemmed from the president and Rumsfeld. As Nixon did with My Lai, Hersh insisted top officials would try to pin it on a few low-level soldiers.”
In The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, Hersh condemned the powerful Henry Kissinger because be believed he had played a leading role in the ousting of the elected socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende, whose death and succession by General Augusto Pinochet soon led to thousands of murders and disappearances of dissenters and opponents.
Tom Wicker of the Times objected to the U.S. role and asked, fairly if naively, “Who gave the United States the right to make such a judgment in opposition to a free Chile[an] election?” Yet the U. S. has always intervened in Central and South America on behalf of a wide range of dictatorial and brutal regimes. But in Hersh’s crusade against the influential Kissinger he did make one serious blunder, falsely blaming the U.S. ambassador to Chile Edward Korry for participating in the coup against the Allende government. It turned out that Korry had been frozen out by the White House and CIA. Cynics might rationalize, “You win some, you lose some” but while Hersh never uttered these words and did apologize to the Korry family, lamely explaining that he only learned the truth about Korry’s role after publication of his book, it caused great pain in the Korry family. A former journalist himself, Korry died in 2003.
Still, Hersh continued. Thirty-four years after JFK’s assassination Hersh produced The Dark Side of Camelot in which he wrote about a mythological Kennedy, his father, the problematical electoral victories in West Virginia against Hubert Humphrey and against Nixon in Boss Richard Daley’s Chicago, the plans to kill Castro and invade Cuba, his obsessive sexual affairs, and Vietnam, where he increased the number of American “advisors” in Vietnam from Eisenhower’s 900 to 16,000, rendering him, at least in Hersh’s eyes, a Cold Warrior who bears a heavy responsibility for the devastating war that ensued. The resulting criticism of Hersh was, of course, intense, especially among those who venerated the Camelot era.
He then turned to Israel, always a hot button topic for American politicians desperate for Jewish donations and votes and its loyal sympathizers who believed that small nation livea in a very dangerous neighborhood and needs to develop means of protection, even nuclear bombs. In The Sampson Option: Israeli Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, Hersh uncovered material about Dimona, how Eisenhower trued to dissuade the Israelis to forego the nuclear option and failed, how every succeeding administration dared not challenge Israeli’s nuclear buildup and how Jonathan Pollard allegedly had some of the material he stole transferred to the USSR by Yitzhak Shamir. A veritable storm of criticism greeted the book and of course, its author. Undaunted, he never stopped. He next scrutinized the Soviet downing of a Korean passenger plane and found that, according to the U.S. Air Force, the Soviets thought it was a U.S. spy plane, but the Reagan administration preferred to proclaim the attack as just another act of Soviet perfidy.
What most see in Hersh is his anger at the lack of ethical behaviour in high places. “Yes, he likes to make money. Yes, he can be threatening to targets as he researches. Yes, he uses too many anonymous sources. And yes, he loves the spotlight,” writes Robert Miraldi. But Hersh, he rightfully concludes, much like the few remaining US investigative reporters, prefers holding powerful people and institutions accountable. Impossible as it may be, but that’s why Hersh and the others do what they do.
Hersh is also the man who has been called the “greatest muckraker of all time” and (paradoxically) the “enfant terrible of journalism for more than 30 years.” While Hersh blamed the White House and the Pentagon for the Iraq quagmire and America’s besmirched world image, he was stymied by how it all happened. “How could eight or nine neoconservatives come and take charge of this government?” he asked. “They overran the bureaucracy, they overran the Congress, they overran the press, and they overran the military! So you say to yourself, How fragile is this democracy?”
That fragility clearly unnerves him. Hersh summarizes his mission as “to hold the people in public office to the highest possible standard of decency and of honesty.to tolerate anything less, even in the name of national security, is wrong.” He tries his best. More than any other U.S. journalist alive today, he embodies the statement that “a patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”
His country has not always thanked him for it – neocon Pentagon adviser Richard Perle has called Hersh “the closest thing we have to a terrorist,” while his 1998 book on John F. Kennedy’s administration, “The Dark Side of Camelot,” cost him many friends on the left. But Hersh’s reputation remains more bulletproof than most.