Haunting Legacy

Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 2
Pages: 356
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Haunting Legacy
    Book Description:

    The United States had never lost a war-that is, until 1975, when it was forced to flee Saigon in humiliation after losing to what Lyndon Johnson called a "raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country." The legacy of this first defeat has haunted every president since, especially on the decision of whether to put "boots on the ground" and commit troops to war.

    InHaunting Legacy, the father-daughter journalist team of Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb presents a compelling, accessible, and hugely important history of presidential decisionmaking on one crucial issue: in light of the Vietnam debacle, under what circumstances should the United States go to war?

    The sobering lesson of Vietnam is that the United States is not invincible-it can lose a war-and thus it must be more discriminating about the use of American power. Every president has faced the ghosts of Vietnam in his own way, though each has been wary of being sucked into another unpopular war. Ford (during theMayaguezcrisis) and both Bushes (Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan) deployed massive force, as if to say, "Vietnam, be damned." On the other hand, Carter, Clinton, and Reagan (to the surprise of many) acted with extreme caution, mindful of the Vietnam experience. Obama has also wrestled with the Vietnam legacy, using doses of American firepower in Libya while still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The authors spent five years interviewing hundreds of officials from every post war administration and conducting extensive research in presidential libraries and archives, and they've produced insight and information never before published. Equal parts taut history, revealing biography, and cautionary tale,Haunting Legacyis must reading for anyone trying to understand the power of the past to influence war-and-peace decisions of the present, and of the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2440-7
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. For the first time in American history, the United States lost: not to another superpower, which would have been bad enough, but to a small country in Southeast Asia. “A raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country,” Lyndon Johnson said dismissively.

    It was a humiliating experience for a nation proud of its history of freedom, economic opportunity, and military power. A certain mood of boundless self-confidence seemed to settle into a deepening self-doubt, as though the United States, having suffered its first defeat, had reached a tipping point in its distinguished history. Still a superpower,...

  5. 1 Ford: Finally, the War Ends
    (pp. 7-28)

    When Gerald R. Ford picked up the fallen standard of American policy in Vietnam on August 9, 1974, after replacing the disgraced Richard M. Nixon, he felt “duty bound to honor my predecessor’s commitment.”¹ In fact, each American president since Harry Truman had felt “duty bound” to “honor” his “predecessor’s commitment” to Vietnam. Facing the dangerous challenges of the cold war, they formed a unique partnership on the issue of Vietnam; they became a band of brothers, determined to protect one another’s reputation, and that of the nation.

    On April 12, 1945, when Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Truman became...

  6. 2 Ford and the Mini-Challenge of the Mayaguez
    (pp. 29-40)

    The fighting stopped, but in many ways, the war continued. It was no longer the bloody conflict that had convulsed the nation. Now Vietnam seemed to morph into historical digressions about war, peace, and presidents; code words suggesting unwanted and unwinnable wars; and troubling strategic questions that barged into the Oval Office like unwelcome guests, whether a Democrat or a Republican sat behind the desk.

    One of the best chroniclers of the American presidency,Washington Postreporter Bob Woodward, believes that the Vietnam War runs through the White House and the government like a “bare, 10,000-volt wire.”¹ Not the war...

  7. 3 Carter, Brzezinski, and Russia’s Vietnam
    (pp. 41-82)

    To paraphrase Tolstoy rather severely, all presidents reacted to the American defeat in Vietnam in the same way, except that each reacted in his own way. Gerald Ford, for example, felt the need to send an impressive armada of American power to the Gulf of Thailand not only to recapture a merchant ship hijacked by Cambodian pirates but also to “hose them down,” to unleash the marines, and to bomb Cambodia; “to make it clear we are not getting out of the Pacific,” as one official recalled.¹ Ford wanted the world to understand that the United States was still the...

