Sy Hersh is Calling!

Journalist Seymour Hersh speaks at Al Jazeera Forum

Sy Hersh is Calling!

Seymour Hersh, in his Buddy Holly eyeglasses, unmemorable suit and rumpled raincoat—a cross between Woody Allen and Columbo—was enough to set hardened bureaucratic lifers atremble. 


“YOU MADE your reputation on My Lai. How did you get that story?” Joe Eszterhas asked Hersh during their lengthy interview, spread across two issues of Rolling Stone in April 1975. “It’s a long story,” Hersh replied. “I’ve never told anyone the story. Maybe I should have written it.”

This exchange followed by nearly five years Hersh’s publication, in the July 11, 1970 issue of Saturday Review, of an article entitled “How I Broke the Mylai 4 Story.” Whether Hersh in 1975 had forgotten about the Saturday Review essay, or was deliberately misleading Eszterhas—one of the first journalists to follow up on Hersh’s initial My Lai reporting—is difficult to know at this point.


“How I Broke the Mylai 4 Story” marked the first installment in Hersh’s Legend of Hersh. In this earliest iteration, the account is largely the same as it would be nearly fifty years later in Reporter—but for one important detail. In the 1970 version the hapless ex-sergeant who steals Army documents to provide Calley’s address to Hersh has a different name:

Calley had been around, the ex-sergeant said, but no one knew where he was now. The only way Jerry could find out anything would be to steal Calley’s personnel file. There was a long pause.

“Well?” I said.

“I’ll try, Mister.”

In less than five minutes he returned with a short information sheet the battalion commander kept on each officer. The sheet included a local address in Columbus for Calley…I raced off.

Orally recounting the story to Eszterhas in 1975, Hersh changes the ex-sergeant’s name to Smitty and provides—for the only time—a clue about the ethno-geographic background of his most important source.

Smitty is a tall, gangly, and nervous hillbilly kid. “Come and sit in the car,” I tell him. He gets in the car and I slam the door hard. I tell him I’m a reporter from Washington. I tell him I’ve been hunting this goddamned Calley all day and I tell him I know Calley’s mail is in there. “So where is he?” I ask Smitty. Smitty seems relieved that I’m just a reporter. “Mister,” he says, “I’d like to help you. All I can tell you is that we used to get his mail. We used to forward his mail somewhere but I don’t even see it anymore.”

We’re sitting there and Smitty says, “I don’t even know how he gets his mail anymore.” And then he adds: “The only thing that I know is that we’ve got his personnel file in there. I’d have to steal it out of there.” There is a long pause. “Come on,” I tell him, “just do it. I promise I’ll just look at it for a minute.” Smitty says: “I don’t know.” I whisper: “Come on.” He says: “Well, wait here.” He goes in past the old sergeant and comes out a couple minutes later. We get back inside the car. He reaches inside his shirt and pulls out a file marked “Calley, William L., Jr.”

The differences between this account and the Saturday Review essay are marked. Here Hersh is far more active in prodding Jerry/Smitty to violate the law: not just once with a vague “Well?” but twice, leading the charge with “Come on, just do it.” And when the uncosmopolitan Smitty bravely resists Hersh’s entreaties, the ace reporter—having already tried to convince his mark on the basis that their transgression would be time-limited (“I’ll just look at it for a minute”)—resorts to whispering theatrically, like the Devil, into Smitty’s ear.

Nearly fifteen years would pass before Hersh would return to the story, once again in writing. Now he felt compelled to share his misgivings over how he treated a key source in his exposure of My Lai—only it wasn’t Smitty. For this the Pulitzer winner chose as his venue an obscure nostalgia magazine, now defunct. Its cover divided between Al Capone and Tracy and Hepburn, the October/November 1989 issue of Memories (“The Magazine of Then and Now”) devoted ten pages to Sy Hersh and My Lai. Illustrating his firsthand account was a photograph of the massacre, a reprinted headline, and a sidebar, by Delphine Taylor, presenting where-are-they-now? updates on key players.

In “MY LAI: Breaking the Story,” Hersh writes: “I must admit that today I’m troubled about not having been straight with the colonel.” This was the officer who had given him Calley’s name. “I had no such qualms then,” Hersh adds. “All I felt was the jolt—that euphoric rush—a reporter gets when a great story is suddenly his.” What Hersh feels badly about, twenty years after the fact, is his having made no mention to the colonel that he planned to write about the information the officer had just volunteered. Then Smitty appears in the 1989 account:

I tell him to get in the car. I tell him who I am and that I know he handles Calley’s mail. He says he doesn’t handle it anymore….I slump in despair.

