Thursday, April 25

William Beecher, who exposed secret Cambodia bombing, dies at 90

William Beecher, who as a New York Times reporter exposed President Richard M. Nixon’s secret bombing campaign on Cambodia during the Vietnam War and later won a Pulitzer Prize at the Boston Globe, has died on Feb. 9 at his home in Wilmington. , NC He was 90 years old.

His daughter, Lori Beecher, and son-in-law, Marc Burstein, confirmed the death.

President Nixon ordered the bombings, codenamed Operation Menu, in March 1969 in response to intensified attacks by the North Vietnamese army and South Vietnamese guerrillas based in Cambodia, a neutral country. The campaign was so secret that even William P. Rogers, the Secretary of State, was unaware of it.

Mr. Beecher’s article on the bombings, which appeared on the front page of The Times on May 9, 1969, noted that in the previous two weeks alone some 5,000 tons of munitions had been dropped on Cambodia.

He also noted that while no major ground incursions were planned, “small teams” of U.S. reconnaissance forces were infiltrating Cambodia “to ensure that accurate information could be obtained to provide ‘lucrative’ targets for firefighters.”

The article sparked immediate reaction at the White House. Two weeks later, Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., Henry A. Kissinger’s deputy national security adviser, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to wiretap Mr. Beecher’s phone to try to identify the person who had disclosed the information to him.

The decision to tap his phone, along with those of 16 other journalists and government officials, was an early demonstration of the Nixon administration’s willingness to use legally dubious means to acquire information or silence critics.

Mr. Beecher was already an irritant to the administration, and he remained so, with scoops on arms control plans and spy flights over China, all of which relied on well-placed sources within the government.

To the surprise of many, he left the Times in 1973 to work for the Department of Defense as acting assistant secretary for public affairs. He returned to journalism in 1975 as a correspondent for the Boston Globe, where he covered international affairs.

He was part of a team that won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for national journalism with a 56-page story on the state of the nuclear arms race — a late-career accomplishment that he wore lightly.

“Winning a Pulitzer didn’t hurt, but I didn’t tell news sources that I won,” he told the Harvard Crimson in 2005. “I wouldn’t say that it made a big difference. »

William Beecher was born May 27, 1933 in Framingham, Mass., the son of Gertrude and Samuel Beecher. His father was a grocer.

He studied government at Harvard, where he worked as an editor for The Crimson and as a campus correspondent for the Boston Globe. He graduated in 1955; Among his classmates were David Halberstam, J. Anthony Lukas and Sydney H. Schanberg, all of whom would also go on to distinguished careers as reporters for the Times.

He earned a master’s degree from the Columbia Journalism School, then spent two years in the Army before joining the reporting team at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

He married Eileen Brick in 1958. She died in 2020. Along with his daughter Lori, he is survived by three other daughters, Diane Beecher, Nancy Kotz and Debbie Spartan; and 10 grandchildren.

Mr. Beecher moved to Washington in the early 1960s to cover the Supreme Court for the Wall Street Journal, then joined the Times in 1966.

He made five trips to Vietnam during the war. On one trip, alongside Mr Haig, their helicopter was shot down over the Mekong Delta, although everyone survived with only minor injuries. On another, he learned that his wife was having twins – news relayed to him by his traveling companion, Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

After working at the Boston Globe, Mr. Beecher served as Washington bureau chief for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and as director of public affairs for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

He also wrote eight novels, a memoir, and a cookbook, and in retirement he taught journalism at the University of Maryland.

Many successful journalists recognize their life’s calling early on. But Mr Beecher said he didn’t find it until late in his undergraduate studies.

“I thought I was going to go into journalism or law,” he told the Crimson. “I thought I might be bored in law, but I knew I wasn’t going to be bored in journalism.”