My War Story

I was first sent to Vietnam in the summer of 1965 as a journalist. I stayed for 13 months, was wounded, then returned for four more reporting tours, the last in 1973 to cover the cease-fire. While there, I did television reports for NBC News, primarily for the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and the “Today” show. I also filed stories for NBC Radio.

My camera crew and I were covering a unit of the 101st Airborne north of Saigon. The U.S. troops laid an ambush along a trail. But the Vietcong, hiding in the jungle on the far side of the trail, opened fire on the American troops. A fire-fight ensued. A grenade fragment pierced my chest and lodged in my lung, possible from an American grenade.

Based on several experiences covering a battle with my camera crew and then hearing a very different, more up-beat official version at the nightly U.S. military briefing, I did not believe the South Vietnamese could prevail when I left Vietnam.  After having so many horrifying experiences in Vietnam, after losing friends there, almost dying of my wound there, it was an extremely emotional experience.  I have a tape of my announcement that the last American troops had been withdrawn. My voice is very high and shaky.

After Vietnam, I was a correspondent for NBC News and covered the investigation and resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. When President Nixon appointed Ford as his new vice president, NBC assigned me to cover him. When Nixon resigned and Ford became president, NBC made me its White House correspondent. And when Ford’s first press secretary, Jerry terHorst resigned to protest the pardon of Nixon, Ford asked me to be his new press secretary.

People under 40 have no first-hand recollection of the Vietnam War, so they are not as affected by it as our generation was. Nevertheless, the Vietnam War, and the protests against the war, have made all recent presidents much more cautious about involving America militarily in distant lands.

Ron Nessen is currently a journalist in residence at The Brookings Institution. From 1974 to 1976, he served as press secretary to President Gerald Ford. Prior to that position, Nessen completed five tours as an NBC war correspondent in Vietnam and later served as NBC News White House correspondent during the Johnson administration.