William Beecher, Who Revealed Secret Cambodia Bombing, Dies at 90

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

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

President Nixon ordered the bombings, code-named Operation Menu, in March 1969 in response to stepped-up 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 about 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 ordnance had been dropped on Cambodia.

He also noted that while there were no plans for a major land incursion, “small teams” of U.S. reconnaissance forces were infiltrating Cambodia “to assure that accurate information can be obtained to provide ‘lucrative’ targets for the bombers.”

The article generated an immediate reaction in the White House. Within two weeks Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., a deputy to Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to tap Mr. Beecher’s phone in an attempt to identify who leaked the information to him.

The decision to wiretap 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 of acquiring information or silencing critics.

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

To many people’s surprise, he left The Times in 1973 to work for the Department of Defense as the 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 Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for national reporting with a 56-page article about the state of the nuclear arms race — a late-career achievement that he wore lightly.

“Having won a Pulitzer didn’t hurt, but I didn’t go around telling news sources that I’d won,” he told The Harvard Crimson in 2005. “I wouldn’t say that it made a whole lot of difference.”

William Beecher was born on 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 features 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 received a master’s degree from the Columbia Journalism School, then spent two years in the Army before joining the reporting staff of 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 Spartin; 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, though everyone survived with only minor injuries. On another, he learned that his wife was going to have twins — news conveyed to him by his traveling companion, Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

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

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

Many successful reporters recognize their life’s calling early. But Mr. Beecher said he didn’t find his until late in his undergraduate career.

“I thought that I was either going 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.”