The Vietnam War Ghost: Does It Still Live in Obama's White House?

Read it and weep, Sophocles.

The war in Vietnam is the American tragedy of our lifetimes. The saddest part of the story is that it's not over yet. Long after the last bombs dropped and the shooting stopped, the war we lost has profoundly influenced American foreign policy. This new volume, Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama, is a clear-eyed look at the Vietnam War's fateful consequences -- especially subsequent wars -- up until the present in Afghanistan. It could not be a more timely and thoughtful contribution to the literature, published by Brookings Institution Press.

Thirty-six years ago this spring, the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975. If only it were so simple. As co-authors Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb demonstrate in this elegantly wrought work, the ghost of America's lost war haunts the halls of Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and practically has a room of its own in the White House.

Barack Obama likes to treat Vietnam War deja vu lightly, to finesse Vietnam's relevance when advisors, notably the late Richard Holbrooke, obsessed over echoes of another "quagmire": "Do people really talk like that?" the president asked him once. The authors say he was privately more mindful of history's shadows over Afghanistan, the war he chose to call his own. Obama took care to get clear with his generals exactly what the game plan was -- as well as to spell out a time line with troop levels on paper in his own hand.

It's worth noting Lyndon B. Johnson, the Texan president who plunged the United States headfirst into Vietnam, left office in despair when Obama was seven. Thus the president sees the war in a colder, more clinical light than some senior advisors. For the 49-year-old, Vietnam is less a searing generational experience and more a chilling lesson of statecraft. "Though Obama would rarely admit it, LBJ was often on his mind... as a warning against a dangerous policy of endless escalation," as the Kalbs put it.

Shared cultural memory of the Vietnam War, shattering and inescapable in civil society and the military, has influenced every Administration since 1975. The span goes from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. The design of the Kalbs' study is simple: to discuss how each president in 36 years, roughly two generations, wrestled with the ghost of Vietnam. To be clear, they are concerned with the legacy and wake of the war, not with the war itself. Their analysis is crisp, fresh and engaging, the narrative taut as any tragedy should be, with familiar choruses: "an unwinnable war," "overwhelming force," and of course, "quagmire."

(Note: the events of May 1, 2011, the American raid in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, took place shortly after the book went to press, but it fits well within the framework.)

What makes this riveting account breathe is the seasoned insight into the human characters on the world stage. It's what they call "backstory" in Hollywood pitches. One of Washington's wise men, Marvin Kalb, formerly a CBS News correspondent and host of NBC's Meet the Press, is now a leading scholar and author on the media. His journalism career also goes on, with newsmaker forums at the National Press Club. For the purposes of this book, he covered the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The fix he gives on individuals is complex, giving readers nuanced portraits of several presidents and a few key courtiers, such as Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and the vivid Holbrooke -- the Cassandra of the piece? Also from his reporter's notebooks, the Egyptian leader and peacemaker Anwar Sadat's worldly graces are briefly revived. Co-author Deborah Kalb, an editor and writer, spent years covering Congress, and so between the father-daughter team the well of Washington runs deep.

Some presidents stand out as more tragic than others. For starters, Jimmy Carter was luckless and powerless in the Iran hostage crisis because he remained reluctant to the end of his term in 1981 to commit our full military might. The result was a botched rescue, a debacle that certainly informed Obama's meticulous planning of the bin Laden raid, down to the last helicopter. Behind the scenes, Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pressed for arming Islamic militants in Afghanistan in a Cold War move against the occupying Soviet Union -- and we know how well that turned out, arming and training religious radical young men to be mujahideen warriors who later morphed disastrously into the Taliban. In any case, it eventually made the Soviet endgame in Afghanistan more like the painful American farewell to arms in Vietnam, which was the point all along.

Ronald Reagan, who projected an image as a resolute commander-in-chief, is revealed here as a very skilled actor. In fact, when 241 Marines were killed in a terrorist bombing in Lebanon during a civil war, Reagan took no action to retaliate. His published diary acknowledged this years after the fact. Here we learn that Caspar Weinberger, his Secretary of Defense, was the player who thwarted plans of a joint air operation with France. Why? Arguments flew fiercely, with Secretary of State George Schultz favoring force, but doing nothing won the day. This is where the post-Vietnam melody starts, according to the Kalbs, with Reagan's position that combat should be a "last resort" and that popular support was critical to any military engagement. Civilian leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, were clearly becoming more timid and reactive about the use of force.

