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Vietnam’s ‘Haunting’ of Post-War Presidents Explored in New Book

June 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
"Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama," written by the father and daughter team of Marvin and Deborah Kalb, examines the war's lingering grip on several generations of civilian leaders and military strategists. Judy Woodruff and the authors discuss the shadow still cast by America's "lost war."
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, America’s “lost war” and its lingering hold on several generations of civilian leaders and military strategists.

Judy Woodruff has our book conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s been 36 years since last helicopters lifted off the American Embassy in what was then Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, almost four decades since American troops fought a protracted, costly, and losing war. And ever since, that war and how it was fought has dogged presidents and American military leaders.

That is the premise of a new book, “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.” It’s co-authored by a father-and-daughter writing team, journalists Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb.

And it’s very good to have you both here.

MARVIN KALB, “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama”: Thank you very much.

DEBORAH KALB, “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama”: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marvin Kalb, why do you argue that the Vietnam War and the loss of it was a turning point in American history?

MARVIN KALB: Well, because, up to that point, Judy, the U.S. had never lost a war. And people — friends of mine in Europe have always said, you guys have been so lucky. You don’t know what it is. We have lost many wars, and we adjust.

But, in the United States, it took a long period of adjustments. It’s 36, 37 years now since the end of the war. And we’re still haunted — presidents are — by the way in which that war affects what they think about. Are we going to lose another war? How do we get out of another Vietnam? These issues are on their minds.  

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why has it persisted that way, Deborah Kalb?

DEBORAH KALB: I think that, in addition to the idea that it was the only war that the U.S. lost, it also played an important role in a lot of these presidents’ lives.

And there’s three different sort of mini-generations of presidents that we look at in the book. The first are the ones who are more the World War II — or just missed serving in the World War II — generation. They were already serving as governors or in Congress during the war. It was more their children’s generation who was affected.

But for a number of these presidents, the baby boomers, it was a real life decision about whether to go serve or not that really carried through their entire life. We go into a lot of detail about — for example, with George W. Bush. And also we have a chapter on John Kerry and the swift boats. So it’s — now we’re at the third generation with President Obama, who was too young to serve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, even with this third generation, as you say, President Obama too young to have served in Vietnam, he read about it, studied it in school.

MARVIN KALB: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It has still affected these presidents differently, and as — and, you write, particularly Democrats. Why is that?

MARVIN KALB: Democrats have always been saddled with the responsibility for losing wars. That’s what Republicans have said.

And, since 1949, Richard Nixon came in, when Harry Truman was there as president, when China turned communist. And Richard Nixon asked, who lost China? And I hear from people at the White House right now that, among Obama’s closest people, one of the reasons why they’re so careful with Afghanistan is they don’t want to lose it.

They lose it, Obama loses the election next year. So, they are very mindful of the legacy of a lost war like Vietnam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Deborah Kalb, do you get a sense from — you — and, by the way, you all worked on this over, what, five or six years.

DEBORAH KALB: Five or six years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You learned — there’s an enormous amount of fresh reporting in here.

Do you come away with the sense that one president more than the others understood Vietnam, got the message, the legacy of Vietnam better than the others?

DEBORAH KALB: That’s a great question.

I think one of the presidents that seemed to get maybe to some degree more than some of others in the way we talk about it is George H.W. Bush, who spoke about burying the lessons of Vietnam in the sands of Arabia. He went to a certain point in the Gulf War, stopped at a certain point, came out looking successful at that point.

Of course, a year later, he lost the election to Bill Clinton. But at that point, he did seem like he had learned the lessons in a way that some of the others presidents didn’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is there a president, Marvin Kalb, who least understood the lessons of Vietnam?

MARVIN KALB: Well, it’s a funny thing. I think they all understood it in their own way.

For example, Ronald Reagan — when 241 Marines were murdered in their barracks in Beirut in October of 1983, Reagan wrote in these marvelous letters, the American people have been spooked — that’s his verb — by the experience in Vietnam, and I don’t want to give them another Vietnam. And so we’re not doing to do anything.

And he pulled his forces, pulled American troops out of Lebanon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do bring it right up to the future, Deborah Kalb, in writing about what President Obama is dealing with today.

You both write that — that President Obama wanted more than anything to believe that Vietnam was behind him. That’s what he believed in the campaign. But, pretty quickly, he found out that wasn’t the case.

DEBORAH KALB: Right.

I mean, in an early meeting, he said to his advisers, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. He wanted to make a clear separation. But we describe in the book that there were basically two schools of thought and two books that they were reading at the time at the White House and in the Pentagon that were both going back to Vietnam and lessons of Vietnam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The books they were looking at, Marvin, were taking different lessons from what Vietnam meant.

MARVIN KALB: Totally different lessons.

The White House was reading a book called “Lessons in Disaster,” and it had to do with the period of 1962 to ’65. And Mac Bundy was the national security adviser for both Kennedy and Johnson. And the book points out that, time and time again, he simply made the wrong call.

The American presidents and the people around them, unfortunately, were vastly ignorant of what was going on in Vietnam. They saw Vietnam in a Cold War context. They had to win, and yet they lost. And so presidents after keep looking back at that experience and say, we can’t run that risk.

Obama, in his mind, lives with the legacy of Vietnam, even though he keeps telling everybody: I am post-Vietnam. I’m post-Cold War. I’m a new kind of leader.

And it haunts him. He can’t get away from it.

DEBORAH KALB: He has to sort of steer a middle course because he’s vulnerable to criticism either way. If he keeps more troops in and doesn’t pull them out quickly, he faces criticism that it’s too costly, too expensive, at a time when we don’t have a lot of money.

On the other hand, if he pulls them out, you could get back to the “Who lost China?” issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marvin Kalb, will the United States ever come out from under the — the weight, the cloud of Vietnam? Will we ever come to a point where Vietnam has receded so far back in our memories, that it won’t have this old on American presidents?

MARVIN KALB: It’s a very interesting question, Judy.

You know that we had already seemed, with George Bush number two, to be emerging from Vietnam. He said, in effect, Vietnam, be damned. He didn’t want to deal with Vietnam at all.

And, yet, when he dealt with Stephen Hadley, his national security adviser, Hadley asked him: Are we going to get stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq the way — the way Johnson was stuck in Vietnam? And George Bush said: You can count on it; we will never be in that position again.

And yet he was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, maybe it will have a permanent hold on American leaders?

DEBORAH KALB: I think it probably will, because it is sort of the lost war. And it really carries a lot of emotional weight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back to my original comment, the father and daughter, what’s it like, Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb, working together, father/daughter?

MARVIN KALB: I will leave it to Debbie to…

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have seen — we have seen husband/wife collaborations. What about this?

DEBORAH KALB: This has been a wonderful experience. My father is a great journalist.

(LAUGHTER)

DEBORAH KALB: He’s a great person. And I have learned an incredible amount. I think you feel like, when you’re in your 40s, like I am, that it’s a really special privilege to work with someone from an older generation, who you can learn so much from, especially when he’s your father. So…

MARVIN KALB: And my — my lesson on the whole thing is, make sure that the daughter you work for is Debbie.  

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great lessons from both of you.

Deborah Kalb, Marvin Kalb, we thank you very much.

The book is “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.”

We thank you.

MARVIN KALB: Thank you, Judy.

DEBORAH KALB: Thank you.