Location: A campfire in Vietnam near Saigon.

Year: 1967.

1967 and 1968 were very intense years for me. I had jumped directly from college and small time commercial radio, to ABC Network News. The time was right and the opportunity was there, but I was a kid thrust suddenly into the big leagues. My journalistic baptism started with the 6-day war in the Middle East which began on my first day at ABC. My professional life continued with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the volatile 1968 Presidential campaigns and a long visit to Vietnam, the first of several.

At headquarters in New York, my assignment was to receive reports from ABC’s field correspondents. I’d speak with them over static-riddled phone lines. Difficult to hear for anyone, harder for me. The daily MACV — or war front reports — were often significantly different from what the Pentagon reported. It was disturbing, worrying. Then, they sent me to Vietnam.

The sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam are still with me, 50 years later.

ABC needed a grunt to help the news team covering President Johnson’s visit to Vietnam. I was it. My job required I not allow myself to be distracted from the work at hand. I was a young reporter still learning the ropes. I had to stay focused on the story and exclude the other harrowing images around me.

LBJ vietnam 1967It was a typical evening, the never-ending noise of artillery in the background. It was what was called “down time.” Dinner around a campfire. GI’s, South Vietnamese soldiers, politicians and news media, all hunkered down for chow. Everything was off the record. Chow was beans and some unknown local meat. Most of us ate the beans. Skipped the meat.

President Johnson or LJ as he told us to call him, squatted at the point of the campfire and told some colorful tales about dealing with his pals in the Senate and Congress. The stories were punctuated with smiles and profanities. LJ was drinking from a bottle which he passed around. Good stuff.

Halfway through dinner, the beans began to resonate. The smell was pungent! I must’ve had a funny look on my face because LJ gave me a withering stare and asked if I had a problem. I remember sounding like a squeaky 16-year-old as I responded “No sir.” LJ guffawed and passed the bottle back to me.

Before completing his trip, President Johnson confided to some of us that seeing Vietnam up close confirmed his worst fears. He broadly hinted he was unlikely to seek re-election, given the backlash of Vietnam back home in the States. I thought he sounded like one of my cowboy heroes putting duty above personal gain.

But it wasn’t a movie. It was the real thing. History in the making.

The following day was my final encounter with Lyndon Baines Johnson. There were handshakes, a smile about our campfire evening and LJ was again President Lyndon Johnson, one of the truly great American presidents.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the 36th President of the United States, from 1963 to 1969. As President, he designed “Great Society” legislation, including civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, aid to education and the arts, urban and rural development, and a “War on Poverty”.

Johnson’s civil rights bills banned racial discrimination in public facilities, interstate commerce, the workplace, and housing. It included a voting rights act that guaranteed the right to vote for all U.S. citizens, of all races. Passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 reformed the country’s immigration system, eliminating national origins quotas.

Johnson was renowned for his domineering personality and his readiness to do whatever it took to advance his legislative goals.

Today, we have a president — if you care to call him that — who believes all of the good things LBJ did is garbage.

I’ve been around long enough to understand how many bad things can be fixed, eventually. Maybe not completely, but at least in part. What if we destroy the world? When the beauty of our world has gone and what’s left are expensive condos? When the trees have disappeared? When the sky is dull green, gray, and full of filth? What then? How do we come back from that?

When the poor are lost, and there’s nothing remaining but ugliness? What then, indeed.

Categories: American history, Anecdote, Celebrities, Garry Armstrong, Politics

Tags: , , , , , , ,

32 replies

  1. Reblogged this on natshouseblog and commented:
    Garry, Good story. I love reading stories about LBJ, my own personal hero. He never deigned to come visit me but I would have welcomed him with open arms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nat, thanks for the reblog. In person, “LJ” was quite a guy. So different from the one dimensional caricatures offered by so many ‘historians’.


  2. what an amazing experience, one you will never forget. how someone stood up for what mattered and was unafraid to do so. in contrast to what he have now. I am counting the hours..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Serendipity Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth and commented:

    Definitely worth a reblog!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating firsthand account of the Vietnam experience. It’s tragic how our current President disgraces the brave reporters and media who put themselves in harms way to keep the public informed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Usfman, you are right on point. It’s hard to stomach the current Oval office squatter, especially when he besmirches or TRIES to belittle the legacies of predecessors like LBJ. He shrivels up in the shadows of those who put country FIRST as Commander-In-Chief. I’d like to think the media will have last dibs on DJT.


  5. 45 is hell-bent on blaming everyone and changing everything. Why?? And neither he nor his loons see the error of their ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yet another chapter in that great book of yours, Garry. I remember those days with such intensity. The assassinations were most upsetting. My philosophy prof. was an American here to avoid the war. For that I thank you because he was a great person.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s an interesting story! They say that the truth is the first victim in a war so I guess it must have been quite an experience to get so close to the real thing

    Liked by 1 person

    • We all thought that somehow, Vietnam would be “the death” of LBJ — and to a degree, it was. But the other stuff he did — Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Movement — these things have stood the test. They WERE the right things to do, even though Vietnam wasn’t.

      No one is a hero about everything. I have come a long way in believing “what’s good” and what’s not. I recognize that our presidents are people too and they make mistakes. But as long as they actually believe that taking care of US, the people, is still THE important part of the job, I can cope with differences. I can be angry, but not crazed and wondering how my world became this terrible place.

      But this? This isn’t anything I planned, anything I ever imagined was possible. It’s horrifying, terrifying, and I’m old enough to wonder if I’ll live to see the other end of this.

      Liked by 5 people

    • I didn’t appreciate the importance of that experience because I was working “in the moment”. Over the years, its significance has become clearer to me. The personal and professional moments overlapped as they often did in those years. It was a special time to be a reporter, seeing and hearing things first hand.

      Liked by 3 people

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