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J U N E 2 0 1 1 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
compelling, eminently readable as-
sessment of the long shadow cast over
the American presidency by the Viet-
namWar. Appropriately titled
ing Legacy
, their well-documented
book draws on recent interviews with
top policymakers from the Vietnam
War era through today.
The Kalbs’ provocative thesis is that
“Vietnam has infiltrated the presiden-
tial DNA, even though presidents have
struggled with this DNA in different
ways.” To make that case, they pres-
ent insightful, succinct accounts of
what they call the “lessons of Vietnam”
— some learned, some forgotten,
some misunderstood — as presidents
from Gerald Ford through Barack
Obama have applied them.
As the authors point out, President
Obama was only 13 years old when
U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War
ended with helicopters taking off from
the rooftop of Embassy Saigon, creat-
ing unforgettable images. But like his
predecessors, he, too, continues to deal
with the pervasive legacy of that war —
even though the battlefields, the tech-
nology used and the purpose of U.S.
military intervention have all evolved a
great deal since.
In successive chapters the authors
trace the major military events of each
presidency, beginning with the 1975
incident, to which Pres-
ident Ford ordered a muscular re-
sponse. Their narrative ends in the
spring of 2011 during Obama’s strug-
gle with the decision about troop levels
in Afghanistan, on which he was out-
maneuvered by the Pentagon. (As for
the other military commitment that
has dominated his time in office, by the
time you read this review virtually all
American troops in Iraq — “boots on
the ground,” in the parlance of Viet-
nam War draftees — will have come
home, just as Pres. Obama promised.)
That legacy affects not only foreign
policy but domestic politics, as well.
The military service records of presi-
dential and vice presidential candi-
dates throughout American history, as
the Kalbs point out, form a checkered
pattern. Traditionally, such credentials
led to the election of war heroes, from
GeorgeWashington through Ulysses S.
Grant and Dwight Eisenhower.
In recent years, however, Bill Clin-
ton’s defeat of World War II fighter
pilot George H.W. Bush, the defeat of
Swift Boat veteran John Kerry and the
rejection of a Vietnam war hero, Sena-
tor John McCain, have run counter to
the pattern of military men going from
the battlefield to the White House.
The Vietnam War generated many
distinctive concepts and terms for the
discourse about U.S. military commit-
ments abroad. Some of these remain
prominent today: “Afghanistanization,”
“quagmire,” “boots on the ground” and
“exit strategy,” to mention just a few.
While the role of the Foreign Serv-
ice is expressly beyond the scope of
this book, I hope it will inspire readers
to explore the rich oral history collec-
tion compiled and maintained by the
Association for Diplomatic Studies
and Training
( T
they will find instructive background
material about this period, both under
the rubric of Vietnam and the names
of individual Foreign Service person-
nel who served there, to supplement
the contents of this important study.
Aurelius (Aury) Fernandez, a retired
USIA FSO, did not serve in Vietnam
but still recalls the specter of a potential
assignment there. He has served as
AFSA Governing Board secretary and
as a member of the FSJ Editorial
Inside a
U.S. Embassy
for details.
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Reading Suggestions?
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and State Department
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