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National Security / AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan and the Ghosts of Vietnam

Writer Marvin Kalb sits down to talk with National Journal on Oct. 6, 2011. 

photo of James Kitfield
November 1, 2011

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.

CORRECTION: An earlier version inaccurately referred to the military service of Senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel. Reed graduated from West Point. Hagel served in Vietnam.

NJ: Is that true even of a post-Vietnam president like Barack Obama?

Kalb: Yes. Of all the seven presidents we write about in the book, Obama is easily the most fascinating. He was only 13 years old when the Vietnam War ended, so he didn’t have to join the National Guard or sneak over the border with Canada to avoid it. He could essentially ignore Vietnam. Yet in July of 2008 while campaigning for the presidency, Obama made the obligatory visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, and he brought along Senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel, who had served in Vietnam. And they were both astonished that during the 14-hour plane rides there and back all Obama wanted to talk about were the lessons of Vietnam. He wanted to know what had happened there, and if he became president, how he could avoid a similar quagmire in Afghanistan. In the first meeting of his national security team in January 2009, Obama led off by insisting that Afghanistan was not going to be another Vietnam. Why did he have to say it, since no one else raised the issue? Because as a young wartime president with frighteningly little experience with the military, Vietnam was very much on Obama’s mind.

NJ: And yet when the time came Obama decided twice to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, becoming gradually more deeply involved and taking ownership of the Afghan War, much the way Lyndon Johnson had taken ownership of Vietnam in the 1960s. Why do you think?

Kalb: Because he’s a student of history, and he didn’t want to give Republicans the opportunity to paint him as a weak wartime leader who “lost Afghanistan.” Interestingly, in the middle of the long debate about Afghan strategy in 2009, the different sides in the argument were drawing on the lessons contained in two very different books. The White House team was reading Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, which details the ignorance and arrogance that lead us into Vietnam and ultimately to defeat. The best-seller at the Pentagon was A Better War, which argues that the Vietnam War could have been won if only the White House and Congress had not lost heart. Faced with the divisions within his own administration, Obama ultimately chose the latter narrative, deploying 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

NJ: So the student of history is now in danger of repeating it?

Kalb: What worries me is this expression you hear from the administration of “Afghan good enough,” which means that as long as we avoid an outright defeat in Afghanistan that will be “good enough” for the American people to accept. When I watch the News Hour and see the photos of the kids killed in Afghanistan each week, I find myself standing in front of the television and recalling the question that [Sen.] John Kerry asked about Vietnam after returning from that war: Who will be the last soldier to die for a mistake? Who will be the last soldier to die for [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai? I just don’t think that “Afghan good enough” is sufficient justification to continue sending young soldiers to die in that murky conflict. And if the war is not brought to an end and the American people finally conclude that “good enough” doesn’t stack up to all the sacrifices of the war, then whoever is president at that time will pay a terrible price. History is a heavy weight and there is no escaping or walking away from it.

NJ: And yet, doesn’t your book make clear that each president interprets the lessons of history differently?

Kalb: Yes. Vietnam hangs like a long shadow over all subsequent presidents, but they each respond differently. After 241 Marines are killed in Lebanon in 1983, for instance, Ronald Reagan was under tremendous pressure to retaliate against the perpetrators. Instead he pulled our troops out because, as he explained in letters to friends, the American people were still spooked by Vietnam and he didn’t want to risk putting them through another extended conflict. George H.W. Bush fought the Persian Gulf War according to the doctrine that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell developed from his own experience in Vietnam, which held that you fight with overwhelming force and have a strategy to exit quickly, because the American people are impatient with drawn-out military conflicts. George W. Bush avoided service in Vietnam by joining the National Guard, but after 9/11 he committed ground troops to two wars. So while there are overarching commonalities and shared lessons from our wars, each president interprets them based on his own background, prejudices, and human foibles. They each have a unique lens on reality. That’s why I believe it’s not movements or ideologies that ultimately shape history, but rather the power of individuals, for good as well as ill.




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