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Both Sides Now

After Nearly Three Decades, Reporter A.J. Langguth Files the Story of 'Our Vietnam'

February 18, 2001|ANN HEROLD | Ann Herold is the managing editor of the magazine

A.J. Langguth was in Vietnam covering the war for the New York Times when the paper named him its Saigon bureau chief in 1965, a post he held during a year that would see his stories jump from the back pages of the main news section to Page One after U.S. Marines joined the fray. After he left Vietnam, the paper sent him back twice, in 1968 and 1970.

In 1976, Langguth joined the journalism school faculty at USC and began focusing on nonfiction books--including one on the Revolutionary War and another on the Roman Republic--that reviewers applauded for humanizing history. As the popular professor put his stamp on USC, founding a program that sends journalism students to South L.A. classrooms, writers began dissecting the Vietnam War in fiction and nonfiction, from Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" to Gustav Hasford's "The Short-Timers." Almost 30 years after he last covered the war, Langguth was finally ready to write about it. "Our Vietnam," published in November to critical acclaim, "brilliantly recaptures the hopes, illusions, fears, suspicions, frustrations and disappointments of these tumultuous years," the Los Angeles Times Book Review said in naming it one of the best nonfiction works of 2000.

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Why so long?

It took that long for the North Vietnamese to accept the fact that an American might be interested in telling their side of the story, that I was neither an ideologue nor a CIA plant.

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What was the hardest thing you had to do as Saigon bureau chief?

Cover the bloodshed. Sometimes it was colleagues. The very first body I saw was a VC kid who clearly was no ideologue. He was not a Communist in our way of thinking about it; he was somebody who resented the presence of Westerners telling his country what to do. There was so much needless suffering. Refugees driven out by our bombings, screaming along the roads.

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Who were the heroes of the Vietnam War?

There weren't very many. I think some of those early reporters, who got there long before I did, who tried to tell the truth. Peter Arnett got beaten up by the South Vietnamese police, but he kept on reporting as honestly as he could. The single biggest hero of the war to me is a man named Hugh Thompson, who was at My Lai, saw what was going on and ordered his two door gunners, from his helicopter, to turn their guns on Calley, and if he didn't stop what he was doing, to kill him. And Ron Ridenhour, the young GI who heard about My Lai from friends of his who had been there. He decided that if he knew what he did and didn't act on it, he'd be as guilty as they were, and he set off the investigation. I think that's heroism, especially because everybody in his hometown said, "How can you possibly take up for Vietnamese you don't know, against your own buddies, against your own friends?"

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You've written three books about warriors. Coincidence?

It's strange to me too, because that certainly wasn't my intent. But watching the way that raggedy group of VC were beating the greatest army on earth brought to mind the way the revolutionary soldiers--ill-organized, ill-equipped--brought the greatest power of its time to its knees. And so, when I did the book on the American Revolution, I was very aware of how patriotism, the desire for freedom, can motivate people to fight well past their limits. And [the Founding Fathers] had been very much influenced by the Roman Republic. The whole idea of separating the powers comes from that. Then I thought to myself, you know, you always wished that you could have picked up the phone and called Sam Adams or Cicero. But you can pick up the phone and call Robert McNamara. Shouldn't you do the war that you know?

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How have veterans reacted to your book?

Wonderfully well. I hope that's because it pays tribute to the bravery of our side and the Vietnamese side, and our allies, and doesn't stigmatize or demonize anybody. Both sides fought very well--very hard, very well. Their side had a better strategy, and their side ultimately had an idealism that our side couldn't match.

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Ever participated in an anti-war demonstration?

No, I was a reporter. I think that when you're a journalist you have a potent tool in your hand, and you should try to be as objective as you can. When I went back the third time, though, I really didn't want to go again. The song of the day when I arrived there was Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not To Come." I thought that was pretty good advice about Vietnam. Still, I don't think I regret any of this.

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The students in your classes today were born after the war ended. Should they care about Vietnam?

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