Ward Just, an ex-journalist who found larger truths in fiction, dies at 84
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Ward Just, an ex-journalist who found larger truths in fiction, dies at 84
Ward Just at his home on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard in 1999. Just, a journalist for whom the Vietnam War was both a personal trauma and a national tragedy, inspiring him to write novels about people whose lives are shaped by war, political intrigue, myopic diplomats and various forces beyond their control, died on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, at a hospital in Plymouth, Mass. He was 84. Alison Shaw/The New York Times.

by David Stout

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Ward Just, a journalist for whom the Vietnam War was both a personal trauma and a national tragedy, inspiring him to write novels about people whose lives are shaped by war, political intrigue, myopic diplomats and various forces beyond their control, died Thursday at a hospital in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was 84.

His daughter Julie Just said the cause was Lewy body dementia.

Just was recognized not only as a prominent reporter on the Vietnam War, like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett and several others, but also as a novelist and short-story writer of the first rank. His spare and graceful prose in a score of novels and numerous short stories was compared to Ernest Hemingway’s, while his perceptions about American society reminded some critics of Henry James.

“The milieu I knew as a reporter is the milieu I write about, the world of journalists, politicians, diplomats and soldiers,” Just said in 1987.

His novel “Echo House,” about three generations in a family of Washington power brokers, was a finalist for a National Book Award in 1997. “An Unfinished Season,” a novel about rabid anti-communism, labor unrest and class differences in the United States in the 1950s, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

The Vietnam War, which he covered for The Washington Post, was the formative experience of his life. “I find it so profoundly sad, such an appalling waste,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1982. “I keep trying to find something that will redeem it in some way, and I can’t.”

On June 8, 1966, he was peppered with fragments from a North Vietnamese grenade as the U.S. unit he was with came under attack in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Trembling and in shock, he was given morphine.

“The medic tackled me and punched the needle into my arm and began to bandage my head and back,” he recalled. “My hands and legs were still shaking, but I was all right.”

After a hospital stay, he went back to covering the war; he finally left South Vietnam in May 1967. But instead of returning to the United States, he took a leave of absence from The Post, staying in Ireland for several months to write his first book, “To What End? Report From Vietnam,” published in 1968.

“Very few civilians who were in Vietnam for more than a year could argue convincingly in support of the American presence,” Just wrote, observing that the Americans were seen by many South Vietnamese not as liberators but as new colonizers, taking the place of the French. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Just said his opinion about “that confounding war” had not changed.

Just did not blame front-line soldiers for what he saw as the misjudgments of generals and political leaders. A major and a captain in the unit involved in the 1966 clash in which he was wounded were “quite simply admired, as men and as soldiers” by their troops, he observed. “They were brave men, without being excessively reckless or self-conscious about it.”

But Just could be unsparing in judging the top brass. In a Times review in 1976, he panned “A Soldier Reports,” a memoir by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam from 1964 to mid-1968. Just described the memoir, in which the general placed much of the blame for the war’s outcome on cynical and defeatist journalists, as “petulant” and self-justifying, and showing more concern about the war’s effects on his Army than on his country.

In the 2017 interview with The Times, Just said Westmoreland was wrong to think that the United States could ever have won a war of attrition. Perhaps, Just said, the United States might have “won” by waging total war against North Vietnam, using atomic weapons or carpet bombing until the North’s cities were destroyed and the countryside left barren. “But what kind of ‘victory’ would that have been?”

Ward Swift Just was born in Michigan City, Indiana, on Sept. 5, 1935, to Franklin Ward Just and Elizabeth (Swift) Just and grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, and nearby Lake Forest. His father, like his grandfather, was the publisher of The Waukegan News-Sun. (The newspaper remained in the family until 1983, when Ward Just and several relatives sold their stock.)

He attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, found it a bad fit and left without a degree. He was then briefly a reporter at his family’s newspaper. For about a year he worked in the Chicago bureau of Newsweek before being assigned to the magazine’s Washington bureau, then headed by Benjamin Bradlee.

Just arrived in Washington just before the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, “a magical time” in the capital, as Just recalled later. He worked briefly for Reporter magazine, then became a London correspondent for Newsweek. When Bradlee became managing editor of The Washington Post in 1965, he recruited Just. By Christmas of 1965, Just was on his way to Saigon.

Besides the Vietnam War, Just covered the presidential race of 1968, reporting on the campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination as an anti-war candidate, and Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee who emerged triumphant. He also reported from Latin America and Europe.

In the 2017 interview, Just said he had stayed in the newspaper business “for about a year too long.” Those final months were spent writing editorials for The Post. “I felt silly commenting on news instead of digging it out,” he said.

Just’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Sarah Catchpole, with whom he lived in Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; his daughter Julie, a former editor at The New York Times, and another daughter, Jennifer Just, both from his first marriage, to Jean Ramsay; a son, Ian, from his second marriage, to Anne Burling; and six grandchildren. Just’s sister, Joy Steiner, died several years ago.

Before moving to Martha’s Vineyard, Just lived for a time in rural Vermont while establishing himself as a novelist. His first novel, “A Soldier of the Revolution,” published in 1970, is set in an unnamed Latin American country in which a former monk is kidnapped by anti-government guerrillas and finds that he believes in their cause.

To judge from his own words, Just turned to fiction because, paradoxically, he was searching for some larger truth. Looking back at his reporting career in a 1973 profile in The Post, he said, “Facts don’t lead you very far. Facts don’t lead you to the truth; they just lead to more facts.”

Decades into his novel-writing, Just was still toiling on manual typewriters (he had a dozen or so) because, he said, he didn’t want to take time off from writing to master the computer.

Some critics consider “In the City of Fear,” which was published in 1982 and depicts Washington during the Vietnam era, to be Just’s most ambitious novel. But he said his favorite was “American Romantic.” Published in 2014, it follows the life of Harry Sanders, a foreign service officer, from his posting in Southeast Asia in the ominous early 1960s, to Africa, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.

As he ages and tires, Sanders has more wisdom but fewer certainties, describing himself to a listener as “like a blind man in a dark room searching for a black cat that isn’t there.”

“And do you want to know something else?” Sanders goes on. “The stakes are not small. This world is filled with mischief, and more than mischief.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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