  8. 4 Reagan, Grenada, Lebanon, and the Marines
    (pp. 83-114)

    Republican mythology has it that Ronald Reagan “won” the cold war: that when he took the oath of office on January 20, 1981, the United States was in free fall, the victim of Jimmy Carter’s mismanagement; and that during Reagan’s eight years in the White House, the United States not only regained its footing but also emerged as leader of the Western world while its archenemy, the Soviet Union, was swiftly losing its superpower status. True, but misleading.

    Reagan was certainly in office during this historic rearrangement of global power, and his policies played an important role in ending the...

  9. 5 Bush I: Burying Vietnam
    (pp. 115-149)

    The presidential campaign of 1988 added a fresh face to American politics—that of a baby boomer named James Danforth Quayle, aged forty-one. Quayle was tapped for the vice presidency on the GOP ticket by presidential candidate George H. W. Bush, thus becoming the first of his heralded generation to enter the top tier of American governance. The Bush-Quayle ticket won handsomely, and the boomer from Huntington, Indiana— boyishlooking, blue-eyed, conservative— suddenly found himself one heartbeat away from the presidency. He seemed utterly unprepared for this challenge, evoking questions of whether he had been prepared for a different challenge earlier...

  10. 6 Clinton: The First Baby-Boomer President
    (pp. 150-185)

    On November 16, 2000, Bill Clinton, the first baby-boomer president, arrived in Hanoi, now the capital of a united Vietnam eager for better relations with its former enemy. He had some unfinished business in this faraway land. The fifty-four-year-old Clinton, nearing the end of his two terms in office, was accompanied by executives from fifty of the biggest American corporations, including Coca-Cola and General Electric.

    As a young man, Clinton had demonstrated against the war and, pulling every string, connived to avoid the draft and therefore service in Vietnam. As president, he wanted to forget the past and focus on...

  11. 7 Bush II: Boots on the Ground
    (pp. 186-219)

    For Bill Clinton, “boots on the ground” was a military option to be avoided if at all possible, no matter the provocation. A cruise missile attack at a terrorist base, a series of bombing runs from 30,000 feet—these could be sanctioned, however grudgingly, but only if the president had assurances from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that casualties, civilian and military, would be limited to an absolute minimum. But to commit American troops to a dangerous mission of uncertain cost and duration? That was another story. Almost automatically in the Clinton White House, the prospect of boots on the...

  12. 8 2004: The Swift Boat Campaign
    (pp. 220-240)

    With only a small leap of imagination, one could argue that the 2004 presidential campaign began on April 22, 1971, when a twenty-seven-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War, dressed in khaki fatigues with four rows of ribbons over his left pocket, delivered a blistering attack on America’s war policy before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The veteran was John Kerry, a Yale graduate from Massachusetts who had volunteered for duty in Vietnam and won two medals for bravery and three Purple Hearts. His testimony, memorable for its force and eloquence, stunned the senators and silenced the impressive chamber, filled with...

  13. 9 Obama: “Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam”
    (pp. 241-285)

    It was late January 2009, and Barack Obama, the newly inaugurated president, young, vigorous, as ambitious as he was inexperienced, was presiding over his first review of national security policy. Confronting a historic economic crisis as well as two wars, Obama had the air of a natural leader, cool under the circumstances. He was determined to be intimidated by no one, not even the Pentagon brass.

    Obama saw the American war in Afghanistan as a twenty-first century example of asymmetrical warfare. It was an insurgency, not a “war on terror,” as his predecessor had labeled it, and American policy had...

  14. 10 “Good Enough”
    (pp. 286-308)

    In 2002 Barack Obama sharply criticized President George W. Bush’s plan to attack Iraq. He said such a war could lead to a “U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”¹ At the beginning of 2010, Obama might, in a reflective moment, have revisited his criticism of Bush. Now, as commander in chief for only one year, he had greatly expanded the size of the American army in Afghanistan. It would soon number 100,000 troops. He did not know how long they would be there, how much the war would cost, or what the consequences would be....

  15. Notes
    (pp. 309-334)
  16. Index to Quotations
    (pp. 335-338)
  17. Index
    (pp. 339-356)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 357-357)