A. J. Langguth, a former Saigon bureau chief for The New York Times who went on to become an educator and an author of nonfiction books ranging from a study of the Vietnam War to a biography of the short-story writer Saki, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 81.
The cause was respiratory failure, his close friends said.
Mr. Langguth, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California’s journalism school, wrote more than a dozen books, including “Macumba: White and Black Magic in Brazil” (1975), “Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975” (2000), volumes on American history and the fall of Rome, and several satirical novels.
His latest book, “After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace,” a history of Reconstruction, will be published this year by Simon & Schuster.
“He was not a historian and was concerned about being called a historian because he said there were experts who were,” said Charles Fleming, a friend whose father, Karl Fleming, covered the civil rights movement for Newsweek. He added, “What he saw lacking was the vivid human story in history.”
Mr. Langguth’s biography “Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro” (1981) included six Saki short stories that had never been published.
As a journalist Mr. Langguth was on the front lines during a tumultuous period, reporting under the byline Jack Langguth. He had covered the 1960 presidential campaign for Look magazine before joining The Times. During the Vietnam War he was a Southeast Asia correspondent for the paper in 1964 and the Saigon bureau chief in 1965. He returned there twice, in 1968 and ’70, on assignment for The New York Times Magazine.
Earlier, he had covered civil rights protests in the Deep South for The Times and the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, including the trial of Jack Ruby, who had fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect in the assassination.
Last year, Mr. Langguth wrote an op-ed article in The Los Angeles Times about his relationship as a reporter with Oswald’s mother, Marguerite Oswald, who died in 1981. He recalled how he took her out for Christmas dinner in 1963, and how he had pitied her. When she asked him to observe other restaurant patrons to see if they knew who she was, he recalled, he told her: “You were right, Mrs. Oswald. Everybody recognized you.”
“It was Christmas, and that lie was all I had to give her,” he wrote.
Arthur John Langguth was born on July 11, 1933, in Minneapolis and grew up there the only child of parents who ran a grocery business. He was a 1955 graduate of Harvard College, where he was president of The Harvard Crimson. Early in his career, he was a reporter for The Valley Times in Los Angeles. He joined the U.S.C. faculty in 1976.
He never married and left no immediate survivors. “His books were his children,” Mr. Fleming said.
Joseph Saltzman, a professor of journalism and communication at U.S.C., described Mr. Langguth as an author who was confident in his reporting and writing skills but who projected a humility that may have kept him from achieving greater fame.
“Years from now,” Mr. Saltzman said, people will look at Mr. Langguth’s range of books and “say, ‘This couldn’t be one writer.’ ”