A Muckraker’s Progress

Seymour Hersh in his office at the Washington bureau of The New York Times, 1975
The New York Times/Redux
Seymour Hersh in his office at the Washington bureau of The New York Times, 1975

Seymour Hersh has been the premier American investigative reporter of the last half-century. In the late 1960s his articles (some of which appeared in these pages) helped inspire a partly successful campaign to abolish America’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. His 1969 exposé of the My Lai massacre, based on an interview with the man who ordered it, Lieutenant William Calley, revealed the savagery of the Vietnam War. He provided the first comprehensive account of President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia. His disclosure in 1974 that the CIA had spied on antiwar activists prompted the creation of two congressional investigating committees. He led the effort to unearth American dirty tricks in the early 1970s against Chile’s democratic socialist president, Salvador Allende. After September 11, he warned that US intelligence was being manipulated to justify an invasion of Iraq, and in 2004 he brought to light the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Hersh has also been dogged by criticism, some of it legitimate. He has bullied sources, lashed out at colleagues, succumbed to hoaxes, and destroyed the reputation of at least one blameless person: Edward M. Korry, the US ambassador to Chile between 1967 and 1971.

In 1974 Hersh reported in The New York Times that Korry had facilitated the CIA’s efforts to foment internal opposition to Allende, who committed suicide during a coup that overthrew him in 1973. In fact, the White House and the CIA had bypassed Korry. After Hersh published his story, the ambassador loudly proclaimed his innocence. According to Korry’s wife, Patricia, Hersh then tried to essentially blackmail her husband, offering to clear his name in return for his assistance in implicating Henry Kissinger, whom Hersh despised. In 1981 Hersh apologized to Korry in a long, highly unusual, page-one correction in the Times, after which Hersh admitted to Time magazine, “I led the way in trashing him.”

Now eighty-two, Hersh has told his own story. At its best, Reporter is a lively self-portrait of a maverick and troublemaker. But it is scrubbed and sanitized. He appears in a half-light; the book does not illuminate the darkest corners of his long career. In an interview with Kissinger in the early 1970s, Hersh told him, “The only spirit is truth.” But Hersh is less than truthful in chronicling, for instance, the Korry affair, about which Reporter contains two hasty, misleading paragraphs that ignore the damage he inflicted. (Hersh insists that he was “very surprised” to learn in 1980 that Korry “had not been trusted by the CIA station chief” in Chile.) For a full view of Hersh and an authoritative sense of his career, which embodies the expansive possibilities…

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