Meanwhile, as the 1980s passed, the military tried to shake off the deeply demoralizing Vietnam War experience, not at all eager to embrace just any job, mission or invasion. In other words, the next time the Army mobilized, it wanted to win and win big. This coalesced in the "Powell Doctrine," named for Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Persian Gulf War. The 1989 president, George H.W. Bush, emerges here as a good winner and a gentleman-statesman who orchestrated the end of the Cold War with restraint. As the civilian commander, he acted in sync with the Army's wish to get one limited job done -- namely, expel Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait. He was "prudent" enough to call it a day without chasing Hussein to Baghdad or getting stuck in the desert sand fighting Iraqi soldiers on their own land. That would be off-script, even "off-message" for the savvy new American military. And so the Army went home happy for the first time in a long time. That was 20 years ago, in 1991.

Ugly Vietnam scars on the body politic surfaced again when the first Baby Boomer was elected president in 1992. Bill Clinton opposed the war in Vietnam and did what he could to avoid being drafted before going over to England as a Rhodes Scholar. For each one of us who loved him for that, there seemed to be someone who hated him for it. So as president, Clinton's relationship with the military was spooked and strained at first. His biography -- and an early fatal skirmish in Somalia -- had taught him to beware putting "boots on the ground." Within that parameter, Clinton and Ambasador Holbrooke directed a peacekeeping operation, followed by the Dayton Accords, to bring peace to wartorn Bosnia in the mid-1990s. Later, to defend besieged Kosovo in 1999, NATO forces, led by American commander Wesley Clark, won a war waged against Serbia entirely from a campaign of airstrikes. "Clinton did use American military power, but mostly from 30,000 feet," the authors observe. For myself, I give Clinton more credit for creative, deft use of force to achieve meaningful results on the map of Europe. Of all the presidents discussed here, he seems to have learned his Vietnam lessons well. Once he put his mind to work on foreign policy, he combined diplomacy and warfare in an inspired way. The war in Kuwait was won by multiplying the lessons of the old book on conventional military warfighting. Dayton was a new page in a new book and raised America's stature in the world.

Then we come to a darker chapter of the Republic (my emphasis), where we had a brash "war president" -- not a line Abraham Lincoln would have loved. A Yale fraternity man and mediocre National Guardsman, George W. Bush also artfully avoided fighting in the Vietnam War (with help from class privilege and family connections.) Later, this Texan president started two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- three, if you count the global "war on terror." Sadly, the September 11th attacks gave a green light to invading (innocent) Iraq, something the few decision-makers in the Bush White House were champing at the bit to do: "They were waiting for their moment; it was only a matter of when," the authors write. The Kalbs say that while the Iraq War was not won, it was not lost, either, thanks to an extremely able General David Petraeus, who wrote his Princeton Ph.D. thesis on the mistakes and lessons of the Vietnam War. Again, elegiac notes of the war lost -- but not forgotten -- enter and exit the American stage, only to return again. In an effort to escape and banish the Vietnam War, the Bush wars only seemed to reinforce the perils of foreign wars fought far from home -- by choice or necessity. Because Bush's Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, scorned Army generals who wanted to do things right -- not "light" in his own contrary post-Vietnam view -- he was a man without a plan after the initial invasion. In another tragic irony, he also let the September 11th doer, bin Laden, get away into Pakistan nearly a decade ago. Nice work for a man who was not SecDef once, but twice.

So vexed and conflicted are we Americans about Vietnam, the Kalbs point out, that every presidential contender who served in Vietnam lost: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. The 2000 election, decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, is too sad to dwell on for more than ten years, so let me skip to the next contest in 2004. The Kalbs have done a service to the truth and the record, by investigating the allegations of the so-called "Swift Boats Veterans for Truth." This outfit did much to deceive the public and hurt Senator Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer and a decorated naval hero in Vietnam.

The tragic hero in the Kalb-Kalb volume turns out to be Senator Kerry, who as a naval officer commanded a Swift Boat. Set off by Tour of Duty, a biography of Kerry by historian Douglas Brinkley, the Kalbs report the leader of the "Swift Boats" group organized a network of other veterans and raised money for a ferocious media campaign against Kerry. In so doing, they challenged his account of combat and time served in Vietnam and Cambodia. Their false thunder and fury hit the airwaves in the lull of August, usually a quiet month for campaign media. The Kerry campaign did not answer back quickly the way the Clintons would have -- by sunset. But for that, Kerry may have rowed across the relentless river of history to the White House.

Why did they hate Kerry so much years after the war was supposed to be over? Once Kerry came home, he became the leading young voice against the war in Vietnam and spoke frankly of brutalities in the jungle, half a world away. His critical eloquence made him even more traitorous, for some of his fellow sailors and comrades. Did you ever hear the question Bruce Springsteen turned into a song: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Forty Aprils ago, the future senator famously asked that question in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he now chairs.

The anguished question hangs in the air even now, especially now, as we witness whether a daring and lucky young president ends his war well -- and seizes the chance to lay to rest the ghost of Vietnam.