A.J. Langguth dies at 81; foreign correspondent and historian of wars
A.J. (Jack) Langguth, a former foreign correspondent, longtime USC professor and historian of wars whose book on the Vietnam conflict was widely admired for a narrative sweep that gave serious weight to the perspectives of ordinary North Vietnamese and their leaders, died Monday at his Hollywood home. He was 81.
The cause was respiratory failure, said Charles Fleming, a close friend and Times journalist.
For the Record
A.J. Langguth obituary: The news obituary in the Sept. 2 LATExtra section on historian and former war correspondent A.J. Langguth stated that he injured his diaphragm while covering the Vietnam War. According to Joe Saltzman, his longtime friend and fellow USC professor, Langguth developed a collapsed diaphragm years later but believed the injury stemmed from his time in Vietnam.
Langguth spent the early years of his career at newspapers in Southern California before he was hired in the early 1960s by the New York Times. In late 1963, he secured a rare interview with the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald soon after Oswald’s arrest in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The following year the paper dispatched Langguth to Vietnam, making him its Saigon bureau chief in 1965. On subsequent trips he covered the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in 1968 and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970.
“He was affected deeply by the carnage in Vietnam that he saw,” said author and investigative journalist Joe Domanick, who was one of Langguth’s graduate students in the early 1980s. “His American history books ... all have a war as a theme.”
Unable to set Vietnam aside, Langguth spent seven years researching and writing “Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975" (2000), which won acclaim for telling the Vietnamese side of the story as well as it did the American side, through solid analysis, mastery of detail and deft portraits of pivotal figures, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.
“The book does not develop new arguments or explicitly address the many war issues that still divide Americans,” historian George C. Herring wrote in a 2000 review for the Los Angeles Times. “Its strengths, rather, are in its skillful retelling of a well-known story, and in the way it captures the many dimensions of the war.”
Herring noted that Langguth’s interviews with North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front leaders as well as ordinary Vietnamese were “especially valuable in filling in that essential, but for Americans, often-neglected side of the war.”
Langguth, a popular USC journalism professor for 27 years who was voted outstanding teacher three times before his retirement in 2003, said he conceived the book in part because of his students’ ignorance of the war that ended before they were born.
“One of the reasons I wrote the book was the hope that if you just laid out the story in a nonpartisan way, they would ... understand what was going on at a time when their fathers and uncles were pretty divided over the issue,” he told The Times in 2001.
Langguth wrote a dozen books, including three novels, a biography of H.H. Munro — the British playwright and short story writer better known by the pen name Saki — and books involving the American Revolution (“Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution,” 1988), Caesar’s struggle for Rome (“A Noise of War,” 1994), the War of 1812 (“Union 1812,” 2006) and the period leading to the Civil War (“Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War,” 2010).
His latest book, “After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace,” will be published this month by Simon & Schuster.
Langguth was born July 11, 1933, in Minneapolis, the only child of Arthur John Langguth, who worked in the grocery business, and Doris Elizabeth Langguth. He once described Minneapolis as a great place to raise children “if you wanted them to be insurance salesmen. I wanted to be a writer.”
He was thrilled to escape the Midwest for Harvard University, where he edited the Crimson with his classmate and future war correspondent David Halberstam. After graduating in 1955, he served in the Army from 1956 to 1958.
He started his journalism career in 1959 as a Washington, D.C., correspondent for Cowles Publications, then covered the 1960 presidential election for Look magazine. He worked for a few years at the Santa Monica Outlook and Valley Times Today, a short-lived Cowles newspaper based in the San Fernando Valley, before becoming the New York Times’ Southeast Asia correspondent in 1964.
In Vietnam he “went out on patrols and escaped death many times,” said USC journalism professor Joe Saltzman, a friend for 50 years. During one incident he suffered a crushed diaphragm, which led to the breathing difficulties that ultimately caused his death, Saltzman said.
Langguth said his experiences covering the war probably led to his fascination with bloody turning points in American history.
Watching “the way that raggedy group of [Viet Cong] 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,” he said in 2001. “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.”
Langguth, who never married, had no immediate survivors.
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