In her later years, former First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson would recall that the subtle way in which the Vietnam War grew to consume her husband and his presidency, it being slow and steady, yet in fits and starts, the response to a military action by communist North Vietnamese into South Vietnam, the initiation of a new strategy to prevent growing strength by the north
“I couldn’t handle the war in Vietnam,” she said in 1988, “I wasn’t big enough.” Unlike all the foreign conflicts the U.S. had previously entered, the Vietnam War was one which evolved, without a formal declaration of war passed by Congress.
What Mrs. Johnson most of all recalled about the war were the mounting numbers, by the tens of thousands, of young Americans drafted to fight.
At a certain point, she never again had a day when she was unaware of the men either being sent to Vietnam or returning from there, dead, wounded or fully surviving.
One midnight, arriving back in Washington’s Union Station after an evening in New York, she noticed dozens of floral arrangements being unloaded.
Instinctively, she knew these were being sent to cover the freshly-dug graves of men killed in Vietnam.
After that, she said, “It was hard to think of anything else.”
Throughout the latter years of the Johnson Administration, there were an ever-increasing number of Vietnam vets in attendance at holiday and other receptions, oftentimes carried in on stretchers or rolled in on wheelchairs.
The meaning of being a veteran of this particular and controversial military action was never far from the consciousness of this First Lady: among them were counted her two sons-in-law.
While neither of Pat Nixon’s sons-in-law saw active duty in South Vietnam, the First Lady herself came close to witnessing it herself. Joining the President on a dangerous visit to the embattled nation, she was the first First Lady to enter an active combat zone since Eleanor Roosevelt.
During her time there, Mrs. Nixon spent nearly all of it focused on the troops – both those on break from the field and those being cared for in medic hospital units. American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict was ended by President Nixon in January of 1973.
From that time until his resignation nineteen months later, there was little direct interaction which the First Lady then had with veterans of the war, save for the notable exception of a unique White House state dinner she and the President hosted in a tent on the South Lawn for returned Prisoners of War, or POWS.
During the Vietnam War in her role as First Lady of California, Nancy Reagan undertook various efforts on behalf of those who had served in Vietnam but returned home wounded and disabled.
When she agreed to write a syndicated newspaper column, she turned over the proceeds to the National League pf Families of American POW-MIA.
In more recent years, First Ladies have continued to give focus on members of the armed services and veterans.
During the Gulf War, Barbara Bush joined her husband in visiting troops at their bases in the Middle East, once sharing a Thanksgiving with them.
As First Lady Hillary Clinton became a strong advocate for the first full investigation into the damage caused to many veterans by the chemical “Agent Orange,” and prompted congressional action on their behalf.
Although public accessibility to the White House became limited after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Laura Bush made tours and events like the Easter Egg Roll especially available to the families of active military fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; she also made frequent trips to Walter Reed Hospital’s rehabilitative center.
Few First Ladies have so overtly committed to the well- being of active and retired members of the U.S. military and their families than has Michelle Obama.
Since she became First Lady, she has focused primarily on two public campaigns, “Get Moving!” which involves nutrition and exercise, and also “Joining Forces.”
Mrs. Obama jointly undertook the creation of “Joining Forces,” from a 2008 campaign promise she made during the primaries and with Second Lady Jill Biden, she has helped establish its developing of numerous programs providing support to military families with health care, housing, employment and socialization.