Sorry Hillary, but Pat Nixon was first First Lady in combat zone

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Sen. Clinton erred again today even as she admitted she misspoke about her experience in Bosnia as First Lady:

Clinton backpedalled Tuesday, saying that she had “made a mistake in describing it. “We were … very much told by the Secret Service and the military that we were going into a war zone and that we had to be conscious of that,” Clinton told an audience. “I was the first first lady taken into a war zone since Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II.”

Pat Nixon’s biographer, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, wrote as follows in Pat Nixon: The Untold Story (1986):

The [July 1969 South Vietnam] visit marked the first time that a First Lady had been in a combat zone, although another First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, had also visited troops on her numerous travels to England and throughout the South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand during World War II. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger later described how the President and his party were “whisked from the airport to the Presidential Palace in a helicopter that seemed to go straight up out of range of possible sniper fire and then plummeted between the trees of [President] Thieu’s offices. I never learned how often the pilots had rehearsed this maneuver or,” he added ruefully, “how its risk compared with that of sniper fire.” While my father met with President Thieu, Madame Thieu hosted a formal tea for Mother in the Presidential Palace. The palace was an armed fortress, with sandbags in every entrance to douse fires from shelling and bombing attacks. Mrs. Thieu told Mother she had sent her children to the country, out of danger of the war zone, and how much she missed them.

Precautions for Mrs. Nixon’s security made her contacts with the Vietnamese during the one-day visit very difficult. At the Thuduc orphanage, where 774 children were housed, the hordes of Secret Service agents, reporters, military guards, and the din of the army helicopters whirring overhead all but drowned out any words spoken inside the buildings constructed years before by the French. As Mother emerged from the hospital, she saw fighter jets above the thick shield of circling helicopters. Their shrill whine added to the overpowering noise.

Soon she was in an open-door military helicopter flying 18 miles north of Saigon to visit the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh. Occasionally she caught glimpses of scattered U.S. troops on the ground below. The agents who traveled with her were armed with machine guns and bandoliers loaded with cartridges slung across their shoulders. In the news dispatches filed from Saigon on July 30, one correspondent wrote:

“Mrs. Richard Nixon risked her safety and possibly her good relations with some diplomats, brass and bureaucrats in Vietnam today. In trips to an orphanage, to a GI field hospital, and her exchanges with high-ranking officials, she made it clear she had little time for high-level formalities and wanted to see more of the men who were hurt and the children who had suffered….At the hospital, officials tried to tell her all about what they do. She brushed them aside. ‘I don’t really want to learn about the hospital. I came to see the boys,’ Mrs. Nixon said.”

She spent more than two hours there, visiting personally with each man, sometimes jotting down names and addresses so that she could let families at home know their sons were all right. [White House press aide] Pat Gates remembers how Mother several times got down on her knees next to the wounded men in order to talk privately with them.

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