Smitty wants to help.

“The only thing I know,” he says, nodding toward the headquarters building, “is that we’ve got his personnel file in there.” But he can’t give it to me. “I’d have to steal it….” I say nothing for a moment. I’m hoping he’s thinking about those stripes he lost.

“Come on,” I say.

“I don’t know.”

“Come on!”

“Well, wait here.”

Smitty disappears inside. A few minutes later, he gets back in the car, reaches under his uniform blouse and produces Calley’s file.

Putting aside Hersh’s curious use of ellipses—what else did Smitty say?—this account makes no mention of seductive whispering but rather suggests that in his second thrust, after Smitty’s hesitation, Hersh resorted to brow-beating (“Come on!”).

Hersh was not done. The next version—the last to appear before publication of his memoir—was occasioned by his first trip to My Lai. There, joined by his wife and children, Hersh met with survivors and toured the museum memorializing the massacre. The ensuing New Yorker article, entitled “Scene of the Crime” and published in March 2015, ranks among Hersh’s most emotional pieces—but the breakthrough moment is reduced to a single sentence, in which Hersh notes only that “someone in the Army had allowed me to read and take notes on a classified charge sheet.”

And now comes Reporter, with its modified limited hang-out route, wherein Hersh, reverting to his 1970 account, only nudges Jerry/Smitty to steal, and then only once, gently (“Well?”). After experimenting in The New Yorker with complete erasure of his incitement to crime, Hersh’s intention now appears to be to use his memoir, with its built-in audience, to bury his more revealing accounts from 1975 and 1989, to cement the less-incriminating version as the “official” one, to be relied upon by all future biographers.

At all points it is hard to know exactly what Hersh is thinking. As with his description of the “very brief moment of truth” he experienced in his pursuit of Watergate, Hersh’s treatment of Jerry/Smitty in Reporter is matter-of-fact, presented without any serious or sustained contemplation of moral implications. Nor is there any mention of the pangs of guilt Hersh felt, in 1989, over his treatment of the colonel.

ANY REPORTER who has broken a big story, an investigative exclusive recognized by his peers, has probably trod ethical terrain similar to Hersh’s, marked by dilemmas in which moral obligation and journalistic excellence come squarely into conflict. Notable in Hersh’s case, above all, are the stakes—no less a figure than Henry Kissinger complained, in a recorded 1974 call, that “Sy Hersh is out to get me”—and the crystalline clarity with which these conflicts confronted Hersh in real time. Sometimes the enterprising reporter will not learn relevant factors, such as a source’s motivation, until long after publication.

But what of the reporter’s motivation? Since Hersh is so uncharacteristically taciturn on the subject, we are left to guess what fueled the moments of transgression he now divulges. In this context, it is central to remember that Hersh was always more than a reporter; he was, and remains, a crusader. It was never enough for Sy Hersh simply to add to the record of our times, without care for where the chips fell; he wanted to have an impact, often a specific one. He seems to have regarded it as a disappointment if one of his big stories failed to result in someone’s indictment, in the commencement of official inquiries or in some grand policy shift.

Among Hersh’s earliest splashes was his series of exposés, for the Associated Press and The New Republic, on the Pentagon’s secret arsenal of chemical and biological weapons (CBW). The attention the stories generated was widely credited with propelling the Nixon administration to shift U.S. policy and ban such weapons. “I was proud of my CBW journalism, and my role in changing American policy,” Hersh notes in Reporter. Left unaddressed once again is another of the ethical dilemmas that confronted Hersh, in which he elevated policy preference over journalistic obligation. At one point in Reporter, Hersh recalls that a congressman, using CBW information “supplied by me,” became “more effective among his House colleagues” on the issue; three pages later, Hersh notes, without elaboration, that he subsequently wrote a long article for the Times focused on the congressman “and his activism,” detailing how this politician “broke through on the CBW issue.” That 1969 article did not disclose Hersh’s backstage work with the congressman; nor, five decades on, does the author appear to realize the ethical problem posed by this set of circumstances. Sy Hersh, the great connector of dots, never reckons that funneling information to a politician with the explicit aim of making him more effective on a selected policy issue, then writing about that politician, publicly lauding his effectiveness on said issue—without anywhere divulging the role played by the ostensibly neutral reporter in the politician’s ascent—might violate a journalistic norm or two.