Vietnam’s Ghosts: Still Alive in the U.S. Government

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A timely reminder...

There is really nothing new in the war game, as Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama by the father-daughter team of Marvin and Deborah Kalb makes clear. It could hardly be more timely, as America and its leaders grapple with the challenges posed by Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – all at once. The pair summons the ghosts of Vietnam, which sometimes flit about offices inside the White House, State Department and Pentagon even today. Marvin Kalb spent 30 years covering foreign affairs and other issues for CBS and NBC news before teaching at Harvard. Deborah Kalb spent two decades as a Washington journalist for Gannett News Service, Congressional Quarterly, and U.S. News & World Report. Marvin Kalb had this email exchange with Battleland over the weekend:

Why did you write Haunting Legacy?

The Vietnam War was the only war the U.S. ever lost, and it left a deep scar on the American psyche. From then on, American presidents, whenever faced with the need to send troops to war, worried about getting trapped in another Vietnam, meaning another war without a clear mission, without an exit strategy, without Congressional support. Deborah and I wanted to explore this crucial dimension of recent American history. That’s the reason we wrote the book.

What surprised you about what you found as you wrote it?

What surprised us most was the way Vietnam, in many guises, kept reappearing in presidential deliberations about war and peace. One would think that 35 years after the war ended, its political and strategic lethality would end too. But it hasn’t. Vietnam keeps influencing presidents, like an uninvited guest to dinner who refuses to leave the table.

Explain how Vietnam has manifested itself in our current conflicts.

In many ways. I shall address only two.

In October, 1983, 241 Marines were murdered in their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon by Islamic fanatics. President Reagan knew exactly who they were, where they were, but he took no action against them. In fact, he pulled American troops out of Lebanon a few months later. He explained in very revealing letters that the American people had been “spooked” by Vietnam, and he didn’t want to put them through a similar experience again.

When President Obama ran for office in 2008, he paid the obligatory visit to the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. He invited Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to accompany him. On the 14-hour flight to the wars, he asked both colleagues about the lessons of Vietnam, not about Afghanistan.

When he opened his first National Security Council meeting, after assuming office, he pronounced: “Afghanistan is not Vietnam.” Why raise Vietnam, if it were not very much on his mind? His first decision was to beef up American forces in Afghanistan, because he did not want to run the risk of losing the war, which would have been reminiscent of Vietnam and disastrous for a liberal Democratic president.

Marvin and Deborah Kalb discuss their new book with Ted Koppel recently / Photo by The George Washington University

Vietnam is viewed as a war we lost. Did we? Is that a fair conclusion?

The U.S. lost the Vietnam War. No doubt about it. Whether you argue it was the result of faulty strategy or Congressional refusal to fund the war any further, the U.S. lost and the communists won. Some people argue that we also lost the War of 1812. We did not lose that war. In fact, after the British sacked Washington in 1812, the U.S. went on to win quite a few major battles, and the war ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent, which made it clear both sides emerged from the conflict with their heads held high.

How did the presence of the draft make Vietnam different than today’s wars?

The draft during the Vietnam War meant that many served in Vietnam against their will. Anti-war demonstrations spread from one anxious campus to another. President Nixon decided early in his administration to end the draft as one way of discouraging demonstrations. An all-volunteer army was then created, and it is this volunteer army that has been fighting for the U.S. ever since. Very few anti-war demonstrations happen, principally because there is no draft.

Should Congress be compelled to declare war?

That is a very tough question. Ever since World War II, the U.S. has fought many wars without a single declaration of war, as stipulated in the Constitution. Congressional resolutions authorizing wars have become a convenient substitute. One reason is that a declaration implies a total dedication to fighting and winning the war in question, and no president wants to make such a commitment at this time–nor does the Congress.

Why do you think our troops today are treated so much better than our Vietnam troops were when they came home?

One reason is that during the Vietnam war the troops were fighting an unpopular war with rising casualties and little reward. Now, though the wars may still be unpopular, we live in a post-9/11 environment, in which the American people and their government are united in their opposition to terrorism. It is patriotic to be fighting terrorists who hurt the U.S. and killed many Americans. That wasn’t the case in Vietnam.

Who do you believe was most responsible for the quagmire than Vietnam became?

In a way everyone was responsible. No one understood Vietnam, its people, history, religion and culture. We stumbled into a colonial war run by France and converted it foolishly into an anti-communist cause, forgetting all the while that the Vietnamese were inspired by a strong sense of nationalism and a determination to unite as one country. We saw Vietnam as part of the Cold War.

When you visit the Vietnam wall, what do you tell those 58,000 names etched into black granite?

I did not fight in Vietnam–I just covered the war. My war was Korea. What I tell the 58,000-plus who died in Vietnam is that I pray that next time an American president sends troops abroad to fight, it be for a clear goal, with a carefully thought-through strategy, with popular and Congressional support, and with the tools to do the job and with an exit strategy in mind that satisfies the interests of the American people.