Survivor’s guilt and a passion for storytelling led A.J. Langguth to write what critics are calling the definitive history of the Vietnam War.
hree decades after being shot at while riding on U.S. Army helicopters, former New York Times war correspondent A.J. Langguth sat down to tea in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Beijing with the communist leaders behind the Vietcong bullets. The reporter-turned-author was back on the story.
Now a journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, the meticulous Langguth devoted seven years to assembling his recently released narrative history Our Vietnam/Nu’ó’c Viêt Ta: The War 1954-1975, published in November by Simon & Schuster.
He met with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, correspon-ded with Henry Kissinger and excitedly eavesdropped on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s newly released telephone conversations. He repeatedly was evicted at closing time from libraries across the country. He drove his cleaning lady to despair with the hundreds of resource books that overwhelmed his study and spilled into a spare bedroom. A voracious reader, Langguth confined his literary intake for six years to books relating to Vietnam. Opting not to hire a research assistant, he read through stacks of declassified top-secret documents and handwrote every sheet of his mammoth manuscript.
The result is a compacting of 21 years of turmoil into 734 well-documented pages. His 2,300 footnotes alone fill 50 pages. Langguth estimates that as much as a third of the material will be news to historians – notably the revelation of North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh’s reduced leadership role and other information gathered from the previously unknown nationalist-communist perspective.
He presents the war in Southeast Asia as a story. “I tried to write it as though the reader were looking through the far end of a telescope – as though a hundred years had passed and people were trying to make sense of it all, the way I had tried to make sense of the American Revolution [in an earlier book, Patriots],” he says.

Covering Richard Nixon’s unsuccessful 1962 gubernatorial bid, Langguth jokes with the candidate. At the time Langguth was political correspondent for the now defunct Valley Times.

“Get the passions out of the way, and get the personalities into sharp focus – but not contrast too sharply the heroism and villainy. Rather, show men and women making decisions, and the rest of us having to live with the results.”
Despite his exhaustive research on Vietnam and two previously published historical narratives, Langguth does not claim to be a historian. He is a writer, a man fulfilling a lifelong dream. Ten books bear his name. But those who know Jack Langguth (he uses A.J. only for the “pompous stuff”) know he is more than a writer.
He’s a well-traveled veteran journalist who – in addition to his Vietnam assignments – covered civil-rights demonstrations in the South, the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination and political beats in Washington, D.C., and California. He’s one of the most beloved professors in the USC School of Journalism: his name is etched three times (in 1989, 1996 and 2000) on the Graduate Journalism Student Association’s plaque citing winners of the Outstanding Faculty Award. He is intolerant of injustice, and enthusiastic about all things Brazilian. He’s a generous, witty, never-married man surrounded by an international network of loyal friends. And he’s the source of the parrot-shaped letter openers, flowered Asian silks and the mounted piranha that adorn the journalism school’s staff offices.

angguth camouflaged his early desire to put pen to paper. As a boy, when asked the what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up question, he’d answer with a bit of a fib: “a lawyer.” He used this plausible cover because becoming a writer seemed too outlandish for the only child of a Minneapolis grocer. But the bookish young man became editor of his high school newspaper and went on to major in English at Harvard. There he edited the student daily newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. After graduating in 1955, he traveled across Europe on a yearlong fellowship, writing a novel he never published.
Drafted into the Army the following year, he finished at the top of his training class and was posted in France. Returning to civilian life in 1958, he began his journalism career on the political beat for Look Magazine and the (San Fernando) Valley Times.
He joined the New York Times in 1963. A year later, he was sent to Southeast Asia as a correspondent, and soon thereafter was promoted to Saigon bureau chief. He covered the political and military situation for 14 months, risking Vietcong fire on his aerial expeditions to cover skirmishes. In his final piece for the New York Times Magazine, he expressed his uncertainty about whether American involvement was helping or hurting the people of South Vietnam.
He would return twice on two-month freelance assignments for the New York Times Magazine, covering the outcome of the Tet offensive in 1968 and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970.
Moving to Malibu, Calif., he began the first of three novels he would publish between 1968 and 1974. Upon completing his first, Jesus Christs – which imagines Jesus appearing through many centuries and civilizations – he boarded a Norwegian freighter headed for South America. There he began a love affair with Rio de Janeiro, a city that has lured him back 17 more times. In Rio he began writing his next two novels: Wedlock, which examines eight marriages over the course of the 1960s; and Marksman, which portrays an average man driven to extremes by the behavior of politicians he sees on television.
Brazil was to be the location of his fourth novel, a book about Amazon Indians who believe their bodies are possessed by spirits during ritual ceremonies. As he researched, Langguth concluded the material was better suited for a nonfiction book.
“I went up there and reported accurately and honestly what I saw as a nonbeliever, but not as a skeptic,” he says.
Macumba, White and Black Magic in Brazil (1975) became the first of his wide-ranging mix of nonfiction books. His time researching Macumba made Langguth aware of the chilling practices of the CIA – the subject of his 1978 book, Hidden Terrors: The Truth About U.S. Police Operations in Latin America. He interviewed men who had been used as guinea pigs in Brazilian torture schools. “I would go back after talking to those people,” he recalls, “and as I typed up my notes, I would find myself crying because it was inconceivable that people could do those things to each other.”
For solace, at night he read short stories by Saki, a boyhood favorite. The “crystalline wit” of the satirist of Edwardian manners charmed Langguth, who was determined that his next book would be completely different from the inhuman subject matter of Hidden Terrors.
He began the biography, Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, in 1978 – the same year he began teaching full-time at USC (he had been hired as an adjunct professor two years earlier).

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