At its 10-year mark, America’s longest war is still balanced on a knife’s edge. With U.S. and NATO combat troops scheduled to exit Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the Obama administration is still betting that it can achieve “Afghan good enough” – a country that can essentially stand on its own two feet, however wobbly, and avoid once again becoming a haven for the kind of extremists behind the attacks of Sept. 11. Regardless of whether even that limited objective is still achievable, however, it seems increasingly clear that Western troops are on their way out. If the Taliban once again fills that vacuum or the country descends into a prolonged civil war that destabilizes the entire region, Afghanistan could join Vietnam as another ignoble defeat for the United States, another case, to use Lyndon Johnson’s memorable vernacular, where the superpower was stymied in “a raggedly-ass little fourth-rate country.”
In Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency From Ford to Obama, father-daughter co-authors Marvin and Deborah Kalb recount how that earlier defeat helped shape a generation and cast a shadow that even today darkens the counsels in the Oval Office. As the country marks 10 years of the Afghan war and contemplates its eventual legacy, National Journal senior correspondent James Kitfield spoke with Marvin Kalb, former host of Meet the Press and Edward R. Murrow professor of practice (emeritus) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Edited excerpts of that interview follow.
NJ: In the book you argue that Vietnam had a seminal impact on the American psyche, changing the way the country thought about itself. Do you think Afghanistan could have a similar impact on this and future generations?
Kalb: Well, the United States is still a great power, with awesome resources and a very talented people living on a great piece of real estate. But we also have a lot of problems, and one of them is a degree of self-doubt that we probably haven’t seen since our defeat in Vietnam. Before Vietnam, we were not only a great power, but as a people we were filled with this sense of omnipotence and a conviction that there was nothing we could not do. Remember, up until that time we had never lost a war. I remember clearly a news conference with [former Secretary of State] Dean Rusk right after the 1968 Tet Offensive. Rusk kept jabbing his thumb into the lectern and repeating, “There’s nothing that the United States cannot do.” Of course, what we learned in Vietnam, and are relearning in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq, is that there are things we cannot do. So we’re beginning to see a kind of self-doubt appear again that we haven’t seen since our defeat on April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon. Once again we are at least contemplating the question of how a great power emerges from a humiliating defeat. Even if the Afghan war is not eventually viewed as a defeat, we are clearly entering a new phase in our national history where we have to be more mindful of our own limitations and the needs of other nations. We have a lot to learn in terms of adjusting to that new world.
NJ: Much has been written about the dysfunctional partisanship and political divisions in Washington. Do you think today’s baby boom generation of political leaders can trace those divisions back to Vietnam, and their formative years in the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s?
Kalb: Yes. I think Bob Woodward said it best to me when he argued that there were two, red threads running through recent American history – Vietnam and Watergate. One was a foreign-policy disaster, and the other domestic. They were interwoven in roughly the same era, and together they had a profound impact on America. By the time the baby boomers started assuming the reins of national power, for instance, you could see how influenced they were by Vietnam. Former Vice President Dan Quayle was the first, and during Vietnam he had joined the National Guard [seen by many as a way to avoid being drafted for the war]. Bill Clinton had jumped through hoops to avoid service in Vietnam, and yet he would go to Senator [William] Fulbright’s office and read the names of high school friends on the casualty reports. In his book he talks about being overcome by guilt from the experience. In office Clinton was surrounded by people who were also powerfully influenced by Vietnam, including [former National Security Adviser] Tony Lake, who had served in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer. The lesson they drew from Vietnam was to avoid "boots on the ground" at nearly all costs. After 9/11 George W. Bush, who also served in the National Guard during Vietnam, was the opposite of Clinton and put boots on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But he also had to assure his national security adviser Stephen Hadley that he wouldn’t let Iraq become another defeat like Vietnam. So whether it’s a Republican or Democrat sitting in the Oval Office, whenever the question of sending troops into harm's way comes up the president quickly discovers that the lessons of Vietnam are embedded in the DNA of presidential decision making.