There were many moving moments during the two days of ceremonies in conjunction with Monday’s groundbreaking for the Vietnam veterans monument at the Capitol. But, for me, the most intriguing came at Sunday’s reading of names of the 3,417 Texans who died in that war.
Among the first readers at the LBJ Presidential Library auditorium was a woman who introduced herself as the youngest daughter of the president forever linked to the Vietnam War.
“And before I have the privilege of reading the names, I want to take a blessing of being able to say to all of you Vietnam vets and to your families, my father loved you,” Luci Baines Johnson said. “My ex-husband and both of my brothers-in-law served with you, and my father left the presidency when he did because he (wanted) to simply try to get away to the peace table so he could bring you all home.”
With emotion and respect, she then read 30 names (Staff Sgt. Roy Duke Chitwood to Spc. Wilbert R. Cockrell, both of Houston) from the alphabetical list of Texans who never came home.
“All great Texas heroes, now and forever,” Johnson said prior to sharing hugs and tears with attendees.
Moments later, she remained emotional when we spoke about the event and her father’s role in the war that made it necessary.
“I’m here at the beginning of the day, and my sister will be here at the end of the day, because the Vietnam veterans were there for us throughout the days of my father’s presidency,” she said.
“The facts are that we do owe them,” she added. “We owe them for our freedom. We own them for their sacrifice. Whether you agreed with the war or not, the men and women who fought in it put their lives on the line for America and for freedom.”
We all agree about the sacrifice, but we’ll never reach unanimity on whether Vietnam had anything to do with our freedom. At best, we didn’t win that war. At worst, we lost it.
Among the new exhibits at the revamped LBJ Library is one letting visitors weigh in on Johnson’s Vietnam-related decisions, including retaliating against North Vietnam for a 1964 attack on a U.S. ship. Back then, polls showed 85 percent of Americans agreed with the decision. So far, 59 percent of library visitors still believe it was the right decision.
Luci Johnson told me that her father “was caught in the horrible web of Vietnam, trying desperately to extricate himself too.”
“The hardest thing that ever happened to Lyndon Johnson was to see those lost at war,” she said. “It was his greatest agony, and that’s essentially why he decided not to run again, to see if he could bring them somehow closer to the peace table and (the U.S. troops) closer to home.”
I asked if she fields animosity from anyone who blames her father for the U.S. deaths in Vietnam.
“Nobody wanted out of Vietnam more than my father,” she said.
Then, near tears, she said, “All I can say is I went to bed every night in the White House listening to people protesting on the streets — saying, ‘Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ — knowing that my husband might be one of those kids and my brothers-in-law might be one of those kids. … We didn’t ask of others what we weren’t trying to do ourselves.”
Has hindsight taught us that LBJ made mistakes in Vietnam?
“Monday morning quarterbacking is an American pastime,” she said, sure that her dad, looking back at his career, would say that “there were things I would have like to have done differently, if only I had had the information then that I have now.”
The Johnsons have been active in the effort to get the monument built. The late Lady Bird Johnson still is listed as honorary chair of the committee.
These many years later, LBJ’s youngest daughter still feels the connection to the Vietnam-era vets, many of whom wrongfully were scorned when they came home.
“I didn’t come here out of obligation,” she said after reading the names. “I came here out of desire.”