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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2
n Thursday, Nov. 3, renowned journal-
ist Marvin Kalb and his daughter, Deb-
orah Kalb, a freelance writer and editor,
spoke about their book,
Haunting Legacy:
Vietnam and the American Presidency from
Ford to Obama
(Brookings Institution Press,
2011), to a large audience at AFSA headquar-
“On April 30, 1975, the U.S. experienced
the humiliation of the first war in its history
that it ignominiously and unmistakably lost,”
said Marvin Kalb. “The loss has forced presi-
dents and their administrations to ponder
under what circumstances do we send Amer-
ican forces abroad.”
While the legacy of Vietnam may not al-
ways have been the decisive reason a president
reached a certain decision, Kalb pointed out,
it was always a factor.
“Will this become another Vietnam?” is the
question that has haunted each of the seven ad-
ministrations that followed the war. To make
that case, Kalb chose to discuss three presidencies: Ronald Rea-
gan, George Herbert Walker Bush and Barack Obama.
Pressure for Action
“As a journalist, I never gave Reagan too much credit for
depth or sensitivity,”he recalled. But after reading Reagan’s let-
ters and diaries during the course of research for
, he admitted that he was wrong. “In his writings, Rea-
gan comes across as a nuanced person.”
In October 1983, 241 U.S. Marines were killed in their bar-
racks by Islamic fanatics in Beirut. Despite extraordinary pres-
sure to take action from his advisers — who feared not
retaliating would send the wrong message to Islamic terrorists
— President Reagan did nothing.
“Why?” asked Kalb. “Because he didn’t want a repeat of the
Vietnam experience. Reagan didn’t want anything that smack-
ed of the idea of loss.”
In October 1990, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait
forced the American administration to prepare for war and,
once again, face the specter of Vietnam.
“Of the seven presidents we studied, George H.W. Bush ran
the most effective foreign policy operation,” Kalb stated. “He
had an incredible rolodex, which he used to great diplomatic
effect. He was constantly on the phone.”
Haunting Legacy
quotes from Bush’s diary, revealing his
concern that “We’ve got to prepare the Congress for any action
I might have to take, and the more phone calls we make under
the heading of consultation, the better it is.”
Despite British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher’s entreaty to the president, “Don’t
wobble, George,” Bush was undecided about
sending troops to the Middle East. Kalb told
the audience that Brent Scowcroft, Bush’s na-
tional security adviser, wrote in his diary that
Congress had a “lingering fear of a drawn-out
foreign military entanglement — remnants of
the ‘Vietnam syndrome.’”
The Powell Doctrine
In the end, what came to be known as the
Powell Doctrine — advice given by General
Colin Powell, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
who had served in Vietnam — is what influ-
enced the president to go to war. The doc-
trine lays out the conditions that must be
present for the United States to commit
troops: a clear military and political objective;
overwhelming use of military force; congres-
sional and popular support; a way out; and
the prospect of victory.
“Barack Obama was 13 years old when Vietnam ended,”
noted Kalb, so there is no logical reason for Obama to carry
Vietnam within him. Obviously, Afghanistan is not Vietnam,
and Obama was not going to go down that road in any case. By
increasing the troops in Afghanistan, he intended to signal that
he was not going to be a president to lose another war.
But instead, Kalb stated, “he is just kicking the can down
the road.” Kalb opined that President Obama is looking at a
“good enough” ending for Iraq and Afghanistan — it doesn’t
have to be a win. But, he suggested, “good enough” may no
longer be good enough.
Deborah Kalb told the audience that the father-daughter
team had originally planned on writing a book on John Kerry
versus the Swift Boat Veterans for Peace, but their publisher
wasn’t interested. As they continued their research, they turned
to a comparison of the optimism of World War II’s “greatest
generation” with the negativity of the veterans and those who
came of age during the VietnamWar.
Ultimately, the research led them to the presidency and an
examination of how Vietnam influenced each president’s bi-
ography, presidential campaign and foreign policy decision-
Haunting Legacy
took six years to complete.
The AFSA Book Notes program closed with an engaging
Q-and-A session. Please visit
events.aspx for future AFSA Book Notes programs and other
AFSA Book Notes: Father-Daughter Team
Discusses the Specter of Vietnam
Deborah Kalb recalls their path to
Haunting Legacy.
Marvin Kalb asserts that Vietnam re-
mains a factor.