NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY OF GARRY & LBJ IN VIETNAM – Garry Armstrong

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.

The push to get his legislation through ended Johnson’s political career. He called in every favor, bullied, cajoled, and bargained to get the needed votes. He got it done, but if any politician ever fell on his sword for what he believed was right, LBJ was that guy. Johnson was renowned for his domineering personality and his readiness to do whatever it took to advance his legislative goals.


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 “downtime.” 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 L J 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. L J 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 L J 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.” L J 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,

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


I thought that my little evening around the campfire with Lyndon Baines Johnson was the whole experience, but I was later to learn that I had missed all the important stuff. This is “the rest of the story” as I heard it from “Tip” O’Neill.

Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (December 9, 1912 – January 5, 1994) was an American politician who served as the 47th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, representing northern Boston, Massachusetts, as a Democrat from 1953 to 1987.

 

12 thoughts on “NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY OF GARRY & LBJ IN VIETNAM – Garry Armstrong

    • Considering everything? I picked it for its relevancy. We have these crazy, total jerks supposedly running the world. It’s a good thing to remember that not all of them have been morons. There were some good ones in the bunch. LBJ got whacked for Vietnam, but he could have survived a bad war. He couldn’t survive equality. Talk about irony!

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      • We are having a big dose of moronism here in the UK just now. The trouble is, as with Trump, they seem to have a devoted following. I.e. totally sold on the notion that England can be a sovereign nation making its own decisions. Since we’ve sold off all our basic utilities such as water to the world and his dog, and Brit corporate bodies are up to their eyes with yours, one wonders quite how this will happen

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    • Thanks, Tish. This story has “legs”, I know, but it’s one of the high points of my professional life. I actually shared a moment in history — even if I didn’t know it at that point. That’s a staple of being on the big stage of reporting. I’ve been very fortunate.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Fascinating story. I’m especially interested because one of my favorite historical movies is “Path to War,” a little known HBO film from 2002, which depicts quite accurately how LBJ got pulled into Vietnam against his better judgment. His trip to Vietnam is a scene in the film. Interesting to read an eyewitness account.

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    • Look in the shadows and Garry — a VERY young Garry — was there. I’m going to have to find that movie. Oh, I see. You can ONLY see it via HBO — which we don’t have because they are expensive. AND they are the same price, no matter how you connect. Pity. Would be interesting to watch.

      He wasn’t a perfect guy, LBJ — but he believed that he could make the world better and I think he did that. The war was his disaster, but he went to the wall for everything else. Without him, we still would not have the civil rights amendment or Medicare!

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    • Sean, yes. A fascinating time in history. I was among a small group of people who remained MUM about LBJ’s decision not to seek re-election as the media and the anti-war movements raged on back home. I held my tongue as the “know it all” pundits and political bashers had a field day. A difficult time for some of us.
      I need to check out that 2002 HBO film and the NEW one that’s coming out very soon.
      Thanks, Sean.

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