DE BORCHGRAVE: ‘Haunting Legacy’
Vietnam syndrome’s effect on presidential decision-making is beginning to wear off
If journalism is the first draft of history, the current phase of journalism with blogs, tweets and miscellaneous bells and whistles is once-over-lightly history that bears little relation to reality. Mercifully, there are exceptions. Some journalists still spend five or more years researching a subject they already know well and that has already generated scores of books – but the brass ring on history’s carousel is infuriatingly elusive.
This time, nonpareil journalist and scholar Marvin Kalb and daughter Deborah Kalb have documented how Vietnam ‘s “Haunting Legacy” has spooked every U.S. president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. And the richly deserved brass ring is in the family vault.
Most Vietnam War books have been written by journalists who were part-time war correspondents who had made up their minds – many of them before their first reporting stint in the rice paddies or the highlands – the United States did not belong in Vietnam . They saw the U.S. as a clumsy, purposeless giant grinding up poor, defenseless Vietnamese whose only ambition was freedom and democracy.
The 1968 Tet offensive was an unmitigated disaster for North Vietnam . But it was reported as a mitigated disaster for the United States . When Walter Cronkite, with helmet and flak jacket, reported from Saigon at the end of Tet that the war was lost (it went on for another four years), President Lyndon Johnson decided he had lost the heartland and would not run again.
What LBJ once called “a raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country” inflicted on a global superpower the first defeat in American history. (1812 is still contested between the U.S. , Great Britain and Canada ).
That is the genesis of the Kalbs’ “Haunting Legacy.” In 1970, Richard Nixon was next up and tried to gain a little space and time by invading southeastern Cambodia where North Vietnam ‘s supply line was closest to Saigon . To no avail.
The last U.S. combat soldier left Vietnam in March 1973. Of more than 3 million who served in the 11-year war, 58,000 were killed, 1,000 were missing in action and some 150,000 were seriously wounded.
The “Haunting Legacy” began in earnest with President Ford and continues under President Obama. America ‘s spectacular, bloodless geopolitical triumph over the Soviet Union , whose dividends obliterated Communist parties the world over, still did not erase a legacy that continues to haunt the Oval Office.
Whatever the specific issue or provocation, write the Kalb duo – whether the capture of the Mayaguez in 1975 under Ford, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 under Jim my Carter, the deaths of 241 Marines in Beirut in 1983 under Ronald Reagan, the Persian Gulf War under George H.W. Bush or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush and Barack Obama – “Vietnam always seemed to have a seat in the Oval Office, playing a surprisingly critical role in many presidential decisions.”
This razor-sharp, self-analysis “profoundly changed how presidents decide questions of war and peace and how they interact with Congress, the public and the world. In short, Vietnam has infiltrated the presidential DNA, even though presidents have struggled with this DNA in different ways.”
Up until 1992, the Kalb duo reminds us, every successful presidential candidate since World War II had served his country in uniform during wartime. That is, until baby boomer Bill Clinton, “who had danced through hoops to avoid service in Vietnam , upset the traditional pattern by defeating a World War II hero, George H.W. Bush.” And four years later, Mr. Clinton beat another Second World War hero, Robert Dole, who was gravely wounded in Italy .
Then again in 2000, George W. Bush, who served at hom in the National Guard, beat incumbent Vice President Al Gore, who had served in Vietnam as an Army journalist. And Bush 43 repeated this feat by beating Sen. John Kerry who had fought in Vietnam as a Swift boat skipper, earning a Bronze star and Purple Heart, before becoming an anti-war activist.
Then in 2008, as “Haunting Legacy” reminds us, then-Sen. Obama, who was 13 when the Vietnam War ended, beat Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War pilot shot down over Hanoi, who spent five years undergoing multiple beatings, in a North Vietnamese prison camp.
War heroes were no longer in demand. In fact, they had become a liability. But each new president still had to face the war-peace dilemma, irrespective of his convictions.
Reagan didn’t retaliate after the loss of 241 Marines in Beirut even though U.S. warships were off the Lebanese coast. Two days later, he ordered the invasion of Grenada .
In 1990, Bush 41 deployed a half-million-man-and-woman army and persuaded a large coalition of allied and friendly nations to join the effort of kicking Iraqi troops out of Kuwait – but the Vietnam syndrome counseled prudence. He declined to chase Saddam Hussein’s troops all the way back to Baghdad .
Mr. Clinton was anti-war and declined to send ground troops anywhere. He had hated the Vietnam War and escaped service with student deferments. One helicopter down in Somalia and Mr. Clinton ordered an immediate troop withdrawal. In the Balkans, he authorized air power only. His aides had been selected for their well-known anti-war proclivities.
Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon pushed the Vietnam syndrome aside. The original retaliatory attack against Afghanistan was a measured response with 410 Special Forces and CIA personnel. But caution was soon displaced by a major invasion assisted by NATO allies, who reckoned they would be in theater for six to nine months, not six to nine years.
Disenchantment, with no prospect of defeating Taliban’s fighters, soon led back to the Vietnam syndrome. Sixty-five percent of Americans want out.
The muddled thinking on Iraq , coupled with appallingly erroneous intelligence, inexplicably overlooked that Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, was still the best defense against the pariah regime of medieval, anti-U.S. mullahs in Iran . Last week, a ranking Iraqi official on a trip to Washington , sheepishly conceded that Iran now has more influence in Iraq than the United States .
The Iraq invasion and decade-long war was a trillion-dollar mistake. Too bad the Vietnam syndrome did not prevail.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large of The Washington Times and United Press International.