In 2009, as the Obama administration debated expanding the war in Afghanistan, two books with sharply different takes on another generation’s defining conflict seeped into the thinking of top policymakers. “Lessons in Disaster,” by Gordon Goldstein, argued that the Vietnam War was lost, in part, because the White House poorly understood and mismanaged it. Goldstein’s work quickly “zoomed to the top of the best-seller list at the [Obama] White House,” the father-daughter team Marvin and Deborah Kalb write in “Haunting Legacy.”
The second book, Lewis Sorley’s “A Better War,” argued that U.S. military forces could have prevailed in Vietnam with better support from Congress. According to the Kalbs, it was a favorite at the Pentagon, which was pushing Obama to increase troop levels.
The competing pull of the two historical texts neatly illustrates the central premise of “Haunting Legacy”: that Vietnam “runs like a bleeding wound through recent American history, affecting every president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama and raising profound questions about their prerogatives and powers.” Whether the United States is faced with hostages in Iran or a recalcitrant dictator in Iraq, the specter of Vietnam is always there. In the Kalbs’ words, it “has infiltrated the presidential DNA.”
Marvin Kalb was one of the fabled “Murrow Boys” at CBS, made Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” hosted “Meet the Press” and was a founding director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. His daughter is a freelance journalist who has written for Congressional Quarterly and the Hill among others.
The Kalbs take on a challenging task. They are attempting to ascribe a common motivating factor — the echoes of the Vietnam War — to decisions taken by U.S. presidents over more than three decades. These choices were made under a variety of geopolitical conditions, which only adds to the degree of difficulty for the authors. How, for instance, to reconcile the overwhelming force and quick exit employed by President George H.W. Bush in the 1991 Gulf War with President Bill Clinton’s reluctance to use ground troops in the Balkans? How does President Ronald Reagan’s decision not to retaliate with military force for the 1983 barracks bombing that killed 241 Marines in Beirut compare with President George W. Bush’s invasion and long occupation of Iraq?
The Kalbs paraphraseTolstoy by saying that “all presidents reacted to the American defeat in Vietnam in the same way, except that each reacted in his own way.” The authors conclude that President Ford went for a showy display of military force in 1975, when the merchant marine ship Mayaguez was seized off the Cambodian coast, because he wanted to prove that the United States was “not a ‘paper tiger.’ ” But four years later, they argue, President Jimmy Carter delayed action after Iranians seized the U.S. embassy and then responded with a “pathetically small” display of power — because he hoped to put Vietnam behind the nation and achieve a “bloodless solution.”
The Kalbs are at their best when they draw from their own fascinating, high-level interviews. The internecine conflicts of the Obama administration come to life through the story of Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA and National Security Council expert on Middle East terrorism whom the president asked to write a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Riedel, who the Kalbs say was under pressure from the Pentagon, told the authors that he “ran into ‘the ghost of Vietnam’ in the ‘halls of the White House.’ ” “Riedel spoke of one anxious adviser after another,” they write. Riedel observed that “you can barely have a conversation with” Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, “when he doesn’t talk about Vietnam.” Then-house speaker Nancy Pelosi worried that her constituents in San Francisco would start calling Afghanistan “another Vietnam,” Riedel told the authors.
Occasionally, the Kalbs rely too heavily on the work of other reporters (The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward is mentioned by name in the text no fewer than eight times) or seem unwilling to delve deeper into some of their source’s assertions. They write that Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, suggested that the withdrawal of Marines from Beirut “opened the door to the terrorism that has plagued the region and the world ever since.” “I am convinced we could have stopped it then, just as it was starting,’” McFarlane told the authors, “but Reagan chose not to.” That’s a heavy load to lay on Reagan, one that begs for deeper analysis that never comes.
The idea that Vietnam affects the thinking of U.S. presidents is not a new one, but the Kalbs have made a solid contribution to a discussion that is sure to endure. Now that President Obama has laid out his plan to begin a pullout of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Kalbs’ ending, which tweaks Sen. John Kerry’s famous lines about Vietnam, is all the more telling. “Who will be the last American to die for [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai?” they ask. “Who will be the last American to die in Afghanistan?”
Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama
By Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb
Brookings. 355 pp. $29.95