Q&A With Marvin and Deborah Kalb

  • July 19, 2011

A father-daughter team explores "The Haunting Legacy" of the Vietnam War.

After examining the foreign policy of the seven presidents since U.S. forces left Vietnam, this father-daughter writing team found a powerful legacy from that national nightmare.  Different presidents have drawn different lessons from the debacle in Southeast Asia, but the Vietnam War has sat on their shoulders as they made crucial decisions – right down to President Obama’s daily challenge of finding an acceptable way out of the Afghan War.  Marvin Kalb is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice (Emeritus) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a former correspondent for CBS and NBC.  Deborah Kalb is a Washington-based journalist who has written for Gannett News Service, Congressional Quarterly, and many other publications.

Q. Is the legacy of Vietnam more powerful, in your view, than the legacies of Korea,
or Iraq, or World War II? Why?

A: Each war’s legacy is powerful in its own way, but the unique legacy of Vietnam is
that it was the only war the United States has ever lost. As such, it plays a large role in
the American psyche. Each time a president has to decide whether to send troops to a
battlefield, or how many troops to send or to withdraw, the comparisons with Vietnam
are inevitable. No president wants to become another Lyndon Johnson, whose ambitious
domestic agenda was overshadowed and eventually fell victim to the country’s increasing
involvement in Vietnam.

Q. You suggest that American military planners respond positively to possible
interventions where there is an army to fight on the other side – examples might
include Grenada in the 1980s and Iraq in 2003. But also that one legacy of Vietnam
is that the Pentagon shies from interventions where there is no army in opposition.
Is this good sense or a legacy misinterpreted?

A: In the case of Vietnam, there was an army involved in opposing the United States:
the North Vietnamese army. It was allied with the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, and
many South Vietnamese civilians backed the Viet Cong, thus making it difficult for
U.S. troops under fire to determine who the real enemy was. The murky nature of the
enemy in Vietnam certainly has parallels with other conflicts in which the United States
has engaged, Afghanistan being one example. While it is true that the United States has
responded positively toward intervention in conflicts with a defined army on the other
side, the United States also has intervened in conflicts where the enemy was harder to
define, and not tied to a specific army. The war on terrorism, launched after the 9/11
attacks, is certainly one overarching example of that sort of conflict.

Q. You characterize President Obama’s Afghanistan policy as awkwardly
straddling the lessons of Vietnam, insisting that we are not there for the long haul
while sending more troops and extending withdrawal dates. Do you see his recent
announcement of a drawdown of troops as evidence that he is moving away from
that straddle?

A: President Obama has sought a middle course on Afghanistan, and the recent decision
on troop withdrawals also followed that same pattern: not fast enough for some, and too
fast for others. Especially with a re-election campaign looming, the issue of Afghanistan
will continue to be difficult for the president. It is politically unpalatable for Americans
to think of the Afghan war continuing for the “long haul,” yet he clearly does not want to
be accused of “losing Afghanistan” the way President Truman was accused of “losing”

Q. You describe Obama striving mightily to chart an independent course from his
military advisers, yet it seems that on Afghanistan he has not been able to do so.
Has he been captured by the Pentagon, or by events?

A: No, as we said in the previous answer, the president, like many presidents before him,
opted to take a middle course on Afghanistan. For example, in his recent decision to
bring home 10,000 troops this year and the remainder of the 33,000 “surge” troops by the
end of next summer, he did not pull troops out as quickly as some antiwar factions would
have liked, nor did he withdraw the troops on as slow a pace as many of his military
advisers would have preferred. He has taken the military’s wishes into effect, but is not
captured by them.

Q. Throughout the book, you quote American leaders as insisting that they
have learned the lessons of Vietnam – that they must avoid conflicts that are not
supported by the people and by Congress, that we can enter only conflicts that effect
our national interest directly, that we enter conflicts only with overpowering force,
and that we have an exit strategy. Yet we are approaching the tenth anniversary
of our involvement in Afghanistan, while the Libyan intervention is largely
unsupported by the citizenry and has raised fundamental issues of executive power.
Are our leaders deceiving themselves? Deceiving us? Or is the world too messy a
place for such simple rules to be adhered to?

A: Yes, unfortunately the world is too messy for easy rules. Politicians and presidents
can insist that they have learned the lessons of Vietnam–and indeed they are heeding
those lessons on many occasions–but when it comes to a military action that a particular
president deems necessary, he is able to consider Vietnam, but push ahead with the
engagement anyway. The lessons of Vietnam are different with each president: George
H.W. Bush, for example, opted to send 500,000 troops to remove the Iraqis from Kuwait,
a much larger force than he needed. For Bill Clinton, “boots on the ground” were to be
avoided. In terms of Libya, the current debate over the War Powers Act—a Vietnam-era
statute—and the struggle between the White House and Congress goes right back to the
theme of the book: that the legacy of Vietnam lives on.

Q. You write of American policymakers having a ‘totally unrealistic, romantic
sense of omnipotence.’ Is this just a consequence of the can-do, upbeat American
approach to life? Can you eliminate one without losing the other?

A: Good question. The optimism and the unreality have coexisted throughout the period
we examine in the book. But Vietnam did hammer away at both the optimism and the
unreality, leaving decision-makers more wary and perhaps more realistic about what the
country could accomplish.

Q. Yours is a unique collaboration of father and daughter as co-authors. How
did you work together? Did you divide up the chapters and each take primary
responsibility for some? Or use some other principle of work allocation? Do you
have any plans for another collaboration?

A: For the most part, Marvin did more of the first drafts while Deborah did more of
the second drafts. Marvin has covered foreign policy for many years, while Deborah’s
background is more focused on covering politics. Marvin is, of course, the senior partner!
It would be wonderful to work on another book together.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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