LBJ’s White House Daily Diary Goes Digital
FOR HISTORIANS AND researchers, and those just curious about the inner workings of the White House, more than 14,000 pages from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daily Diary” are now posted as an online exhibit of the LBJ Library and Museum (lbjlibrary.org). The entries, all searchable, were penned not by the president but by the White House secretaries who kept a written record of such things as Johnson’s whereabouts inside and outside the White House, all incoming and outgoing telephone calls, those in the president’s company, and guest lists for social functions. For this on-line exhibit, the LBJ Library selected 50 historically significant days to display.
The White House secretaries frequently made their own observations in the entries. Interspersed within the pages are brief quotes or snippets from the president’s conversations, descriptions of presidential trips, and short narratives describing his reactions to visitors and events.
On Feb. 17, 1968, when LBJ flew to Fort Bragg and El Toro Marine Corps Base to review 82nd Airborne Division troops and the 27th Marine Regiment who were departing for Vietnam in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the entry reads:
“Talked and shook hands with about every third man….President watched the boys get on their plane and waited for it to depart.” (El Toro)
On a Sunday evening six weeks later, March 31, Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. The diary notes that he made last-minute changes to his speech. After Johnson’s address, the secretaries made note of all incoming phone calls to the president and the first family’s behavior, as well as personal observations: “President talking on the phone…clenching and unclenching his fist, and patting his foot…. Most people talking in small groups in low tones. Somebody said it sounded and looked like a funeral parlor. The only one evidencing any enthusiasm was the President.”
Later, around midnight, the diary notes, “Lynda told her Daddy that she thought that some of the boys might get discouraged when they heard the announcement, and the President took care of her fears by saying again that he thought they would be glad to know he was working full time for them.”
“I never was any surer of any decision I ever made in my life,” said Johnson, “and I never made any more unselfish one. I have 525,000 men whose very lives depend on what I do, and I can’t worry about the primaries. Now I will be working full time for those men out there….I think the boys there will be glad that I’m working for them.”
Later on, the diary notes Lynda asking her father, “Can I go to England now?”
Two Decades Later, Everyone’s Reading The Things They Carried
PEOPLE YOUNG AND OLD are reading and discussing Tim O’Brien’s award-winning Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, thanks to an innovative program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), The Big Read. Discussions of this book and other selected books take place on college campuses, theaters, libraries and youth centers, and have spun off other programs such as “What We Carried,” stories from local veterans. Theater groups are also presenting short, dramatic readings.
A Vietnam veteran, O’Brien published the novel in 1990. Long hailed as among the finest books about the war and re-issued this year, it is a semi-autobiographical account of a young platoon on a battlefield, with commentary by a narrator named Tim O’Brien, who never wanted to fight in Vietnam and remains haunted by memories 20 years after he returns home to America. It describes not only the equipment and items the GIs carried, but also the burdens of fear, guilt, secrets, redemption and love they couldn’t escape.
The Big Read grew out of a 2004 report that found that not only is literary reading declining rapidly, but that the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young. In 2006 the NEA, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences and Arts Midwest, introduced The Big Read to 10 communities. The program also has an extensive website that provides information on authors and their works.
Army’s Last Vietnam War Draftee Retires
WHEN CLYDE GREEN was drafted in 1970 at age 20, he had no idea he would end up serving for almost 40 years. “I didn’t want to join the Army,” said Chief Warrant Officer Green, now 60. “When I got that letter,” he said, “I thought my whole world was ending.” That draft letter, from President Richard Nixon, came at the height of the Vietnam War’s unpopularity, and it uprooted Green from his family’s farm. He shipped off six months later. “I got over the draft thing quick,” he said. “The Army matures you, develops character.”
Green was retired as the Army’s longest serving draftee in a September ceremony at Fort McPherson, Ga. Speaking at the event, Lt. Gen. Richard P. Zahner praised Green’s remarkable military career.
Green served as an “intelligence soldier” in Vietnam from June 1971 to May 1972. After applying for a warrant, he rose to the rank of chief warrant officer 5. He served in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and returned to Vietnam from 1995-2001 with the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (MIA/POW). His team helped to discover the fate of three MIAs, including a soldier who had served in Green’s unit 30 years before.
Today, some 75 communities are participating in what has become the largest reading program in the United States. For more: www.neabigread.org/communities
Senators Debate New Agent Orange Rules
AMID GROWING CONCERNS about costs that will result from the Veterans Administration’s “Final Regulation on Additional Diseases Related to Agent Orange,” the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is considering whether the 1991 law that provides automatic benefits for herbicide-connected diseases is applied too broadly and if chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, are really related more closely to aging than chemical exposure.
In requesting the hearing, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, aVietnam veteran, noted the cost of treating veterans for B-cell leukemias, Parkinson’s Disease and Ischemic heart disease—an estimated $67 billion over the next decade—would be prohibitive. He sought an explanation of why the VA concludes these illnesses are linked to service in Vietnam.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, President Obama’s Deficit Commission co-chairman, said, “The irony (is) that the veterans who saved this country are now, in a way, not helping us to save the country in this fiscal mess.”
“To put the burden back on the veteran to prove exposure when there was so much misuse of the product would be impossible,” countered Alan Oates of the Vietnam Veterans of America Agent Orange Committee. “Veterans can’t account for every moment and every place they were, they had a job to do.”
Air America Vets Want Their Pension, Too
WHEN RICHARD ETCHBERGER posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his 1968 actions at a besieged secret radar site in Laos [see story, p. 58], Air America vets were quick to point out that it was frequently the CIA-run airline that performed those hairy missions to rescue Americans in Laos. But unlike military pilots and mechanics, Air America’s veterans, many of whom left military careers to join the CIA, don’t get a penny when it comes to a pension.
So when President Barack Obama proclaimed at Etchberger’s ceremony that “it’s never too late to do the right thing,” some 1,000 Air America veterans got a shot of hope that Congress would finally give them their pensions. Congress has formally asked the Director of National Intelligence to study the Air America veterans’ request.
During the Vietnam War, Air America operated 30 helicopters and almost 50 airplanes in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, employing more than 300 personnel. Under the guise of delivering food and other humanitarian aid, the CIA-run airline also delivered ammunition and participated in covert support operations such as search and rescues of downed airmen.
Keeping the Old Hueys Flying in Vietnam
THANKS TO FUNDING from a U.S. security assistance program, old Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters—better known as Hueys—-left behind in Vietnam will be upgraded to carry out humanitarian assistance and search and rescue missions there. The United States provided Vietnam $1.3 million in 2010 to finance programs aimed at cementing security ties, up from $500,000 the year before, senior Defense Department official Richard Genaille, reported at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit held in Washington in September. During the Vietnam War, the U.S., South Vietnamese and Australian forces operated 7,013 of the iconic Hueys in a multitude of roles. Many of the South Vietnamese Hueys fell into the victorious Communists’ hands in 1975 and continued in Vietnamese service until diminishing supplies of parts steadily reduced their numbers.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.